Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Deserters will be shot!

It's pretty clear that teaching is a toxic profession right now. The combination of botched curriculum reforms that are unfit for the needs of the students, a performance management system that forces us to take responsibility for things we can't control, pay freezes, creeping private sector involvement, workload, Kafkaesque data systems and a pathetic amount of reflection time in comparison to more enlightened countries make working in teaching a pretty joyless experience at the moment.

I want to write a short piece starting with a reflection about the prevalence of the TES and Guardian 'That's it, I can't go on' articles which seem to be particularly en vogue at the moment.

There is a common theme to them. Summarised they tend to go like:

I wasn't a 'struggling teacher'
I did everything I was asked and did my best
I pushed myself to the limit for the sake of my students
I found myself in a terrible place mentally
I battled on and tried really hard.
A straw broke the camel's back
I quit.

There is no doubt about the validity of the personal experiences these articles cite. There is no doubt that there are some monstrous management regimes in education (as in most walks of life) and little doubt that teacher burnout is a major problem. I have nowt but sympathy for the people who have actually broken under the weight of what is a pretty impossible job to actually do all of.

I think the prevalence of these articles on 'teacher social media' (I want to kill myself acknowledging I know that is a thing) is symptomatic of a misunderstanding about what brings about change - Essentially it's a collective naivety, it's like we keep expecting someone to change it for us. For someone to sweep in and make a magical decree on behalf of everyone and click their fingers and suddenly teaching is a great happy place.

The only people who can change this system meaningfully are teachers and if we keep celebrating the fact teachers quit by enthusiastically sharing, publishing and recommending the stories of their breakdowns we are really only serving to further our own misery. We are perpetuating the idea of ourselves as victims of a cruel system we can do nothing about.

What we need is a clear understanding of the key problems facing schools and a broad agreement around what we want. 

We need a common framework that the majority of teachers agree would improve both their conditions and the experience of learners. Year after year after year we swing from political regime to political regime and like a pendulum move back and forth adapting to ideological changes and political career making. It's time to say - no more! Yes, it's satisfying to fantasise about walking away from a job but it doesn't achieve anything beyond throwing another NQT on the bonfire, rinse and repeat.

I'm not going to quit. You shouldn't either. At least not if you enjoy at least some of your job on some level. You should start seriously thinking though. What I think is important is the following:

1: Schools should be controlled by LEAs. It is more efficient. Maybe the LEA model needs reform, I don't know, but academies are fundamentally damaging to employment rights and inefficient.

2: Schools should co-operate not compete. Funding must be a longer term arrangement, not simply based on x number of pupils = x amount of money. This forces schools into competing for learners which is a significant expense of time and money, and can result in forcing learners to complete courses  which don't suit their needs because they dare not 'lose' or 'fail' a learner who might be better suited to a different environment or course.

3: In order to achieve 2 we really need to consider the impact of league tables on standards. Has there *actually been a positive impact?* (I'm interested in any evidence if anyone has any - it's always struck me that 'competition improves outcomes' is a truism that in 15 years teaching I've never seen any actual evidence of that isn't either statistically questionable given the shifting nature of exams and 'standards' or just a basic re-framing of an essentially ideological belief - clearly in sport, footballers try harder in competitive situations but they also get lots of rest, can see their opponent and are playing a simple game - lets not just accept the situation 'as is' as true.)

4: We also possibly need to really consider carefully whether outcomes tell us the real story of education. There's a fascinating study which suggests the real impact of education is not how children perform NOW but how they perform much later in schooling. It suggests that teachers who focus on real skills and underlying concepts and attitudes as opposed to cramming for the test are punished for not cramming for the test, but actually add much value to their learners on a longer term basis. In other words, feed the pig junk food and it'll get fat. Feed it health food and it'll live much longer or produce much better meat. We reward the junk food feeding. If I was actually writing a book I'd link to it. You'll just have to believe me because I haven't had any dinner yet and this is a bizarre cathartic ritual for me to try and clear my mind because it's full of thoughts and I seriously need to switch off. If anyone wants to send me a few thousand quid then I'll take my academic duties more seriously and start adding footnotes and all that jazz.

