The teacher from the Fens who has become president of Cambridgeshire NUT on the challenges and campaigns ahead of him
- Credit: Archant
Cause for celebrations then in the Field household, having moved back home after last year’s floods, being elected president of Cambridgeshire NUT and capping it all by becoming a town councillor.
It wasn’t all one way traffic though for Martin Field despite carrying the flag as the only Labour councillor on any town council in Fenland but failing in his bid to become a Labour district councillor.
Hundreds of former Neale-Wade students will know him, of course, as their geography teacher for two decades but any chance of prising out of him why he upped sticks to teach privately in Cambridge is off limits.
“I can’t talk about Neale-Wade,” he explains, hinting that whatever the reason(s) they are tied up in a confidentiality clause and remain so.
But Mr Field can talk about his role as president of the 2,000 strong Cambridgeshire National Union of Teachers and the expectations of his 12 month tenure.
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And the agenda for our teachers is, as might be expected, wide ranging and comprehensive and with the first Tory government in 20 years he remains pessimistic for his colleagues in Cambridgeshire schools.
One of the major issues at this spring’s NUT conference – where a motion proposed by the Cambridgeshire branch was passed unanimously- was to challenge new base line assessments.
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These are to be introduced next year but already trials are under way to ensure four year-olds come in for more rigorous testing – and it’s not something Mr Field and his members support.
“The Government, in their wisdom, has decided professional observation by teachers is not enough.
“Instead of allowing teachers do their jobs, the Government is introducing formal assessments of four year olds.”
In practice this will mean reception year students will be asked to perform certain tasks and answer questions as part of an initial long term assessment programme
Mr Field says many believe the assessments are wrong, and he quotes extensive support for the view that most learning at this age should be done through play and not through testing.
Not only that, says Mr Field, but schools will be obliged to recruit one of six Government approved companies to carry out the assessments.
“Schools have to decide which company they are going to buy this assessment from,” he says.
“It is supposed to start in September 2016 but what they are doing is giving schools a trial run this year and many are thinking of doing this; the NUT is asking schools to boycott this.”
He said the Cambridgeshire motion agreed at national level includes balloting members about boycotting the new assessment regime, not co-operating with either the trial period or when it becomes policy next year.
“Our motion was unanimously supported; it is just commonsense,” he says. “You cannot assess a four year old in that way.”
He says the NUT fully supports early years foundation programmes which are used as a way of observing students and finding out their strengths but rejects a formal assessment.
He quotes examples of where trials have taken place and where questions, such as asking four year-olds to say aloud the word ‘parrot’ but without the ‘p’ are used.
“One child asked ‘why would I do that?’ which is a very good response, but clearly not the answer the assessors want,” says Mr Field.
Another teacher told the NUT conference of a test on a iPad when a four year-old was shown images of three chickens, three pigs, three cows and three fields and asked to put the animals into a field.
Mr Field said one child put one of each animal in different fields and when asked why he did so, explained that it would “give them company and something to talk about it.” But that, says Mr Field, was not the (obvious) answer needed,
I asked Mr Field if he could wave a magic wand what problems within education would he want to see tackled.
“It’s not as easy as that – there are problems throughout the education system,” he said.
He cites funding as a key issue where Cambridgeshire has particular challenges and even now, he says, sixth form and further education remain poorly resourced.
And then there remain the uncertainties over academies and their apparent reluctance to deal with trade unions. He believes good employers – as some academies are-should have nothing to fear but “a certain academy chain is antagonistic towards us. “In Cambridgeshire our reps have found it difficult to go into some and where the academies have been awkward. It is very difficult for them to refuse completely “.
Would he name and shame those refusing to co-operate? Not yet, he says, but that remains the ultimate sanction.
But the NUT’s view of academies remains broadly that of “being against marketisation of education which should be provided to benefit students, not for schools to be given away to private companies”.
Ofsted is also failing to impress Mr Field and his members and he frequently hears reports where the regulatory body may have been “encouraged” to fail schools so that they are forced down the academy route.
Inconsistencies within the Ofsted regime are not being addressed, he says, quoting for example where schools previously rated as ‘satisfactory’ now find that outcome regarded less favourably than before.
“Satisfactory used to mean, in the English language any rate, good enough. However satisfactory has started to become to mean unsatisfactory – some sort of Orwellian truth speak,” he says.
So what makes him angry?
“One of our ongoing campaigns is our workloads,” he says. “Teachers all want to do a good job and to do their best for students. Unfortunately many can’t do as good a job as they would like because of their workload.”
It is an issue that he fears will dominate the education system for some time with large numbers of teachers both locally and nationally off with stress, some choosing to leave the profession altogether.
“We risk losing a huge amount of experience,” he says.
He quotes the example whereby teachers used to plan lessons and mark work “those are things which make a difference yet their time is being taken up with an excessive amount of data management.”
The NUT provides its members with advice on what is acceptable “and what is going over the top” and locally some teachers are, for instance, refusing to take part in whole school detentions.
“It’s a case of a teacher not having set the detention but being asked to stay behind and take part in it,” he says. “If senior management want to run after school detentions they can do so.”
“There are other schools where management is so paranoid about Ofsted they organise mock Ofsteds. Its where they tell staff they are going to carry out a pretend Ofsted which puts extra pressure on teachers who worry and sometimes stay up extra late preparing lessons- it doesn’t make lessons any better but there is an attitude that ‘ you must not fail’”.
He adds: “Mock Ofsteds are a distraction from teaching and do not benefit our students. But they are becoming more prevalent as academies feel the pressure and worry that Ofsted might be coming in any moment.”
Mr Field says the answer for schools hoping to succeed is “take pressure off teachers, giving them time to prepare lessons and mark work accordingly. It is not to get them to fill in 1,000 tables which are meaningless.”
It is early days yet for Mr Field’s presidency and, in Ofsted parlance, looks to have made a satisfactory start and moving to good.
He has a year to see if it can make it an outstanding.