On British Values

There is so much to think about at the moment that it can be difficult to focus the train of thought enough to actually gain something meaningful from it. I was grateful, therefore, when SoS Education Lite – Nicky Morgan; once again pushed the agenda on teaching “British Values”.

As a researcher and teacher my first response to this is – define ‘British’ and ‘whose values, exactly’? This is no easy task because, like the issue of standards, we are objectifying something which is actually a Discourse, and a hugely contested one at that. As with most discourses, those who hold power and the ability to censor debate, such as politicians and the media, can give a view that certain ‘values’ (usually their own ones) are seen as common sense. This can lead to a hegemony of ideals which are apparent in the policies and behaviours of these institutions but which deny and hide or even suppress the oppositional voice. Discourses which oppose this hegemony are so important on social media to ensure that there is debate and not just blind acceptance of policy and presently, at least, the establishment can’t suppress this style of debate – but give it time…..

So define Britishness, then. Our current society is founded on a genetic, linguistic and cultural blend of Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Dutch, Scandinavian, Gaelic, French and, more recently, African, Caribbean, antipodean and Indo-Asian immigrants – alongside the ‘native’ Briton stock – if there is any left. Many of the societal ‘Elite’ who expound the discourse of anti-immigration and cultural pollution, owe their own heritage and position to these immigrants. Look at the impact the Normans ( no relation…well, possibly) had on distribution of land and power. The current Royal family and their myriad offshoots are rooted on a truly European heritage with a very Germanic base. This is not a bad thing, it provides our mongrel race with qualities that are envied around the world. Intelligence, humour and a toughness of character not clearly evident in our day to day dealings with the world, but which is clearly apparent when faced with adversity.

So if ‘Britishness’ is not simple to define, surely British values are? These will be the values we hold dear and strive as a nation to represent and live by. Many such values are entrenched in our Christianity-based legal frameworks and institutions – must be a doddle!

Not killing people is generally a shared ideal. Not stealing stuff fairly common outside some of our financial institutions ( many of which are about as British as Mrs Farage). A belief that justice should be available to all….err, hold on. Institutions of Justice are dominated by the social elite and appear to be far more accessible to those with money and power. More so since the coalition wrecked the legal aid framework. Not many normal Brits would believe access to justice is equal, even though they may agree with the ideal. Many may even argue the system is hugely discriminatory to those with less socioeconomic capital.

OK, well at least in our society we share the values of democracy with everyone being free to represent the views of their community. Certainly the opportunity is there. Anyone who can raise the deposit to be listed on the ballot can be elected. Of course, if you can’t afford it, well…. The Chances of election are massively improved by representing a political party. These are effectively lobby groups for opposing ideals and representative of different vested interests. They exist to ensure they continue to exist. So the passionate community minded hero who wants to stand for election is possible, but the majority of “representatives” are anything but. Professional politicians who are sponsored through PPE courses at Oxbridge and then shepherded into safe seats certainly don’t reflect my ideal of British democracy.

Let’s move on – how about our internationally recognised role as a leader in the rights and treatment of the working class, through the development of Unions and a political party founded on the principles of socialism, offering a counterweight to the forces of conservatism in our class ridden society? Good historical point – hard to promote when current parties of Government are working very hard to curtail those hard won rights, when more people are earning poverty wages or are on zero hour contracts and the supposed representative voice of the working class has moved so far to the right, the see saw of social values is swinging further and further into the territory of old style Conservatism. The Third Way was supposed to see a recognition on the left of the importance of The Market and marry it to socially democratic values. What it did was gentrify the Labour Party so far into neoliberal, middle class values, none of the party’s founders would recognise it. In reality our House Of Commons is a 3D, physical illustration of the opposing values that are tugging and pulling against each other every day – less so than before Blair, perhaps, but still proof that there are very few British Values that are universally Shared.

Surely we still share the value that freedom of speech and human rights are intrinsic to our “tolerant” society? Again, current parties of government are challenging these rights and demanding more power to work against privacy and freedom of speech in the interests of “National Security”. If we have learned one thing in recent years it is that new laws open to abuse will be abused by the establishment. As for Human rights more generally? This is the nation that invented the concentration camp and that more recently has been implicated in extraordinary rendition and possibly even torture. I’m not sure we can claim a moral high ground here and even if we disagree with the actions of our governments, we are accountable for electing them and are culpable for their actions.

Actually, I think as hugely multicultural societies go, ours does well compared to others, not perfect – but moving the right way. Despite this, tolerance isn’t a universally shared value. One copy of the Daily Mail proves that, if you can stomach reading it. Homophobia, xenophobia, a discourse of derision and suppression of those who are different or who fail to conform to Murdoch’s values, is more than evident. The growing support for UKIP shows how these ideals have been cultured and spread like value based bacteria. I suspect the critical mass still lies with the more tolerant, but if a large proportion of the moderate masses feel completely disenfranchised from politics and fail to exercise their right to vote (as they see no one who represents them or who they perceive as worthy of their vote), as a Nation we could sleepwalk into a more right wing and less tolerant future by default.

