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......

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Author on holiday!

I shall be taking a well-earned break in Italy until the beginning of September. I look forward to bringing all the front line news from the first week of September!

Monday, 10 August 2009

Are you state sanctoned to meet children?

From October 2009 anybody who works with children (or vulnerable people) or wishes to work with them, be it on a voluntary or paid basis, will have to start to be registered under the provisions of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS). From November 2010, this listing will be compulsory and it will be a criminal offence to engage in a ‘regulated activity’ with children and remain unregistered.
The VBS will be administered by the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), a new tranche of bureaucracy administered by more than 200 caseworkers and decision makers chaired by Sir Roger Singleton. The VBS will impact upon substantially more people than current arrangements and will include anybody who has interactions with children or the vulnerable. For a one-off fee of £64 (not applicable to volunteers), the ISA will check criminal records, convictions, referrals from employers and, most worryingly, ‘soft’ information not based upon conviction. Indeed, the ISA says that a strength of the scheme is that "it has access to non-conviction information from different sources when building a view of an individual's unsuitability to work with children or vulnerable adults". The checks will be necessary for anyone who has contact regularly, intensively or overnight, defined as once per month, 3 times or more in a period of 30 days or between the hours of 2am and 6am. Therefore, the scheme includes a diverse range of people such as doctors, taxi drivers, dentists and parents participating in foreign exchange programmes.
This latest infringement by the State into everyday interactions between human beings raises a number of serious questions. However, 2 points seem to stand out, Firstly, there appears to be an undermining of the rule of law and secondly the default presumption of inter-generational interactions appears to base itself upon a presumption of mistrust.
It is a sign of how deep-rooted the drift to authoritarianism has become when yet another collection of non- elected decision makers consider the ability to make decisions about the futures of others, free from the inconvenience of the rule of law, as a ‘strength’. Indeed, this further paves the way for those with allegations being made against them, but never proved, to have opportunity denied. Of course, even in the human rights dystopia that New Labour represent, the ISA will not have arbitrary powers and there will be a right of appeal to its Upper Tribunal. However, this will place a burden upon individuals to appeal against an allegation which has never been proven at any tribunal. Should such an appeal fail, which it may, then judicial review would be the legal check against the excesses of the ISA and how many people can afford that? Also, The ISA has indicated that it may consider unsuitable anybody who engages in conduct that endangers a child or vulnerable adult, or is likely to, by causing physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm. This includes having sexual material relating to children or depicting violence against people. At face value this appears to be innocuous and, in particular, possession of child pornography would render an individual unsuitable to work with children in the eyes of most right-minded people. However, possession of pornography ‘depicting violence against people’ raises worrying questions. From 26 January 2009 it became an offence to possess ‘extreme pornography’ under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Under section 63, extreme pornography is defined as:-
- an act which results, or is likely to result, in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals
So, where does that leave the person who may possess pornography depicting bondage between consenting adults? Is this a de facto extension of the rights of the state, at the expense of the individual, into the bedroom? More importantly in the context of this debate, could a body of individuals, other than the courts, deny opportunity to people who may have a penchant for bondage in their private time with little effective route for appeal?
Also, any system which encourages, through expense and bureaucracy, a default position of mistrust is creating a toxic relationship environment which will surely poison natural rapport between the generations. Despite the remarkably low numbers of incidents between strangers and children (which CRB and ISA will likely make little impact upon), children and parents are encouraged to see every adult as a potential danger unless that adult has been state-sanctioned. Quite aside from the peculiarly depressing implication that every one of us is a potential danger and the consequential undermining of informal, colourful relationships, there is also the very real danger that parents may stop using their own discrimination and common-sense when they hand their child over to the paedophile who may not have committed any offence yet. That is surely a danger of the system- it does not catch the first time offender whose certification may induce parents to be less judicious than they normally would be.
Of course, the proponents of the schemes will reiterate ad nauseum that they are simply protecting children. Unfortunately, those with a vested interest in the new procedures will stubbornly refuse to see that, in fact, we are all less free and a touch more cynical as a result of the measures.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The decine in social mobility- The culpability of the state