5: Teachers need to focus on teaching, assessment and reflection. Nothing more beyond an open day and a parents evening. The clue is in the name.

6: To do this effectively on a 23-25 hour timetable is already an almighty challenge. We know that genuine AFL and other effective strategies are built around reflection, preparation and thoughtfully constructed lessons. We know parents and learners want a system where staff have time to actually engage with kids and know them on some level. Not possible in the current system.

7: So therefore the priorities for us must be to a) reduce teaching hours per week by a significant amount. b) to guard against any reduction in teaching being filled with admin/marketing/data generation. c) to ensure this time is given to creativity and development of teaching d) because only this will improve the outcomes (both measurable and not) whatever model of pedagogy we subscribe to.

8: The money this would cost could in part be clawed back from the funding not being spent on competing and more efficient use of LEA services. I also think we could vastly simplify the exam system and save money there. The point being, that yes, we do need funding increases, but these increases must not be simply spent on making a broken engine run faster. Plug the leaks in the exhaust.

9: We must stop working 60 hour weeks. In simple terms, by doing so you are cheapening your labour and the labour of everyone around you. You tell yourself 'it's for the kids' but you are modelling a world in which the adults around them don't value themselves, don't value their rights and opportunities, don't stand up for themselves. In an increasingly volatile labour market and faced with stagnant growth, automation, gig economy bullshit, these learners are going to HAVE to stand their ground and demand a world that affords them dignity and humanity.

10: If you spend your time running miserably from job to job, doffing your cap to authority all the time how is that 'modelling' anything positive? 'Hey kidz, work hard, stay in school then you can get a good job and be miserable as fuck' - Teacher mental health and student mental health are entwined. Live with someone who is constantly unhappy (hello partner, I'm sorry, I love you more than I can say) and it'll grind you down (again, I'm sorry! I WILL be happier!) Don't give me some 'I don't let the kidz see' bullshit. They aren't stupid. They see exhausted, tired, drained adults trying desperately to communicate stuff they don't really see the importance of and understand absolutely the game being played. It's not a nice one.

Neo-liberal education isn't a pleasant bedtime story.

"Once upon a time there were some grown-ups, they were sad because they had to make some children try and do some things when they'd really rather have asked the children to do some different stuff. They didn't really understand why the children had to do the things but they did their best because it was what is called a 'target'. So, the grown ups all did it even though it took ages and seemed pointless and it made them even sadder because they felt rubbish doing it and the children were sad because they didn't like it or know why they were doing it and that made the grown ups sadder and it all just carried on because that's the way it is and next year the grown ups had to do it better to beat another school down the road because that matters more than happiness or sunshine or anything and that's all anyone can imagine because 'targets' are a bit like God" 

I'd MUCH rather read a child Nietzsche. Less scary.

11: We MUST support direct action. There are no excuses. None what so ever. Ask yourself seriously, genuinely, honestly, even if you want to work the hours, even if you want to climb the ladder, even if you love the job from bottom to top, from every intervention to every single column of data in every spreadsheet; can you look around your school and not worry about the staff? Can you look at your learners and honestly think 'this current incarnation of British education is working really well for them!'

I'm having my dinner now. It's over. Revolution begins and ends with you*.

*I don't really know if that's true, in fact, I suspect it isn't, but it's a nice way to end. What does truth matter anyway?

Thursday, 12 October 2017

There's a maniac on the loose in the school

In which I begin with a moment of levity before writing an unremitting splurge of bleakness

Lets imagine a scenario. A masked person (of unspecified gender) bursts into a school. They open fire, killing, maiming and injuring both children and teachers.

The government, fully aware of this just shrugs and says 'carry on as you were'

That scenario seems unlikely.

