Wednesday, 28 September 2016

National Education Service and one reason why it matters.

(originally posted some weeks ago elsewhere) 
I’m sorry - I’m going to post a political viewpoint. I’d like you to read it. That’s the way social media works I think. It’s quite long. I think you are supposed to tweet or post memes and that.
I work in education and have done for nearly 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen funding come and go but never really felt like a politician really did anything because they 'get' education especially.
Politicians always focus their ire on 'standards' as if setting targets will have a miraculous impact on educational standards and teachers are lazy, poor, lacking in ambition for their learners and so on.
Increasingly I’ve seen students pressurised by this target driven culture - if you give teachers targets, that passes on to students. I know as I am a teacher but it’s obvious really, even if you weren’t. I could write more, but I don’t want to get into details, you all get the idea if you have a kid or have a passing interest in education. Targets have perhaps driven standards up in some ways, we certainly coach exams better, but are they effective in developing genuine literacy, critical thinking and autonomous learners. I’m not sure. I’m not saying that targets don’t have any place. Clearly some teachers and some leaders require oversight, I’m not daft, I’ve worked with and been taught by poor teachers but its as if targets have become the entire education policy.
I am convinced that this target culture is having a detrimental effect on mental health. The health of young people and of the adults in 'loco parentis.' If you really want to know more about target culture and why it’s the great white elephant of our time, please watch 'The trap by Adam Curtis. It explains it better than I ever could.
But the targets keep coming and crucially, vitally and disgracefully, the second chances stop. Targets and standards. Cost effectiveness. Rigour. No resitting, access to HE and University costs. A lot. An increasing amount. Access to basic skills and adult courses slashed, costs increased.
This increases the pressure on students. Not only are they being pressured by teacher to succeed in an outdated, outmoded system that only tests a small proportion of their human potential, they are also clearly and economically told 'If you don’t get it right now - you don’t get a second chance'
In my life I’ve met many people, from being 15 in Wigan with mates who were cleverer than me but never went to college, to going to University and sharing a house with an older bloke who left school at 16 with one GCSE and won an award for the quality of his degree work and was fighting off offers from the university to stay and become an academic and all that, to the kids who are brilliant, witty, incisive, who understand stuff in an instant but can’t write an essay, to the managers and colleagues I’ve had who’ve told me they failed first time round who have convinced me that branding people for life by their achievements at 16/18/21 is a failed endeavour.
That no amount of hot air, pressure, investment or pedagogy is going to make EVERY CHILD SUCCEED AT THE SAME TIME. None.
I try hard, I try very hard. Some of my colleagues try so hard I think they’ll burn out, some of them have and yet our kids drop out, pick wrong courses and even occasionally fail. We do our best.
The girl I taught in Stoke, who was utterly wonderful who I couldn’t believe had joined the college 4 years ago without a single GCSE and was now doing a foundation degree. What happens to her life if there’s no second chance, no access to adult education, no stigma about not getting it right first time? Does she have to scrabble around trying to find a course and if she’s lucky pay through the nose just to make up for suffering debilitating eating disorder which nearly *killed* her? Did her teacher 'not care?' - or is the truth that in this case and many, many others, she just wasn’t in the right place at that precise point.
There is no panacea, no world in which every teacher is the perfect teacher and every child overcomes the barrier. All that is a useful thing to aim for, to try to achieve, to want, an aspiration. But when that becomes the only hope or option, lest kids get frozen out the system and aren’t on 'top form' at exam time because of a broken heart, or the death of a parent, or an eating disorder, or just not getting it right there and then or misreading a question or being a bit immature or getting into drugs or being a carer or having to work too much or whatever else we are in a situation where the education system is letting these kids down. Not the teachers there then and now but the system which should, could and must be there for them when they are right and ready.
There is no excuse for not trying for kids in the now. None. That’s a million miles away from my point. This isn’t defeatist rhetoric saying teaching isn’t important, of course it is but if want a real effective education system it has to be a life long thing.
Which is why, Corbyn’s promise to restore universally free education to all should be being rejoiced and praised to the high heavens by people who care about learning and the prospects of young people. A society worth anything would give people opportunities. Progress, culture, technology requires risk, a by-product of risk is failure. Only an education system that has a safety net for failure can ever really produce the country where the population meets its potential. A system where blanket targets reduce kids to statistics being coached desperately to pass exams for the sake of passing exams that have no meaning other than labelling 'success/failure' and that further to that, seems to be gluing those labels ever more securely, making it harder and harder to remove or replace them will only ever produce an insecure, uncertain and unhealthy population. This much Corbyn gets. No matter if he’s scruffy or cantankerous or too laid back or not as witty as Dave or as 'strikingly leader-like' as Teresa, he actually gets the fact that education really, really, really matters and you can’t just shout 'do it better! ofsted! standards standards standards, league tables' - that education is about EVERYONE, not just schools.
Life is education far more than school. That should be only one bit of it. School matters, but you are old for a long time. Adult education matters more to working class people and minorities than it does to people who are middle class. That is a statistical fact. The more culturally alienated you are from the white middle class values of the school system, the more it labels you 'thick' and the more you deserve a second chance. Similarly if you are have a barrier to learning or perhaps discover later in life that you have. Or if you are in a job and the job ceases to exist. Like they do.
It also matters if you, like me and millions of others think you’d like to learn something new to contribute to society, the economy and increase your employability but can’t afford to even think about it.
I don’t think I’ve ever believed in anything as much ever. Sorry for the long post. Just shit matters and that and too much in my head and all and people are trying to make out that not sitting in a train carriage matters and believing a private rail operator is a really trustworthy news source when it comes to rail privatisation and I don’t know about that because I wasn’t there, but I *do* know about this and it matters more than shitty spin and stupid press games and Westminster.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The cost of success? Vocational Qualifications and their flaws.

A song about work. It's sort of vocational.

Let me get something very, very straight before we begin. I am a huge fan of vocational education. I'm an even bigger fan of any sort of qualification which allows learners the opportunity to express the thoughts outside the straight jacket of the exam system. In no way shape or form am I seeking to denigrate the potential of 'non traditional' options - in fact, just the opposite. I believe at their best, these qualifications are more exciting to teach and produce work of greater value and depth than their academic equivalents.

Lets be clear on that.

A colleague of mine (a fabulous, committed teacher with lots of integrity) expressed a view today that because of the x number of learners they taught last year two of them failed to achieve the top grade (we're talking maybe 5%-ish) the 'value added' score would be unsatisfactory.

This is a story I've heard before. Many times. I've watched teachers of vocational qualifications attempt to apply rigorous and realistic standards but end the year demotivated, having given everything, having taught with vigour and vim, with creativity and sensitivity, with innovation and intelligence.


Because their work in gaining learners qualifications is deemed 'not good enough' when even what seem on paper to be the outstanding pass rates and high levels of achievement, are placed in a national context.

Lets think about why this happens. Lets do a little thought experiment about what happens when people under intense pressure to improve constantly are give qualifications where more or less, the outcomes are up to them. Lets call it 'subtle, creeping grade inflation' for want of a better name. The temptation is obvious. Each institution thinks 'we can do a little bit better' - each institution thinks 'we must do a little bit better' - each institution looks along the line and sees their neighbours, their peer referenced colleagues 'doing a little bit better' and they encourage staff to do what it takes to eradicate 'pass' grades.

Teachers feel as if those grades are not available to them, as if giving a learner those grades will create scrutiny, will create negative feedback so they avoid at all costs those grades. The best teachers achieve it by teaching brilliantly, by reviewing content, reviewing assessment, motivating learners, finding interventions that work and so on. The worst simply don't give out 'pass' grades and carry on pretty much as before.

A few years pass and it's the middle grades under pressure. 'Lets minimise the number of merits' suggests an ambitious manager. It seems the best way for a school or college to climb the league tables.

See the above process but now it's harder. The best teachers still battle and try and reinvent the wheel, looking for less drag, less resistance, better grip or whatever else suits this wheel based educational analogy.

Soon teachers find they are under pressure to give only the highest grades. This comes at a terrific cost for those teachers as the qualifications aren't designed for everyone to achieve at the highest level. If they were, why do the pass and merit grades even exist?

