S.L.I

One of the nice things about twitter is how quickly ripples of dissent and disgust propagate through the twittersphere when our beloved SOS (Silly old secretary) opens his mouth! Mr Gove only has to draw breath and hundreds of people actually qualified in the field of Education are sharpening their metaphors and adjectives, dusting off a few negative superlatives and flexing their sarcasm muscles. Incidentally, my specialist field is Engineering, ICT and DT so apologies to all the English teachers currently guffawing their Tuesday night cocoa through their noses at my atrocious grammar.

I can’t help but feel that there is something very wrong in our country, at least where education is concerned. How have we enabled a journalist politician to become so dominant in driving the learning and futures of tens of thousands of our children? Parents I speak to are also concerned, despite what Gove says, few seem to agree with his ideas or his methods. At least not in the reassuringly normal part of the world I live in. Imagine him back in his Journalist days working for the Times – would anyone have used only his opinion, then, on how the nation’s education system should be changed. Of course not – it is ludicrous to allow one inappropriately qualified individual to make decisions of that magnitude, and yet that is what we do.

Surely it is common sense to allow those who are trained and skilled in the field of Education and pedagogy to drive the agenda? Following the news would have you believe that the only people qualified to discuss education in our nation are Gove and Toby Young! Neither hold significant capital in our professional sphere and their actions and pronouncements highlight just how divorced they are from the true discourse of educational development and improvement that exists within the education system.

When was the last time you heard or saw internationally respected academics and practitioners like Tim Brighouse interviewed on the news or part of a televised discussion about education? Yet they offer genuine, tried and tested ideas on system improvement. London outperforming the rest of the UK – why? Well it certainly wasn’t because of a restricted vision of what curriculum and attainment should be, promoted as a means to protecting and reproducing the ingrained advantages that our culture gives to a small elite of wealthy people and their dependents. No, it was because of experts like Tim who drove the London Challenge which was, effectively, a system led and responsive, localised system of improvement which drew on collaboration and mutual support in order to benefit all the capital’s children. It wasn’t perfect and there are aspects that would perhaps be done differently now – but it served its purpose well, at least in my opinion as an interested observer.

Look at this from another perspective. Let’s imagine that David Cameron appointed a new Minister of state for Defence. Perhaps he had previously been an Ice Cream man – nothing wrong with that, salt of the earth, very important morale boosting socially responsible job! I am not criticising frozen dairy marketing and logisitics in any way, but it is not the same as Macro-management of national security and defence. Well, not unless year 9 hear the van coming anyway.

Now let’s imagine that the man – we’ll call him Mike -takes up his office at Point and Shoot Buildings. If we were to follow the education model, he would spend the next few weeks telling the forces that they have been fighting all wrong, that there are more efficient ways to fight using private contractors and that he will start by forcing conversion of the armed forces to privately run militias as, even though there is limited and strongly contested evidence of their effectiveness, he believes it is the best solution. Also, he is keen to point out, that it is the model they use in small, (unrepresentative) countries where international comparisons show they have a much higher kill rate (the fact that the people they kill are unarmed and tied up is considered irrelevant data and not included in the comparison analysis). He forces the whole military machine to change its proven methods to his own, ice cream man standard military strategies, as he firmly believes that Generals and trained military personnel can’t be trusted to make decisions regarding the art and practice of war. Mike also directs OfBANG to inspect the new militias to ensure that standards are maintained. Standards, in this respect, means whatever number of ‘kills’ Mike thinks is probably doable at any particular moment in time and he isn’t afraid to change the targets after the end of the measurement period. OfBANG simply have to make sure that the militias are all pointing their guns in the same way and have killed the right number of people – however, the militias are different sizes, some don’t have guns, many haven’t had the money to train their staff to shoot straight and only 50% have even been in a situation where shooting people is considered acceptable. This matters not to Mike and OfBANG – not being at war is considered an excuse and failure to shoot people results in militias being sold to G4S for a pound. Those who try to point out the insanity of the policy are branded as reactionary trotts who are deniers of dead bodies and are sneered at in the Daily Mail.

This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous – the stuff of Goon Show-esque satire (I am available for TV and Radio work) and should be seen as a nightmarish vision of what could happen in a crackpot dictatorship – it is, however, what is actually happening to our Industry for real and more importantly, to our precious learners who will only get one shot at childhood education. I find the thought that what they will experience is the diseased imaginings of an ideologue, deeply depressing.