What about the value that education is an important right which should be open to all? Perhaps the core principle is shared by many, but equality of access regardless of socioeconomic background?! Grammar schools don’t do what they were supposed to. Free schools are doing the same. Selection automatically says you are not equal. Goodness, we don’t even agree on why education should be a shared value! For many it is a way for the individual to rise above the restrictions of upbringing to become socially mobile and access a better future. For others, it is to provide a steady, cheap source of labour to help reduce costs and investment in training, thus maximising profit and returns to investors. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but neither are they harmoniously resonant.

I could keep going on entrepreneurialism, etc. Or, particularly, our strength as a nation in supporting the more needy and vulnerable? Is it a strength? How do I celebrate the fact we are willing to give generously to charity, even in hard times? That we are willing to help the poor with food donations and so on when elements of our society are getting richer at the expense of others? How do we promote the Big Society when those in power believe that poverty and failure in society are necessities in a neoliberal, market economy. That they care so little for the pain they cause and the growing gulf between the superrich and most vulnerable?

So, how do we teach “British values”? All I can do in my role is ask those in my charge to be understanding, compassionate, forgiving and caring. To think about their actions and be willing to accept the consequences for their choices. To know they can change the world even with one voice. To know they can make a difference to all our futures. To believe that they can be different, they can move beyond whatever holds them back in their lives – to be positive, despite all of the above.

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When opposites repel

About a year ago I started to draft my last post. After writing and rewriting several times, I realised I was finding it hard to say anything positive and, for me, that is a dark place to be. As I am only an occasional blogger and not one who commands myriads of followers, I felt a break would be a good idea and would allow me to focus on planning my thesis and getting approval for the research. This is what I have been doing, in case you wondered!

My school has had a great set of results this year. We managed, for once, to avoid being the school that gets well and truly stitched up by statistically managed outcomes. It felt good. However, my enjoyment of “success” was tempered by the knowledge that elsewhere, colleagues were having the gut dropping sensation of unexpected disappointment. Happy as I was, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I complain about disparity in the system and that doesn’t change just because we aren’t the ones suffering from it.

This experience, combined with a slight research hitch, gave me pause for thought. I need, for my thesis, to pin down exactly what is meant by school standards. I read, reviewed and researched until my stylus was worn down. I even posted a question in the Twitterverse (which was favourited by someone from The Sted, but not answered!). Could I get a simple and clear definition? Take a guess. Standards can be used to describe exam outcomes, inspection judgements, quality of teaching, behaviour, financial management, etc, etc. It is a “one word covers all” policy tool.

This isn’t a big deal for me, indeed it is more for me to focus my research on, but it is important because so much change is predicated on the glib assertion that ‘standards’ are declining, that ‘standards’ need to improve, that ‘standards’ elsewhere are better. How is any of this possible if we can’t actually pin down or agree on exactly what these so called ‘standards’ are?

For me the answer is possibly in the existence of doubt, the lack of clarity itself. If something isn’t clearly and measurably defined, its truth can be hidden, or worse, falsified. Deliberately maintaining the status quo of standards as ‘discourse without definition’ allows all sorts of claims to be made and changes proposed without anyone actually being able to prove it right or wrong. It is the perfect political point-scorer.

Of course, all political parties play this game, which is what led to my aforementioned crisis of confidence and temporary hiatus from the blogosphere, but we should not be surprised. The fundamental values of many of those currently in power are so opposed to the values held by, I would argue, the majority of public servants and, certainly, teachers.

This perception can be exemplified by tonight’s viewing. The Boy and his mum are fans of The Apprentice. I am not. For an hour I sat alone contemplating philosophy as a function of human cognitive development. Well, I watched the food channel for an hour, which is almost the same. The reason being that even the 3 second promo clips are enough to start me reaching for the squeezy stress ball (from some HR company that I snuck out school!)

I can not stand the arrogance, the sheer mind blowing lack of normal human compassion or empathy, that the candidates show. Of course, it is a show and significantly edited but, caricature though it is, I can’t help feeling this is how our political leaders and their powerful chums actually are. This is why they simply can’t understand us or what makes for a genuinely and naturally talented teacher and, also, why we can’t understand them and their innate belief in the power of data over people. This is why so many are leaving the profession early, before we have even seen them blossom as practitioners. There is such a fundamental ‘dissonance’ of ideology, it takes very thick skin to ignore the constant discomfort.

