Friday, August 16, 2019

The case of Starbank School teaches us one thing: Ofsted can’t be trusted

Yesterday, beleaguered teachers at Starbank School in South Yardley, Birmingham, went on strike for the second time in six days in response to the school’s abject failure to protect their health and safety at work.

They are working in truly appalling, inhumane conditions. Indeed, according to Paul Nesbitt, the NASUWT national executive member involved in the dispute, the teaching staff are being subjected to feral pupils carrying weapons, daily threats of violence, verbal abuse, and regular brawling in the classrooms.

In one incident, some kids were caught in possession of three knives, one of which had a 12 inch blade; another saw a teacher punched in the face by a Year 7 boy and, as if these examples aren’t shocking enough, every Thursday is now referred to as Thursday Fight Day.

Needless to say, teachers are scared to leave their classrooms. They’ve even been issued with panic buttons. That’s right, the headteacher refuses to ensure the safety of his staff by permanently excluding violent children, but he has given them panic buttons, presumably to press after they’ve been stabbed. I’m sure they will be eternally grateful.

The school contends that only 16 out of 122 teachers have taken action, meaning that, according to them, the rest of the staff must be happy.

But this fails to take into account the courage it takes to go on strike. These individuals know what’s at stake. They are now targets. Their careers at the school are, at the very least, in jeopardy. They may even be over. Senior leaders and school governors will do everything in their power to force them out – an objective that, in the present climate of unmanageable workload, won’t be difficult to realise.

Every single teacher in every single school in the country could be the target of a disgruntled senior leader at any time, desperate to place them on capability in a sinister bid to force them out. There’s simply so much work to do, nobody’s able to keep on top of it. We’re all vulnerable.

So these teachers, the ones with the audacity to strike, will now be the targets of the leadership’s wrath, have no doubt. In light of this depressing reality, most of their colleagues will – understandably – be unwilling to make the same sacrifices, especially if they have families to support. So yes, there may be only 16 members on strike, but you can bet your life on it, many of the remaining teachers will be with them in spirit. I mean, there’s even video footage of ‘Fight Thursday’ for anyone who doubts the veracity of the strikers’ claims.

The most interesting and revealing aspect of this particular case, though, is Ofsted’s sparkling, yes sparkling, review of what is, in reality, a violent dystopian snake pit. Starbank school has been rated ‘outstanding’ since 2012. Last year, moreover, it was described as having an ‘exceptional ethos, care and quality of education’. For whatever reason, the inspectorate failed to spot the school’s myriad shortcomings. And it wouldn’t be the first time.

Ofsted’s judgments, in my experience, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I recently taught in a school with appalling levels of what is euphemistically described in the teaching profession as ‘low-level’ disruption. In layman’s terms, that means that, although the kids don’t throw chairs at you, they talk incessantly. In fact, it’s impossible to complete a sentence without being interrupted. This was so bad that the other, more senior teaching staff at the school advised me not to initiate whole-class discussions. It’s pointless, they said. Just do as we do, give them the work and get used to the relentless chatting.

When Ofsted came in, however, just after Christmas, they judged the school and the behaviour to be ‘good’. How is that possible? I thought.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had similar experiences in lots of different schools, some, unfortunately, very much like Starbank. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever concurred with an Ofsted judgment. They’ve always been, in my view, far too generous, demonstrating low expectations of pupils and teachers, especially when it comes to behaviour for learning.

The former advisor to Michael Gove, Tom Richmond, contends that Ofsted’s grades are wrong in up to half of cases. He recently cited two international studies that concluded that different inspectors reached different judgments about the same schools in up to 50 percent of instances.

This surely brings into question the Government’s oft-repeated claim that, due to its education reforms introduced in 2010, nearly two million more children now attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. In short, the claim is bunkum. As demonstrated in the case of Starbank School, Ofsted’s judgments can’t be trusted.

First published on conservative home on 4th July 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019

Can teachers be trusted to teach primary school pupils about LGBT relationships?