The newly launched Heads Roundtable group on Twitter is a fantastic opportunity for us to fight back, to start to convince the electorate that Gove is sucking the hope out of system and show how much better it could be if we were allowed to improve the system from within. It is my passionate hope that the Heads will listen to the wider views of their colleagues and represent us all honestly and aggressively – we can’t afford for splinter groups to pop up and dilute the message. If this works, not only could we be seeing the birth of an effective counter to the GoveMail misinformation and mismanagement machine, but perhaps – could we dare to dream; the genesis of a practitioner led College of Teachers?

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Lesson obs – the curse of the Senior Leader

Having spent my last few posts thinking about policy and political mismanagement of our beloved system, I felt I should turn my mind back to my primary purpose – the art, science and practice of teaching. That is not to say that I have, even for one minute, lost interest in the GCSE debacle – I haven’t and nor has anyone else who believes in fairness and justice for everyone, and not just the wealthy.

I often find myself bemused. It is a perfectly rational state when faced with some of the inverted logic of our teenagers and the somewhat surreal places their minds take us. I spend a lot of time with my pupils trying to establish a link or relationship which helps ground us in a more realistic place. That is not to deny that flights of fancy can have their place in learning and often offer some of the most memorable experiences for teacher and pupil. I do, however, struggle with some of the views of my colleagues and ‘bemusement’ reaches a whole other level.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I am a moderate man. I am in no way aggressively militant about anything, much (current issues not withstanding) and I am struggling with some of the logic of the union action. My Grandfather was a union representative in a dockyard, so I have nothing but respect for the movement. I consider myself to be intelligent in general terms (Howard Gardner fans stay calm) and as emotionally intelligent as any other white British heterosexual man – but how the current actions do anything less than affect the learners in our schools, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong – I am very pleased that the action is short of strike action and I applaud, sincerely, that decision – but some of the actions are drawing funds away from the front line in order to pay for increased supply costs. This, I don’t like.

The union action offers colleagues an opt out at a time when, in my particular school, we have been trying to engage staff in a process of whole school development focused on Teaching and Learning. This stemmed from OfSTED judgements, which – although we disagreed with the process and grading – agreed with our own development plans. We want our pupils to receive learning experiences which are nothing short of good – by our own judgements as well as the OfSTED ones – fluffy and fudged as they are. We have tried leadership QA observation, the dreaded learning walks, the evil of pupil pursuit and peer observation. Perhaps unsurprisingly there has been a fair bit of resistance in some quarters to any and all of these approaches, and as for pupil voice – woah! Comfort zone deep space!

I struggle to understand the resistance to allowing other professionals into our learning spaces – to include them in our practice and to use them as a surface for reflection and teacher learning. We’ve all been through it from the start of our first wobbly teacher baby-steps and it certainly isn’t going to go away. I think my view when I was a full-time classroom teacher was always that a) it was the job of management to ensure my students were getting a fair deal and b) there was stuff I could learn from these grizzled old campaigners with snowy white beards and the speckled crust of long practice about their persons. Perhaps my own experiences rendered me particularly open to such processes – I was always keen to learn and I never felt that I could or should disagree – after all, observation is subjective by nature and the views and feedback expressed will always be a matter of personal interpretation. I may not have always liked it, but I did trust my managers / leaders to come from a position of help and support. Therein, I think, lies the rub.

Despite generally good relationships and values and views consistent with wanting to better the lot of our students, many colleagues distrust us simply because we are ‘management’. I recently undertook a brief study of how the process of training for school leadership worked through the lens of ‘Communities of Practice’ – the apprenticeship related model originally expounded by Lave and Wenger. Arguably flawed, though it is, it does offer a framework for considering how people learn as part of a community and one of the key outcomes is the movement from the periphery of the community toward full participation in shared practices. For me an unfortunate side effect of this is that, when a professional joins a new group (such as the leadership community), the act of gaining legitimacy on the periphery of that group can result in a change in how colleagues view us. This results in a process where, despite the fact that values and practices as a teacher haven’t actually changed, you are exposed (potentially) to a subtle de-legitimisation as a member of the teaching community. You are viewed in a different way and the relationships alter to firmly establish you in a new peripheral position of the teaching community. Some colleagues promote the view that, as a senior leader, you have no place in the teaching community – which I feel is patently absurd. One thing I say to all of our PGCE placements is to remember that every member of our SLT has been a teacher and a Head of Department. One or two have previously been ASTs. Becoming a senior leader offers challenges to maintaining the same standards of teaching whilst juggling other responsibilities, but it certainly doesn’t render us as completely different people!