They discuss this. They think 'it's my school! - they put terrible pressure on me...' but when they look at the VA scores it suggests that it isn't. The senior managers say 'well, our expectations are in line with national trends' and who can blame them for that? What senior manager is going to ask their staff not to work to national baselines? What senior manager is going to last long if they do?

In a purely hypothetical world entirely unrelated to this blogging teacher's reality someone who is a union rep might ring their union to discuss this, to attempt to get this on the agenda at a national level, to get the topic of grade inflation in this area seriously explored and challenged. They would be surprised to be met by obfuscation and 'confusion' about the issue from their union.

They might then discover that the previous week their teaching union doing a conference seemingly sponsored by the large and powerful body which provides many of the vocational qualifications which seem to have caused the issue. They might wonder cynically if the lack of interest from the teaching union might be connected to their seemingly cosy relationship with the exam board. They might wonder why a body whose sole purpose is to represent the interests of their members isn't interested in this issue despite being provided with an explanation that the pressure on staff teaching these qualifications is the single biggest workplace issue and despite the clear explanation that "if you stop pretending not to understand and actually think about the fact that this set of results only yields a VA score of 4, it can't be a question of malpractice from one particular institution can it?" and that either the union doesn't understand VA or aren't interested and either outcome isn't especially satisfactory.

Long sentences can result from frustrating situations. It's a little known rule of grammar.

So where do we go from here? 

We start demanding the right to use a range of grades which reflect learner outcomes. We demand it of ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. It takes every single teacher to take this deadly seriously. Let's not even consider the madness of performance related pay in this context. The sheer insanity of making pay judgements related to to grades which in some cases the teacher is almost entirely responsible for giving. 

Why do we care?

- Because if we don't it means these qualifications get a bad name. The learners who genuinely apply themselves to the challenges and come out with fabulous work which puts your average GCSE or A-level work to shame are prejudiced against by universities and employers.

- Because if we don't this sort of schools based vocational education will go the way of coursework. I remember coursework being a brilliant thing. I was good at it. I still remember doing it and what I learnt. I can't really remember sitting any of my exams. What does that tell you? Coursework became synonymous with 'maximising grades' or 'making the most of the coursework' - a thinly veiled reference to practices of dubious educational merit or value. Where is coursework now? I don't agree with Gove on much, but I do agree that in some ways coursework was becoming a joke, a cut and paste exercise in learners slugging through draft after draft after draft, with little room for expression or actual enquiry. In short, the opposite of what it should be if you believe in the power of independent enquiry and innate curiosity and so on.

- Because if we don't grade learners accurately they soon become demotivated. They stop learning as what's the point?

- If we never allow failure (in a relative sense) we never allow risk, creativity, innovation. These qualifications rely on this.

- Because it's a betrayal of the importance of vocational qualifications. We actually need, as a society, to know who excels at Health and Social care or Engineering or Arts or whatever. These things matter as much as who gets to rub shoulders with the Bullingdon boys at Oxbridge.  We need to treat this branch of education with the same attention and care we do 'academic' qualifications. We need a rigorous system of external examiners which should include schools and colleges quality controlling each others assessments in the spirit of critical friendship instead of competing to out do each other. The awarding bodies need to actually provide some support here, instead of sitting back and raking in the cash. The application of GCSE/A level style exams within vocational qualifications is a start, but it does rather beg the question - how are these actually distinct from their 'academic' equivalents. If they can't afford to properly moderate coursework, then they need to be funded equitably so they can provide the same level of support as exam boards do.

So. What do we do?

Monday, 26 September 2016


So, I don't really have time for a long blog tonight. Two things spring to mind. One, I had a double session with a class today. I showed them something complex and interesting which I felt they needed to see in order to understand the concepts and requirements of the forthcoming work. I felt constantly anxious that I should have 'chunked it up' and got them to 'evidence learning' all the way through. I felt that despite the fact that doing it would have destroyed any engagement with the complex thing and rendered the whole thing pointless. Hmmm. Am I institutionalised by any chance?

I've done what is a 'bit of work at home' - out of interest I did a quick word count. 2500 words.

That seems like quite a lot of words to write for a 'a bit of work'

To be honest, I barely noticed it. It didn't seem out of the ordinary. It does make me wonder what I could do if I put my mind to something else.


Friday, 23 September 2016

Friday feeling...

The normally calm and thoughtful learner drops his book for no apparent reason. This is followed by the phone which I'm too tired to spot on another usually studious girl's knee crashing to the floor face down. The whole class emits a groan of terrible empathy. The nuanced discussion point we were working on is lost, the fate of the lesson now rests on the strength of the gorrila glass (tm) which has met the floor with all the grace of a flabby belly flopping 40 yr old crashing into an ibiza swimming pool from a diving board too high for his abilities. Only a spider has the same power as a falling phone.

The phone is fine, the lesson is coaxed back on track. Things go ok, then another learner gives (in a perfectly valid way) the answer 'vagina' to a question. I try not to ask too many closed questions but it takes all of my skill and self restraint not to scream 'in what fucking world is the answer to that question 'vagina!'' The learner is embarrassed as his peers howl with laughter and I do my best to contain my mirth limiting my self to a sort of knowing world weary smile.

To calm things down and move on I say 'Hey, it's only a word. We've all got one.'

This would have been a smart, sassy, streetwise way to draw a line under things were I not male. Cue more howling. I howl. We all howl.

'What am I saying?' I splutter.

Another looks up.

'It's Angela again' she deadpans.

I used the idea of a female alter-ego to try and illustrate a point about shock and confusion a few lessons previously, asking them how they'd react if I turned up in full drag and asked them to call me Angela. Unsurprisingly they rather enjoyed this conceit.

I have to credit her with excellent timing.

We try again. We get maybe ten minutes further. I set up a group task. I wander round, restlessly. My pacing is distracting. I'm walking too fast. It's making the class restless. I sit down. My sitting down is a cue for the learners to stop. I stand again, make some token noises about not wanting to have to set the task for homework.

I'm asked about 10 questions as I resume my pacing. Only one of them bears any resemblance to a relevant question. I bat them away like an in form cricketer but then I chase a wide one and get drawn into conversation. They got me. I acknowledge this and say something else 'teacherly' and the task eventually gets done.

We do a plenary. It goes surprisingly well. I am pleased with the fact they've obviously managed to think certain stuff through despite not giving any appearance of study.

We get sidetracked by the issue of stereotyping. A girl makes a fairly blunt (but contextually valid) point about 'looking like a lesbian' and I ask her to consider the fact that lesbians come in many shapes, sizes and styles. She is confused and a bit defensive. I try again to make the point more clearly (she seems not to comprehend she's said something tactless) and another girl (who is a lesbian - I know because I've talked to her when she's been having some problems, but some of the class don't know her sexuality) makes a decision to challenge her. 'Do I look like a lesbian?'

There's palpable tension. They aren't the kind of kids to back down. I decide it's worth letting it breath for a moment. Neither of them are malevolent characters, so I'm not too worried, but you never know...

'No, I mean, I don't know, I don't mean, look, I just meant, you know what I meant!' insists the first girl.

Girl B smiles, point made.

'I think what you meant was 'the stereotype we are fed about what a lesbian looks like''
'Yeah, that's what I meant! I wasn't having a go, I don't care about anything like that'

The tension has gone, girl A+B aren't looking angry.

The plenary resumes. A quiet kid makes an amazingly intelligent point I've never thought of on a topic I've taught for years. She's got a diagnosis of aspergers but I mostly think she's just clever. It fits in a way, but she's so astute about human nature. She'll never get an A but I wish I could frame some of the things she says.

The plenary has finished. I set a written task to consolidate learning. I've asked them to do something on technology so stuff comes out of bags and I fix two tablets and explain to another girl that 'memory full - no more space' means the memory is full and there is no more space. I then patiently explain that I don't know what she should delete as I don't know what is on her tablet and nor do I want to know. She looks confused at the notion of a free choice. I suggest she puts some stuff in cloud storage. Her eyes light up at the procrastinatory (I think I've invented this word) prospect of asking 'what exactly *is* the cloud' but fortunately someone else seems to have a genuine question I can turn my attention too.