Anderton Park Primary School has found itself at the centre of what some would characterise as a dispute between two very different value systems. On one side you have the self-styled defenders of secular, socially progressive liberalism and with it, alternative lifestyles, whilst, on the other, you have conservative religious values or, more accurately in this case, conservative Muslim values.

For several weeks now, predominantly Muslim parents have been demonstrating against the school’s approach to promoting equality – an approach that exposes pupils to books featuring cross-dressing children and gay families. Shakeel Afsar, the self-appointed leader of the demonstrators and, interestingly, an individual without a child at the school, accuses the headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, of ‘social engineering’. Ms Clarkson has reportedly received threatening emails and phone calls and, last week, in a further escalation of the dispute, hundreds of pupils were kept off school by disgruntled parents.

But should we see this as another example of secular values conflicting with those held by some of our more conservative Islamic communities? A recent Newsnight report certainly thinks we should. Apart from a perfunctory nod to ‘some’ Christians sharing the reservations of ‘some’ Muslims, there was little exploration of wider societal concerns about the exposure of children to such material. Neither was there an adequate discussion of the benefits and disbenefits of the school’s methods which, by the way, are now replicated by similar programmes in hundreds of primary schools across the country.

This, in my view, is a mistake. First, of course we need to discuss and explore the possible implications and consequences of making pupils read books about cross-dressers, same-sex relationships and gay marriage. These are our children, after all. Secondly, we shouldn’t be dragged into viewing this dispute through the prism of progressive secularism versus reactionary religious conservatism. It is much more complicated than that. Many who consider themselves to be progressive secularists, for example, share the concerns of their more traditionally minded, religious friends and neighbours.

And what about me? I suppose I’m a partially progressive (I supported civil partnerships but opposed gay marriage; believe that a person should be, out of common courtesy, addressed by their preferred gender pronoun but, in reality, can’t really – actually - change gender), partially conservative, partially secularist (I converted to Catholicism to get my children into a good school, but, if I’m being honest, would probably describe myself as agnostic and detest fundamentalist creeds of all stripes) mishmash of confused, contradictory positions, as you’ve probably deduced.

The point is, like many progressive secularists and conservative Muslims, Christians and Jews, I’m deeply concerned about schools exposing children to books about same-sex relationships and transgender peers without, at the very least, shedding some light on the possible implications through a public debate.

Yes, some might argue that by openly challenging bigotry, encouraging tolerance and making LGBT pupils feel safe, respected and valued, such an approach has enormous benefits. But what if, instead of encouraging tolerance, highlighting alternative lifestyles does the opposite, especially if it conflicts with belief systems that are prominent in the pupils’ homes? Could emphasising difference draw unnecessary attention to LGBT pupils and, as a consequence, encourage rather than discourage vilification? Are these not questions worth asking, before we jump in, feet first, experimenting with the lives of our children?

Furthermore, teaching children from the age of four or five about alternative lifestyles may plausibly raise awareness of human sexuality, encouraging them to question and even experiment with their own sexuality. It may elicit unnecessary confusion, even distress, leading to hitherto unconsidered behaviours.

By far my biggest concern, however, is trusting a highly politicised, ideological profession to dispassionately promote tolerance rather than encourage, even glorify, alternative lifestyles. Children are extremely impressionable and, generally speaking, will do almost anything to please adults, especially those, like teachers, in positions of power and authority. What wouldn’t my kids do to impress their teachers? What if one of these teachers insidiously convinces my son that he is gay or transgender? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. After all, three generations of educators have convinced our children of the evils of capitalism, the Tory Party and now, more recently, the abomination that is Brexit. Indeed, going one step further, what better way to attack petit bourgeois capitalism than launch an assault upon its bulwark, the traditional family? Such a fear is neither outlandish nor unfounded.