A report on social mobility recently stated that social mobility is not only decreasing, but also that the gap between rich and poor is becoming greater. A panel of independent experts, led by former minister Alan Milburn, suggested that doctors and lawyers who are in their late 30s today are of more affluent provenance than their colleagues in the 1950s. Strikingly, the report suggests that social mobility opportunities are not diminished only for the working class, but the middle classes are now beginning to suffer from the concentration of privilege.
For many of us who work in state education this unintended consequence is hardly surprising. Ignoring the prescient assertions by Edmund Burke that the pursuit of financial and social equality by some sort of centralised agenda was ‘a monstrous absurdity’, successive governments have sought to impose an order of sorts with disastrous consequences. Anthony Crosland’s ideological assault on the grammar schools in the early 1970s was a significant strike at the heart of effectiveness, with those from more humble beginnings denied access to higher standards of education. Of course, there were concerns about the manner in which entry to grammar schools operated but to declare war on exemplars of good practice and standards, thereby forcing talented poorer children into mediocrity, did nothing to aid social mobility for the academically able.
That said, even in the comprehensive schools (too many of which were famously labelled as ‘bog standard by Alistair Campbell), talented youngsters from poorer backgrounds could still find themselves in a top set or stream, studying for the same examinations as children at even the most prestigious schools, such as Eton. In leafy Surrey and industrial Sheffield, the Ordinary level and the gold standard Advanced level examinations provided a certain equity and comparative experience. For the privileged, education would allow a certain continuity of success and social status. For the poor, it would serve as a means of escape from poverty and a vehicle to something better.
Recent years have seen some worrying shifts in education provision in the state sector which has seen it become increasingly distinguishable from private education. In particular, the drive for quantity instead of quality in terms of examination passes and the replacement of concrete knowledge with a vacuous skills agenda are aggravating differences in the quality of educational experience between pupils taught in the private and the state sectors respectively. In terms of the latter, the shift in emphasis will place the pupils at a disadvantage, be they working class or middle class. Increasingly, their experiences will be substantially different to those of more knowledgeable privately educated youngsters.
Coerced by the government through its OfSTED shock troops, schools centre their policies, practices and procedures on the sole aim of increasing examination result pass rates. Schools cannot be blamed for this, given that access to the coveted ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ judgments cannot be secured without acceptable improvements in examinations results. Attainment has become the be all and end all of contemplations for improvements. However, this has encouraged the most nefarious strategies of window dressing.
Firstly, OfSTED, local authorities and central government are looking for raw indicators of statistical improvements which are based solely on numbers, not quality. Therefore, senior management teams in state schools are investing in ‘softer’ subjects and the expense of those which are more difficult (and arguably more necessary in terms of providing a more rounded and robust education). A BTEC in say, Sports Studies, will deliver the equivalent of 4 GCSEs in a period of study often less than 2 years. Conversely, a GCSE in German will deliver just 1 GCSE after a period of study which is usually 5 years. Equally, a combined science qualification gives an award of 2 or more GCSEs. This does not compare favourably with a GCSE in Physics which gives a statistically poor 1 qualification for the bureaucrats to consider. Little wonder then that the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE level in state schools is now at 33% compared to 82% in the independent sector (CILT Languages Trends Survey).
Secondly, many schools are now committing themselves to a de facto ideological rejection of academic knowledge. Following an agenda called ‘learnacy’, of which Guy Claxton is a guru, schools are acting as collective sheep in rushing towards a skills based agenda called ‘Learning to Learn’. Aspects of the philosophy are difficult to disagree with, such as the transferability of skills into real life and self-evaluative consideration of how individuals learn. However, be it a misapprehension or not, schools are now starting to teach this skills agenda expressly by merging academic subjects such as Geography, History and sometimes Languages(remember, they only give 1 GCSE). Content has been replaced by skills, facts by competencies. In reality, humanities now involve youngsters sitting around a table contemplating skills such as those needed for teamwork as opposed to learning facts. Of course, in ignoring knowledge we are excluding children from the development of certain types of skills. How can a child evaluate, assimilate and apply facts to situations if they do not have the knowledge to play with in the first place? Of course, knowledge is not really needed for processors is it? That is the domain of the executives. In that context the rush to ‘learnacy’ by so many state schools may create a sociological catastrophe in terms of social mobility. While the private schools invest in the creation of the executives of tomorrow, the state invests in the processors.
In sum, the decline of social mobility and divergence of experiences for those educated privately and by the state have been aggravated by an increase in state intervention and interference in education. Only when we remove the state from education and allow individuals and communities to invest locally in themselves will we see improvements. Unfortunately, the report is likely to be addressed by those in power through calls for yet more interference. Plus ca change.......

Thursday, 23 July 2009

CCTV in school toilets

Is nothing sacred?

Part of a mindset which forgets that we can invest in individuals to respect themselves, each other and property. Instead, we use authoritarian methods to control them even in very private situations. Sometimes, you have to give trust to receive it.

The SATs failure and government interference.

For many years secondary teachers have questioned the reliability of the primary SATs results, given that the level achieved by youngsters with poor literacy skills seemed at odds with the skills we inherited. Micro-management of the government across the examination system has now been confirmed by the Parliamentary select committe. Once, it was the academics who ran and administered the examinations system, now it is private companies at the behest of Whitehall. Did such a change take place because the independence of the academics may lead to them being less pliant in the great window dressing scam that pretends standards are rising?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Alexis de Tocqueville

De Tocqueville gave us a warning from history whic is what has happened in schools:-

Consistent government interference results in a soft despotism of expanding paternalistic state power that gradually undermines self-government. Soft despotism does not “tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”


I am an experienced secondary school teacher and the aim of this blog is to share thoughts about what really happens in education. A prolonged culture of externally dictated initiatives and targets has made education less personal than ever, and 'success' is, in fact measured in a manner which has become trite and damaging to young people.

Teachers are, in my experience, generally very good people who really care about children. However, once they lost the responsibility to self govern effectively and to determine the direction of education policy, the faceless bureaucrats took over. Success was no longer determined by the healthy relationships between teacher and pupil with the reward of seeing a child advance, but had to be quantifiable and based on the whims of bureaucrats. Byzantine attainment targets and programmes of study replaced local curriculum policies aimed at local youngsters, colourful lessons became sanitised by identical lesson styles to be delivered by automatons, children became 'learners' determined, not by the holistic content of their whole being and personality, but on the basis of spurious targets which, in themselves, are based on shaky science. No wonder our children are so unhappy, when the warmth of the informal has been replaced by the relentless attainment testing of the clipboard carrier.

Your children became statistics to be graphed (I believe that is now a verb in the brave new world of education), as opposed to wonderful individuals to be nurtured.

It is this philosophical change which continues to depersonalise education and to take away the joy of education. This blog, will talk about what happens in education on the front-line, free of the apocryphal window dressing of the bureaucrats.