Saturday, 7 November 2009

Teaching gets in the way!

After yet another crazy week of bureaucracy, punctuated by very enjoyable spells actually spending time with children, a number of us were chatting in the staffroom and comparing just how much paperwork we had. Most of it is a response to the soviet use of statistics which make certain predictions of outcomes for children. Where the results (done every 6 weeks) suggest that the outcomes will not be reached then there must be 'support' and 'intervention' for every child. Of course, I fully subscribe to the idea of support for all children but I prefer it to be given continually as needed, regardless of current outcomes, and I prefer to operate from a default position that children are not robots and that, sometimes, learning may be a little slower than it has been and children may have external issues that affect performance.

However, individuals do not drive the 'support'- statistics do. Equally, the interventions are onerous as they must all be logged and signed in order that there is evidence of support should OfSTED ask for it. Why inspectors do not simply ask children and parents if they have been supported is beyond me!

Arising from the discussions was a comment that we were all so busy that 'teaching was getting in the way'. Thankfully, we all realised how ridiculous this was and we all laughed about it. Nonetheless, there is many a true word spoken in jest......

Monday, 2 November 2009

Beware the fad that is ICT

We have had a training day today on the use of ICT and, given that our school is a new build, it has the wonderful type of ICT facilities that impress parents when they visit the school. Indeed, we have been shown a vast array of ICT programs and hardware which should, in theory, freshen up teaching and learning.

In fact, I do believe that a judicious use of ICT does enhance interest in the curriculum and that it helps to engage youngsters while developing real processing skills that they will encounter in the workplace. However, ICT and its use comes with significant caveats, especially where schools see it as the panacea to all things effective. Used badly, ICT merely acts as a distraction to learning, replacing incisive thought and knowledge with a set of fairly simple skills which rely upon software that is increasingly intuitive. When parents visit on Open Evenings they will surely be impressed by the graphics, the the sound and the multi-media offerings that the children have produced. However, how many of them would be impressed if they knew that the outcomes were a result of very simple and advanced user-friendly software and about 10 minutes of application from the pupils?

Increasingly, ICT is not supporting the curriculum, but leading it. Consequently, schools are not investing in books as they should, teachers are not teaching in the traditional sense of the word (yes that can mean some didactic imparting of knowledge) and much time is wasted 'researching' facts that a teacher is paid to recount very speedily. This leads to pupils who are no longer required to think, discriminate or apply skills based on sound knowledge. Instead, they make pretty, but ultimately vacuous presentations which do not in any way amplify underlying knowledge.

So, as a parent, do not be too impressed by flashy ICT facilities and remember that you can never judge a book by its cover. Where ICT supports a traditional curriculum based on knowledge it is fantastic. Where it attempts to lead on the basis of a skills agenda alone, it is mere window dressing.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Quisling and schools

I was interested to note today that Home Secretary Alan Johnson has sacked the independent expert that he appointed, Professor David Nutt, because he gave him an opinion that he did not want to hear. Closer to home for teachers it was also noteworthy that Barry Sheerman MP recently referred to the Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls, as a 'bully'. Indeed, the shift towards more authoritarian control in schools and the stifling of professional opinion does appear to come from a rotten culture based in Whitehall.

Indeed, schools are now only deemed successful if they are able to meet a multitude of targets which are centrally dictated, the latest particular focus from OfSTED being on safeguarding arrangements. Whitehall appears to micro-manage the LAs, which in turn micro-manage and bully the headtachers, who in turn micro-manage and bully the staff. The results on the front line are catastrophic.

Like anything imposed from a faceless and remote body, priorities that are set too often do not address local need and the targets and aims that are dictated from Whitehall are subject to the laws of unintended consequences. Teachers worth their salt understand this, knowing that the chase for numbers leads to dumbing down, that intelligent youngsters are often left to themselves as 'intervention' focuses the whole school to concentrate on C/D borderline pupils, thereby leaving the low ability to fend for themselves too. They know that the 'learning to learn' agenda is a profligate waste of time and that that the whole culture is bureaucracy and target driven, not child centred.