So, if a school with the normal distribution of ability within the staff is to move forward and improve (and OfSTED is a red herring here – this should be the aim even if Michael Wilshaw and his doyens of political retribution disappear) then observation and professional dialogue is a must. Being able to accept that we can all improve (SLT included) our teaching practice is essential and being able to accept ideas and advice from others, fundamental. I certainly don’t fear what my pupils would say – they are usually happy to tell me anyway! I don’t have to agree with the observation that my lesson is “boring” from Tarquin, if he is the only one saying it – but if everyone is saying it, then I need to wake up and smell the Tesco basics decaffeinated coffee (we are in Austerity and other brands are available). After all, my colleagues are quick enough to tell me when they don’t believe SLT are doing their jobs well enough and they expect us to listen – why should we not accord the same expectations to our learners?

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Foundations of sand

Over the years, those of us old enough to remember a certain Margaret Thatcher, have learned that the standard methodology for establishing change in education is to rubbish the system first. Frankly it wouldn’t matter if we had won the World Cup for Teaching (and many of our best teachers could, easily) the first line of attack is always that our system is failing. The reason for this, of course, is to try and create an hegemonic discourse which establishes the belief that the only option is to dismantle the existent system. Ever since Keith Joseph’s time, this has been primarily to allow the reduction of The State in favour of private provision of public services. Like many initially revolutionary ideas, claims made are rarely based on the level of evidence that would be demanded for such significant change in medicine, for example – at least up until the coalition. The neoliberal agenda has been promoted and followed by successive Governments (of all colours) and the education system we see today is, effectively, working in a privatised market form, despite the white knuckle death grip of some local authorities and maintained schools.

One of the main concerns about the continued drive to a free market in education is the knowledge that such ideology demands a profit motive (all about wealth creation, remember) and this appears to be where we are going next. There is, in many public servants’ minds, a big difference between state funding for non-profit education organisations and allowing companies to use state funds to provide profit to shareholders. Many people, including myself, find the inherent risks in allowing this to occur unacceptable. The claims that private industry does it better are simply not founded on solid ground – there is just as much evidence to suggest that privately run Academies and schools are no less susceptible to failure than state run ones. Where there are correlations, constant policy and system change negates the likelihood of proving causation. One could argue that, as the primary purpose is to generate profit for investors and shareholders, the most ‘logical’ outcome will be cutting costs, with quality suffering. Simple way to up profits from results – don’t risk inclusion. Kick out the low ability, difficult, disruptive or disengaged and let another school worry about them – I’m alright Jack. A few of Mossbourne’s neighbours may have a view on that. Do I have evidence to support my thesis? No more than the policy makers who claim the opposite to be true.

One problem is that those in a position to promote the privatisation agenda seem to consider evidence a bit of a distraction and rely on polemic and questionable statistics and methods to promote their message. Hopefully you are already familiar with the flawed evidence used by Gove in recent years – any OECD / PISA reference is questionable from the start in terms of validity and method, Swedish Free schools proved less effective than claimed, American Charter schools proving variable in achievement and inclusion and significantly, the coalition have had to (illegally in my opinion) manipulate the outcomes of our own system (rendering it unfit for purpose) to provide them with the evidence they have been claiming for years.

In a recent Telegraph article, a former policy advisor to David Cameron ( Mr O’Shaughnessy) is quoted as saying

“Any objections to the private sector attempting to succeed where the state and voluntary sectors have failed should be dismissed for what they are – ideological prejudice.”
http://bit.ly/PBg09D

This is, of course, the height of hypocrisy but typical of the approach used by the supporters of neoliberal reform. Not only can the claim be reflected right back, but the continued claims that state and voluntary sectors have failed are simply untrue or at least, not verifiable. The state and voluntary sectors have seen improvements in system effectiveness, efficiency and outcomes year on year by the very measures the policy makers invent and constantly change for their own needs. The constant references to failure always seem based on judgements which have either been suddenly invented (anyone know how the original 5A*-C targets came about?) out of nowhere or have been designed specifically to undermine any possible indications that the system is, while not perfect, successful.

