Raising the status of teaching: my conversation with Dame Alison Peacock

Gary Wood

Gary Wood

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Below is a transcription of a previously existing podcast that has been converted to text for your convenience.

Caroline talks to Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching about how the college supports teachers and promotes the needs, public perception and status of the profession. They discuss how a positive, collegial rather than fearful culture in education can improve teacher recruitment and retention. Dame Alison cites her own experiences as a teacher, senior leader and researcher and explains the career benefits of joining the Chartered College and having Chartered Teacher Status. 

Caroline: Hello, Alison. Thanks for joining me today. I wonder if you could start actually by saying a little bit about your own journey through teaching earlier on to where you’ve got to now.

Alison: So, I’ve always been a teacher throughout my career, I had a few years where we had two daughters, and I took some time away from teaching at that point, but I started in secondary, in Harlow, Essex, and then moved to Leicester and worked in a big community college, then moved back to Hertfordshire and worked for the advisory service. We then had our girls and at the time when I was at home with Catherine and Elizabeth, I also did my Masters at Cambridge, so I was very lucky to be able to do that at the time. You know, we could afford for me to take that time with our daughters. And then having done the Masters in early years and inclusion, I then went into primary and taught in a very small church school, which I had a class of 17 children aged between 3 and 7. So that was lovely, but very, very different from what I’d been doing previously. Then, from there I moved to deputy headship, and then headship of a primary school that I took out of special measures, and it became outstanding quite rapidly. I stayed there for 14 years because I felt that that was giving me an opportunity to exemplify the work that we were doing and to encourage others in the way that I’m now trying to do at the Chartered College. So, I was researching whilst I was ahead as part of a research study called Learning Without Limits with the University of Cambridge. So my whole rationale for coming to the Chartered College at the point where it was just received some funding from the Secretary of State of the day back then, Nicky Morgan, the whole notion of building a professional body that could inspire a generation of teachers and start to tackle some of the really deep rooted issues that teachers face. To do that in a positive way, that would mean that we could restore some hope and some energy and a sense of recognition for the teaching workforce, a status for the teaching workforce. That felt like a really important thing to do.

Caroline: Yes, certainly. I think a lot of people hearing that will resonate with that and if they haven’t come across the Chartered College, hopefully this podcast will give them an insight into it. Obviously, those are the reasons why it was founded. From your experience of secondary, primary, your masters and your research as well, which I’ll ask you a little bit about later, if I may, about the Learning Without Limits approach. All of that has obviously led you to where you are now looking at teaching. We are facing a well-publicised teaching retention crisis. What do you think have been the main reasons for this?

Alison: Well, it’s incredibly complex. Of course it is. But my sense is that, I mean, let’s be completely clear. Teaching has always been and always will be a very demanding job. It’s a very difficult job. You can never predict what’s going to happen from one day to the next. You have to be talented in so many different directions. So, you know, one minute you’re teaching a class, the next minute you’re trying to console somebody who’s out in the corridor, who’s in tears, or you’re talking to a colleague, or you’ve got a parent who wants to see you. You know, there’s so many different demands, or you’re asked to cover a lesson or you’re suddenly taking assembly, so many different things, but equally, the job should be fulfilling more than it is challenging. It’s all about balance and the fulfilment comes. I think the times when I think back on my career as a teacher, the fulfilment comes when you enable somebody to achieve something that they never thought they could. So you know that moment when you’re in the classroom and you’re talking to a child or a young person and they just say, oh, I get it now. And you think, great. But then there’s also that kind of sense of the child, the young person coming to you and saying, guess what? And you say, well, I don’t know what. And they say, I’ve managed to do this or this has happened, and you know that you’ve been a part of that, even if it’s only a tiny part, or you’ve just been around the edges of it to enable something to happen. So it’s their success. It’s not your success, it’s their success. But there’s just a wonderful kind of feeling around that guess what moment when they tell you something and you say, well done, that’s amazing. Then as you become promoted as a teacher, those guess what moments come when colleagues come to you and say to you, guess what? This happened? And they’re talking about something which may be a breakthrough they’ve had in the classroom. It may be a breakthrough they’ve had with some parents or some other colleagues they’re working with. And again, you have that sense of well done. That’s amazing. But you know that you’ve been able to be there and help that happen.