I am old enough to remember my primary school (and high school) being a pretty 'free range' kind of environment. It was eminently possible to walk in (and indeed out) of the school but despite this it seemed fairly unthinkable that it wasn't a safe place to be. I remember Dunblane which changed that belief forever and now your average school resembles a low security prison.

It seems unlikely that the government would just shrug and allow things to remain 'as they are.' Evidence suggests when faced with a threat like Thomas Hamilton, the authorities act with fairly swift and decisive action.

Lets consider now that this 'gun wielding maniac' is a device. A manipulative weapon wielding device employed by the writer to grab your attention and focus your mind on the issue at hand. We are not actually considering the unlikely and almost impossibly painful possibility of a school massacre.

Let me present you with a few facts to guide you to what we are considering:

The suicide rate amongst primary school teachers is double the national average (according to this)

One of the prime causes of suicide amongst young people is exam pressure (according to this)

This well researched exploration explains that 27% of the suicides of young people studied in the report had at least some link to exam pressures.

This article explains that the majority of teachers feel their job has impacted on their mental health in the last year

This article - reports on the education select committee findings on the impact of primary testing on the wellbeing of learners.

However trite my analogy is (and I'm aware it's not exactly a sensitive one) the point is clear. We can link 'the education system' to the poor mental health of teachers and learners and even suggest a link to the deaths of teachers and learners.

Even if we take away the hysterical proposition of the gun wielding maniac and replace it with someone who at the school gates intimidates, frightens or physically harms the children, it's really quite unthinkable that action wouldn't be taken. Not taking action would be considered a gross neglect, heads would roll, scandal and outrage would have its day, newspapers and phone in shows would fill with frothing fury and bilious outrage. 'Schools MUST be safe places' we would shout.

Danger is not always visible. Sometimes you have to look beyond what you immediately can see.

Now, lets take the analogy a little further. Suppose the gun wielding maniac had attacked and escaped. Suppose there was nothing to suggest they wouldn't do it again.

Suppose the response from the government was to take away the fences, security doors and id badges? 

Perhaps you're ahead of me here:

- Here is an article that deals with a parliamentary enquiry explaining the impact budget cuts have on mental health services
- Here is one of many articles explaining how workload increases are putting increased pressure on teachers

IF you've read this far, your probably aware of the corrosive impact of targets on education, you probably know that schools have to invest a huge amount of time and energy into the exam performance (at 7,11,16 and 18) of their learners. You probably know that if local authority schools fail to achieve a certain standard they are threatened with forced academisation which strips teachers of their hard fought rights and fundamentally changes the school's relationship with the support structures which surround it. You might be aware of the confusing and often botched changes to the GCSE and A-level structures and the removal or loss of focus on many of the more 'humanistic' subject areas in favour of measurement of a specific group of subjects.

You might possibly just look at the above articles and the brief paragraph of context and humour my overstretched analogy.

What if there was a threat to pupils and teachers alike, what if it was demonstrable, real and happening right now and the government just did nothing? What if our schools were infested with mould or dangerous wiring or some other kind of physical course of illness?

Why don't we take the raft of evidence of the impact of a target driven education system seriously? Why don't we listen to teachers and pupils when they speak out about this? How many breakdowns and suicides does it take before we take reform seriously and commit ourselves to properly looking at the needs of pupils (which are intrinsically linked to the needs of teachers.)

How do we allow education and the lives of those who live in it (young and old) to be subject to the whims of a tiny group of elite ministers who often have little or no experience of either comprehensive education or teaching?

I'm not suggesting that suddenly we can instantly turn education into place of happiness and joy unconfined overnight. Teaching is inevitably challenging and young people will continue to have complex mental health needs and suicide is something we should never simplify to one cause.

I am however suggesting very clearly that there is an identifiable human cost to some of the bad decisions made in education policy and a real negative impact from the structures imposed on schools and that we must, collectively, as parents, teachers and learners demand a more human system in which we are all encouraged to learn and teach in a more healthy way.

