What do we really know about teaching and teachers in England’s schools? What is teaching in England really like by comparison with other jurisdictions? Too often, discussions about teacher effectiveness, teacher appraisal, professional development and job satisfaction appear to be based on a sample of about one: massive over-generalisation from the specific instance.
So the publication of the OECD TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) 2013 data for England is important. This is not the first TALIS – that was in 2008 – but the first to include England. TALIS covers lower secondary teachers in 34 countries, and the OECD reports its findings over 440 pages of dense text and charts. The English report, itself 200 pages long, was written by an IOE team led by John Micklewright and provides the most extensive data we have on teachers and teaching. The sample is still not enormous – 154 schools and 2,496 lower secondary teachers – but the response rate was very high (75% compared to just 17% in the DFE Teachers’ Workload Diary) and, importantly, this is the first survey to cover both state and independent schools.
Micklewright and his team deliberately do not come to an overall conclusion on what TALIS tells us about the state of secondary teaching in England. They try to tease out what the data say about different issues, framed as a set of questions – but it is for the reader to draw conclusions.
The result is fascinating: a treasure trove of data and graphs, which allow us to make informed comparisons across the OECD. Politicians and the press always ransack reports like this for the simple answer which tells us that “if only” we were more like [fill in name of organization or country] then everything would be different. But the TALIS report is more complex and realistic. There are differences between countries, but they evade easy generalization.
Take teacher workload: TALIS confirms that teachers in England work hard: a working week of 46 hours, one of the highest in TALIS and 9 hours more than the average. In only three of the sub-sample of high performing jurisdictions is the figure higher: Alberta (48 hours), Singapore (48 hours) and Japan (54 hours). But teaching time in England, at 20 hours, is close to the international average. This gap between working hours and teaching is a puzzle because English schools have significantly more teaching assistants and administrative staff than across the OECD. But it may be a result of high levels of autonomy enjoyed by English schools; examination of the TALIS data bears this out, suggesting that the difference is because English teachers spend slightly more time on each aspect of their work: planning, marking, and administration.
Or take classroom management. Across all OECD countries, a quarter of teachers report losing a third or more of time to classroom disruption. But in most respects England is at or better than the TALIS average. 21% of teachers in England say they have to wait for students to quieten down at the start of lessons, but this is below the median for all countries (27%) and below all high performing jurisdictions except Japan. Teachers in independent schools report better behavior than teachers in maintained schools or academies, but of course independent schools teach a more socially selective population.
Micklewright’s team look carefully at variations between schools, and conclude that classroom climate is correlated with the make-up of the school intake, and, more, of individual classes. And, there is evidence that disciplinary environment improves in smaller classes – of course, smaller classes are preponderantly found in independent schools. Even so, two thirds of teachers report a positive classroom climate. It’s in these classes that teachers are likely to use a variety of approaches including group work, extended investigation and information technologies. Teachers are more likely to teach like this if they participate in professional development involving individual and collaborative research, visits to other schools or teacher networks. Or consider findings on continuing professional development. Overall, there is exceptionally high engagement with CPD in England: 92% report some CPD in the last twelve months, but the number of hours spent on training is relatively low: high participation, low volume. And for all the rhetoric that continuing professional development is not simply about ‘going on a course’, courses and workshops account for the vast majority of CPD; just 45% of English teachers reported CPD involving ‘working with a group of colleagues’.
There are some insights into CPD quality, which tell us that CPD on the most challenging aspects of teaching is the least effective. Across TALIS, just 13% reported that training on teaching in multi-cultural or multi-lingual settings had an impact on their teaching; the figure was 8% in England. Figures on SEN training are similar.
But there are reasons to be positive about what CPD can do: across the OECD as a whole 66% of teachers thought that subject-focused CPD had an impact, and 50% thought that CPD focused on pedagogy had an impact. The figures varied between countries. Both were lower in England, and higher in the nine highest performing jurisdictions – but before that becomes a policy line, we note that 73% of teachers in the eight lowest performing jurisdictions also reported a positive impact from CPD in their subject! Teachers in schools with higher levels of deprivation were more positive about the impact of CPD. Taken as whole, the OECD claim a correlation between regular collaborative professional learning activities and teachers feeling more confident about their capabilities.
TALIS suggests that England has a near universal system of teacher appraisal. Compared to the OECD as a whole, Micklewright’s team characterizes England as a “high feedback country”: 99% of teachers report receiving feedback. But schools are not making the most of it. Only about half of teachers (and this is a consistent figure across the OECD) felt that feedback enhanced efficacy.
It’s on self-efficacy – teachers’ beliefs about their ability to influence learning – that the English report concludes. There are variations between teachers’ sense of their effectiveness. But variation within schools is much greater than that between schools. Teams and departments matter. There is no difference between independent and state-funded schools, nor between affluent and deprived schools. Instead, the IOE team conclude that self-efficacy is highest when teachers report strong professional relationships, but they conclude that causality is unclear: it may be that teachers with high self-efficacy build good relationships, or, by working in teams with good relationships teachers become more confident.
It’s this puzzle, like so many others, which the report for England is so good at illuminating. It offers immense detail, but never at the expense of the underlying key questions. It challenges practice and policy on the basis of rigorous analysis, which is what really good research should do. It is balanced between strengths and weaknesses and clear-headed about international comparisons. It will be reduced, and perhaps traduced, in press headlines, but deserves serious research and policy attention on how we can best shape the teaching profession.