Regrettably, the majority of teachers where I work and either blind to much of the reality, or disinclined to challenge prevailing wisdoms due to fear. Indeed, in the big window dressing definitions of 'improvement' that exist in education, the headteachers too often exercise an almost totalitarian control. In my school this has included the sacking of 4 staff teaching harder academic subjects whose grades were not outstanding (but this was not part of a general trend for the individuals concerned). Teachers are also subject to a myriad of control measures. There is a tick list for break duties saying how many minutes late each teacher is, we are told exactly how every lesson must be uniform in the name of consistency, 'learning walks' are pretty much weekly to ensure that all policies are being followed and anybody questioning the massive explosion of paperwork, which impinges on preparation and assessment time, are immediately reported to the head.

Perhaps this is the saddest change of all- the development of quislings. A network of colleagues, eager to to progress in a new apparatchik, will quickly run to the boss to report dissent. The result is that those with independent professional standards who are by no means disloyal, are called into the office of the headteacher and threatened with the sack or told to fall in line with immediate effect.

The results are obvious. The independent, free-spirited, intelligent and thoughtful colleagues who wish to place children at the centre of the educational process regardless of ability are bullied and are starting to leave, even in a recession. Some have gone to private education, others have simply left teaching altogether. Many are making plan to get out of the state system. As Professor David Nutt bears testimony to, it has become career suicide for professionals to be independent or honest, or indeed to act with integrity.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The BNP and teaching

Ed Balls has announced a review into the necessity of banning teachers from being members of the BNP. Put simply, he is suggesting that one lawful political party should limit the rights of another because it does not agree with it. I believe that it is already unlawful to be party political under the provisions of the 1988 Education Act and rightly so. After all, many of us who were educated in the 1970s and 1980s will surely confirm the fact that the image of the socialist teacher, wearing elbow patches and preaching left-wing views to the class, was not a product of the imagination. Indeed, good teachers should not impart political views and they should surely allow youngsters to develop the skills to make up their own minds. That being the case, if a teacher were to be found preaching party political propaganda, they could presumably be pursued under current laws and provisions.

I find it deeply unsettling, and an affront to democratic values, that an illiberal Ed Balls will seek to limit the rights of a legal political party merely on the basis of disagreement. We are supposed to be living in a free country respecting the suggestions of Voltaire who said. " I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Compare that with Chris Keates of the NASUWT who said, " All right-minded people understand that an agenda of hatred, bigotry and intolerance has no place in education."

So long as the intolerance and bigotry are not right-wing eh Chris?

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The depersonalisation of education

As a teacher, I firmly believe that the best way to get the most from children is to really get to know them as individuals. As a parent, such an intimate professional knowledge of what makes my child tick is the least that I expect. Indeed, I suspect that even this government has the same understanding given the manner in which they press the idea that 'every child matters'. However, endless meddling and bureaucratisation of education have led to a very different state of affairs.

Success is now measured purely in terms of A-C pass rates at secondary level. To a degree I understand this. After all, if children leave school with more qualifications then they have a greater chance to pursue a successful future. However, the measure of success is not pure and the outcomes are rendered unreliable due to consistent dumbing down of standards, a pretence of equivalence between subjects of massively different nature and the micro management of process. All of this is effectively enforced by a politicised OfSTED whose assessment criteria now include not just an assessment of outcome but of process. This has led effectively to a state approved methodology in the classroom.

The methodology is not without its merits. After all, objective focussed teaching and learning are surely desirable when properly applied. However, too many teachers, encouraged by an inflexible orthodoxy, teach to objectives regardless of the children in front of them. Due to the centralised expectations placed upon them, teachers are increasingly strait-jacketed by their own lesson plans - having little regard for the particular needs of the individuals in front of them. In dwindling supply are the truly individual teachers who can inspire and impart knowledge (where the curriculum has not removed it) on the basis of their own professional skills. To be such a teacher now is to take a risk and to be labelled as some sort of pedagogical fifth columnist. Nanny knows best how to teach children and woe betide anybody who departs from the approved Whitehall methods.