Teaching demands optimism, positivity, energy just like business, but above all it needs compassionate, empathetic, positive and productive relationships with unpredictable, ever changing, still fresh from the oven psyches and egos. Children are not products, they can be damaged badly by treating them as such. We need a fresh breeze through education of ideas which treat children as precious and fragile but with massive potential, rather than the intellectually impoverished view of them as expendable data points ripe for exploitation through zero hour contracts. Our world, our view has to win out, otherwise…..what’s the point?

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Return of Game Theory

It has taken four weeks to achieve, but my post summer holiday irritation level has, at last, reached the stratospheric heights it was at in July. Three weeks of family learning in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies helped reduce the pressure significantly, but it seems that the DfE and various tweeters have set their sights on stimulating that throbbing vein in my forehead!

Yesterday, Sunday 29th September 2013, saw The Gove sink to new depths of imbecility with an announcement regarding GCSE results and which ‘sitting’ would count toward the school performance tables.

Now, I don’t claim to be expert in the workings of the civil service or the DfE, but I assume that the fact the model for the 2014 performance tables was released two years ago is, at least in part, to allow for intelligent planning. School’s know what and how measurement will take place and can plan strategically – seems eminently sensible even if I don’t agree with the purpose or philosophy of such measures.

Announcing a change to those measures, which will affect the results of schools in about 10 months time, seems extremely insensitive and, one might even believe; malicious. So that is quite irritating (the sister programme to Stephen Fry’s QI). Add to that the subsequent twitterlanche of depressed school leaders combined with the smug ones and yours truly ends up in the foetal position under the dining table, cuddling a blankie and sucking my thumb!

What really grates are the increasingly frequent references to some sort of fantasy, where what I have committed my life to is, in fact, a game. Gameplaying, cheating – terms deliberately used to define what schools are doing as unfair, against the rules, not on, when, in reality, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those behaviours, in law or anywhere else. Gove constructs a discourse which paints the education establishment as in a contest with his Department, where he is a virtuous and skilled gamesman being constantly thwarted by the shifty, anarchistic and wrong minded behaviour of schools. However, in order to support his thinly constructed and derisive discourse, he has to change the game itself to fit the claims he makes – much like the sullen 10 year old who hates losing at Monopoly and who tries to claim that everyone else is cheating before walking off in a huff. How dare such ‘common’ schools attempt to compete with the glorious institutions of the Tory faithful – they must be taught a lesson, what?!

Of course, those of us who work in schools feel that what we do is far too important to be reduced to a weak and overtly political Metaphor. Trying to motivate students to achieve of their best in an area where attitudes to learning can be challenging and where many students will struggle (based on their prior attainment) to achieve “expected” progress; is far from a game. Spending every year trying to work out what else can be done to give those hard working but weaker kids a chance to achieve success and to progress, is draining and incredibly stressful even without having to keep one eye on league tables that can affect recruitment for school places and new staff.

The goalposts keep moving, the Inspection frameworks keep changing and always, it seems, in a way that benefits the preferred institutions of Tory members (grammar schools) and works against the non-selective community school. To add insult to injury, the very body which is supposed to act as independent arbiter of educational standards has, by dint of power held by the Secretary of State; become a lapdog of a policy police service, allowed only reflect the sanctioned and politically acceptable discourse of Michael Gove. Abuse of power has never been more overt and yet poorly challenged by the opposition.

“Well, we are all in the same boat” is the undertone of some Tweets from school leaders who really should know better. No, we really are not! How can a school with 100% level 5+ on entry ever appreciate the pressure on a school significantly below average on prior attainment, where everyone has to work extremely hard just to look average? Where even looking average feels like an achievement?

“Perhaps,” whispers the lesser spotted inference “you just aren’t good enough?!” and that is a fair point. Perhaps we’re not good enough to meet measures constructed by a hostile government and rooted in an assessment system riven with problems and statistically manipulated to prevent real improvement from being made visible.

If we are in a game it is one where the deck is loaded, the government owns the bank and the dealer and we don’t even get a card, let alone a decent hand. Just as the socially deprived find themselves pushed further and further away from any sort of equitable existence with the chattering classes, some schools find themselves pushed further and further away from equitable treatment with the academically and socially privileged schools. Our society has created the monster of increasingly segregated education but, in shame and embarrassment, tries to place the blame on those who they are failing.

It upsets me greatly that Heads of “successful” schools can, at times, be so blasé about their privileged position. Any school has its challenges and I am not trying to suggest that running a Grammar School is easy, but – let’s be honest. The risk of OfSTED censure and exam catastrophe is significantly less of a stress than in a school where 60% of students fall within the C/D borderline category and where an OfQual mouse click can wipe 10% off baseline results in a millisecond. Seeing a decrease in your proportion of A* grades will be devastating for such schools and they risk that horrible label ” coasting”, but they are unlikely to be graded as ‘requires improvement’ or find themselves bullied and harassed into giving their assets to a Tory party donor and their pet Academy chain.

