Malcolm Gladwell's End Of Term Report

Posted on 14th March, 2009
In what seems to be an unusually opportunistic and timely bit of thinking, the UK government tells us that it is going to take advantage of the recession and recruit fresh people into teaching using a fast-track method.

Very soon, schools minister Jim Knight tells us, former bankers, lawyers and whoever else is interested will be able to train and qualify as teachers in just six months. This neat response to both rising unemployment and the constant need to look at ways of attracting more genuinely diverse candidates into teaching has inevitably drawn criticism.

The shrill protestations of some of the usual suspects from the main teaching unions to one side, there is of course a genuine and legitimate question over whether a six month teacher training programme will be sufficient.

Does six months give sufficient time to those switching to teaching to learn how to actually do it? And just as importantly (more so for those of us who will be paying the salaries of those teachers and sending our kids to their schools) does six months give long enough to the assessors of these wannabes to work out whether or not they're any good?

It doesn't really matter, says Malcolm Gladwell. In his classic, leftfield style, the author of The Tipping Point, Outliers and other books which have forced us to think differently about received wisdom, tells us that the truth is that no one really knows whether anyone is going to make a good teacher until they actually start doing it for real.

There are plenty of teachers, he says, who sail through existing teacher training qualifications yet still make really, really bad teachers. He's certainly right there - I was taught by some of them.

Moreover, he says, there are also plenty of teachers working in schools now who would have absolutely no chance of passing current teacher training exams but who, by common consent amongst parents, peers and crucially students, make first rate teachers. I was taught by of few of these too, thankfully.

So the conclusion that Gladwell comes to is that the qualification in itself is - counterintuitively - something of a distraction. Beyond a certain, very basic common orientation, we should make "anyone with a pulse and a degree" a teacher - and then work out whether or not they're up to speed where it counts, on the job. We could simply assess teachers on their actual performance, year on year, quarter on quarter, and dismiss those who aren't up to it.

It's an interesting model. It looks and feels attractive. I like the simplicity of it, and want to support it.

It could work. And it could work really well. But it will only work if:-

a) we can develop a model that minimises the risk of the huge financial waste involved in training a whole army of people, the vast majority of whom we know just aren't going to make it
b) the teaching profession specifically and government as a whole starts to take performance management much more seriously.

It is actually this second point that represents the really big challenge. No doubt some well-intentioned civil servants could develop a whole library of complex, worthy appraisal forms, performance indicators, competency frameworks and the like - all in the name of effective measurement of teacher success. I am confident that government would turn itself whole-heartedly to developing this kind of structure. I'm also fairly confident that whilst the net result would be a clunky, bureaucratic affair, it would probably work.

But of course, it doesn't actually matter how well or poorly your performance management structure is put together if it is not backed up by a solid, meaningful and genuine culture of performance mangement. And that means the people on the ground, the senior teachers, the headteachers, those who would be charged with actually implementing this new system, being prepared to be honest.

It sounds so simple. But we know that people struggle to be honest in performance management, particularly when it comes to the delivering difficult messages that would be absolutely necessary under Gladwell's proposed scheme. 

You can spend as much money as you like developing the perfect appraisal system, but if its being delivered by someone who just can't summon up the ability to say "your performance isn't where it needs to be and I'm afraid unless it improves you could find yourself out of a job", then it's all a waste of time.

In performance management, it is always, always the culture that matters. The structure, usually, is a distraction (even if it is still where most organisations spend 95% of their effort). From admittedly anecdotal experience, it seems to me that teaching has been no exception in this respect. Moreover, in teaching we are dealing with at least an element of the heavily unionised, job-for-life, "it's impossible to measure what I do" mentality that still rears its head from to time in different walks of life. 

If Gladwell's proposal is to bite, and it should because it's sensible, then it is going to require a very clear commitment on the part of Whitehall and the teaching profession itself to change the culture of assessment and performance management in this crucially important sector.

If those at coalface can't execute on whatever assessment system is put in place, then not only will have wasted our time and money, but more ominously we will have recruited into the teaching profession thousands of individuals who we know are not up to scratch.

The irony in all of this of course is that it is at school where most of us are introduced to our first ever performance appraisal - the end of term report. If we can move teachers to the point where they accept that the regular and honest feedback that they rightly give to their pupils and which can have both positive and negative consequences for those pupils, is something that they themselves will have to engage with, we will have succeeded in developing a much more effective, efficient profession.

Because all of us, surely, are only as good as this year's end of term report.

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