PISA 2015: Our teachers are the solution, not the problem

Blog: Dr. Helen Drury, Executive Director

PISA 2015: Our teachers are the solution, not the problem

Posted: 6/12/16

The UK remains in a frustratingly average position in today’s PISA rankings and last week’s TIMMS – yet I’m always excited by the reminder of what pupils are capable of achieving with the right support, attitudes and systems.

So what does a ‘world-class’ education system have that we don’t? And what must we change to become world-class?

Before we go further – let me express my support for this country’s teachers. I am lucky enough to speak to teachers every day and I’m proud to count myself among them. Invariably the teachers I meet are committed, open-minded and genuinely interested in what can be done differently to enable all pupils to succeed.

But this dedication isn’t enough. Ultimately, our teachers are working within an educational system which simply isn’t built for international success.

Now I’m aware blaming ‘the system’ can sound like a cop out, so allow me to relay a conversation I seem to be having on a loop. It goes exactly the same regardless of whether it’s a teacher in a small coastal school or a large inner city primary:

“My training / experience / research / common sense… tells me that not marking every piece of work / teaching fractions in depth in Year 3… is better for my pupils’ learning.

“But our headteacher / Local Authority / Multi-Academy Trust… won’t be happy because there isn’t a clear link with more SATs marks / Ofsted / our policy…  So I’m doing [insert alternative activity] – which I know to be less effective for pupil learning – instead.”

In other words:

“I KNOW the most effective way to teach is X. But I am doing the less effective Y because it’s out of my control.”


As someone who’s a little bit obsessed with empowering and equipping teachers to overcome the barriers limiting pupil achievement, I’m finding these conversations increasingly surreal.

How can we remove the barriers limiting pupil achievement if we can’t remove the barriers limiting high-quality teaching?

A workforce that feels disempowered by high levels of accountability and compliance cannot offer our young people the world-class education they deserve.

I’ll say it again. We need to change the system.

So here’s what we need (I’m looking at you policy makers):

More time and money on professional development. High-quality professional development should be sustained throughout a teacher’s career. A culture of sharing high-impact ideas, experience and practice should be promoted. This is all standard practice in Shanghai and Singapore. What are our teachers preoccupied with? Firefighting against workload, funding cuts and bureaucracy.

Ensure our high-stakes national tests genuinely assess the stuff we want pupils to learn. High accountability results in ‘teaching to the test’. So let’s make these tests great AND be clear about what we’re testing and why. Toughly worded questions? Let’s explain publicly why it’s important. More emphasis on one topic? Tell us so we can plan for this. Yes, we have a National Curriculum, but there are many ways to assess it. Don’t keep teachers in the dark.

Clarify where there is true autonomy and where there’s a clear national direction. The complex tension between school autonomy and a high-stakes system (with school inspection and strong ministerial opinions) fuels the suspicion there’s a secret ‘right way’ to teach. Hours of training and money is then wasted trying to figure out ‘what we’re supposed to be doing’.If there’s a strong steer to do things a certain way, let’s be upfront! Don’t sneak it into the national tests and ask Ofsted to look out for it. Just clearly communicate what teachers should be doing and why. Ofsted have made impressive efforts over the last few years to try and ‘bust the myths’, but there is still a sense of mystery over what ‘great teaching’ means in the UK.

Building a world-class education system is no easy task but one thing is for certain. Our teachers are the solution not the problem.

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