So the game goes on. Gove will continue to make up the rules as he goes along looking for any green shoots of improvement that undermine his discourse of failure and ineptitude, and stamping on them, while giggling in a high pitched tone of sheer insanity. Stephen Twigg continues to stand to one side, picking at his fingernails in boredom and only occasionally looking up to ask ” is it my turn yet?!” And thousands of teachers and school leaders will continue to try and focus on their charges, offering them support, guidance and care while simultaneously worrying about their jobs, their homes and their futures.

There has to be a fairer and better way because a great many people are getting tired of playing.

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Polimericks

    Bloodsucker

A Lib Dem leader named Nick,
Became a political tic.
While craving some glory,
He bit into a Tory,
Now his hypocrisy makes me feel sick.

    Gove-ation

An educated gent known as Gove,
Had a mind like a fine treasure trove.
His arrogance, however,
Was tougher than leather
And turned teachers a deep shade of Mauve.

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Selling Education

Those of you who have previously dabbled in the silt-laden, luke warm waters of my blog may have formed the opinion that I am anti neoliberal ideology. Some may even feel that I tout the sort of spittle drenched, looney, Marxist ravings that would drive Michael Gove to set up a special crèche for me to inhabit with his SPADs. You would be wrong…… sort of. In fact I don’t deny some of the logic of neoliberal market ideology when it applies to, oh, I don’t know, markets and stuff; but I do strongly disagree with it as a model for publicly funded education. Allow me to expand.

1) I don’t believe that education should be viewed as a commodity. I realise this is an issue of personal ideology but I would argue that, in the 21st Century, it is a fundamental human right to be ‘educated’, whether at the knee of a parent or tribal elder, by the side of a Master Craftsman or in a damp, mouse infested pit of a publicly funded school (which had formally been due for replacement under BSF… But I digress). Without a basic education in today’s language-based, information rich reality no-one can be expected to thrive on a personal level and, equally importantly, their ability to contribute to society as a whole is also jeopardised. Education is not just a right, it is a social investment. A well educated populace is the Gold Reserve in the Bank of Social Responsibility, not an expensive collector’s edition coin in the Coalition Reserve for the Privileged!

Of course, all major political parties are complicit in making Education a commodity, selling it off piecemeal to friends, party donors and highest bidders under the guise of smaller Government. The reality is that Education isn’t the commodity – the children are.

I am also reluctant to call our system a Market, partly because I don’t think it should be and partly because I don’t think it is. How can a market exist when the same body creates it, defines the terms and regulations, polices it and acts as sole customer (in funding terms)?!

2) I don’t believe that children should be viewed as ‘consumers’ of education in the same way that I don’t believe they are ‘consumers’ of their familial relationships or their own brains. The neoliberal will say that education is a service and the children and their parents are thereby consumers of it. To an extent there is some truth in terms of the ‘service’ of schooling, rather than ‘Education’, which I see as a desirable outcome of the service of schooling. However, in the UK, too many parents are (at best) reluctant participants consuming the service on threat of legal action. Their children develop the attitudes and behaviours tolerated / supported / encouraged by their social peers. Of course, this tends to be less of any issue in some social groups than others – eg: Middle Class.

The System develops to best serve the loudest, pushiest, most politically astute group as they wield considerable power, in political terms. The reluctant, sometimes downright anti, groups are also those less inclined to engage in political action – at least in election threatening ways; so there is less incentive to meet their needs. Ergo, the System reinforces already entrenched social disadvantage while Gove and the SPADinites shout ‘enemies of promise’ to scare people off highlighting the gossamer-thin arguments they construct, based on nothing more than personal preference and supported by polemic.

So we have large sections of society forced to engage with something they don’t value and have no ownership of, constructed to prevent their success and underpinned by threats of criminal proceedings if they don’t conform. Does force feeding someone really make them a ‘consumer’?!

3)My third point regards society as a ‘sum of its parts’ with the same needs and responses as the individuals that construct it. Stay with me…..

As an individual, in order to ‘thrive’, I need many things. Food, drink, healthcare, etc but also spiritual, emotional, expressive outlets. For some these get tied up in Art, music or religion, for others poetry, literature and Film. For many Sport fulfils these needs and more. Without them we grow frustrated, bored. Life loses colour and joy and we respond with anxiety, depression, anger and a seemingly unstoppable sense of extreme futility…………ahem.

Society as a whole is no different. We need our actors and pop stars (although I don’t support the media sponsored cult of celebrity), we need poets and artists just as we need our geeks and nerds. Where would we be without the Dysons and Steve Jobs of the world? And, yes, we need our lawyers and politicians and even, dare I say, bankers? Society is diversity and needs all colours of the spectrum to offer the bright white beam of a happy, healthy community. Without, we risk discontent, civil disobedience and revolution.