And now as the CEO of the Chartered College, interestingly, I’ve started to have the experience where colleagues will come and say hello to me even in the street, people that I’ve never met before who will say, guess what’s happened? And they’ll talk about something that they’ve read in one of our journals, or they’ll talk about the fact that they feel proud to be a teacher and to gain some recognition. Now, it’s really early days for the Chartered College, but for members, fellows, members of the public. Start to know what it is that we’re doing and really appreciate it. That’s a continuation of that same guess what that it’s like to be in the classroom. It’s just the same thing. But it’s what keeps me going

Caroline: and wider than that. It’s also that culture of sharing and supporting and inspiring is helpful when you’re thinking about retaining teachers, because it’s getting that supportive culture in a school, but also with wider organizations like yourself. You know so much that’s about culture.

Alison: You’re completely right. So, in every school I’ve worked in, there’s always been people who said, oh, it’s there’s so much going on. But the reality is, wherever I’ve been, it’s always been about opportunity, about an energy around can do, about building people up. There are many schools that are in a culture of fear, I think. Yeah. It’s not necessarily related to any particular accountability regime of the day. It’s more the perception that causes the fear. So, I remember when I first became a head teacher, I mean, the school was in special measures. There was a lot to do. You know, clearly things were going to be tricky. And at the time, David Bell had been appointed as HMCI and I remember booking onto a course in London and sitting right in the front row with my notepad and just eyeballing him and listening to everything that he said that he felt at the time, you know, his framework was going to be about because I knew that as a head teacher, I needed to have that in my armoury. I needed to know what it was, that if someone were to come and judge the school they were going to be looking for, and I didn’t want to hear it sort of third hand, fourth hand, fifth hand, I wanted to just go and really listen and understand.

But then what was really crucial, and this is one of the reasons I think the Chartered College can help with this, is that actually the demands of Ofsted of the day and the demands of Ofsted now paled into insignificance in comparison with the demands of running a school in a principled way related to the academics that I was working with because I was doing research. So, I was far more worried about making sure that we created a listening culture for our children, for example, in the school, and that we were able to enable every teacher to flourish professionally. I was far more worried about doing that and working in partnership with parents and so on. Then I was about trying to achieve the Ofsted demand, so I’d kind of realised what the Ofsted demands were, banked them if you like, and then got on with what was really important in the school. And the consequence of that was that when we had visits from Ofsted, we actually exceeded their expectations because we weren’t working to their agenda. We were working, if you like, to a higher agenda, which was about doing the best for every single child, every member of staff and the wider community

Caroline: that’s laying the foundations and that’s the deeper work, isn’t it, that once you’ve got that right, I think nowadays Ofsted obviously is saying it is about the substance of education and within that comes the culture in a school and the support that you put in place.

Alison: I think that’s so true. And if what we’re able to do at the Chartered College is to help people move beyond the responsive quick reaction. So again, one of the really influential people in my career was I worked with Professor Robin Alexander for a while promoting the Cambridge Primary Review at the time. And he was adamant that really teachers needed to understand why they were doing things in the classroom. It wasn’t just a case for him. It wasn’t good enough to say, well, we’ve always done it this way, or the teacher down the corridor teaches it this way, so this must be right. He was calling at the time, and this was back in 2009 when the Cambridge Primary Review was published. He was calling for teachers to be able to cite evidence to really underpin everything that they were doing. And I think essentially that then gives you the armoury that you need not only to make sure that the practice that you are promoting, whether you’re a school leader or whether you’re a teacher yourself, not only making sure that that practice is as effective as it possibly can be, it also gives you the armoury to say, and we can stop doing these things. Yes, because the workload issue is directly linked to the retention issue. And I think workload teachers do work hard, and that’s because they are very committed people. But when it becomes a burden is when someone else is asking you to do something that you, quite frankly, think is a waste of time. And while you’re doing that thing, whatever it may be, that feels like it’s a total waste of time, you’re not doing the other thing that you really wanted to be doing. So therefore, there’s only enough hours in the day. You stop doing the things that give you the joy and the sense of satisfaction, and you do more of the things that you think is going to please someone else. And once you’re driven by an agenda that is about pleasing someone else, whether you know that it’s worthwhile or not, that becomes joyless, that becomes soulless. And clearly these are some of the factors that are affecting both recruitment and retention in our schools. So, I think it’s about culture. I think it’s about engaging with the research and the evidence and being able to jettison some things that just don’t work. And I think it’s also about collegiality, about this notion of supporting each other. That’s sharing the guess what moments, making the most of what it means to be a teacher and sharing the down times as well. Because there will be difficult times.