The question turns out to be 'what are we doing?'

I point to the instructions in front of the learner. They recoil in shock as if the words have just appeared by magic and go through the motions of refocusing. As usual, one person enquiring 'what are we doing' snowballs into at least three people needing the instructions from about 3 minutes ago reaffirming.

I ask for silence. I point out they could complete this task at home or do it now. I make an appeal to reason. The work is fresh, it's in your mind now. Use this time, don't waste it.

I say something vaguely cute about that being a useful maxim for life.

I realise I shouldn't have said that as me babbling is not role modelling the behaviour we need. I shut up and complete the register. There's miraculously focus.

Naughty boy who has been really trying to be good is even sort of working. He never does more than about 2 lines and always has an answer for any critique. He's really clever. I don't know how to coax the words from him. Everything he says is short, smart and often (not always) indisputably intelligent. He never expands. He's brilliant at any physical, active tasks but it doesn't seem to help him write any more than he otherwise would do. I wonder for a minute if I should do another sweep of the classroom. It's just going to prompt another wave of inane questions.

I focus on slightly strange but lovely girl who never does the right thing. I ask quietly if she knows what she is doing. She nods and shows me her screen. It looks vaguely in the right ballpark which is good news. She's not full of confidence and to be focusing is enough for me at this point.

There's about 4 minutes to go. The able writers are finishing. I ponder a stretch task but I can't think of a pithy 3 minute task of any relevance. I decide to ask them to tidy up. This is cue for everyone else to abandon ship and start to tidy up.

Several people just leave their resources right where they are. I shout 'Oi, I didn't print these just to get trees chopped down' They turn, grab them, I smile. I don't mind disorganised kids. I just want them to try. It's all I ask. It's all I can do.

There's 60 seconds left. I start every lesson on time. I never finish early. The chairs are away. The tables are away.

"Right, go on, I can't stand the sight of you for another second!"

The majority charge for the door, some wish me a nice weekend. I return it. I feel like high fiving them. Release at last... Girl B from earlier who likes to wind me up says 'I'm offended' - I return with 'get out you dafty' and she smiles.

I shout after them something along the lines of 'Be good and see you next week' - I dread to think where the conversation turns as they snake out along the corridors and thoughts turn to weekends.

They break my heart. All the uncertainty and precocious intelligence, all the energy and doubt. All nervous in front of a blank piece of paper. Most of them terrified of themselves.

I could do with a few days off.

(This started as a sort of 'what do you do to make last lesson Friday work?' and turned into something else)

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Performance management review

I had a really good PMR last year. The manager who did it actually got the fact that focusing a large part of the meeting on setting me a data based target wasn't constructive or motivational. They actually understood the fact that the end result is an abstract and that it is more important to focus on the now and the how, then the end result. I have to say, this degree of understanding is a rare thing.

Signing up to data targets is a bit like trying to guarantee you'll be home at a certain time in rush hour traffic. No one is going to set out not to get home ask quick as they can but it's the unknowable nature of the targets, set against national averages which have yet to be set and dependent entirely on other people's physical and mental well-being which makes them ludicrous.

It's a bit like being Jack Lemmon's character in Glengary Glenross but without the ability to try and find new leads.

'Improve high grades by x %'
'Um... I don't think this year group is as strong as last year - look at the target grades!'
'Don't make excuses - Just do it'
'Er... how?'
'Y'know, teaching or something, we're not here to discuss that for heaven's sake!'

It's not just that the data/target culture is alienating learners and turning them into mere punchbags for the flailing and often desperately misguided blows of various intervention strategies, it's that so many people in education just aren't very good with data. It's taken long enough in my workplace for people to wake up to the fact that setting targets based on 'last year' is nonsense. That to preach that every class and child is its own unique snowflake but to set blanket targets which take no notice of the data we already have about that group's individual performance is insane.

So is the practice of looking at ever smaller subsets of data. It might just be me, but I thought the bigger the numbers, the relevant the study. Why then slice up data by cohort, then by class? Do you really think I went in to one classroom and tried to teach them 'less well?' Honestly?

I get the point of reflecting on data. I get that. I learn from it. I monitor it daily, it IS useful to me. I'm not advocating some kind of hippy paradise where we pick a colour to represent our feelings for the year ahead and do a dance of optimism together to try to please the great god OCR. I just want to have some time to discuss my practise, to reflect with others as an equal and to self reflect on what has gone and what will come.

I want to discuss teaching (an ancient human skill, an innate facet of life) with people who revere and respect it, who find it as intriguing and fascinating and fabulous as I do. I don't want to be told 'focus on Jonny Cottonsocks as he'll make a bigger difference to the VA score than Monica and Kevin.' These learners aren't just data. They aren't sales units or productivity figures. I know them. I like most of them. I tell them I'll do my best and I point blank refuse to prioritise one above another on the basis that they suit the data better.

I'm honestly not sure it's healthy to force 'help' on kids who don't want it and deny help to kids who need it according to some secret data set. I wouldn't trust anyone who managed me in that way. I wouldn't develop a very healthy view of merit and value. I expect my manager to form a human judgement of me and my support and development needs, based on a range of factors and not simply one unit of performance data and I want to treat learners the same way.

There's a reason I didn't go into marketing.

To that end, here are my PMR targets. These are the real ones I will live by.

- Create a series of digital skills based tutorials learners can access anytime. If I do one per week, I'll have an amazing resource by the end of the year.
- Make better use of online testing where apt to ensure technical language is engaged with
- Return to some previously successful strategies where technology enabled deeper discussion and greater leaner involvement
- More variety in the teaching of the more able learners. Expect more from them and ensure there is more interesting, provocative material available to challenge them.
- Flip more lessons, not because it's hip, but because it makes more sense and because it's genuinely useful as it makes more time to coach 1:1 or small group.
- Give learners more voice. Consult them more. Let them tell me what they do/don't understand. Do this well. Basically do AFL better. Make sure the learners understand this concept.
- Make better use silence in the classroom. Individual work can be very useful and I default to pairs/groups too often.
- Make learners reflect more on the work they've done. Do it, even though it seems to be wasting time at the time. The gains can be spectacular when they realise for themselves what I've wasted 6 months writing on their work but them ignoring. Set more work but mark the same amount (or even less) providing I can give a meaningful feedback experience. (ugh... feedback experience wtf?)
- Have more varied tasks where learners learn from each other. Well managed these have worked very well for me previously but I seem to have returned subconsciously to one size fits all and a bit of differentiation on top. I don't know why?
- Let learners experience the material and make their own mistakes. Being an experienced teacher shouldn't mean trying to prevent any learner mistakes. It means being ready to give the students the tools to learn from them. Stop getting in the way of learning by trying to prevent mistakes.
- Brook no bullshit from anyone. Colleagues included. I haven't got the time.

My data target:

Do the best I can for each learner according to their need. What will be will be.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Meeja studies. In need of CPR.

I don't have a qualification in Media Studies. None whatsoever.

I have however read a bit of Chomsky and watched Screenwipe so I've as good as got an A-level. Lol! ROFLCOPTER. LOLOCAUST.

Top banter for the media staff there. Subject denigrated in the first two lines. Dodgy internet joke. This is SURE TO GO VIRAL!

But stay with me. Stay with me in this newly chill freshly minted autumn night as I keep you warm by rekindling the flame of Media Studies. I've actually taught it. A few times, when there's been no one else to do it and I've been struck by the potential of the subject. Really quite taken with what it could be. Let's be honest, teaching sitcoms, soaps and scanning a few newspapers is a bit shit. ('Oh, here he goes again' shout the Meeja staff... yeah, like I did anything different!) but oh my word, what a subject it could be...

Here's why I think the current strategy of sidelining it in favour of hardcore grammar and forced daily sessions at the cemetery gates is wrong.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of studying dead poets. Or even Roger McGough or Russell Brand if you absolutely must but in the 21st century literacy is far more than this. It has an important place. A very important place but c'mon. People. How can kids leave school without being able to read an image? How can they not decode an advert or understand how focus groups work? How can they go through life without a really clear understanding of lifestyle marketing or hegemony? (Hegemony isn't difficult, I've understood it and my head spins at yr6 grammar tests.) How can they avoid exploitation, debt and misery without understanding how basic needs are cynically targeted everyday? 