And before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist, consider the following: a teacher turned whistle-blower recently exposed his/her school for tricking vulnerable children into believing that they were the wrong sex. Indeed, according to the whistle-blower, most of the 17 pupils in the process of changing gender at the school were autistic. Dr Joanna Williams, a university lecturer and author of the book Women vs Feminism, believes that schools are ‘sowing confusion about gender identity’ by ‘encouraging even the youngest children to question whether they are really a boy or a girl.’ This is extremely worrying. If true - and, as a teacher of 15 years, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of such claims - some teachers are abusing their positions to further some kind of warped, misguided political agenda. Would you trust them to dispassionately teach your children about LGBT relationships? I certainly wouldn’t.

And herein lies the problem. Too many schools believe they’re in the business of indoctrinating and socially engineering our children. They’re not, or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Until this simple fact is widely accepted and rectified, I’d rather teachers didn’t involve themselves in issues as sensitive as marriage and relationships, especially when one considers the age of many of them. They are young, na├»ve, inexperienced and armed with youthful idealism and a terrifying, burning sense of the new, politically correct morality. They are Corbyn’s shock troops.

Dressing up the Anderton Park Primary School dispute as a conflict between progressive secularism and reactionary religious conservatism serves as a kind of displacement activity. By characterising the demonstrators as reactionaries and, by implication, extremists, the school - and its decision to promote equality through the introduction of books that feature same-sex couples and cross-dressing children -, being their antithesis, is naturally portrayed as moderate, reasonable and mainstream. Therefore, according to this narrative, there is nothing to discuss, apart from the intolerance of our more conservative religious communities. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people, including some that would consider themselves to be progressive and, dare I say it, even atheistic, are deeply troubled by the prospect of their children being exposed to such material. Indeed, the school’s position is neither moderate nor mainstream. It must be debated as a matter of urgency. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Tory Party's already dead

If only the Tories were in the last death throes of their long and distinguished existence. At least that would suggest a desperate desire to endure in the face of near certain expiration. Instead, they’re more like a farting corpse. What seems like the odd flicker of life, even hope, turns out to be nothing more than hot air burping from the backside of a dead political party.

Let’s take their leader’s response to last week’s local election results as a case in point. They were a calamity. The Tories lost more than 1,300 seats. But Theresa May - in her unique and now fabled ability to deny reality - responded by pointing the finger of blame at the House of Commons. The public had punished the two main parties for failing to deliver Brexit, she opined. In other words, they don’t blame her; they blame those pesky politicians for voting against her Withdrawal Agreement.

Unsurprisingly, there was neither an ounce of contrition born of a sense of personal responsibility for the disaster, nor an indication of, having listened to the people, a change in her government's approach. Indeed, in her mind, the results were not a demonstration of the unpopularity of her agreement; they were a protest against the two main parties and, in particular, the stubborn ERG, for failing to get it through the House of Commons. Her uncanny predilection for self-deception is truly mind-blowing. She now seems to believe that the public’s anger will be pacified by a deal with Jeremy Corbyn that ties us to a ‘customs arrangement’. As I said, truly mind-blowing.

It’s not just about Theresa May, though. It’s about the entire Tory Party, both anti-democrat Remainers and craven Brexiteers, most of whom, like Boris, have sat back and raised the odd objection but, in reality, done nothing to stop May’s betrayal. I realise that this sounds counter-intuitive, but in order to save at least a semblance of something that could claim to be the heir to the Conservative tradition, they should have forced a split and taken many of the grassroots activists with them, calling themselves something like the Real Conservatives. Fortune favours the brave. It’s too late now, though. Farage’s party has beaten them to it.

If they want to save their seats - putting the survival of the Tory Party to one side for a moment - their only hope is to defect to the Brexit Party now. Even this, though, may not work. Tory Brexiteers are tainted by their inaction, and that includes – and I say this with a heavy heart – Jacob Rees-Mogg. As a result, the Brexit Party may not accept them anyway, justifiably seeing them as an electoral liability. I certainly won’t vote for them, and I’ve always considered myself to be a natural Conservative. Furthermore, the party has proven itself to be so incompetent, so craven, so dishonest and so full of charlatans, that I don’t think I can ever vote for its representatives again.

