Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Hey, politicians, leave those teachers alone

Blaming the teachers for poor pupil performance misses the point. The core issue remains our legacy of social segregation, writes Mark Langhammer

Mark Langhammer is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers director
Mark Langhammer is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers director

Sack more teachers' was the ritual call from the Public Accounts Committee's report on improving literacy and numeracy achievement in schools and the subsequent Assembly committee debate.

Gratuitous attacks on 'bad teachers' are ill-advised and miss the point regarding factors that produce excellent education systems.

There is little doubt that Northern Ireland has a high-quality teaching workforce. Selection to our teacher-training institutions remains competitive.

We export more teaching talent than is desirable, with locally trained teachers in great demand. While professional development for teachers is poorly resourced, my experience is that there are very few 'bad apples' in the system.

Unions and employers have recently agreed a capability procedure to better support the small number of underperformers. This includes appropriate sanctions. But to beat up the profession for systemic deficiencies misses the point.

All the research tells us that educational performance differentials are made up – to a degree of 85%, – from factors outside class. These include parental involvement, community and home learning environments but, by a factor of 10, social class counts most.

Class is the key performance differential, period. This is undisputed.

Bluntly, the best-performing education systems are in the most equal societies. And in these systems, schools with socially balanced intakes are the norm.

The 'peer effect' is vital for disadvantaged pupils. For a young person, the key influencer is someone who looks the same and shares the same interests, but who, critically, has different learning aspirations. Nothing comes close as an influencer.

At best, the 'classroom effect' can "make up" 10-15% of performance differentials.

The scale of our social segregation is chastening. The 2012 OECD report placed the UK last of 34 developed countries on the measure of social segregation in education.

We have the most socially segregated education system in the developed world. Considering our deeply segregated post-primaries, Northern Ireland is hardly likely to be better that the UK average. The PAC does not remark upon this. Why?

Social segregation affects systemic performance. Our system, measured by 2012 international comparisons at Primary 6 in Maths and English, is the best-performing in the English-speaking world.

Stop and think. At primary level, where, in most schools, the intake is socially mixed, we do very well. Within more socially segregated post-primaries, the gap widens. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "Duh, it's the segregation, stupid."

The PAC makes much of inspection. Recent Association of Teachers and Lecturers' research demonstrates a deep-rooted class bias.

Within recent ETI inspections, socially deprived schools are four times more likely to get worst inspection grades. Schools from the most advantaged band are twice as likely to get best inspection grades.

Inspection is seen by many teachers as a reductivist exercise, narrowly focused on interpreting vast pre-inspection data-dumps, with grades largely pre-determined. This is not to say teaching doesn't matter. Inspirational teachers matter a great deal. Teachers should be encouraged, supported – even cajoled – to improve performance.

Let's not kid ourselves, however, that great teaching can wish away the vast social imbalances.

Tackling socially imbalanced intakes has little political traction, as politicians will always back off the holy grail of parental choice.

The PAC report highlights the wide variation in results achieved by schools of similar intakes. This, indeed, is worthy of serious investigation, but is a mere sub-set of the wider problem.

PAC chair, Michaela Boyle, rightly called for action to ensure that children from poorer backgrounds were not left behind. I agree.

The starting point in helping disadvantaged pupils is in addressing the grotesque social imbalances in school pupil intakes. Faced with the scale of this, dissing teachers is mere displacement activity.