Every day I count it a privilege to be able to support the education work of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences. Whenever I meet a group of teachers at a school visit or STEM education conference, my first thought is to thank them on behalf of the UK science community, of which we hold them to be indispensable members and colleagues. I know of no Fellow of this oldest of all scientific organisations who would not recognise the debt they owe to their own former science teachers (in most cases a very long time ago!).
For many of us it was an inspirational teacher who set us on the road that led to the precious gift of being at the place of discovery, of learning something about how the universe of galaxies, stars, planets, living organisms, molecules, atoms and the very structure of space-time works – and in some ways for the very first time. Without our teachers, the UK would not be the matchless furnace of new science that it has been for generations.
Despite being one of our nation’s most essential and highly-trained professions, the self-image of teaching profession is low. Teachers frequently fail to appreciate their own worth, and the many ways in which they affect lives, as well as the national life, for the better.
One of the many forces that have inexorably wrung the vital energy out of much of the profession has been the growing culture of invasive accountability. This leads to narrow definitions of what success means in the context of a school, with teachers having to focus too much on quantifications and paper trails. This feeds a cascade of de-professionalisation, where pedagogical reflection and imaginative teaching are sacrificed, before an implied lack of trust and an overburden of form-filling. The result is a regression to the mean and the minimal exercise of exactly that creativity and care that inspires future scientists.
It does not have to be this way. First, there are many schools in the UK where a positive, professional and imaginative teaching culture has been encouraged and protected by strong leadership. Second, the international landscape of educational governance and accountability is a very rich one, and from which the UK can learn a great deal. Other countries have a richer idea of to whom education and educators are accountable. In a fully self-recognised profession, for example, there is a high degree of accountability to peers – ‘lateral accountability’ if you will, in addition to the ‘vertical accountability’ to government agencies.
The sharing of good practice within disciplines (in curricula, materials, project work and structure, implementation of practical experimental work, more challenging extension work… the list goes on) is now hard to cover in detail within OFSTED visits, which are no longer resourced to contain subject-specialists. We have an opportunity to recover the peer-to-peer review that regional groups and networks of school subject heads once used to support. All we as members of the wider scientific and educational community need to know is that this is happening. We don’t need to check up on all the details.
The Royal Society is fortunately not alone in wishing to encourage lateral accountability and the sharing of good practice and good resources. The National Union of Head Teachers and the Wellcome Foundation are among many voices who recognise that professions work in partnerships and to some degree are self-accountable practitioners. The new College of Teaching has an important role to play in developing the conversation and practice.
The teaching landscape is complex, but when all the ‘stakeholders’ meet together at the Royal Society, I find it immensely encouraging that although there might be disagreement on the pathways, the vision that drives everyone is the most inspirational learning experience for the pupils, and the supportive and professional environment for teachers that is essential to create it not only for tomorrow’s scientists, but for everyone.