Not Learning from Experience: the decline of a masterly-led teaching profession

By Deborah Outhwaite

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

I have been sharing the details of the link to this research, as I think that in my area of educational leadership particularly, HEI involvement has changed drastically over the last decade or so. I started working in a university research post, part-time, 25 years ago whilst doing my MSc. At that time, we had a newly elected government who believed in the creation of a Masterly-led teaching profession. This led to the creation of (what was) the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and funding for cohorts of teachers to do part-time Masters in Education. After five years as a Head of Department, and five years as a Head of Faculty, I then wanted to do an EdD, and this was actively encouraged by colleagues in the system. Having taught with university staff from three universities across those teaching years, I thought that I might be better placed to move into an HEI. With two small girls, I got a post that ranged between a 0.5 and a 0.9 across the next few years, whilst I concentrated on my EdD, and threw a third child into the mix! 

Staff were supportive of my career trajectory and working in a post-92, I had guaranteed hours, a 90% paid-for doctorate, and TPS. This is, sadly, not the experience of most colleagues who consider building on their school teaching today. Please note my use of language here, it’s not ’leaving teaching’ – it’s sharing fifteen years of classroom experience, leading departments, examining, and writing, to join other – similarly experienced – colleagues to write books, to deliver programmes to help subsequent generations, underpinned by both theory and practice. 

I was extremely lucky to enter HE at a time when that funding, and understanding, existed. We were valued for what we did, and the generation of teachers who enjoyed that funding valued the difference it made to their practice, to their system understanding and to their leadership teams. They put this back in through staying in posts; mentoring PGCE students (with a depth of understanding) and coaching other colleagues on when to become involved in mentoring, coaching, examining, writing and publications. This wasn’t about personal glory, thousands of Twitter followers, and threads on the basics. These days, these threads are often written without any reference to theory or wider knowledge, by those without Masters, much school or examining experience, and they are written as if they are gospel – as opposed to considering the multi-faceted nature of classrooms, individuals, and society, that becomes ever more complex.

What we now see, as the NCSL (which was never perfect) was morphed into the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and then into the DfE, and was then phased out along with Teaching Schools, and the various phases of Leaders of Education (SLE, LLE, and NLE) is that the aspiration for a Masterly-led profession is long gone.  Various cheaper routes into teaching are actively being encouraged, and the profession is over-worked, under-funded, and not invested in except through shorter, non-theory-based courses that are led by organisations that are deliberately not aligned to HEIs.  What this combination of circumstances has done is to drive the age of leadership teams down and reduces the opportunities for those who have experience of the system to adequately share it, and support it, as a consequence.  So, what has been created (deliberately or otherwise) is a ‘race to the bottom’ where the average school leader is younger, less experienced, and the older staff, driven out, have fewer venues to appropriately share that experience. This creates a range of problems that we are witnessing on the ground – not enough mentors for the Early Career Framework, and older staff, instead of becoming involved in those HEI programmes and sharing their leadership skills, leaving the profession, and robbing it of much of its wider system knowledge. 

The work around precarity of HE recently has been interesting, but precariousness now exists throughout the school-based profession, in the way that it has long been precarious in the Further Education (FE) sector. Many staff may contribute to these programmes, but as opposed to being respected for the depth of knowledge that they have brought, these are not translating into experienced posts in HEIs.  We are all worse off for this and need to find ways of maintaining the wider education system’s policy memory.

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Deborah Outhwaite is the Director of the DTSA and an EdD supervisor at the University of Liverpool. She sits on the APPG for the Teaching Profession. Deborah is a Member of an 11-18 Trust Board, and a former Governor in an 11-18 secondary school. She is Vice-Chair of BELMAS (2020 – 2023). She is also an Associate of Professor Paul Miller, providing research-based CPLD to senior HEI and Business teams through (EES). Deborah has worked with a wide range of HEIs in Educational Leadership and Teacher Education across her career as an External Examiner and Advisor including UCL’s IoE; Warwick; Liverpool; Bath Spa; Leicester; Staffs; and Worcester.

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