Caroline: and it’s being there for each other, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve already addressed how the Chartered College can help with supporting teachers, but maybe it’s a good time now in the podcast to actually say what is the chartered college itself? If anyone who’s listening hasn’t heard of the Chartered College, what is it and what benefits are there for a teacher or who can join actually?

Alison: First of all, although we’re called a college, we’re not a physical college that you would go to. We’re a college in the sense of a collective. It’s a charitable membership body. All teachers, all head teachers can join the Chartered College. And the membership is only £3.75 a month. So, we tried to make it as reasonable as possible. And what we’re doing is producing peer reviewed journal four times a year, which comes to your house. We’ve got teachers who are writing for this, and academics are writing every week. The journals are themed, and every time we put out a call for papers, we’re absolutely inundated, which is brilliant. The journal is very accessible, and we have an editor from Bloomsbury Press who came to work with us very much in the early days, so we’re making sure that it’s non-ideological, it’s very informative. It has a huge breadth, but also because it’s peer reviewed anybody who writes for the Journal knows that their contribution will be highly valued, because it’s been clearly sort of checked beforehand.

We’re offering a career pathway for teachers, but we want to give teachers the opportunity to build their expertise. So, in the way that some other professions offer, we’re offering chartered status. You have to have been teaching three years before you can apply for this. And in fact, the next round, we’re going to be taking applications from the 30th of September, and we’re massively expanding this next year. So, it will also be available regionally. But essentially to study to be a chartered teacher, you identify an area of your own practice that you are interested in finding out more about. You are assigned a mentor. You then do a comprehensive literature review and you write about that. You have an opportunity to join a community. You talk about key educational issues of the day and debate them from your perspective. You’ll then ask to engage in some activity within your classroom which you film. And this is because we are very keen that to become a chartered teacher is about improving your teaching practice, not about theorizing about something. And nothing changes in the classroom. There is a written exam. I mean, it’s quite tough. This is quite tough. But the first cohort that took chartered teacher status, graduated just at the end of July. We had nearly 100 teachers there, and it was a hugely celebratory occasion. Those teachers now have the opportunity of putting C teacher after their name. So, there’s recognition and it’s a status rather than a qualification. So, to maintain that status you need to be able to prove that you are constantly reflecting on your practice and growing other colleagues with you. We feel this is a really positive way of starting to address the issues around recruitment and retention, because it’s a way of giving recognition and hopefully promotion as well. So although there’s not a kind of link to a pay grade, which in fact you couldn’t have anyway, now with the way that pay has changed and the way that school structures have changed, anecdotally, the evaluation that’s being undertaken for the first cohort of chartered teachers is finding that many of them receive promotion through that time, and we absolutely anticipate that schools will find teachers who are research informed, who have engaged in an area of inquiry and then applied it to their practice, are going to be hugely in demand.

So yes, that’s something that we believe that we can contribute, and we’re going to take that globally as well, because again, across the world, education in England is highly regarded. If you’re not in England, it’s only in England that we all say, oh dear, everything’s terrible. The reality is it’s not. You know, our schools are fantastic, our teachers are amazing, and the rest of the world looks to us. So let’s formalize that and think about chartered status as an international benchmark across the world, starting from England. That’s how we raise status. We don’t raise status by putting posters on the tube saying teachers are great. You raise status by sharing expertise.

