The future of the left since 1884

The wrong lesson

Far from being a quick fix for teacher workload, ready-made resources threaten lesson quality and school autonomy. Teachers need protected planning and collaboration time instead, writes Jane Prinsley



As the squeeze on public sector funding continues, unprecedented government spending on digital school resources seems to have flown under the radar. In September, the government earmarked £43m for ready-made resources from Oak Academy.

This surprising decision did not pass entirely unnoticed: a letter to the education secretary in November signed by several peers argued that the Oak money should be handed to schools instead. But four out of the five signatories turned out to have financial interests in Oak’s competitors; what’s more, the letter was coordinated by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). It seems, then, that this pushback was more part of a fight to dominate the edtech market – particularly the government-funded slice of the pie – than a principled opposition to outsourcing. This battle is raging without the involvement of teachers, and at the same time as unions are calling for strike action as the profession reaches breaking point.

Oak was established at the beginning of the pandemic as a response to school closures. It is an online classroom and resource hub which provides free online content for pupils from reception to GCSE-level. The resources include worksheets and videos from subject specialists explaining key concepts. During lockdown, it provided a useful service for teachers unprepared for remote delivery.

Once schools were set up to deal with lockdown lessons, however, Oak’s offer was less essential. After schools reopened, Oak became a fallback for cover lessons, or a starting point for teachers to plan. In response, Oak amped up its content, creating entire schemes of learning (or SOLs) and curriculum maps. For those unversed in school planning, SOLs build on previous learning and are designed for pupils to progress in a linear fashion along a knowledge-rich curriculum map which covers a whole school career – almost like a game of educational snakes and ladders. Departments usually plan their year with various SOLs for each age group.

Depending on who you ask, SOLs and maps are either a feature of great planning or the product of  Ofsted inflexibility on a knowledge-based curriculum; either way, they take a huge amount of time to create and implement. When I was a trainee teacher, we spent hours breaking down SOLs and lesson plans. But this is no bad thing; planning is a key teaching principle. Under the current system, all teachers must be able to plan high-quality lessons that fit into wider SOLs. If lessons and schemes from Oak become the norm, teachers will no longer need to design learning. Instead, teachers will simply be mouthpieces used to convey whatever information Oak deems important. Students, in turn, will be mere vessels, taking in Oak’s content, deposited neatly into their minds as they progress along an Oak-designed learning journey.

Teachers do not want this, even where it would save them time and effort. Indeed, teaching bodies have consistently called for more emphasis on lesson planning and reflection. Oak’s resources are pitched to combat teacher workload, but what teachers need much more than free content is time to plan their own lessons.

Since 2005, teachers have had guaranteed planning, preparation, and assessment time (PPA) comprising ten per cent of their timetable. With a full-time teacher working as many as six lessons on any given day, PPA is invaluable: good quality lessons take time to plan, deliver and reflect on. However, bureaucratic data collection processes and spreadsheet input increasingly bleed into planning time, and overstretched schools often ask teachers to cover other lessons or take part in a breaktime duty when they should have their PPA. Unions have long called for the allotted time for PPA to be increased to 20 per cent.

The limited ambition of the current PPA system also affects collaboration. The best lessons are those which have been planned together by teams of subject specialists working in the same context, who can subsequently review the lessons after they have been taught and implement improvements where needed. Yet currently a teacher’s PPA is almost always at a different time from other members of their department, inhibiting this peer review process. Some schools get around this by dedicating a whole afternoon a week to teacher planning. This might mean sending pupils home early and teaching for an extra day a term, but it improves the quality of the teaching day. However, many schools are like the one I taught in, where department planning tended to be an end-of-term afterthought done quickly in between classes and shared haphazardly with other staff who might find it useful. Sometimes, heads of department would pass on lessons that had been purchased from edtech sites; these were usually unusably awful. Oak is an attempt to improve on this, but in reality, its adoption will continue to downgrade the status and skills of future teachers.

A more effective plan would be to increase the time allotted for PPA and turn local areas into hubs of regional teacher planning activity. This regional cooperation already happens in some parts of the country; £43m would go some way to rolling it out nationwide. Teachers could plan in department teams and across schools, with local and regional collaboration improving efficiency without compromising on flexibility.

Oak’s resources are not radical, and they needn’t cost £43m. Planning and collaboration are essential pillars of the system, which is why the Labour government introduced PPA. But PPA needs to evolve from a ten per cent breather to a substantial twenty or even thirty per cent that can be used for collaboration with colleagues and continued professional, subject specific development. Teachers know what their students need; they should be trusted and supported to deliver.

Image credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Signs and Roof Lines, Hillsborough Primary School, Sheffield by Terry Robinson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Jane Prinsley

Jane Prinsley is a teacher and writer and works for the Guardian Foundation.

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