At first glance, it is obvious that the Conservative Party faces an existential crisis. However, when one witnesses the Prime Minister’s woeful, purblind response to last week’s electoral disaster, her wilful refusal to accept reality and change course, and the prevarication and procrastination of the party’s Brexit wing which impotently looks on, one realises that it’s already dead. The party’s various leadership contenders vying for the top spot are a bunch of zombies talking to themselves.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Chapter One: Part One: Out of the frying pan into the fire

Starting a new job is always nerve-racking, even for a seasoned old veteran like me. You naturally feel the need to prove yourself and seek approval from your peers.

You see, teaching is an extremely judgemental profession. You’re subjected to frequent lesson observations and learning walks, in which your superiors judge your performance on a day-to-day basis. Your marking is the focus of intense scrutiny and, perhaps worst of all, your colleagues have a tendency to surreptitiously discuss your shortcomings in the more obscure recesses of the school’s corridors. 

Teachers are incorrigible gossips if nothing else. And there’s nothing we enjoy more than talking about a colleague’s perceived inadequacies. It makes us feel better, you see, and serves to validate our own performances.

The judgemental glare of the kids can be even more unnerving. Do they think I’m a good teacher? Do they even like me? Now, you might argue that it’s not my job to court popularity. But I’m only human. Everybody wants to be liked. 

All this creates an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Teachers, consumed by self-doubt and incurably sensitive to criticism, are forever trying to prove themselves to the kids, their colleagues and of course their superiors. No wonder so many go off sick with anxiety and stress. No wonder so many leave the profession.

So here I am, jumping back into the fire after a brief spell in a white hot, sizzling frying pan.

I’d previously been working as a day-to-day supply teacher in Tilbury - a job that didn’t carry the same planning and marking responsibilities as a full-time, permanent member of staff, but one that did carry extreme pressures of a different kind. 

These kids were feral. To give you an idea, I remember walking out to my car at the end of a school day in late June, only to see one of our Year 8 pupils, a 13-year-old boy, sitting in the back of what looked like his Nan’s car. The window was open and he was puffing on a cigarette like a bootlegger in a speakeasy. ‘Boy, come over ‘ere, boy,’ he ordered, before handing his young customer a wrap of some sort. I was speechless. Then his Nan drove off, seemingly unperturbed. It was an eye-opening moment. A child-, chain-smoking-gangster with his septuagenarian getaway driver selling drugs in the school car park. Eye-opening indeed.

As if this wasn’t shocking enough, I soon discovered that, shortly before my arrival, the school had briefly flirted with local infamy after a pupil smuggled a home-made bomb into a Design and Technology class.

I greet the receptionist, a lady I had previously met on the day of my interview, who proceeds to direct me through the twists and turns of the ground floor corridors, until we reach my classroom.

It’s small and the walls are bare. I immediately notice the lack of storage space, too. Where will I put the kids’ books? I worry. I always worry.

Directly opposite is my line manager’s classroom. He is a slight, diminutive man with thick dark hair and long, spidery fingers. He looks a little like Mr Bean, I quietly chuckle to myself.

‘Hi, I’m Chris,’ he says. ‘I’m sure you remember me from your interview.’ 

‘I certainly do, Chris,’ I reply, shaking his hand. ‘How could I forget? It was the hottest day of the year.’ 

My interview and observation had been a serious test of endurance. It was over 30 degrees and, being ever so slightly on the larger side of large, I perspired like a bomb disposal expert attempting to diffuse an IED in downtown Kandahar.

Chris introduces me to Michelle and Jo, two of my faculty colleagues. Both have thick Irish accents. My initial impressions are that Michelle, curt and intense, is smouldering with barely concealed indignation. That doesn’t bode well, I think. Why’s she so pissed off? Jo, on the other hand, is relaxed and humorous, possibly down to the fact that she’s heavily pregnant and will no doubt be off on maternity leave soon.