Recent reforms have massively undervalued everything beyond a narrow range of academic subjects, because of the whim of one man. Suggesting that people choose to do vocational routes, arts, technology, etc because they lack aspiration is disingenuous to the nth degree. What is wrong with wanting to be a bin man or hairdresser – they are good, respected roles needed by society? Our job as teachers is to ensure that children choose their routes for the right reasons and that they are well prepared for them or, indeed, well prepared to change should the need arise. Aspiration isn’t just about wanting to be a Doctor or Lawyer (although it can be) but about being the best you can be at whatever you want to do. It’s knowing that being a Hairdresser is great but owning the Salon is even better!

Sadly, though, our system of schooling still acts, not as a gateway to those aspirations, but as a gamespace for political point scoring and electioneering, where society’s needs are sacrificed on the alter of personal gain for those in power. The proposed curriculum reforms will impoverish hugely our system and society and risk engendering a whole new generation of angry, disenfranchised youth.

OfSTED driven paranoia coupled with the panopticon of irrelevant targets leaves large parts of our system constrained by fear and unable to risk any creative, innovative development. The children in these schools are prepared for little more than working to a schedule, acting in a malleable, docile manner and conforming to authority. Accepting that their lot is apparent failure because their particular strengths and skills aren’t valued, means they are properly prepared to provide low cost, expendable labour that the Market demands. I don’t call that Education. I call that social engineering and morally corrupt. For me, the real enemies of promise are those deliberately constructing this system to protect and extend their own entrenched advantage.

Still, only two more years and then……… Oh dear!

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Failure -a life lesson?

My son is 12. This is not to try and claim any sort of credit for the achievement but simply to aid context. My son is 12, my daughter is 10 and they will both be sitting their SATs in a couple of weeks.

Yes, yes, I know 12 seems wrong but it is a middle school and they do the optional tests in year 8. Right, so cue all sorts of anxiety and pressure, right? After all, we are the archetype middle class parents whose offspring claw their way to educational advantage by standing on the poverty ridden, malnourished backs of the socially downtrodden. Well, no, actually. First, because as state school teachers we wouldn’t want our children to benefit at someone else’s expense (we’re not Tories) but mainly because there is no need. Our lack of anxiety toward and, it would fair to say, honest but cynical assessment of the value of such tests, which has been shared with our children, means that they understand why we value their annual reports and parent consultations more than test results.

To their credit, both mini-mes require no pressure. They are self-motivated, hard working young people of whom I am immensely proud. I don’t understand why, but it has to be linked to the DNA of her good self as I was a feckless, lazy daydreamer during most of my schooldays. Bright enough to get by with minimal effort but never achieving my potential. I focused what little attention I had on everything but school lessons – sport, music, etc. When I was in class I spent most of the time looking out of the window. As a result I did well in everything except exams where I just scraped by. Not until University did I discover that I had a good brain which, when challenged and stimulated, could achieve some pretty impressive stuff. At no point, however, did I believe that my lack of academic achievement was anyone’s fault, but mine. Teachers tried to keep me on target but they weren’t going to do it for me!

The personal shame and belief that I should have done better at school has never left me and I have invested not inconsiderable sums of money in proving, really only to myself, that I am not stupid. The current flagellation taking the form of a very enjoyable and engaging Professional Doctorate. Now, Junior is different. He loves school. He absolutely thrives on tests. He gets frustrated when they have to do enrichment after the tests. His sister is equally hard-working if a little less passionate about completing practice assessments! Both are rapidly progressing in JuJitsu (which is brilliant for overcoming dyspraxia, by the way) and both are making excellent progress on Piano! We know they will do their best and they will try, so whatever they achieve is fine by us.

All well and good for us, but for too many young people, the commodification of the system is engendering a sense of entitlement which negates the role of hard work, resilience and personal achievement. Too many are spoon fed and scaffolded to attain passes that are not deserved. The fear of accountability for the teacher is undermining one of life’s most important lessons for the student.

This is not an issue exclusive to the disadvantaged by any means although there are clearly evidenced links between social disadvantage and academic success or lack of. My point here is not whether the system is reproducing disadvantage (middle class parents more able to access and play the system), it is simply about a critical life lesson that reward has to be worked for and earned. If higher grades give more opportunities and higher life income then everyone should have to meet the same criteria. Where is the fairness in two people being awarded the same grade when one has had virtual 1:1 support at every step to the extent that, actually, most of the thinking and work has been done by someone else?

Young people of 15/16 are easily old enough to accept responsibility for their actions in a criminal sense, but also in an academic one. If you aren’t prepared to do the work, don’t expect the grade and nobody will dig you out of the hole. I am not suggesting that teachers shouldn’t chase, badger, cajole, demand, punish, reward and support as much as possible or that those with specific needs shouldn’t get the appropriate support to level the playing field- but when teachers push and sometimes cross the very limits of acceptable practice to meet a target, where is the justice for those who did it themselves?