So little policy has been enacted on rigorously developed and tested research that more enlightened jurisdictions must watch us with absolute horror! These could be the far more stable, politically distanced and innovative systems who Gove looks to for evidence, without any consideration of the social, cultural and economic differences that set us apart.

Therein lies another problem in our policymaking method, can you imagine applying the same standards of logic to other industries / areas of policy as are applied to education? George Osborne should be sacked – not because of his obvious inability to realise his policies are failing, but because our economy is smaller than China and the USA! We should be top of the international league table for GDP, surely? Differences inherent in the countries are, apparently, irrelevant if you use DfE logic. How about small Hospitals and GP surgeries? They should all be closed as they don’t process the same amount of patients as the big hospitals. Not comparable organisations…..doesn’t matter and if you say it does we’ll attack you as in some way acting against the public interest, rather than simply accepting your democratic right to hold policymakers accountable to proper standards of proof.

I believe that there is a simplistic and disingenuous tendency for politicians to ignore the fundamental differences within our system – trying to compare the incomparable and denying the reality that the diversity we have makes direct comparison unfair. This results in the ridiculous assertion that we should all be better than average or that satisfactory…isn’t! I think this is resulting in fewer people aspiring to school leadership, particularly in challenging schools or schools with below average prior attainment profiles. We are attempting to use ‘standards’ (arguably) to measure and control a non-standardised system – it’s about as useful and reliable as OfQual…..

Do I have a point? How do we, as a vitally important profession, exercise agency within our own field and, equally important, in the political field too? We need to challenge the shoddy use of evidence and claims set against us by people who are unqualified in our industry. We should undermine the arguments at every opportunity. We need our professional bodies to be brave enough to stand against the policy machine in far more aggressive fashion, when they lie we should tell everyone. There may be more Money and privilege in the coalition cabinet than in the whole Education industry, but I bet we trump them for sheer bloody-minded, get bottom set year 11 through GCSE at all costs, persistence! Although, between you and me, I did hear that evidence shows we are all feckless imbeciles with barely a third class degree between us and distracted by raving communist militancy….I think it was in the Mail just after the latest policy pre-announcement!

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“Bigotry”, begads!

I returned home today ever-so-slightly dazed after one of those days you’d rather forget, where the children’s domestic and social woes take on far greater importance than the Wilshaw Gove collective. (That should have been a 60s band!). Make the tea for wife and Normletts (home-made southern fried chicken, as you ask) and sit down to update myself on today’s national and international events. The first thing that catches my eye, the image of Gove at lectern, delivering his wisdom to the Conservative Party Conference! Quick read and Mrs. N has to administer the dried frog tablets!

Our illustrious leader (alleged, precious little evidence of this GCSE cockup wise) had once again remarked on his deep seated belief that we are responsible for the attainment gap between the poor and Tories, sorry, rich. The phrase he used – apparently borrowed from that most respected of social egalitarians, George Bush – was “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and the sheer hypocrisy took my breath away!

This “soft bigotry” would be as opposed to the rather more obvious Hard Bigotry of the coalition’s policies. The deliberate design of accountability targets to punish schools with low ability or challenging profiles, the use of statistical manipulation to affect the results of tens of thousands of our learners and their chances for the future, the continued drive to push more and more public money into the bank accounts of their friends in business and the constant denigration of a profession whose reason for existing is to help others grow. This is bigotry against true public service in favour of private enterprise. The free market model of schooling that the coalition promote depends on inequality to succeed – of course they don’t want the old system to appear successful. That is why so much energy has been spent on moving goalposts, misquoting figures, illegally changing results and running our system down. The electorate need to think it is broken if they are to let you sell the system off.