If we don't address this, the costs will keep mounting. We have to focus our energy, not on whining but on action and clear demands - not just for pay settlements and bribery for teachers to join shortage subjects, but for real changes. For pupils to receive an education which is broader and healthier than being drilled in grammar and Pythagoras 'because it's on the exam.' For teachers to be able to reflect, plan and access professional development and find some joy in their work. For us to be able to understand and appreciate that learning counts even if it isn't attached to a grade. To understand that teaching should be about giving people liberty, giving people skills, giving them things that make their lives better and that this isn't a stupid and romantic notion, it's actually the foundation and reason for the development of humanity.

We spend an increasing amount of time marketing schools, fighting in a competitive market place for learners, badging, branding, proclaiming USP's and asserting our 'identity' - why are we doing this? Does it have any impact on the actual experience of our learners or the quality of our teaching? Let's play a little mental exercise based on 'They Live' (a film in which a bloke discovers some magic glasses and sees the world as it is)

If we don these glasses, do we see signs like 'St Winifred's Academy - Our teachers are unstable and our support systems are overwhelmed, but with luck your child will escape with their self esteem intact' or 'Crowsend Primary - where 60% of the teachers are 'overwhelmed' and year 3 +6 are a miserable nightmare where you kid will learn a load of crap and forget about childhood'

Please can we properly discuss the mental health of our education system like grown ups? Can we drop the rhetoric and assumptions and have a really good think about it. Please can we at least try to fix it? We can send people to space, we can collide hadrons and have 76546 TV channels to choose from but we can't manage to make the innate (and very socially necessary) human skill teaching of young children a job that doesn't directly increase your risk of serious mental health problems?

What is this world we live in? Who is it for? Why do we keep perpetuating it? 

What would your answer be to the problems posed above?

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Bad satire, some maths and a bit of literature at the end.

I really get annoyed with the 'Now Show' on R4. When I occasionally catch it I am struck by its mediocrity and the image it evokes of its audience irks me to. I presume the audience to be people with nice big oak kitchens baking a recipe from a guardian supplement chuckling to themselves about how witty TV rejects Punt and Dennis are about the government mishandling of social care which is a terrible shame. Sigh.

This is the attitude of envy. I consider myself to be a cheeky banter monkey with an eye on the topical pulse but as yet R4 haven't offered me a contract. I haven't asked them but trying is the first step to failure and we all know a chip on one's shoulder is a serious medical condition worthy of a living allowance and ideally a medical prescription for two or three pints with someone who agrees with you about things. Plus I've got a shit kitchen.

Anyway, I'm going to take the brave step of attempting to create my own 'Now Show' style sketch. Granted, it's a radio show and my sketch includes visual imagery but again, if politicians don't have to live up to their promises, why should I? (that was a warm up gag. See, it's going to be a doddle...)

An office setting - two people dressed in business uniform. Gender and ethnicity of cast is unimportant but they must be well dressed. An air of anxiety pervades. This could be politicians, leaders of a school or hospital or the management team of a large business. 

A: There's a serious structural crisis in the heart of this organisation. Our systems simply don't work.
B: Call a branding manager
A: But... couldn't we go and Google something and make the decision ourselves - It can't be that hard surely?
B: No, because then we'd be responsible for something if it went wrong + the whole exercise would be over in about 15 minutes and then we'd have the rest of the week to fill. 
A: That's what I call strong leadership
B: We owe it to the organisation to do this properly.

I'd carry on but I can't be bothered. My teeth are getting blunted with all the biting savagery contained in these words.

Frankly, the sketch is awful, but I do think it contains more truth than much of what passes for communication in our lives. I'm all for well being and positive thought, but it feels like we've passed through a looking glass into a world where everything is what someone says it is and not what it actually is. Linguistic games matter more than truth.