We need to study Shakespeare because it's our culture, our heritage and says something about our emotions and essential human nature. I'll accept that. I've been to the Globe. I've seen Mark Rylance act conjuring magic from the ether with only his cadence, a tilt of the head, caressing primal meaning from the Bard's ghostly words. I'm not going to argue against it. But if Shakespeare is 'our' culture, so is Brighthouse. So is Britain First. So is an unquestioned torrent of commercialism which drowns out any hope of meaningful discourse. So are so many things which insidiously exploit and manipulate. We write people off for being 'thick' for falling victim to stuff we don't even discuss because we are tied up trying to ensure they have something to say about love sonnets for the examiner. 

Literacy is visual, digital, and often violently capitalistic (and thus often racist, sexist and divisive) and it is crucial to recognise this if we aren't to produce a production line of victims who sit with arms and mouths wide open waiting for the next faux need or moral panic to sweep the nation. 

Children who truly understand how images are produced and consumed might have more of a chance of resisting the bizarre and dangerous tide of eating disorder and general dysmorphic attitude which seems to afflict otherwise sane people.

Children who know how to produce images and communicate might mean a society without a) newsletters printed in comic sans using clip art and b) young people equipped for life in a sector which is growing where others decline.

Children who understand how an advertising agency works can not only work in one, but can form one themselves and put across their own ideas.

Children who know you can communicate an idea without writing a novel could be downright dangerous.

Move on. Quick...

Think of the discussions. (discussion is vital to developing genuine literacy as it happens...)
In the 1960s influential theatre guru Peter Brook wrote engagingly about the way theatre needed to become more visual and visceral in response to the image culture of the everyday world. He said (more or less) that traditional literature, presented in a traditional way was actually less dramatic than the spectacle of the everyday.

This was the 1960s. This was before your average 14 yr old* was sexting, accessing images of beheadings, constantly monitoring and curating their own media image via multiple social networks and viewing 300+ channels of always on TV as 'so yesterday.'

*I have taken some tabloid style liberties with this sentence.

Think of the discussions... Think. We don't teach this shit because we don't understand it. It scare us. It seems too big. It's hard work to get our heads round. It doesn't fit easily onto a worksheet. It changes. Man alive, it changes all the time. How can you teach that?

We box up media as a kind of irrelevancy when really if we were serious about teaching the 21st century we'd be dissecting the very soul of the subject and wondering if there's actually 3 or 4 vital subjects hiding in the elbow patched corpse of someone who was 'quite with it' in the 90s (hello) propped up in the corner of the staff room.

We might find at least some answers (beyond the obvious one of testing the crap out kids and austerity) to the mental health crisis. We might equip kids with the tools they need to deal with the reality of the year 2016 and beyond.

Are we not big enough to do this? Are we not big enough to teach the world around us? Are we forever doomed to founder on the rocks of 'how do you test what the examiner doesn't understand?'

I will return to this subject another time. I'd welcome thoughts.

Meanwhile, here's one for the kids. Liberals will love it.

A new system?

Something I wrote a while ago which has resided on my hard drive ever since. I'm not fully convinced by my own argument. Not least the failure to properly cater for scientific knowledge/coding etc. Still - I think there is an idea hiding in here which is far better than what is being served up currently.

As a teacher, I feel I’m faced with ever less resilient students. And I know why. We all know why. Since it was decreed that no student must ever fail anything increasingly teachers are placed under intolerable pressure to ensure that learners pass. Real skills go out the window, replaced by exam technique and remembering arbitrary facts that will leave heads 5 minutes after the exam.

Coursework and vocational courses are ruined by the fact that all students must achieve the maximum possible outcome and all enjoyment or risk is sucked out of these courses as learners submit multiple drafts and teachers desperately over mark and hope to get away with a forgiving coursework sample. Teachers are ‘in competition’ with other teachers, institutions ‘in competition’ with other schools. We don’t really care about anything, other than grades. Not really. If they aren’t good, then we lose our jobs. Sometimes, in between the cramming and the drilling we have time to care a bit, but not much and not really.

Learners are bullied into submission, threatened and told their coursework or exam grades matter more than life itself. Some cotton on to this being a con and do as little as possible, knowing the teachers will have to make up for the deficit and others become dangerously fearful and obsessive. Few retain a healthy perspective and for all the pressure and tensions, I’m deeply sceptical that we are producing better learners.

My solution is simple. Every school teaches a spectrum of subjects. Each pupil receives a grades at the end of the school year consisting of numeracy and literacy, creativity and general knowledge - that grade is formulated by assessment by teachers throughout the school and moderated by a series of online assessments that can be taken at any point within the final 18 months of school. The assessment is deliberately not drawn from the content of syllabus in order to prevent ‘teaching to the test’ - for example, assessing literacy by asking students to comment on stimulus material from a historical period which is NOT part of the history syllabus or solve a novel scientific problem via a range of clues and calculations.

We continue to teach subjects and skills in such a way that fosters interests in discrete disciplines - each teacher is responsible for creating an interesting and stimulating range of assessment and content but shares equal responsibility with their peers for that child’s cognitive development. Teachers are working towards common assessment criteria (broadly speaking numeracy/literacy) and can truly share good practice rather than a few tips which are often next to useless, given the differing demands of exams and exam boards. We abandon the notion that high grades in 10 subjects tell us anything other than a pushy parent or a child dedicated to learning the hoops through which to jump. Instead, we create schools which have simple common goals.

Foster the child’s potential to think, teach them to express themselves and give them freedom to do so. Provoke them, feed them things they want to write about, shape their mind with exciting lessons and let them respond. Stop telling them exactly how to do it and let them work it out. As long as they are thinking and trying, praise them. Stop telling them useless things about Assessment object 1 or 2 and actually engage with the coherence of their work. Stop filling their heads with KEY WORDS and actually just let them choose the right words. Let them make mistakes for god’s sake! Let them learn from them.  

I think this way, we could take pressure off both teachers and learners. When I’ve taught post-16, I know I can’t rely on my learners having any particular knowledge. I simply want them to be able to think, have some self confidence and to express themselves with a bit of fluency. Instead, I get too many students who are fearful, can’t write and don’t want to think in case it’s wrong. I then spend a long time, teaching them a new set of rules for writing yet another series of essays that have nothing to do with anything they’ll ever have to do in their working lives.

I'd love them to have had the chance to really have explored and researched something in genuine depth. To have developed a passion or created a project. To have something to say other than "We did 'Of Mice and Men' *shrug*"

To be fair, it’s not the content of specifications that’s the problem generally. It’s obviously good children understand Hitler, global warming, some good books and how a lightbulb works. It’s just the testing of that. The fact that these things have to be reduced to pithy paragraphs or diagrams of a certain form. It destroys them as knowledge, reduces them to a post it note or something the learner hates and fears. Many of them don’t learn these things anyway. Not meaningfully. Not deeply. Not with any depth of understanding or likely recall in later life. That’s the things with facts. They go. Pop! You’ve forgotten….

If we actually taught skills instead, and I mean, really taught skills, then maybe we’d have deeper learning. Logic isn’t easily forgotten, language isn’t easily forgotten. For too long, we’ve ignored a key fact about the modern world. Knowledge isn’t power any more. Knowledge is cheap. Being able to do something with it is what matters, being able to manipulate it, shape it, interpret it and process it is absolutely paramount.

Make education vibrant. Ask students questions that matter - link humanities to media, link the news to science, link maths to answering why unemployment is rife or whether immigration is a strain or a boon for the economy. Teach RE in an English class, discuss philosophy after watching Life of Pi, talk about dead rockstars and do some personal and social education, design a new football stadium on AutoCad. This isn’t dumbing down. It’s breathing life…

For too many of my learners, education is separate from life. They don’t see a connection between the things they think, feel and experience and what they do in classes day to day preparing them for outdated tests written and assessed on the whole by people with little connection to many of their lives. While we continue to rely on the current system, that will forever be the case and perhaps if teachers had a simpler job - Teach children to express themselves confidently and have the tools to solve problems for themselves, then everyone involved in education, most of all learners, might have a much, much happier time and the key standards which every Government trumpets time and again, might actually rise.