Michael Gove has suggested, without any obvious sense of irony, that our children need to learn to cope with failure. Although I question deeply his motives, I agree in a sense. Both success and failure are ‘earned’ and as teachers we should be trusted to know when to draw the line between the two.

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A Further Word on Educational Inequality

Wonderful piece – you can feel the seething anger and rightly so! Well done Laura!

Laura McInerney

Yesterday I explained why inaccurate use of the term “educational inequality” makes me uneasy. But then I started thinking about a gross educational inequality that is hardly ever mentioned, and it made me madder and madder.

Here is the school building that the teachers and pupils of Rugby School see when they arrive to learn:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Here is the school building me and the pupils I taught saw:

school

Spot any differences?

Here is a corridor at Westminster School:

Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi (ruggaugga)) on 500px.com
Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi

Here is the corridor my classroom was on. In one direction and then the other:

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Yes the bucket was necessary for a roof leak.

Here is a classroom at the very expensive St. Paul’s School:

classroom

Here is the classroom I taught in during the second year (and a later year):

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This second one looks great, until you realise that three of its wall are surrounded by the…

View original post 415 more words

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And the winner is…..

So the wonderfully gifted Bradley Wiggins has won the public vote and been crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Richly deserved, even with competition stiffer than Jeremy Hunt ‘s smile when in the same room as Rupert Murdoch. Remarkable and inspiring, a driven (although not literally, obviously) man with the air of a young Paul Weller. Not only has he helped generate renewed vigour in cycling but resurrected interest in a much undersung style from my childhood. Ah, the memories…..

Thinking about Wiggo (actually, I wanted Ellie to win, but not too upset) and another award winner – Dave Brailsford – got me thinking about the difference between true coaching for improvement and the borderline Bullying suffered by the teaching profession at the hands of Gove, the DfE and the minions of darkness, sorry – executive bodies. The sheer negativity of policy rhetoric aimed at achieving the complete deconstruction of public education in this country. This is nothing new of course, Stephen Ball has commented many times on the current policymakers’ continuation of the project started under Thatcher – but I do think that the venom with which the teaching profession is currently being vilified, is an outcome of Gove’s personal demons and his strong relationship with the press. Tell the electorate something often enough and aggressively enough, they’ll start to believe it! This excellent piece picked via twitter is a great analysis of the situation and all the more scary for being written in the States! http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/13367-the-corporate-war-against-teachers-as-public-intellectuals-in-dark-times

We all know that Brailsford achieves improvement through targeting small percentages, marginal gains. I imagine, from what I have seen and read, that this is underpinned by a tough but fair ethos which is positive in nature? (Of course, the irony is that ‘marginal gains’ may well be the opposite of what the coalition achieves in the next election!) Now, Imagine what it would be like if the Education system was led by him and not Michael Gove! Think what we could achieve if treated with respect, support, guidance and positive challenge – rather than contempt, ridicule and perpetual indifference. I mean, swap the education system for an individual employee in your workplace and imagine the same tactics being applied as Gove has used system wide. There would certainly be a case for a complaint of workplace bullying and, for some, a tribunal would find constructive dismissal a real possibility!

This got me thinking about my current research which focuses on the misappropriation of the education system as a tool for broad social policy implementation. I am looking at how Governments design nudge policies aimed at engineering their ideologically preferred version of society, and deliver them through us. It would be nice to think that, with free agency, we would be in a position to ameliorate the worst excesses of self-absorbed policy makers by refusing to enact the more damaging examples (EBC, anyone?!), but structurally, we are seriously restrained from doing so. This restraint is designed in the form of legislation to an extent, but mainly through the panopticon of policing (OfSTED, league tables) and, to put it bluntly – fear. Fear of losing our jobs. Fear of being unable to pay the mortgage. Fear of professional oblivion if the inspection judgement is bad. Then what is left for us? Just politics or a job with OfSTED, I suppose!

Take the policy on NEETs, for example. Is it an education policy or a social policy? Sex and drugs – health or education? You see, the point is that to enact social change (or repression via compliance with dominant discourse) education provides a one stop shop – cheap and efficient (especially when budgets are deregulated so the claim can be made that funding is already there). Set a target and they know it will be followed through – change 16 year olds from unemployed to NEET and make schools accountable for sorting it out! Drops in unemployment always sell well, even when false and they can deny responsibility when it goes pear shaped! With a complicit press ( you scratch ours……) to back it up and before you know it, it is another school failure story. Marketisation continues onward to the inevitable sticky end. Those in power standing by the Smithian concept of neoliberal reform are massively myopic when considering the impact such policies and ideology have had on us in terms of banking collapse. Why would profit driven education be any different?

I don’t believe schools should be used as conduits of social policy. I believe that the inequalities in our system are far more rooted in ongoing political interference than in problems with teaching and learning. It is down to Heads and Governors to take the battle to the politicians as they have done with the GCSE fiasco. Ironically, the very freedoms that Academy status can bring can also make it easier to fight such battles with (slightly) reduced risk. Working together can also help – Gove employs divide and conquer, we need to remember ” together we stand” and do exactly that.

