Auto-Biography: Life as a Teacher

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David Henwood writes about his experience teaching at Oxford schools

Oxford city councillor David Henwood is a design and technology teacher at The Oxford Academy, who previously worked at St Gregory the Great Catholic School. He writes about Ofsted inspections and how schools need more support to improve

TEACHING in an inner-city school, as well as being rewarding, can also be your worst nightmare.

A report produced by Education Support, a charity that provides mental health help to teachers, claims stress levels are at an all-time high among teachers.

Nearly 75 per cent of teachers described themselves as ‘stressed’, and more than a third have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year.

Teachers understand education is dynamic and constantly evolving – what unseats many is Ofsted, and how school leaders respond to inspections.

Teachers are constantly bombarded with a cyclone of administrative tasks prior to inspections, and termly teaching and learning initiatives, marking and recording hundreds of pieces of information.

This is coupled with exercise book reviews and reviewing individual learning targets.

Usually every three years, over a two-day period, Ofsted inspectors perform a statutory inspection, sometimes leaving a school with the dreaded ‘inadequate’ branding.

It is a label that often takes years to convince inspectors otherwise.

Many, like myself, believe an annual Ofsted review that is weighted over a period of three years would be fairer for both school and teacher. Currently, a two-day visit is very much viewed as snapshot, but the consequences of ‘inadequate’ can be dire not only for the school, but also for nearby schools who will also suffer the consequences.

When St Gregory The Great Catholic School sneezed three years ago, The Oxford Academy caught a cold.

Overnight, students and staff started to leave for the security of a school rated ‘good’ at the time, the Academy.

The Ofsted domino effect then meant The Oxford Academy swelled in size, but the school didn’t receive the extra funding needed for these new students until several months later.

To make matters worse, there is no support from the local authority or central government to help schools through the hardship of a single Ofsted inspection.

In my view, when an inspection indicates a school is slipping, a range of measures to help schools could then be implemented, supported by local government.

Local councils funded by central government are in the best position to take greater responsibility for failing schools.

In the following year a strategic review would then identify whether the headteacher and governors need to be replaced.

A 12-18 month plan led by local and national government would adopt greater responsibility for the school’s future outcome, during the ‘inadequate’ period.

Sharing the responsibility would also allow heads to cope with the objectives.

Education Support also predicts school standards will fall and mental health problems in the classroom will multiply if the government does not act quickly to offer headteachers and teachers more support.

This support, in my view, should be in the form of protected time to allow teachers to prepare engaging lessons.

The era of teaching six lessons a day to packed classrooms in an inner city school has to be reviewed.

As a teacher and head of department in design and technology at St Greg’s, we worked hard to guide, steer and encourage students through coursework.

I even opened the school on Saturday mornings, to achieve some of the best results in design and technology the school has seen in a long time.

We often had 20 or more A-Level and GCSE students coming in and the atmosphere was fantastic – we even played music and ate pizza at 12pm if the work had been accomplished.

Then, Ofsted shifted the goalposts yet again with different assessment criteria.

The Oxford Academy is also an inner-city school and has its own definitive character. Unlike St Greg’s, it is not a faith school.

Both schools have a high proportion of students on pupil premium, which is extra funding given to schools to support disadvantaged students.

The Oxford Academy has a 50 per cent ratio, while St Greg’s, although lower, accommodates pupils who speak close to 100 different languages.

Funding is therefore important, and equally teachers need time to prepare lessons.

The ratio of prep time in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, for example, is close to 1:1. Meaning for every lesson taught, a lesson is set aside to prepare for it.

In England, most teachers have just one lesson a week for planning. In some schools, teachers no longer have even that.

To reduce costs, leadership teams across the county are cramming more and more students into classrooms, with fewer and fewer teaching students and support staff.

Teacher retention is also a problem, especially in option subjects where job security is heavily reliant on school budgets.

Music, art, performing arts and vocational courses seem expendable in some pressured inner-city schools, which now steer students to achieve a baccalaureate (a combination of maths, English, science, plus either a modern foreign language or humanity subject).

I believe we should do away with the baccalaureate and bring back genuine choice and diversity.

You can read the published article on the Oxford Mail website here.

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