In short, it’s time exam boards and qualifications bodies stopped strangling education and teachers stopped strangling student’s abilities to learn. Stop measuring facts and measure skills instead.

I believe passionately in state education and that every child deserves the very best possible. If teachers can’t teach without long winded assessment criteria and get children to think then they aren’t teachers. I don’t think that’s the problem though. I think it’s the fact that our leaders are often bureaucrats with little interest in the content of classes or learning (other than grades) and we teachers spend hours, months and years coaching children in skills which don’t translate to adult life, whilst being ‘performance managed’ to better waste both our time and our learners.

Change is needed. Change must be radical.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Dear Justine Greening

Dear Ms Greening

I wonder if you could take the time to read my comments. I hope you can understand them, product of secular comprehensive education that I am, it may be possible I have not fully mastered the art of communication without access to the hidden learning that only selection and divine influence can unlock.

I write to express my heartfelt concern regarding the proposed expansion of the grammar school system and also the lifting of restrictions on faith schools.

I write primarily as a parent and citizen, though I am also a teacher. Were I not a parent, I would also be concerned but I refer to my child directly during the letter as it is him, not me, whom your policies will impact upon.

In short, can you kindly explain how prejudicing against people of different faiths or no faith at all is going to allow my local Catholic, CofE or Islamic faith schools offer a 'better deal' for my child as he approaches high school age?

Can you explain to him in clear, plain English why my thought-out position on faith and belief (for clarity, I happen to believe that religious teachings are useful as philosophy and that a sceptical agnostic position is the only real justifiable position to take) is going to potentially deny him access to local schools? Can you do this without recourse to sweeping rhetoric and generalisations about 'better schools for all' or whatever stock phrase your PR gurus have advised you to employ.

If it helps you choose your language he is 5. He also believes that the big bang started the world, finds the existence of God unlikely and I would describe his philosophical view as broadly utilitarian. If this all sounds a little precocious, rest assured he's an average child at an average secular 'all in' primary school and I've never achieved an A* in anything. I am merely trying to provide you with information that helps you communicate. I believe that understanding the values and positions of people will help you communicate with them effectively. Like most children he understands rational argument to a point and he is capable of understanding discussion based on broad statistics and reason.  

I'd personally also like your advice. In my immediate area there are 5 schools. 3 are the aforementioned faith schools (one of which is private) which are currently at least only partially selective. I would prefer my child receives a secular education, being informed about faith dispassionately and by a teacher who understands a broad range of belief systems. Should he choose to adopt a faith, I will accept his position as different to mine.

As it stands, I would be able to encourage my son to at least consider these faith based schools and I would support him to choose whichever he feels most comfortable with. The position is far from ideal as I can cite several friends who have had children effectively 'barred' from these schools despite living within sight of them but at least my son, should he wish too can enter the lottery with a degree of hope.

Under your proposals it is possible that these schools would be closed to him unless his mother or I were to create a sham performance of a religious devotion that neither of us feel or believe. Would you advise I ignore the convictions of my studies and considerations and adopt a pragmatic approach? If so, I have to say it seems an absurd position to have to take in order to access state funded education. I do worry that I might need to start praying for utilities or having my postal service approved by my local Imam

What complicates the matter further is the fact that the fourth school is a grammar school. We all know that grammar schools require coaching and the entrance exam is difficult. That's the point of the grammar schools. They exclude people, they are difficult to get in to.

I feel I was privileged in my education. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read books and took me places. I also had some fabulous teachers who fostered in me a spirit of enquiry and the ability to appreciate and question the world. I also have memories of being about 10 and playing football, climbing trees, riding down hills on skateboards, helping my neighbour who ran a mobile chippy van, going to bonfire night on my own for the first time and playing computer games till my eyes hurt.

I would ideally like my child to achieve the same balance in life. I don't recall school causing me a particular degree of stress. I remember being a bit frightened of a particular teacher but I don't recall crying over tests, sweating over levels and worrying over homework. I don't recall feeling the symptoms of depression or anxiety or a deep seated fear about 'performance.' I largely recall this time in life positively.

I would like my child's life around the age of ten to have a similar blend and am uncertain how putting him through rigorous extra schooling will help that. Would you suggest I start saving now for the private tuition to ensure he can access this school. Again, it seems odd that state education requires private intervention to access. I could cite stats to back this point up, but I assume you are aware of them as you have considerably more data and resources than I have! Will we soon have busses that are only for certain people? Trains which require a passcode? I assume education to be a basic inalienable right, not something I need to pay extra for because someone has put a crystal maze-esque series of cryptic challenges that a child needs specialist coaching to pass.  

Finally, lets assume the only option left to us (or more to the point, him) is the local comprehensive. Allow me to expand slightly.

I feel privileged that when I went to school, I went to the local school with many of the people I'd grown up with. I formed friendships with a wide range of people and I learnt not to look down on people or to look up to people unless they really deserved it. In other words, I learnt not to take that much notice of how someone was doing in English or Maths but rather to pay attention to who they were. My high school was just about the most ordinary school you could mention but I met all sorts of people from different backgrounds. I feel to a certain extent that has shaped who I am today. I feel I am able to relate to a wider range of people as a result of engaging with a wider range of people during my formative years.

I can't put this into statistics or turn it into data. I can't do this any more than it appears your government can quantify the reasons why grammar and faith schools are a good idea. I have however justified in a rational and coherent way, why I support comprehensive education and why I feel your ideas are absurd and divisive. It would be nice if you could reciprocate with an argument of your own, explaining why this important aspect of schooling, this 'socialisation' is not relevant if you are intelligent or your parents believe in a deity.

I will of course let my child choose the school which suits him. Ironically, I'd be most comfortable if he chose the local comprehensive. This would suit me well. It seems however a shame if that's his only choice because your government have vandalised the state system with misguided beliefs about social mobility and outdated views about the place of religious faith in 21st century teaching and learning. It would be even worse if my child's education was effected by a series of policies which seem designed to make some sort of political statement within the conservative party about the direction of the party.

It seems a shame that education is a political football kicked between warring parties and even tossed about within parties to make points and please the aspects of the electorate you want to appeal to. This policy has 'win back wavering traditional Tory voter + appeal to faith groups especially in cities' written all over it.

It seems a shame to have to explain all of this to a five year old. I suppose it will be an education of sorts for him. I would like him to realise the reasons things happen and I'm sure he will be able to accept that you need to make political capital. I could probably explain it using ice cream or chocolate as an analogy. I haven't really noticed any great attempt to explain either decision, analogies or otherwise.

It seems a shame that you can't look at the data and understand that with investment and a consistent approach, decoupled from political interference that the comprehensive model can work, for all. That providing a range of schools of different sizes and characters, but all with a broad entry policy and reliable consistent funding and support from the huge body of professional research is the only logical way to improve standards.

It seems a shame that the government's idea of 'radical change' is a return to the values of an era that never even existed. It is a shame that the education policy of this government seems to be a collective riff on John Major's memorable image of a traditional Britain. The spinster cycling to church, past the grammar school with its rigorous history curriculum and proper English authors.

It seems a shame that a government cannot see the folly of dividing children at 11 on the basis of the faith of someone who is not them. It seems a shame the government cannot see the folly of dividing children at 11 into 'cans' and 'cannots.'

It seems a shame that a broad education system, organised and centrally administered and able to react to demands has been splintered and fragmented into a mish-mash of private enterprise, faith projects and meaningless corporate slogans and that the government have the Orwellian gall to refer to 'choice' and 'for all' when pedalling a divisive and segregationist idea.

It would be shame not to dignify my letter with a reply.

Your sincerely.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Advice to your younger self?

This is a precis of advice I'd give to NQTs or any younger/newer/prospective teachers based on my own experiences. I'm not entirely sure it's worth much but it was what I wanted to write about so I did.