After exchanging pleasantries- or, in Michelle’s case, being the recipient of a disdainful glare - we make our way to the main hall. 

I sit with my new team, dreading this bit of the proceedings: The introductions. New members of staff are introduced by the Head and, one by one, stand up and present themselves to their assembled colleagues. It’s eminently embarrassing and happens at the beginning of the academic year, without exception, in every single school I’ve ever worked in.

My palms are sweating. Surprisingly, it goes without a hitch, though. No stutter; no embarrassing stumble into my redoubtable colleague Michelle, who happens to be sitting beside me, poised and unnervingly impassive; just a big, red-faced, up, ‘hello’, half-swivel, bashful wave and back down. That was almost regal, I say to myself, with more than a hint of irony. It wasn’t awkward at all.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Guardian-Land is a land of chaos and confusion

They live in Guardian-Land. This was the rebuke given to indulgent judges by an ex-police chief on LBC radio this week. 
He was of course talking about the case of Joshua Gardner, an 18-year-old who threatened a motorist with a 12-inch zombie knife, only to receive a derisory suspended sentence, nine-month curfew and 150 hours of community service. 

Leaving aside the judge’s unfathomable decision to set a 7pm curfew for someone convicted of an offence committed at 5pm, this sentence is a scandal, especially when one considers the Home Secretary’s promise to get tough on knife crime.

It is also indicative of our elites’ morally perverse and reprehensible approach to dealing with offenders. The judge justified his leniency by citing Gardner’s traumatic history. Apparently, some years ago he had been profoundly disturbed by the sight of his brother’s dead body. But does that justify his reckless behaviour? Is that really a mitigating circumstance? I mean, lots of people experience traumatic events. Life is indeed full of them. We don’t all kick cars and wave knives around though.

Such an inadequate punishment sends a truly appalling message to violent offenders. If you threaten or harm a law-abiding member of the public, you only have to tug on the judge’s heart strings with a hard luck story and, at worst, you’ll receive a community sentence. Where’s the deterrent?

The judges appear to view criminals as victims. And this is the crux of the matter. The legal establishment consists of liberal-left activists who see offenders as unwitting victims of an unjust society. They must therefore be molly-coddled and protected from punishment, not locked away. If anything, this extraordinary and perverse view of the world sees the victim as the de facto guilty party (at least partly responsible for the societal conditions that spawned the criminal in the first place) and, of course, vice versa.

It is therefore no surprise that we’ve seen such an astronomical rise in crime. And before you scream ‘cuts’, it’s not a recent phenomenon either. Crime’s been rising since the 1960s - when these views first became fashionable.

As a school teacher, I witness exactly the same approach on a daily basis. Bullies and violent pupils are treated as the real victims- victims of an uncaring society. They are thus permitted to torment their targets with impunity. The poor souls they abuse, in contrast, are left unprotected and, in some cases, even take the blame for the cruelty inflicted on them.

It really is shocking in its perversity. Morality has been upended by leftist elites. Criminals go unpunished and bullies unchecked. Guardian Land is indeed a land of chaos and confusion. And it’s going to get worse.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Good Luck, Everyone

I just had a terrifying thought. Perhaps the Maybot isn't such an empty vessel after all. Perhaps she has a hinterland and political philosophy that inspire real conviction, against the assumptions of her critics.

Why else would she conspire with our enemies to subjugate the people of Britain? I mean, it's suicidal. Even if she gets the deal through Parliament, she'll face oblivion at the next election - if, and it's a big if, she's allowed to get that far in the first place.

I find it all profoundly confusing. This so-called career politician is happy to jump off a bridge for a truly awful deal that vassalises her country. What is she playing at? She's going off script, surely. According to many in the media, she's meant to be a rational and driven individual, entirely focused on personal political gain, isn't she? She refused to wholeheartedly commit to either side during the referendum campaign, in case it adversely affected her leadership ambitions, and, in a skilful bit of Machiavellian chicanery, took the crown after Gove played Brutus to Boris' hapless Caesar. She's got considerable political nous and has dedicated her career to getting the top job.

