Far from the madding crowd

Years ago, when I was dabbling in property development, I discovered something about human nature which helped me find my little niche in the developer world. Like many others, I’d cut my teeth watching programmes such as ‘Homes under the hammer’ and tried going to auctions to find a property to buy. I’d look at the auction catalogue and visit derelict properties just crying out for some tender loving care. The problem was, I was not alone. Come auction day, I was inevitably outbid, and by large margins. The winning bidder, almost always male (of the alpha male type), would walk away wearing a victorious grin and leave me wondering how on earth they would turn a profit after having so massively overpaid for the property.

My answer would come some months later, when the slickly refurbished property would come on the market with an astronomical price tag, and sell. Those were the heady days before the recession. If you’re wondering why property prices in London experienced such eye-watering inflation, you might want to take a look at the shady practices of these bolshy developers and the banks that allowed them to borrow to the hilt, all so that they could sell overpriced properties to gullible first time buyers. Ok, I’m done with the diatribe; now let me try to make my point.

It quickly dawned on me that I was not going to be able to compete with the alpha developers, but I still wanted to get in on the act. I ditched the auctions and began to scour through property listings online, looking for anything that might provide me with the opportunity I was looking for. I soon found my first flat, a rather dated and shabby place which reeked of cigarette smoke. It had plenty of scope for improvement but it wasn’t enough of a wreck to attract the big boys. Even better, it seemed no one had shown much interest in the property and its price had just been reduced. The condition of the flat was too unwelcoming for ordinary buyers, who weren’t interested in doing more than giving the place a lick of paint. It was perfect for me. I bought it, planned my improvements on a shoestring budget and got stuck in. Some months later I had turned it around into a lovely, welcoming flat and sold it for a tidy but not astronomical profit. I had found my niche.

From grotty…
… to pretty

I discovered that certain properties would not come under the radar of other developers because they didn’t present enough of a challenge. My specialty became finding those overlooked properties, the ones that looked a bit too shabby for ordinary buyers but were otherwise perfectly sound. I enjoyed finding those unloved properties and turning them into real homes. However, this little career of mine came to a natural end with my last project, which I loved so much that I just didn’t want to sell, so I ended up renting it out. This didn’t leave me with any capital to carry on buying and selling, and so I cast my eye on other productive ways to spend my time and landed in education.

If you’re wondering why I am telling you this tale, it is because I think a similar psychology is at work in schools. I’ve now been involved in the education world, in one way or another, for three years, and have made plenty of observations in that time. I’ve been impressed by incredibly knowledgeable children and also been saddened to see many more mired in ignorance. The burning question, as ever, is how to help those low attaining pupils learn more. In the field of pedagogy, debate rages on about the best ways to do this, but I don’t think it would be too controversial to state that the most important ingredients are:

  • A calm and safe environment to learn in (i.e. good behaviour).
  • A culture which celebrates learning.
  • Teachers with strong subject knowledge and the ability to deconstruct that knowledge well enough to explain it to novices.
  • Teachers who are able to challenge and push their pupils to achieve more.
  • Rich and ambitious curricula.

If we want to raise the achievement of those lagging behind, it would be a good idea to be focussing on the above. A lot of good schools are doing this already. But going back to my property development analogy, the world of education is polarised. On the one hand, we find the alpha schools with charismatic and driven leaders, who in turn attract the limited pool of highly talented teachers like bees to honey. At the other end of the spectrum, we have those failing schools that nobody in their right minds want to teach in, that is until one of those charismatic leaders decides to take the challenge on to turn them around (I don’t need to name any names but I’m sure a particular example will quickly come to mind). Then, we have the forward thinking MATs that are developing a reputation for knowledge and rigour. They too, soon find they attract a preponderant amount of talented and knowledgeable teachers. Bees to honey, bees to honey, bees to honey.

So what of those forgotten schools in the middle? The silent majority, the ones that do ok but could do better. In a sense, they suffer from that creaming off process, like secondary moderns in areas where there are grammars, because they lose out on the really talented teachers to those high profile schools. Let’s face it; if you’re an ambitious high flyer, you’re not going to want to work in an ordinary school. You’ll want to be in the pioneering school that does things differently or in the RI school where you can really flex your muscles. That is a generalisation of course, as I’m sure there are some really dedicated and passionate teachers working in those lesser known schools. But if we’re looking at the big picture, we see a large majority of schools with uninspired leadership parroting the same old tired sound bites, and largely unquestioning teachers following orthodoxy.

But that’s not the biggest problem. Even worse, there are far too many teachers in classrooms around the country who don’t really know that much about their subject and for whom it would be a stretch to call them ‘erudite’. Far too often in schools with challenging intakes, the type of teachers who thrive there are the ones that can ‘earn the respect’ and manage behaviour, rather than the ones with deep subject knowledge. The knock-on effect of this is a tendency to transform teachers into prison wardens rather than scholars, with the expected lessening in learning outcomes for pupils.

At last week’s West London Free School history conference, I listened to Christine Counsell’s call to arms, reminding us that it would be irresponsible not to develop our subject knowledge. We have a responsibility to ensure our profession is scholarly and erudite, not just good at bossing children around. But as I cast a look around the auditorium, I saw not one history teacher I knew. Sadly, the vast majority of them carry on unknowing and unaware of the subject specific ideas that are shared at such conferences. Even edu-twitter, which has broadened my personal horizons no end, is just the tip of that silent majority iceberg.

Fundamentally, the problem is that there are just not enough knowledgeable teachers to go around, and the good ones tend to congregate in the higher profile schools I described earlier. We could be attracting more talented people into the profession, but many of them are put off by workload, poor behaviour and rigid accountability mechanisms that are put in place because teachers are not trusted to do their job. This Schools Week article by Rebecca Allen does a good job of explaining the toxic nature of the audit culture in schools that puts off many good people (me included) from joining the profession. There are no easy solutions to this problem, but I don’t think giving teachers subject knowledge tests, as suggested here, is the way forward.

My humble little suggestion for those forward thinking teachers who are on top of their subject knowledge is, think about seeking out those lesser known schools rather than automatically gravitating to the higher profile ones. Spread the talent rather than herd it. Just like I found my niche improving the mediocre but not overly disastrous properties, you might find satisfaction in spreading good practice where things are ok but not great. Just a small suggestion. I don’t pretend to have the answers.

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