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Flipping the education system [interview]

Lucy Rycroft-Smith and ​Jean-Louis Dutaut

Lucy Rycroft-Smith has worked as a Mathematics teacher and as a freelance writer on education. She is now a researcher and writer for Cambridge Mathematics. JL Dutaut started his career as a lecturer in FE. He has worked in Secondary for most of the time since, and has been a governor at a Primary school. He currently works as a supply teacher.

Lucy and JL are the editors of Flip the System UK: A Teachers' Manifesto.

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Images credit: Flip The System UK, Jean-Louis Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith. Images credit: Flip The System UK, Jean-Louis Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith.

When we asked our Twitter followers whom we ought to interview, ​Jean-Louis Dutaut threw his and Lucy Rycroft-Smith’s hat into the ring. Self-deprecatingly referring to this suggestion as “shameless self-promotion”, it quickly became evident that their project - Flip The System UK - was something our readers should know about.

Tell us about yourselves. What role do you play in education?

JL: I work as a supply teacher. My specialisms are Media and Politics, but over my 14-year career, I’ve taught French, Music, Drama and run a competencies-based curriculum. I’ve also enjoyed whole-school responsibilities for skills, technology, and parental engagement. After five years in and out of Special Measures and an insane workload, my career almost ended. If I play any role in education, it’s to try to ensure that kind of thing stops happening.

Lucy: I’m a researcher and writer in Mathematics education with Cambridge Mathematics, alongside a freelance writing career. I have the privilege of being immersed in current Mathematics education research and working with an incredible team of experts, travelling and collaborating with researchers, educationalists and teachers worldwide. This comes after a decade in the classroom teaching Mathematics across all key stages.

What is Flip The System UK, and how does it benefit British schools?

JL: It’s a UK-centred edition of a seminal book for us. If it isn’t seminal for you, you probably ought to read it! Flip the System was conceived by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber in the Netherlands. It charts a global trend towards the de-professionalisation of teaching, and its nefarious effects. We got their support for our edition, which contains contributions from teachers, school leaders, policy makers and academics crafted into a manifesto for reversing that trend. Through it, we call for a new teacher professionalism.

Lucy: It’s not a book that messes about. It’s a book to make you stop in your tracks: not just outlining problems, but offering sensible solutions. We’re not here to publish and run; we’re interested in using it as a blueprint for making deep systemic change that makes life better for teachers. There’s a growing gang of us too; the Swedish book is now available, and the Australian edition is due out soon. We’re listening and learning from each other as to how to put pressure on politicians and policymakers to make education systems better, fairer and more sustainable; to stop the sickening churn of teachers being used up and leaving; to build powerful networks in our wonderful profession.

Tell us more about the Flip the System UK book.

JL: Actually, there are a couple of things that it isn’t about that we’d like to mention. In the first instance, when we say we’ve written a manifesto, we’re not sitting here conceiving of ourselves as Marx and Engels (no more than is helpful to build our self-confidence, anyway!). The book isn’t about left/right politics at all, though we firmly believe the first party to adopt it will be the first to win back the teaching profession. The left/right policy pendulum has done more to harm teachers than almost any single policy, and we’d be fools to play into that. What Flip the System UK offers is a chance for a more thoughtful and rational policy cycle. What it is about is democracy and empowerment, agency and professionalism.

The (related) second thing it isn’t is a treatise for educational traditionalism or progressivism. We think engaging with the philosophy of education is imperative to being a professional teacher, and taking a position on that dichotomy, one way or another, or even sitting on the fence, is a mark of that professionalism. But the system doesn’t have to; It can embrace both and many more positions besides. In fact, we think the acrimony with which this debate is being conducted is a direct result of being disempowered as teachers. We seek to exercise control over what we can, and sometimes that’s our colleagues. We side with politicians who side with us as a proxy for control,and politicians exploit that. It’s not democratic. In fact, we both take very different positions in the debate, and we’ve managed to write a book together. Imagine what the profession could achieve.

Lucy: Exactly. What a perfect sentiment.

What can schools do to give SLT and teachers more power over how classrooms are run?

Lucy: The book offers a whole range of solutions, from putting ethos first, to democratising decision-making, through collaborative research and collective professional development, but the common thread to all those solutions is professional trust. Of course, schools don’t operate in a vacuum, and there are two main external factors that can affect schools’ ability to do that.

First, schools are institutions that are central to their communities. Unless your vision of professionalism includes openness and transparency in working with your community, the impact of giving teachers back control of their classrooms is going to be limited.

Second, government policy that is focused on narrow measures of success, pressure from Ofsted and the pace at which these things change, all contribute to limiting the control school leaders have over their schools, and it takes a brave governing body to say that these things aren’t a priority to them. Interestingly, the solutions to that are the same as above. To an extent, working with your community to set out a clear vision can act as a buffer against narrow judgments. Just as importantly though, embedding professional trust means you’re less likely to side with those imposing pressure externally, and far more likely to join your colleagues in resisting those pressures. When that happens, policy makers have to sit up and take notice.

JL: We’ve written a short but, we think, fairly exhaustive manifesto to achieve that. If giving school leaders and teachers more control over their schools and classrooms is what we want - and it is! - then let it inform your policies. The more schools do that, the more inevitable it becomes that the education system will flip. When that happens, you’ll know, because it won’t feel like you’re doing good things in spite of the system anymore.

You both seem like political individuals. How important is it that modern educators take a political stance on the likes of global affairs, equality and education sector changes?

Lucy: What does ‘political’ even mean? Do we care about more than just our classrooms, our lives, and our views? Certainly. Are we entrenched in ideological positions that we’re pushing on everyone else? I really hope not. But given that anyone involved in education has to have a position (explicit or not) on what education is for, then all teaching and teachers are somehow political, sure.

JL: We’re not shy of expressing our opinions on a whole range of matters, but we also like to think we’re pretty good at listening to others, and changing our opinions when the evidence changes too.

Teaching is a political act. It is founded on the political decision that an educated citizenry is good for everyone. We can all easily imagine societies that might make a different political decision. In fact, you don’t have to look far to see them. More critically, some might argue our curriculum’s lack of breadth and depth limits the type and quality of the education our citizens receive.

So we think it is vital for teachers and school leaders to take a political stance in this sense- to engage in the design and delivery of curriculum in their schools and nationally, and to build networks to support them in achieving that. We think teachers are here to model the democratic way of being - basing opinions on facts, winning arguments through persuasiveness, co-existing peacefully, and always seeking to empower…

Lucy: ...even if (especially if) it makes us redundant to our pupils...

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