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We make no apology…….

Regular followers of my little blog will have noticed a slight hiccup in postings of late. Thanks to a plague of various ailments, all my energies have had to be directed toward the day job, so my apologies. That’s how it would have continued if it were not for the absolute deluge – literal and literary – of the last week or so. Along with the rain (my heart goes out to all affected) has come a steady flow of education news and comment from HMCI report to Pearson’s review of international performance and the old mercury bubble of annoyance has been steadily climbing the gauge of irritation!

Have you noticed that, every time there is a news story, they wheel out a spokesperson for the DfE. It seems that this is rarely Michael Gove unless he is promoting his latest ideological claptrap. This has always happened, even under New Labour and their job, essentially, is to say “we know best, lalalalala, now go away oik!” Today, having been contacted regarding the UK’s sudden and inconvenient promotion to sixth (yes… 6th) in the Pearson Green Square league – one of the mysterious spokesperson’s appearances went, thus http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20498356:

“A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We are driving up standards right across the board by bringing the best graduates into teaching, developing a world-class curriculum, and restoring order to our classrooms.

We are driving forward the academies and free schools programmes with more than half of secondary schools now enjoying academy status.

We have introduced the EBacc so more pupils are encouraged to study the core academic subjects that universities and employers demand and we will be introducing a new, far more rigorous examination system.””

Let’s consider the discourse on display here. Clearly the tone is self celebratory and phrased as to imply that the starting points for each action were low (drive up, bring in the best, etc). It is also unattributably inclusive (sec schools enjoying, universities and employers, etc). What is clearly absent from the comment is evidence-able fact. So let’s consider how we, from a position of academic curiosity, might respond.

Dear Spokeswoman for the DfE.

Further to your statement of the 25th November, we would be grateful if you could provide us with the research evidence, preferably post peer review, to which you allude.

  • you state that you are driving up standards across the board yet the data on which you base measures of standards and against which OfSTED make their judgements, at least in part; appear to show a decrease at both GCSE and A level.
  • you state that you are bringing the best graduates into teaching. Where is the evidence for this? Teachfirst appears to have limited throughput ( http://www.jsavage.org.uk/the-failure-of-teach-first-the-retention-chart-they-didnt-want-you-to-see/) and you have closed off hundreds of PGCE places. In addition you have deregulated the requirement for both QTS and CRB so that unqualified staff will fill vacancies and the risk of another Ian Huntley is significantly increased. Not only do you make the mistake of claiming an unsupportable truth, but you ignore the fact that a person’s quality as a teacher is not necessarily directly related to the class of degree they earn. What may have been more accurate is to have said “we have seen thousands of teachers leave, prevented hundreds more from training and created a significant risk factor in both quality and resource levels for future provision”.
  • You state that you are creating a World Class Curriculum. We presume you mean this in air travel terms – like economy class. Voices from across the field of Education ( you know, people who know what they are talking about rather than looking for votes) arts, design, Engineering, etc – have decried your curriculum plans. Again, what I think you meant to say was “we have destroyed an education system envied around the world and used as a model for many others. We have eroded trust and confidence in the system to such an extent that it is unfit for purpose and have done so to further our ideological aims. Admittedly, we have had to “game the system” in order to achieve it, but learners of the future will thank us, even while their parents struggle to accept their role as collateral damage.
  • You state that you are restoring order to our classrooms. This is as much a surprise to us as it must be to the successive HMCI who have commented on the fact that behaviour is generally good. We are sorry to inform you that one disgruntled Senior Manager speaking at a party conference does not constitute sound evidence. How is she enjoying her own free school, by the way? In addition, the impact of Sponsored Academy exclusion policies on non-selective maintained schools should have been considered as a risk factor when viewing behaviour. In essence, you may have created the lack of order you claim to be addressing, in the first place
  • while we don’t dispute the fact that you are “driving” the Academies and free school agenda forward the claim that schools are “enjoying” it may take some proving. Incidentally, we note evidence this week that sponsored Academy performance lags behind maintained schools – seemingly opposite to your claims.
  • Encouraging students on to Ebacc subjects appears, at best, a slight misreading of what is happening in many schools. You made Ebacc a measure – schools make students do Ebacc. Cause and effect – push policy, as well you know. We have no objection to these subjects being valued – but then we have no objection to Art, PE, DT, ICT, Drama, music, etc either! Once again you imply a consensus of opinion on this issue when the reality is highly contentious. Toby Young and Michael Gove do not stand as accurate representation of the views of those in the Education field. How is Toby enjoying his own free school, by the way?
  • finally your statement regarding Universities and Employers. Both the Universities and CBI have expressed concerns over your plans for exams but you haven’t mentioned this. Also, It is quite unusual for many employers to be that bothered about the EB assuming they even know what it is. Morrison’s don’t require it for their shop floor staff and I don’t believe it is a minimum requirement for any of the many apprenticeship routes available, either. In fact, many people seem to be of the opinion that, what you have done, is destroyed a decent, albeit flawed, exam system which could have been improved to meet the concerns of grade inflation, at much lower cost.