But, apparently, it is we, the very people who fight the low aspirations day in and day out, who argue with disaffected parents about the need for their children to be in school, who draw a line society fails to enforce and say ” no, that is not acceptable” to the violent and abusive and who care and nurture even while our charges try to dull their unhappiness and despair with illicit substances and risky behaviours; it is we, once again who are at fault. I am starting to wonder if the profession should take out a class action – slander and libel – against Gove and his cronies. After all, where is the evidence? We are constantly lauded as the best generation of teachers, ever. Results had gone up consistently (yes,I know – but we don’t make the system!). So where, exactly is the evidence of our bigotry? Of course, Mr Gove has a slightly chequered history with evidence – seems he can be a little selective (perhaps a sign of things to come). Remember the Swedish free schools? Wasn’t quite what he claimed. American charter schools – variable. Singapore – looking to us to make their well drilled offspring more creative and critical.

So, having let off this steam, tomorrow I’ll return to the rhetorical coal face – 14-19 meeting, lesson observations, year 9 coding lesson, year 10 networks, etc, etc infilled with praise, discipline, extra praise for the battalions of key stage 4 – along with constant encouragement and promises that the system will be fair next summer and yes, there is a point! Because, whatever massively disingenuous statements The Gove makes to increase his hopes of becoming party leader, only we truly care day in, day out about the individuals, those who really are not just a number. That’s why I go on despite the heartburn and lack of sleep. If we don’t do all we can, they’ll have them back up chimneys faster than you can say ” new grammar schools”.

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The tide is high, but we’re not moving on….

Frustration, at present, is a little like the tides. By day the frustration is out as we focus on the most important immediate job, which is to strive to make a difference to the lives of the children we teach. Later, after the drive home and freshly logged in to Twitter, the frustration boils up again. How can all this be fair? How can it be even remotely morally acceptable?

I think, in part, the answer lies in the difference between teachers and politicians. Both want to make a difference, that is true – although a difference for themselves or others is somewhat debatable. Teachers, however, are intrinsically entwined, like an errant clematis, in the lives of their charges. They live the highs and lows. They cry with them and laugh with them. Some say that you shouldn’t get too close – professional distance, etc; but I have yet to meet a really effective teacher who isn’t interested and engaged with the young people they work with. Politicians are not as close to the people they profess to represent – to a Government Minister we are a nebulous mass where everything (except the elite) appears to be seen as an average – but not a real average, an average of their own experiences. Hence Michael Gove’s unrealistic expectations and the Muswell Hill set’s failure to comprehend the day to day challenges that the majority of the nation face.

At times real experience intrudes on this generalised perception, as in the sad case of David Cameron’s child, when the sympathy of the whole nation was truly felt. He understood…. understands, as well as anyone, the pain of such an experience; but for many the lives of our school children and the challenges they face, the damage done by poor decisions to their futures, is too remote to have that sort of immediacy. Perhaps we would have seen different decisions, more sensitive comments and greater transparency if the polit bureau, sorry, Cabinet; all had their own children in their local comprehensive schools, sitting those exams?!

So we can’t help but cry foul as we mop up the tears and offer the hankies. We worry and fret like the most caring of parents when an injustice is done to our charges and we are right, no – we are morally obliged to challenge those who make such decisions on the basis of policy or ideology. If we allow such morally bankrupt behaviour to succeed, then there is no hope – and without hope, there is no point. How can we expect our children to aspire and aim high for the future if the very people teaching them believe there is no point, because their futures were locked in at the age of 10? Had a bad day on the SATs – sorry, doesn’t matter. Made amazing progress and found your mojo in secondary school – well never mind. Suffered child abuse and domestic violence during your kS2 SATs – better give up now then.

We have to keep up the pressure, even when the tide is out. We have to make it clear to policy makers that this just..isn’t…acceptable! If we don’t, we are not just betraying our current classes but every class we will work with for years to come.

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A qual for all seasons.

Today some random thoughts on the issues of assessment, formative ideas but ripe for debate and discussion by us, the profession, not politicians and civil servants.

I realised this week that I am now in my 20th year of teaching. I felt proud of what I have achieved….briefly. Then I realised that, thanks to the determination of successive Governments to drive me to my grave before I can claim my pension, I still have another 25 years to look forward to!