Of course all of this, in turn, creates a massive bureaucracy. Bureaucrats to advise the teachers, others to montior they are teaching as they are instructed, others to monitor the monitors.....

Education in the state sector has become an extension of central government with the civil servants the stasi of the system. Your child is but a number on the league tables. The classroom has become a large Orwellian farm where timid shepherds lead timid animals. The problem is that the farm is led by a remote and uncaring corporation that is leading its lambs to the slaughter, rather than fattening them up to deal with the world outside the farm.

Monday, 14 September 2009


Further to my posting last week there have been 4 resignations from the teaching staff after results which did not fall in line with targets. Although in 3 cases there had been no indication of poor performance, and consequently no attempts to support it, the teachers felt it was better to leave than to face the harassment of the managers.

I repeat that I have no issues whatsoever with the removal of teachers who are demonstrably bad and who are damaging the life chances of young people. Nor would I have any compunction, as a manager myself, in dismissing chronically under-performing staff. After all, I may be a teacher but, more importantly, I am also father to 2 wonderful children. However, in the drive to increase GCSE results regardless of subject we are actually penalising certain subjects to the benefit of areas of study such as media, health and social care and sport. After all, there is a clear difference between a GCSE in French or Physics (hard and examination based) compared with the 4 GCSE equivalence BTEC Sport (easier and coursework based). Consequently, the latter meet targets much more easily while the former struggle to meet the unreliable benchmark that is set for them.

Of course, these problems disproportionately affect poorer areas, where young people are increasingly denied not only an academic curriculum but also the more intellectual teachers equipped to lead their aspirations. Whilst I do not decry the opportunity to study construction and hairdressing at school, I do lament the loss not only of the areas of discipline that allow poorer children to join the managerial classes, as well as the intellectual role models forced out by an insane targets system.

Friday, 4 September 2009

How teachers are unfairly judged.

Welcome to my first posting of the new academic year, and what a start!

Firstly, let me say that I am all for the accountability of teachers and the removal of those who are persistently bad. However, the manner in which teachers' targets are determined, allied to political meddling and a chase for GCSE numbers, is creating significant stresses and huge unfairness.

Basically, most school appear to use a measure from the Fisher Family Trust organisation to provide targets for their GCSE groups. For each child, a residual score is given calculated on the basis of actual result against predictions. In simple terms, if a youngster is predicted a C and achieves a D, the teacher is awarded -1, a score of 0 for a grade C, 1 for a B, 2 for a grade A etc. All scores are then calculated to give a residual result. Should that residual result be negative, the teacher is placed under pressure that is sometimes intolerable, for the most unfair of reasons.

Firstly, because schools should rightly be seen to have high expectations many of them use something called the FFT D indicator, which determines targets based upon the top performing 25% of schools which are deemed to be statistically similar. Likewise, for most schools, the targets are in turn set against pupil performance at the end of key stage 2 (junior school).
This raises 2 particular issues. Firstly, there is ample evidence to suggest that the results at key stage 2 are unreliable. The DCFS was rightly accused of being a significant contributor to previous SATs catastrophes due to political meddling and, with the stakes being so high, there is much empirical evidence that at the very least the KS2 outcomes appear at the expense of a broader education with significant 'test drilling' skewing actual educational achievement.

Therefore, we build castles on sand and set teachers up to fail. This is particularly the case in deprived areas (such as where I teach), as pupils who do not turn up for examinations, or are unprepared, can bring with them residual results of -6. However, there is little sympathy for the teacher with a negative residual, however it arises, as headteachers follow the slavish mantra that it is bad teaching that is to blame, not the children. Equally, it was noteworthy that the negative residuals came in the academic subjects, with BTECs doing particularly well. Funny that?

So what does this mean on the front line? It means that 3 teachers with thus far unblemished records have today been given the option of resigning with a good reference or facing competency proceedings. Welcome to the brave new world of staggering illusion and unfairness.

PS- I trade in no sour grapes here. I was fortunate enough to have a positive residual so I am left alone, at least for a while......