Caroline: And empowering teachers with the chartered status, or people who work with teachers with chartered status, and sharing and disseminating that research and practice that evidences good research. In terms of the public perception. You’ve just mentioned it there, I wanted to ask you, what do you think the public perception of the profession is now? It’s very generalized question, but where you think it might be going, whether you think that nationally things are changing for the good or is it in limbo?

Alison: It’s really interesting because if you talk to people if they’ve got children in school, they pretty much will tell you that their school is amazing. This teacher is fantastic. The opportunities their child gets, they couldn’t fault. But if you ask people to talk generally about what does it mean to be a teacher, then suddenly it turns into a different narrative. So, putting their own school experience to one side, you know, the rest of the profession, they’re not sure about. I always think, the opinion of taxi drivers is quite an interesting indication of how society’s feeling. So quite often now, if I get into a taxi and they ask me what I do and they say, oh, teachers, they have a tough time, you know, they don’t get enough money. They’re overworked. So, the perception across society, I think, is that teachers are under the cosh pretty much. Having said all of that, there’s also the narrative within the school, which quite often it’s much easier when you’re with your colleagues in the staff room to talk about all the things that are going wrong than it is to bounce in and say, I think you’ll find I’ve just taught a brilliant lesson. I mean, who wants to talk to that teacher? So, it tends to be a narrative of doom and gloom, but we’ve taken it a bit too far. I think so very much.

The Chartered College is about celebrating and looking to find the best in what’s happening. So, we are contributing this year to the Pearson Teaching Awards. We’ve sponsored the secondary award there. We’re looking to support the Tess Awards. There were awards this year for Naisbitt who support teacher trainers. We look for as many good news stories as we can. If you look at my Twitter account, I’m irritatingly positive about Absolutely everything.

Caroline: You retweet a lot of a lot of positive stories, a lot of people working to help the profession.

Alison: Well, it’s so needed because we do need that counter-narrative. But it’s not just about being happy clappy. this is about really reminding people of the complexities of what it means to be a teacher. And, you know, the idea that you constantly are in a position of learning. We just want to support that and formalise it a bit more. Because to be honest, there have been times when you could have been a teacher, but you haven’t been a learner necessarily. and that’s not necessarily teacher’s fault. But we want to be able to give those opportunities.

Caroline: Yeah. And the more that we grow, the more we can do that. And I think maybe nationally there’s a there’s definitely a movement now to supporting teachers in at least the first few years with the early career framework, this acknowledgement that actually you don’t just come fresh out of a PGCE or a B. Ed and become a final version of what a teacher is. And sometimes in a school you haven’t got the time or maybe the support there to help you. You become worried about your practice, you don’t know who to talk to, but there is more acknowledgement, I feel that teachers need more support at the beginning and that, like you say, they’re carrying on learning and they need some structure to that or some support and guidance.

Alison: They definitely do. But you know, it can be at any point in your career. When you need that support. When I was a head teacher, for example, we had every member of staff, regardless of their role within the school, have a mentor. And because we need to be careful that we don’t look somehow as if there are some people who will need help where there’s the rest of us who are fine. Yeah, it’s a bit like, you know, that awful thing that happens when you’ve got a child in your class who is running you ragged, and then you mention it to a colleague and they say, oh, he’s all right with me. You know, that’s just so unhelpful. but the job of being a teacher is so difficult. I remember as an NQT myself, I was working in a very tough school and had one particular class in my first year of teaching just never really got where I wanted to with them. And yet if the head of department just put her head through the window or just looked, the children would all just go completely silent. And there’s something about how you build that confidence as a teacher and that charisma. But that doesn’t just happen overnight.

Caroline: These are all personal relationships.

Alison: These are all skills that need to be built. And I think there’s been too much of a sense of you’re either a good teacher or you’re not. Well, no it’s about how we enable teachers to constantly achieve those successes. And that’s through learning and practicing and having support from others and not just being thrown in at the deep end and left to get on with it and sink or swim

Caroline: and reflect, which is what you’re talking about. Reflect on your practice, whatever stage you’re at. And that’s part of the learning process. And possibly if people think of it like that, when they enter the profession, they can see it more as a journey where you’re going to have ups and downs. You move schools and the culture’s different going back as well to what you said about research. If you know that the evidence is there, that this approach works and you’ve seen it happen time and time again, maybe you’ve talked to colleagues and professionals, then you’re more likely to want to put all your effort into that, rather than jump through a hoop that you think is pointless.