Throughout my career I have been involved in ongoing assessment to support qualification outcomes. From the moderated, practical coursework assessments in CDT at the start of my career to a huge range of assessment methods throughout my ICT teaching experience. I have assessed GNVQ, AVCE, Applied GCSE, ECDL, CLAIT, BTECs and OCR Nationals as well as supporting students preparing for professional quals such as CCNA and A+. I’ll say, straight away, that I haven’t always agreed with the assessment criteria for these quals, sometimes on the basis of challenge and sometimes on the basis of relevance. However, whatever the criteria were, I always strived to ensure that I was rigorous in my assessment. Never award a criteria without the evidence to support it and always ensure that students expect to produce more than the minimum expectation for an AO, have been my rules. Students have no problem with this – although getting them to produce the evidence is not always easy! They do understand, though, that failure to evidence means no award. Allowing a grade without clear evidence devalues the whole qualification just as surely as changing the grades fairly achieved. So I have contributed in no small part to the qualifications of hundreds of youngsters and I have shown my commitment to quality through training and becoming a member of the noble, increasingly relevant enterprise of the CIEA.

“So,” you might say (I certainly would have by now in your position!) “you’ve done your job like tens of thousands of other teachers – what is your point?” We have, I believe, one of the most expensive and unreliable public qualification systems in the world. Many comparable jurisdictions rely mainly on teacher based assessment, although they may employ standardised tests as a measure of ability level or suitability for higher level paths of study – American SATs being an example. Why should we not be able to do that here? The real reason is Trust.

Over the past 30+ years, an enormous amount of political and media energy has gone into undermining the profession and the education system. The reason is simple – you can only dismantle a huge public institution like Education if you first discredit it. I’m sure the Goves of the world genuinely believe that our schools are ravaged by hooligans and plagued by the festering boils of endemic militancy – but I’ve never experienced that in my 20 years – only occasional spikes of anger and frustration leading to short term action (quickly followed by serious guilt, self-loathing and further reduced militancy). Despite this, when asked who they trust, the public will often rate teachers very highly. Why should we not be trusted to undertake a greater share of the assessment of our students?

Of course, there will always be the fear that we will fix the figures or deliberately award students qualifications without them having completed the work, in order to meet performance targets. There is evidence for this in inflated key stage assessments, in my opinion. It only happens, though, because of the ridiculous accountability system which is designed for political ends rather than educational ones. I would argue that local systems of moderation with national random sampling would keep people honest. Teachers are excellent at ensuring things are fair, after all. I am not even suggesting that such assessment would only be in coursework form. Teachers could use tests, exams, projects and other forms of assessment provided they were moderated locally / nationally and clear evidence of attainment was kept.

The potential savings in exam costs and the benefits to teachers of developing as assessors would be substantial. Schools could award a statement of attainment at 14 or 16 reflecting what had been achieved – purely as an aid to progression. No expensive certificates. Local schools could form assessment hubs where appeals could be heard and evidence reviewed. Provided every region is working to universal specs with clearly defined and agreed standards, you can still maintain consistency across the country – they can do it in professional qualifications systems and numerous other developed countries, so could we!

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Book of Gove Ch1, v22

And it came to pass in those days that a plague came upon the lands and it was called “Grade inflation”. The voices of the people were heard on high through the kindness of the Daily Mail crying out, saying “This really won’t do. Exams must be easier if more people are able to pass them and, even though we don’t really know, we are going to believe that standards are falling as the locust beans in May.” And teachers, parents and children heard the voices and they were sore afraid.

The Pharisees and teachers were wise and said “Fear not, although these things have changed since you were baptised in the font of knowledge, all the signs show that our children are learning well and their teachers have become mighty in their undertakings”. But the News of the World reached the Sanctuary Buildings where The Mighty Gove resided, passing his judgements and signing Bibles. The Mighty Gove was angered “Bring unto me the Chief Priests of the Temples of Assessment so that I might smite them with sarcasm and belittling comments. Should they fail to heed my call, set forth the OfQual so that they may be afeared and worry about their future contracts.”

The High Priests came unto The Mighty Gove and threw themselves before him crying “Oh mighty one, please have mercy on us and protect our internationally incomparable industry from loss of profits.” and The Mighty Gove took a peeled grape from the special advisor and spake thus “In Ancient Times the great and rich ruled without fear from the plebs of this land, it is my wish that such noble times should be seen again. Go forth unto the people and foretell the end of these GCSEs which I have decided are worthless.” The High Priests bowed low and said “but Mighty One how will we be able to take gold from the public coffers without these tests?” The Mighty Gove smiled and raised his hands up to invoke the magic of The Almighty Thatcher and spake, again. “I see the coming of a new era, a Golden Dawn in which every child will give themselves unto a new test, and one which continues to offer great riches to those who would worship it. Its name is O’ Level and the world will rejoice, or at least those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and suppressing the opportunities for the masses.” and the Palace rang with their laughter for seven days and nights.