  • Well, you get the idea, anyway.

    I can’t recall a time in my relatively short career, where I have felt such dissatisfaction in the profession, and that is saying something! A feeling of fatalistic despondency descends whenever the DfE or SoS is mentioned. But, it is also a time where I am seeing greater peer support and engagement online and through teach meets than I have experienced before. The phrase “in it together” currently has a deeply ironic sense when spoken by millionaires, but in the spirit of the blitz, for the tens of thousands of dedicated, hard working teachers who care about every single individual they work with; it may just be true.

    Whatever is happening in school improvement terms (and I wouldn’t get carried away by the Pearson report anymore than Pisa) is done by teachers and DESPITE Gove and the DfE. But it’ll be a cold day in Sanctuary buildings before the spokeswoman would admit to that!

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    A very public betrayal

    I think it would be fair to say that the topic of this blog will, no doubt, be covered by a great many others. Many will be better connected than me and, in all probability, most will be more eloquent. Neither of these points will put me off although, having promised myself a proper relax this half term, I am feeling slightly guilty and weak willed. In my opinion, this issue needs as many voices raised as possible and, hopefully, @HeadsRoundtable and compadres will convince the media to sniff below the bath ring of rhetoric and see what has really happened.

    Early headlines seem to suggest that OfQual, or at least Glenys Stacey (the £100+K head of that body) are placing the blame for this summer’s GCSE fiasco firmly at the feet of schools and, yes, teachers. This will come as a shock to many outside of education but few within. It has been evident from the start of the fiasco that honesty and integrity were going to be harder to find than Michael Gove’s copy of Socialist Worker.

    Let’s be clear. OfQual is an arm of the DfE. It’s supposed independence is completely undermined by the Secretary of State’s power over appointments at the top. OfQual themselves have acknowledged their need to pay heed to policy in what they do. To paraphrase – if Michael says “jump” we say “how high?” They, like OfSTED are no more than a policy monitoring and policing tool. As such, they should never have been allowed to investigate a situation of their own making and the lack of credibility of the management and the partiality of their response undermines any value to be gained from their report.

    Early indications are that the blame will be placed on teachers who have ‘cheated’ on controlled assessment and that the role of accountability measures will be highlighted as a cause. While there is a genuine issue with the accountability measures unreasonably skewing school behaviour, the exam system should – if properly and effectively managed and regulated; prevent cheating on even a small scale, let alone the enormous scale proposed.

    Controlled assessment is subject to moderation by examiners. If a school fails to assess within tolerances, their whole cohort is likely to be affected in a mass adjustment to marks. Hence it is a very risky strategy and one which no school will take lightly in a subject as important as English. Assuming some idiot did try and get away with it, effective moderation would identify it and adjust to protect system integrity. OfQual’s job is to regulate those processes to ensure they are being employed appropriately and consistently. Exam boards reported that moderation was sound, OfQual did not report concerns, so how can teachers be to blame?

    If Stacey is correct and English teams across the country tried to blag their way through last summer, then surely the regulator and exam boards have failed to deliver an exam system fit for purpose?! If they didn’t, then OfQual are being either disingenuous or dishonest – neither of which is appropriate for a role which requires absolute integrity.

    What do I believe? I think it is clear that OfQual have forced a statistical manipulation to achieve the political aims of the SoS. In so doing they have undermined the system to such
    an extent that few now have any confidence in it. Although, by doing this, they have helped support further policy promotion (EBC, etc) they clearly weren’t expecting to be seriously challenged and have gone into belligerent attack mode to protect their own interests ( and Gove’s). There is no way, no matter how you spin it, that this is anything less than a serious case of failed regulation and, in my humble opinion, we must demand that all aspects of OfQual’s role in this debacle be investigated by a completely independent inquiry. Even without that minimum requirement, Glenys Stacey should be replaced and OfQual moved outside of SoS influence. As I have said before – a key role for an independent regulator should be to hold policymakers to account, not to do their bidding.

    How can we take action to ensure that this doesn’t happen again? Local assessment partnerships, make sure staff are up to CIEA standards and promote membership as a career development. Perhaps, as a system, we all need to undermine the status quo and force a new paradigm to evolve, or wait until the next election where, (as in the late 80’s) the coalition will rue their demonisation and disenfranchisement of teachers. Sadly, they have short memories and a tendency to cause huge destruction in a very short space of time. Perhaps another 15 years in opposition will remind them.

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