1: Have another job before you are a teacher, at least for a bit. A real one on which your mortgage or rent depends, not a Saturday job. It will help you keep things in perspective. Some jobs are worse than teaching, some jobs are better. The time I did a 28 hour shift and got paid for 8 hours would be a particular highlight of my pre-teaching career. It still helps to remember that I had a much worse job once.

2: Learn quickly that you aren't Jesus. Don't carry the cross everyday. If you allow it, you will become the focal point for the suffering and pain of all your learners. If this is what you enjoy about the job, get a job in the pastoral system or learning support. Be approachable by all means, but get used to the fact you are a small cog in a wider support network.

3: Get used to the fact that some of your managers are fucking idiots. Hopefully not many, but some of them are. On the other hand some of them are fantastic and have an incredible amount of wisdom to give. As they don't wear badges marked 'fucking idiot' or 'sage' you'll have to work it out for yourself.

4: In a similar vein, if you have a poor manager, they will probably ask you to do about 45% of the department's jobs for them based on the fact that it's 'great career development' for you. This probably means 'no-one else will do it.' Very few of your managers really give a toss about your career development, they just see you as someone who hasn't yet learned to say no. Learn to say no. Your learners (which is why you do the job) will thank you for it.

5: Watch the Wire. At first you will think - why am I watching a programme on drug dealing in Baltimore, then one of the cops becomes a teacher and you get to see one of the most beautiful, painful, heart-breaking things you'll ever see. It will teach you that the system is stacked against some kids but that doesn't mean they can't be taught or are 'thick' - It won't teach you haw to get great SATs scores or brilliant exam results, but it might make you better at communicating.

6: On this note, so many teachers are very middle class. You probably are as well. Open your eyes to the wider world. It's really quite important to do this.

7: You are not Jesus (again). One of the best pieces I've ever had was from a head teacher who told me 'they just want you to know your stuff and do your job' - Occasionally you will get moments of visceral pleasure but largely it's a grind based on achieving learning objectives and keeping yourself (and them) on task.

8: Cynicism and criticism is not the same thing. Don't become cynical but retain your critical faculties. Some of the systems and strategies you will encounter in your career will be bilge. Equally, you will sit amongst colleagues who will scoff at brilliant ideas, based in research and practice just because they are different.

9: If you find you don't enjoy being with the learners, then don't bother continuing. There is no point in carrying on if you don't like being in the classroom. Find another career. If it is other things which reduce you to tears (and there will probably be tears or rage or frustration at some point) then carry on. A wonderful manager I had very early in my career was kind and honest enough to admit they didn't get through all the things they were supposed to do and let me in on the biggest secret (you just do the important things)

10: Learning support, estates, technical support - these people are your friends. They will help you more than many of the people who are your line managers. Be nice to them (it is surprising to discover not all teachers are). They can make an enormous difference when your printer breaks, you need another whiteboard or one of your learners has an uncontrollable outburst of rage.

11: It's OK not to be top of the class. I've seen teachers burn out simply because it's the first time they've not been 'the best' at something. Similarly, I've seen really bright, well educated people who can't empathise with failure or understand lack of ambition. If you want a job where everything goes well and you get lauded, this isn't it.

12: There will be a lot of talk of 'team' but the truth is, it's a lonely job. You might be lucky to share your classes or course with a great colleague but you might also be ploughing a really lonely furrow. It is surprising how you can find support and succour from teachers of subjects outside your own area. You might teach art but find your teaching philosophy is more compatible with that of a maths colleague. That's fine.

13: Learning the nuances of exam boards is painful and you should apply to go on training as soon as possible. It will help. It won't help with the rage and frustration you will feel about exam boards as time goes on, but it will at least help you understand what you are trying to achieve with exam classes.

14: That PGCE folder full of theory. You will wonder what it is for. At least I did. I still couldn't tell you what a 'learning cycle' is.

15: You will inevitably try to teach people in the way you learn and will be baffled by their failure to achive enlightenment.

16: If you are working harder than your learners, something is not right. You will work harder than your learners. Something is not right. It isn't you. It is the wider system. It is still useful to remember this rule when planning and preparing.

17: If you are unlucky your school will insist your planning and preparation looks exactly like the next person's planning and preparation. This will be painful because you have a totally different brain and working methods. Remember when you wrote that mediocre essay with lots of words just to get it in? This is the planning you do on the school template. However, you do need to plan properly and it is worth spending serious time on meaningful planning that you actually intend to use. I always break down topics, learning objectives etc by the value to the course and the time spent and produce a colour coded document which I never submit to anyone. I'd be lost without it, but it's for me. It's not for OFSTED or for evidence for my managers, it's for me.

18: Don't be afraid not to know. It's OK to tell a learner to look something up or ask them to correct your spelling. They won't mind as long as you are trying your best.

19: Classroom management is simple. Be calm, be polite, have clear tasks and have some strategies for groups. If you are reasonable and treat them with respect, they will reciprocate (99% of the time.) A few consistently applied rules with a rational justification works better than a rule book. You need to be enthusiastic and pleased to see the learners everyday.

20: Praise (when earned) goes a long way. It is especially effective if given 1:1. Equally, don't avoid challenging laziness. My only real rule (beyond not hitting/bullying each other) is that if you try, I'll be nice to you. End of.

21: Don't be a hypocrite. My learners aren't allowed food or hot drinks in the classroom. I don't have them. I don't check my phone whilst teaching. I think that goes a long way.

22: Some of them are cleverer than you. That's ok. Respect that.

23: It does get easier. You build a set of lessons you can take 'off the peg.'

24: The fact I am writing this should tell you a lot about how difficult the job is but also how rewarding it is.

25: The fact their are 25 points also indicates there is no magic answer to 'good teaching' but there are things worth investing time in. AFL can shape and guide you lesson by lesson, week by week. Knowing how the learners feel about the work helps you plan. If they realise you are planning for them they'll appreciate it. They might not buy you flowers but hey, they're forced to be there! What do you expect? Gratitude for shoving the ideology of the state down their throats?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

No shouting...

I am trying to get through a year without shouting.

It's hard work because I'm good at shouting. By that, I mean, I'm very good at commanding a room with my voice. I should have had a career in the military really. Apart from the fact I'm a cowardly pacifist with no discernible fight mechanism I'd have fitted right in.

Anyways, where was I? Tuesday. Oh yes, I was talking about not shouting. It's not like I shout AT learners. No one has done that since at least 2008. Ever. Fact. It's more that I shout over them. My voice is like a klaxon at the end of the shift so to speak. So, I'm trying the 'teacher puts their hand up and the class raise their hand in response thing' as it's officially called in all good education textbooks.

For the following reasons:

1: I use a lot of discussion and group work. It's probably best that tasks come to a gradual halt as opposed to me yelling 'RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!!!!' and clapping my hands like a maniac and expecting the students just to stop thinking and talking the moment I decide time is up.

2: For a long time my teaching style was built on manic enthusiasm but I've learnt to reign it in and apply it at the right time. I think this is just an extension of that.

3: My voice. My poor voice.

4: The learners who are deep in concentration must jump out of their skin as I bellow at the top of my lungs.

5: I like to try to model a sense of calm and focus.

Why am I even blogging about this? I think simply to record that I've committed to it and also reflect that after a week or so of doing it, even the students who know me and my style have happily conformed. It also pains me to say that it works because I seem to recall learning this technique a few years ago in a CPD session and dismissing it on the basis that whoever was delivering the session spent an hour explaining it like it was alchemy. In a way, I wanted it not to work. But... it does. So far. Can't really see why it will stop.

Also Google has a timer. That still thrills me.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Digital Lobotomy. Bearded tits and the exam system.

So, you get asked to do a presentation on something. Anything really. It could be the pollution of the seas by plastic, a history of theatrical stage design or an evaluation of the branding possibilities of paralympic sportspeople. Whatevs (as young people said a few years ago)

You go (or at least I do and reckon you probably do too) for the internet.

You start to research, looking for zippy phrases, interesting reading, nuggets of useful information, particularly striking photographs, maybe a whole series of youtube documentaries or even, if you are feeling particularly researchy and need hard serious sources quickly, an ebook.

You don't think twice. You're not cheating, you're living, you're planning, you're constructing something from the ether, the collective thought, surfing the wave of knowledge so to speak.