Now truth is a tricky concept, I concede this. We can wrestle over 'the truth' but I'd suggest that it isn't to be found in branding exercises. Recently I conducted some independent research (I googled stuff for a bit) and found that the average UK school has a marketing spend of about 2% of it's budget. This is a questionable truth, but even if the figure is closer to 1% it's quite a spectacular figure if we do some maths.

There will be some maths in a moment. 

I absolutely understand why school managers would pay this money. It is after all, essential to attract learners to schools as the funding of the school and therefore the jobs in the school depend on it and so on and so on. We could even probably do some maths to decide its money well spent in a lot of schools.

This is an extract from the first result I found when I googled 'school marketing budget' 

It isn't this 2% figure that scares me per se. It's the fact that this sort of policy is required as schools need to compete with each other. It's that no one questions it seriously beyond a little griping.

Here's a little maths exercise. If we assume (falsely) that teachers work 40*37.5 hrs per week then what time benefit could that 2% have if the money were spent on teaching? Let's just assume the money is spent on more teachers thus freeing the existing teachers up a bit.

Neatly enough 2% of 37.5 is 45 minutes. 45 minutes X 40 is 1.25 days. Someone from Pisa (the global education league table people) suggested (in an article I can't find but does exist) UK education is stuck in the doldrums because UK teachers lack reflection time. Without reflection time, teachers mentally can't produce the high quality lessons, engage in the professional development required to improve, consider their learners as individual people and the things that every decent teacher aspires to do. Without reflection time, teachers are 'getting by' or 'burning out' (or climbing out if any managers are reading this, I see you!) 

According to government figures there are over 450000 teachers in the UK (statistical equivalent if we add up all the part time ones to make full time ones)

This means that, if schools stopped having to pretend to be businesses and spending money on glossy brochures, adverts, staff managing outward facing social media accounts and painting the face of a teenager on the back of a bus with the slogan 'Thropp Academy - a pathway to your future' we, the UK publicly funded education profession would be gifted with precisely 571125 days of reflection time.

That is 47500 months of reflection or over 1500 YEARS of reflection time every year.

So, lets remind us of my sources.

A) PISA (I assure you, there is an article! - but the point works anyway even if there isn't, reflection = better teaching, PISA state quality of teaching is vital)
B) Government figures. (I even linked them)

The above isn't taking into account the time that goes into meetings and 'fact finding missions' worrying about 'what the competition are doing' that doesn't appear on the balance sheet by senior staff (on larger salaries) or the cost of time spent by teachers on marketing exercises - it is clearly a conservative estimate of the true cost of competition. Whilst the 2% figure is a fairly educated guess (coming from a survey in which 300+ schools were surveyed to attempt to establish 'best practice' in marketing schools)  the fact that academies and free schools are likely to push marketing spend UP not down makes disputing it's precise accuracy a fairly moot point in the humble opinion of this blogger.

In other words, my shit sketch is trying to show that applying the logic of capitalism to something that isn't essentially capitalist costs money. Costing money costs teachers time. Teacher time lost costs learners. Marketing might be cost effective for school A but school B either improves its brand image (spends money on marketing) or suffers the lost students (loses money.)

This is the trap we are in.

A business can expand exponentially or alter its product fundamentally if it loses market share. Whilst of course a school can change its character or build another building, ultimately it is a school, providing GCSEs, SATs tests and various other aspects of the national curriculum to a local population - it is a service.

My final point occurred to me as I wrote. It seems the homogenisation of education created by first a national curriculum and second, a stringent regime of pseudo 'standards' (measurement would be a more apt term) coincides almost precisely with the boom in school marketing. It's almost as if we collectively believe that being told we have choice and freedom in our education means we have choice and freedom in our education!

To badly paraphrase Kafka, the door is open, but for some reason, we just don't seem to see it.

We are trapped by our imagination. By perceiving what is as what has to be.

I want to rebrand the word 'efficiency' I want us to really work out what it means to us.

(Now work through the exercise above and change teaching to 'the railways' or 'the council')