News of The Mighty Gove’s pronouncements reached the people and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the schools and colleges. Clegg the Lesser, assistant to Pontius Cameron, flew into an almost mighty rage, but not really; and said to The Mighty Gove. “whatforartthou up to? The Level of O is an abomination in my eyes and I have already given in to enough abominations so that my popularity is shrunken like a raisin.” And The Mighty Gove spake through gritted teeth, thus. “Indeed, what you say is true my lord, we must think again.” and peace returned to the Land of the people.

Unbeknownst to the people a mighty storm was brewing on high. The High Priests of Assessment on conducting the ceremony of the GCSE looked at the portents and in whispered tones spake thus “Oh shit, not again. The OfQual will be angry. Our children have done too well. This is not possible they can not have learned more than the OfQual decrees.” The OfQual Was indeed angered by the audacity of the people in successfully undertaking a test with clearly published, regulated and moderated success criteria and declared that such impudence must be the work of the Devil. “Go forth and drag down those children so they may be seen as we say they are” spake the Monster. Some minor Priests were saddened and spake out saying “sod off, we’ve done our jobs properly” but the OfQual raged saying ” change the bloody things now or we will sort you out, so help us!” and the High Priests, afeared of losing their power over the people’s gold said “yes, of course. What were we thinking?”

In time the children of the people gathered, as tradition demands, in a school hall to undertake the ceremony of the opening, surrounded by press photographers looking for twins and giggling girls. Excitement and anticipation was great. As the ceremony progressed voices were raised up in dismay, crying “oh, Priests of Assessment – we did all you asked of us and more. Whatever changes you made to our tests we strove hard to conquer and you promised we would be rewarded with the sacred C. Why have you forsaken us?!” and the rivers ran deep with tears of the afflicted and the hopes and dreams piled high in the cesspit of despair.

Mighty warriors of the people, affronted by the evil injustice they perceived said “This be not on, mate. We must form an army and overthrow the demons of the Temples of Assessment for is it not said that the bastards are in collusion to prepare for the coming of the one they call Baccalaureate?!” but the High Priestess of the OfQual simply laughed and waved them away while deciding what she should wear to collect the Honour she must surely be given.

And the forces of the people grew stronger and their Army larger, day by day and they launched forth a messenger saying “You have acted against both natural and social justice by throwing in your lot with the forces of elitism. We will seek audience with the Great Justice to show your evil doing for what it is unless you undertake the ceremony of the GCSE anew. And the Mighty Gove whistled and stuck his fingers in his ears, yea, even as the Archduke of Wales slay the mighty Dragon. The OfQual growled and said repeatedly “our job is to maintain standards” but the wind whistled and the weeds tumbled and people looked away, embarrassed by the obvious lack of independence they had shown. And the people spake with one voice and said “We will hold you accountable. This will not go away.”

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Quis custodiet……

It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the Henchman in Chief for Mr Gove has been offering his pronouncements again. As always he offers a mix of Gove-light isms and some sensible observation. The trick is spotting which is which.

Now, I’ve shared my somewhat jaundiced view of our standards watchdog before. I think they should be hauled before the advertising standards authority for misrepresentation of the term “standards” when what they mean is “policy compliance”. You can’t blame Sir Michael, I am sure he genuinely wishes to help the system improve, at least by his somewhat limited terms of reference, but would he have been chosen by his peers? I don’t disagree with some of his comments on staff who work for the pay cheque alone. If you hate kids and don’t want to go the extra mile, you have no place in the classroom. Our children deserve more, but – do you know what? So do we!

As a new teacher I naively believed the job of HMI was to help schools improve and to pick up on any real disasters before someone got hurt! My experiences of 4 inspections under a seemingly endless number of frameworks (standards….) have varied massively from supportive partnership to psychotic hatchet job. Having a Chief Inspector whose role is to act as means to undermine and bully the profession is nothing new, but why do we tolerate this when no other wing of public service would?