You're not cheating. Lets be very, very clear. You are not cheating. Perhaps, you could, if you wanted wait till you have a free Saturday, go down to your local library, order some books, wait another 2 weeks for them to arrive and then spend hours reading no doubt fascinating information, sifting the information for the salient points.

You'd probably be a wiser person, but I doubt your presentation would be ready on time.

The internet is basically brilliant. I can find out anything I want. Look, I'll go and find something new out now. t's 20:54. I'll be back in a minute...

20:56: There's such a bird as a bearded reedling. You can see them on the Norfolk coast. This is news to me
A Bearded Reedling (probably unaware of it's place at the heart of this polemic)
20:57: I wonder if Bearded Reedlings are rare? 

20:59: I'm not entirely sure how rare they are, but I do know now they are also found in Belarus and Azerbaijan

21:00: Still not sure how rare they are, but I've discovered they are sexually dimorphic. I've connected this to other things, like mallards and pheasants as it means difference in character/appearance beyond the sexual organs. This is a phrase I've either never heard of or have erased along with almost all of my GCSE biology. Exploring further and using my brain I've realised many things are sexually dimorphic and that sea mammals tend to display the biggest size differences between gender. I'm on a roll. 

21:03: I'm pretty certain they are what is also known as the Bearded Tit (insert hilarity here) and there's between 1/4 and 1/2 a million pairs of them in Europe. 

21:06: Ok, controversy hunters. It seems the reedling is a tit, but not a tit. It seems it was placed with the tit family before then being catagorised as a parrot bill but then (get this!) it wasn't one of those either and it was placed in it's own category entirely... called 'Panuridae'

21:08: Further research suggests that the 'Panuridae' family is an umbrella term which includes Parrotbills and the bearded tit. 

I could go on. I really could. But this blog started as a process of self reflection and a chance to air my thoughts in the hope somebody would respond and subject them to lavish praise and promote me to shadow education minister , critical rigour. I'm not sure further delving into the world of small birds will hasten this process. 

The point is, I can turn raw information into knowledge. I can research and find things at the drop of a hat. So can young people. It's quite a feature of my job role at work as I'm sure it is in yours. I've found it's had an effect on things like my short term memory. Who really needs one of those eh? I've learnt new ways to improvise round this. Google Keep is a godsend. Alarms on my phone. 

Sometimes I even wonder if I'd like to put the genie back in the bottle. It doesn't fit though. The genie got fat and used to living a free range live and me and the genie just need to learn to co-exist. 

The young people need to learn to live with him too. He's a scary genie sometimes. He can grant wishes and not all wishes are good. Some of the wishes are though. Some of the wishes are amazing. Some of the wishes could change the entire face of life and learning. 

Yet we send them into rows of drafty, echoing halls, year after year, armed with a pen and a piece of paper and then wonder why they are disconnected from education. We wonder why they roll their eyes and sigh at endless 'technique' classes and being drilled to remember stuff half of which is going to be outdated by the time they have picked up the exam certificate. 

We tell them 'it proves you can learn' or 'it's what employers want' as if the only reason to get an education is for someone else. It's not about teasing threads of enquiry or following a trail of curiosity. It's so 'you can get a sticker which proves you can learn' 

We chastise them for 'being bored' then rush to the staffroom to check social media and I think we're threatened. We're threatened by a world that doesn't need us to learn things. 

It does need us to learn to learn things though. We could do a such an incredible job if outside the idea of the 'connected classroom' we also had 'connected exams.' 

Lets start by introducing a new GCSE - we'll call it GCSE Information Synthesis. 

It's going be a 3 hour long exam. The question paper will be as follows: 

"Take a topic of your choice (or choose one from the list below) and present your learning on that topic in the form of an engaging presentation which demonstrates knowledge of the subject and of any debates or arguments surrounding it 

- You should use your own words and clearly cite the sources of any quotes you use in support of your argument or explanations
- You may link to webpages to support your work, alternative you may choose to screenshot any data, images or statistics you wish to use" 

We'll make the mark scheme up another day. I'm bored of writing the paper now. You get the idea though. You get a U for trying to hack into a VPN so you can look at porn. That much I've decided.  

There's no earthly reason in my mind that can excuse the failure of the exam system to even acknowledge the 21st century. It makes me angry. It shapes my lessons. That makes me angry. 

We don't even think of giving learners the chance to showcase the kind of skills they'll actually need to possess in the 21st century. 


Sunday, 11 September 2016

Can you be both a perfectionist and a teacher?

Let's be clear. I'm not a perfectionist. Far from it. There are things I have very high standards about and other things I'll let slide. I think that's as true in terms of my attitude towards myself as it towards others.

During the term, their are many aspects of my practice and many aspects of my life that leave something to be desired. Be it the confusing mess of half finished ideas I call paperwork or the fact my partner and I sometimes talk for about a total of 20 minutes in a week.

I'm sanguine. This is the job. My resources are good. I'm focussed in the classroom, I try new things. I use objectives and criteria for success, AFL and I'm approachable and calm. I help colleagues plan, I create things for our department marketing, I run visits, I run CPD, I cover lessons, I attend union meetings, I am working parties and I offer strategies for issues college wide. I run extra curricular activities. I write lengthy and personal comments on work with literacy guidance and strategies to improve. I read with my child, I run around the house with a hoover, I cook food and freeze portions of it. I even sometimes go for a walk in the countryside or read a book. I almost never, ever, never, ever have a day off.

Were I to really dedicate myself to being any better at any one of the weaknesses (personal or professional) that are not directly focused on my classroom practice I'd probably keel over. I'd have days off. I'd not get the marking done. My partner would leave me (justifiably). My child wouldn't get his book read to him and the house wouldn't get hoovered.

That's OK, because my standards aren't so high that I can't cope when things aren't perfect.

It makes me laugh when you hear rhetoric about hiring 'only the best people' into teaching as if there isn't already a load of great people walking away from it.

I do wonder if the fact it's almost impossible to get a sense of a job really well done, or perhaps more accurately, a sense of 'completeness' is one of the reasons for the high turnover of teachers. It would be interesting to do some sort of survey about how NQT's saw themselves at the outset of their career and how they saw themselves now.

I'd be surprised if many of them remained 'perfectionists'

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Exam boards: Could do better?

A fairy routine workout tonight. In a way I'm writing for the sake of writing here. It's been good doing this and I don't want to lose the habit.


Exam Boards. No one likes them, they don't care.

I've never met a teacher or a student who has said 'I really like OCR/WJEC/AQA/the other ones - I feel they really make the role of being an educator or learner as easy as possible'

So, here's a few thoughts about how they could be different.

1: Do we really need loads of them? I don't really understand why they exist when you could easily build variation into one national exam board by offering options in terms of which papers were sat. It all feels a bit like privatised busses - the choice for the actual consumer (the learner) is notional and they just catch whatever bus turns up at the bus stop/classroom they are sat in.

2: Why do they do so little? Specifically, why do they offer so little to learners? I can only go from the subjects I've taught and the discussions I've had with colleagues, but when you visit the exam board website, there is nothing especially helpful to learners. This is particularly galling when they write criticisms of the way teachers prepare learners but leave teachers guessing for the exact content the examiner has in mind or the depth required in a question. Try impression marking based on bands with a single assessment objective. 'A good knowledge of context...' - What context? 1940? Where to we begin/end? National, international, political, social, fashion, economic etc etc.

Exam boards could easily offer some useful resources online to help student build skills related to the exam or to help explain the nuances of exam criteria, but they don't. At best there's a few half arsed attempts at modelling an A grade and often these are in a 'secure area' for teachers where it takes 20 minutes to navigate through various documents just to find out what the criteria for different units actually are.

3: The criteria themselves. This one is the big one for me. As a reasonably educated adult, who has attempted to continue his education through reading, not watching X-factor and sometimes listening to programmes with Melvin Bragg in them, I would hope to be able to understand the criteria for exams for people more than half my age. The thing is, I sometimes don't. It's the way they are written. IT makes me yearn to be a science or Maths teacher. I sit with the criteria, thinking, 'what exactly do they want?' It's not that I don't understand the words, it's just like they've come out of the mouths of a lawyer or something.