Alison: It’s interesting. I’m just reviewing a book at the moment written by Professor Steve Higgins, and he’s talking about the fact that the way that you approach something, the manner in which you teach, is as important always as anything else that you do. Now, if as a teacher, you are completely committed to a particular way of working, and you can do that with energy and enthusiasm and commitment, the young people that you’re working with will respond to that, of course. Because they absolutely can see that you believe that they are going to learn something. I think where it goes wrong is where we’ve got people who are underconfident or not allowed, maybe to be able to be themselves in the classroom, and they’re trying to deliver somebody else’s idea of what they ought to do and somehow feel that they’re falling short the whole time. So, this is about really making sure that we are building professionals rather than…

Caroline: robots.

Alison: Well, your word rather than mine! but, really making sure that when you are a teacher and I’m not suggesting that this means that every teacher has to write every piece of work they do and, you know, produce all their own resources. I completely understand the importance of sharing resources and so on, but it is about being able to connect with your students in a way that is authentic, when it’s authentic, they realize that you know it, and it becomes the most wonderful job in the world. I mean, I would say I don’t regret anything about my career. There have been times when I’ve had difficult occasions when I’ve really had to sort of gain the support of my colleagues. There have been times when I’ve, as a headteacher, when I was trying to support parents and families or young people that were going through difficult times and all of that transference that happens when you do that, it’s very difficult. But equally, you know, I was fortunate enough, I think, to be able to have the confidence to ask for help. There’s something, you know, you do need to be quite confident to ask for help because if you feel like, oh my goodness, somebody will just find me out so I better keep quiet gets worse and worse. So, in the instance of, as I was saying, you know, as a head teacher, I was able to afford to have a counsellor to come into school just once a week, just for an hour a week to work with a particular member of staff. That meant that I then didn’t have all the responsibility for supporting her wellbeing. I obviously was doing as much as I could as a head teacher, but it just meant that I was also looking after me while I was looking after her. And I think sometimes we feel that we have to be able to do everything, and the resources that are available to us are increasingly scarce. It’s very difficult, so to be able to have a professional body that encourages and supports and enables at the scale of government trying to influence debate, we do a lot behind the scenes.

Sometimes I think people would say, Charter College, you know what it’s about. Well we’re involved in groups at the DfE influencing discussions around early years, around wellbeing, around mental health, around character education, around the early career network and framework around leadership standards. We are doing our best either ourselves as individuals within the college or fellows who are part of the college network as well. It’s about being able to influence the conversation, and I feel as though that’s something that increasingly we’re being trusted to do. So, watch this space.

Caroline: Yeah, definitely. I can see on your Twitter account and the Chartered College the amount of things you’re involved with. And obviously, like you just said, behind the scenes, there’s some sort of gentle lobbying and there’s maybe stronger lobbying. It depends on what the subject is, I’m sure. But if you can bring research based evidence as well to the table, then that’s fantastic for moving forward for the for education.

Alison: I’m working with the Education Endowment Foundation as well. I mean, there are a lot of things that we have started to do in association with subject associations, learning societies, unions. You know, one of the things that I’m really keen that the Chartered College does is it starts to grow is to not to replicate what’s already going on, but to complement what’s going on. So wherever there are people who are already doing work, that’s making a difference, we’re interested to work alongside, to learn from that, to try and enhance it, to share the outcomes of that rather than feeling naively that we need to take everything over. Of course we don’t. We can’t possibly do that. But what we can do is we can make everybody else stronger by sharing information and enabling the system to build some hope. We need some hope and some optimism because if we haven’t got it, how do we expect our children and young people to thrive?

Caroline: Exactly. And it sounds like by working and being aware of other organisations like the subject societies, you’re actually then bringing together a network and making it people more aware of who these organisations are, because there’s so many I know from working in education, there are so many good pockets of expertise, and often all it needs is a platform in which to share so that teachers and heads know where to go or curriculum writers like ourselves. And it’s great to have it in one place and to share that on platforms like social media.