Our first mistake is to hold on to that naive belief that inspection is for improvement. Those days are long gone. It is a political tool used for accountability under the guise of improvement. How else do you explain the willingness to ignore the lessons learned from their own research on curriculum as a tool for engagement and raising aspiration / attainment? Do you remember “12 outstanding schools”? I do. I wonder if Sir Michael has read it? I’d be very surprised if Gove has!

Our second mistake is not to challenge OfSTED’s own standards more aggressively as a profession. We do need inspection but we need it fit for purpose and led by someone whose reason for doing it is determined by cultural capital and not by political affiliation and relationships. We also need someone who is truly independent and answers to parliament, not a Minister. After all, shouldn’t the Chief Inspector also be holding the DfE accountable, too?

Our third mistake has been to believe that this can’t change. Why accept it? As professionals, we should be prepared to show any bureaucrat, Minister or HMI, our displeasure when they act against evidenced best practice on the basis of ideological whimsy. We must be more politically astute in tackling the misinformation and barking target culture. Watch what the DfE do and turn it back on them. Fight fire with fire. We have the intelligence and expertise, after all, we literally taught them all they know!

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Decisions, decisions

As the GCSE fiasco rumbles on like some enormous “elephant in the room”, I find myself having to decide on a possible topic for my thesis. In theory this shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m a keen pedagogue and had always seen this as an opportunity to research ways of closing the attainment gap between the have and have nots in our society – the ones the OECD highlighted in their recent report showing the high level of social segregation in our education system (Mr Gove is normally very eloquent on OECD findings but seemed very quiet on this one!). However, my level of disgust and anger over recent announcements and the deplorable way the future of our youth is being tainted by the toxic rhetoric coming out of Sanctuary buildings; has left me with a desire to examine exactly how destructive our politicians have been to our education system.

Let me make it clear. I am no fan of Michael Gove, but I wasn’t of Ed Balls, either. My experience has been that our politicians have all treated the Education system as a political handball, slinging it from extreme to extreme in order to gain perceived political capital. They have engaged in a policy churn that has left the country without consensus on the role and aims of education; without confidence in the qualification system and without faith that they will allow the system to operate without constant interference. Our teachers are demoralised, parents are deeply confused as their personal experiences of schools don’t match the tag lines in the Daily Gove and they have driven the system to a point where we are operating a standards agenda without consistent standards.

It is also deeply unsettling to see key posts filled by political appointees, and policy announcements in the pages of one of the Murdoch’s papers. In addition, it is wrong in a democratic society for one man, in a minority party of Government, to wield so much power over the most important brief, in terms of our future prosperity as a nation. It is ugly and sad but, somehow, wholly predictable.

So, I need to decide. Pedagogy or policy impact…….answers on a postcard!

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Dear Mr Laws

Imaginary response: Dear Mr Laws. In response to your bullets
1) um…why not just make the GCSE do the job they are there to do, then? Is it because Michael and his friends at the Daily Mail (the unofficial communication centre of the DfE) have worked for so long to undermine them and the thousands of people who have taken them?
2) The A* was supposed to do that, wasn’t it? And how dare you preach about caps on aspiration when those students have just had their achievement “capped” by a statistical fraud to cynically support the Tory ideology?!
3) oh yeah?! Pull the other one it’s got bells on. It has happened year after year – no one believes you will be any different. Labour might have been cynical and deaf to reasoned argument if it disagreed with their view, but Gove is another level altogether! He plays you lot like a tune…you really think Clegg gained compromise? Rubbish – Gove offered you the unthinkable, forced you to respond via the Daily Wail and got you to agree the unspeakable! He owns you…..check mate to the Tories (again)
4) there’s already provision for these students! It’s called the foundation level curriculum and includes a wide range of recognised progression routes…..well, it used to. Now we’re supposed to sell the kids to G4S so they can complete a 5 day “apprenticeship” (and don’t get me started on that) to gain a qual with less value than a G grade in Gcse Media Studies (that Gove hates).

Let’s be frank. The differentials in gcse specs may have needed widening, the core may have needed greater rigour (genuine, not statistical BS) but all the problems have been created by politicians. Schools, children, teachers have had no part in designing these systems, but have suffered from your politically motivated tinkering year after year. Learn from the best systems, you tell us? Fine – let’s start by removing political interference in education. Who alluded to that? You did in the ASCL Leader magazine before the last election, but that principle must have gone into hiding with tuition fees!

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