If I can't understand them without reference to exemplar material, I really wonder if my students (who often have the added barrier of not understanding some of the individual words) have any chance at all.

The thing is, learners are pretty good at writing criteria. In a class, I'll say 'we're going to do a thing, how are we going to judge it?' and they'll come up with a perfectly serviceable definition of outstanding, acceptable, not good enough or 'gold/silver/bronze' or whatever labels we apply to the criteria for success.

If a group of young people can come up with some plain English definitions that often inspire really excellent work, why can't the exam board who presumably don't have the distractions of adolescence and more than 10 minutes in groups of 3 to do so?

- I'm not a teacher who tries to 'play the game' especially - I sometimes think I should push learners more to apply for remarks and enforce more B grade students to resit in the hope of boosting value added. God knows, the affluent do. However, having had a lousy set of grades on one exam unit I have harangued managers and students into shelling out cash that neither the learners or the institution has on a set of remarks. (hoping to trigger a full review of the paper.) What galls me is the learners don't really need the higher grades or extra UMS points. I do though. I do because my performance management is based on it. I do because my own planning is based on experience and evidence.

As it is, I am deeply baffled. With a similar set of learners our centre (which is me) destroyed the same unit last year. We (I) changed little, tweaked the bits we thought could make things even better, up the A's, get a few more A* etc. I had no days off, no particular issues with the groups felt reasonably confident based on in year performance of at least respectable results for the learners who broadly expressed that they felt well prepared for the exam and expressed gratitude that I'd been thorough and rigorous.

So - what do I do as a teacher in this situation? I have to be the translator of the criteria. If I trust previous years experience I understand what the language means and am capable of conveying a broadly accurate sense of what is required to achieve success. If I trust this years results for the unit I am not fully understanding their meaning and should be saying something different. Do I tear my course apart and remake it, or do I trust my previous judgement and stick with the broader structure and just do the usual updating/review of activities?

The answer is, in search of clarity I bung the exam board £40 a time for 15 minutes work. That really, really, really annoys me. I know if I throw a tantrum and demand to speak to someone they'll suggest 'why not be a marker again?' for which they'll pay me considerably less than £40 per script for the privilege of spending even less time doing anything of human value and I'll be expected to mark an insane number of essays in my spare time, whilst still teaching and writing CPD and making links with feeder schools and everything else, like it's the equivalent degree of importance as hanging out the washing or walking the dog or attending an introduction to mindfulness (aka - not thinking about the shit that is shit and makes you want to put you fist through a wall).

- Finally, how expensive is the photocopier at these exam boards? I thought all these papers were digitised and there was a revolution in online marking? Why is it £10 a go just to look at why the grades are what they are?

So - solutions?

1: Make them far more student facing. Teachers can spend more time on the subject material - teaching improves.

2: Make them update their student facing material every year based on their impression (they do mark all the papers for heaven's sake) of student's skills gaps. Again, helps guide teachers and gives them more time to motivate, engage, assess individually and all the good stuff.

3: Radically overhaul the exam marking system. If there was one exam boards, all teachers could be given inset at a point in the year and mark a much smaller sample of work. Everyone get's the CPD of examining, the exam board isn't crawling around desperately looking for anyone with a pulse and a passing interest in the subject. The exam boards could still employ outside markers to ensure the sample sizes small.

4: Don't send an entire centre to a single examiner. People's career's depend on this. People's mortgage payments. Really. I once got a paper back and discovered moderation by a team leader had altered the grade by five levels. That's the entire range of grades available for that particular exam. That's like going to a football match and mistaking a 5-0 win for a 5-0 defeat.

5: The criteria again. If they were so well written, how does this happen? If they were more clearly expressed, either more explicit or just expressed in plainer English then it couldn't be much worse.

This is the least invigorating or interesting blog I've done so far, but we live in an accountability culture and I have to be able to account for learner's performance in exams. If I could trust the exam board a bit more and if the learners could get a bit more clear info directly, I'd probably spend less time doing 'Easter exam camp' and more time teaching the actual stuff of life.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Grammar schools (and faith schools and while we're at it private schools) can get in the sea

I have a lot of time for Paul Mason.

1) Because he's from Leigh.
2) Because he's one of the few vaguely mainstream thinkers who has noticed that we are facing more than a downturn in the economy and are in fact actually facing a major change in the structure of society.
3) Because he's from Leigh.

Image result for tyldesley county primary school old building
Some children in Leigh. 

Any way, his latest article on grammar schools is exactly right. I just thought I'd add to what Mason says with a few arguments of my own.

- Without comprehensive education how do people learn to interact with a wide spectrum of intelligence types? Even if you are destined to be a captain of industry full of psychotic zeal and disdain, it might be beneficial to learn to talk to us oiks from a comprehensive system in order to understand a little how the lesser minds of the common folk work.

- This wider appreciation for the fullest range of people can only be understood in a broad way. It can't be measured by a simple test.

- Failing to understand (or at least ever mention it ever) that education is about socialisation is one of the biggest failings in current thinking.

- The pressure on children is already leading to misery. I'll post at length my opinions and experiences regarding mental health and the education system at some point in the future but it surely can't do much to relieve the pressure on young people by offering further selection and more tests to pass.

- Has no-one noticed that in a 21st century secular society that faith schools have been gifted greater freedom to select their intake based on faith? That because I've decided to base my ethics and outlook on the evidence of my experiences my child will potentially be barred from a reasonable proportion of the local high schools. Add this to grammar schools and your average child of sceptical parents is not really looking at a wide range of options. I honestly can't see any rational argument for state education being provided on the basis of faith. I'm not really sure what religious faith has to do with education which at it's heart is to do with questions. It might seem like the liberal braying of a guardian columnist but why has no one seriously questioned the right of a parent to impose their faith on a child?

Sure, you've got the right to believe in what ever nonsense you like, but to make your child perform the rituals of your religion? To base their entire education on your faith principles seems odd to me. I'm not convinced that several major religions don't have some pretty dodgy/frightening aspects at their core. Beliefs and messages that have no basis in evidence or fact and don't really go very far in explaining the world. Let me be clear, I've absolutely no objection to religion being taught as part of philosophy and no objection to someone having faith or living their life accordingly, but to ghettoise their children to protect them from the wider sinful world seems a backwards attitude. To actively encourage this seems at best nostalgia and at worse downright dangerous.

- If you were serious about equality of opportunity you'd offer everyone access to the same system. You'd do away with all grammar schools, faith schools and private schools and you'd build a state system which offered the best things from those systems. The best things from those system isn't the fact that by their nature they take from the most motivated (parent supported) young people and from my limited knowledge, it isn't the teaching in the main (I don't know that many privately educated people and in general those I know report that it was nothing special) - it's that to some extent they offer a degree of choice for young people who may struggle in a larger less personal 'factory sized' comprehensive.

Having witnessed two seemingly perfectly adequate smaller local schools in my local area close (probably because they were more profitable as building sites), I can only conclude the government aren't planning on following my advice any time soon and opportunities will continue to narrow if you can't afford an alternative to a vast multi academy trust run by a super head who is on site occasionally. My first school was a smallish comprehensive primary run by an eccentric, deeply caring lady with cats in her office, an open door to anyone and a mission to get to know everyone, parents and children alike.

It is that sort of educational manager that seems to be driven out of the state system by an invasive corporate culture which hides the drive for efficiency behind an agenda of standards and yet private schools seem to revel in (and receive lavish praise from government) precisely the sort of eccentricity and personality which has become unimaginable now. When I'm not in full blown 'first against the wall' mode, I don't blame affluent parents for seeking green fields, small classes, long serving staff and a convincing veneer of character and charm over a huge intake, a raft of NQTs and a 'purpose built' box straight from the big book of PFI designs where character runs as deep as the marketing agency who designed the identikit logo and new mission statement (which is probably about the fourth mission statement in as many years)

- If the SATs are so good, why aren't they used for grammar school selection? Why do they have a different test which is more like something from a bumper book of puzzles from the 1950s?

- If this policy doesn't unite the Labour party then what will?