Alison: To model that collegiality and the collaboration that we’re saying that we believe that teachers thrive when they have an opportunity to be heard, have a sense of agency. We’re trying to model that as much as we can by working collaboratively across the piece.

Caroline: Well, I really hope it continues in such a positive way. And I know I’ve seen over the last year or so, so much more about the Chartered College and the periodical that comes out is superb. So do have a look. I’ll put a link on the end of the podcast so that. Anyone who’s listening can go and have a look at that and see how to join. I just wanted to pick you up on something that you said that reminded me. I watched a Ted talk that you did about agency and co agency, and obviously you’ve done a lot of research on something that’s known as learning without limits. Alison, I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about that approach.

Alison: Yes. So, the whole Learning Without Limits ethic is refusing, as it says on the tin, to set limits on people, not just children. People, because too often, you know, society, education puts people in boxes, wants to put lids on them and neatly pile them up and say, well, you’re in this camp and you’re in that camp and so on. The idea of learning without limits is that we believe in being able to enable every child to constantly find new opportunities to learn. So, building learning capacity is something that’s at the heart of this way of working. And it was at the heart of the way that I was working when I was a head teacher, as CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching. It’s not for me in my current role to be promoting any particular way of thinking, because clearly it’s really important that we respect a plurality of voices, that we respect a range of huge range of research and ideas. But the notion of learning without limits is probably the reason that I am the CEO of the Chartered College, and it’s probably the reason that I’m leading the college in the way that I am, because I believe that there’s so much more that can be achieved, and that when we work with people as opposed to working against, you know, you get much better outcomes from people when they feel that they are excited about the opportunity.

So, working with children, this is about not limiting them, not labelling them, constantly seeking to understand that learning is complex, and that it’s about how we find a way through to enable any child to be able to show us something that they can be proud of. And I think the same is true of teachers and parents and all of us, nobody wants to feel labelled and limited. And so that ethic I can’t help. But that sort of does underpin my sort of personal belief system. That means that I’m constantly trying to find the good. Ever since I’ve been in this role, I have never refused to meet with anybody. And whenever I’ve met with people all the time through the meeting, I’m thinking, where do we have a point of contact? Where is this something that we can agree on that could be really helpful to others? And can we use that to build on that could be mutually helpful. And that’s pretty much held me in good stead. Just occasionally when I was a head teacher, when I was a teacher, now occasionally, you know, you want to trust everybody and think they’re on your side. And just occasionally people disappoint you. But it is very occasional most of the time when you want to build agency in others, they flourish. And it’s how you help them to do that. I genuinely believe that what we’re about at the Chartered College is about enabling professionals to access the information they need to do the job that they’ve been asked to do as well as they possibly can, but also give them an opportunity to when they’re excited about something that’s working really well in their classroom. Why keep it to themselves? You know, we have so many challenges. If we can share some of the outcomes that are proving to be successful, let’s do that.

Caroline: Absolutely. I mean, I can’t imagine people not really adhering to that approach, that people haven’t got limits. And if you’ve been a teacher and you’re listening or if you’re currently teaching, if you’ve been in that situation, you’ll know when you’re teaching that when you put a fixed label on a child or put them in a set group, you do limit theirs and your expectations of them. So, I think a lot of people will resonate with that Alison. And you also talk about the fact that people should be heard, children should be heard, teachers heard. And that seems to be the way you operate at the Chartered College. You listen to what people say. You’re obviously sitting on the DFE groups. People do have very different opinions. But like you say, if you can find some commonality and the main aim is to improve the profession, the experience of teachers at the front line of head teachers as well, then that can only be for the good. So maybe that’s a point to end on actually.

Alison: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

Caroline: Not at all. Thanks ever so much for talking to me. And if you’re listening, please do check out the Chartered College of Teaching. It’s absolutely fantastic. You can join. You can even look, I think there are some free articles that you can read as well, just to give you a little taster, but as Alison said, there’s a lot of benefits to joining, so do check it out on the website and follow them on Twitter @CharteredCollege. Thank you ever so much for your time, Alison. Bye.