So why would she blow it all away for this rotten deal? I'm baffled. Unless, of course, she really does believe in it. Unless she truly believes it's a sacrifice worth making. This is the terrifying thought that I mentioned earlier. She's been radicalised; she's caught an ideology; I don't know which one, but she's got it. The old crow's brain's been washed with some strange, unknown philosophy that wishes to see Britain on bended knee, begging Brussels for scraps of good will.

Anyone willing to make such a sacrifice has surely lost touch with reality. They've caught religion, as my nan would say, or, in this case, some arcane, indefinable ideology. But maybe I'm complicating things. Maybe she's not a head-banging, suicidal neophyte committed to a cause after all. Maybe she's just a pig-headed, obstinate, self-centred old bird who, like many oldies, refuses to admit when she's wrong.

Worse still, perhaps she's so vainglorious, so selfishly committed to herself, that she refuses to accept that she's made a monumental cock-up. A trait that once gave her drive and enabled her to spurn a political philosophy in favour of a pragmatic and Machiavellian approach to politics - a trait that got her to Downing Street in the first place - has thus turned against her. Her conceit has led to hubris. The Maybot's on borrowed time and, alas, she's taking us down with her. And it's not for her commitment to the deal. If anything, it's for her commitment to Theresa May.

In the solemn words of Edmund Blackadder before he led his platoon over-the-top and into no man’s land, Good Luck, Everyone.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Without exclusions, Anti-Bullying Week is a hollow slogan, devoid of intent and promoted for no other reason than to make us feel better

I always find many of those who claim to support anti-bullying week whilst opposing school exclusions slightly dishonest. I mean, how can you protect the victims of bullying when you refuse to adequately discipline the bullies? 

What about detentions? they’ll retort. Aren’t these adequate deterrents? More to the point, aren’t these so-called bullies some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils? Shouldn’t they be treated with compassion and gently urged to engage in teacher-led restorative conversations with their victims? Such an approach would surely show them the error of their ways, alter their behaviour and protect the victims without the need for exclusions.

Of course, they do have a point. Detentions and restorative conversations can and sometimes do work. Bullies become aware of the damage caused by their actions and amend their behaviour accordingly. 

However, a not insignificant number refuse to change, despite being the recipients of a multitude of interventions. They may have been given countless detentions, taken part in several restorative conversations and even attended meetings with the Head teacher, with and without their parents. But still they continue to bully and harass their victims. 

In these instances, surely, excluding the perpetrator has to be an option. How else can you protect the victim after every other punishment has failed? 

But even schools that authorise exclusions don’t fare much better - unless, of course, they also sanction permanent exclusions for those individuals who continue to display, even after a fixed-term one, the same unreformed behaviour.

The sad fact is that schools without the ability to permanently exclude persistent bullies - not to mention violent and disruptive pupils - have to repeat the same ineffective sanctions over and over again whilst, at the same time, naively and rather vacuously anticipating a different outcome.
The bully, meanwhile, buoyed by the fact that nothing more severe than a fixed-term exclusion can happen to them, continues to torture the poor individual being targeted. I mean, why change if the worst that can happen to you is an exclusion? At least you get a few days off school.
Look, some might not be deterred by the threat of a permanent exclusion either. But at least such individuals will be gone, prevented from inflicting anymore pain and torment on their helpless victims. 
In short, bullies need to be punished in an effort to reform their behaviour. If the initial punishment fails, they must be exposed to another, more severe one, followed by another and another, until, eventually, their behaviour changes or they go, leaving their victims to lick their wounds in peace. The welfare of the victim must always be of paramount importance. 

Academies that refuse to countenance fixed-term and permanent exclusions - even those simply reluctant to do so - are, in my view, encouraging bullies to inflict misery upon their victims. Yet in these academies, those who write such policies claim to support anti-bullying week.

They don’t. If anything, they support the bullies. The claim is just a sickening, disingenuous attempt to signal their own virtue, as are the anti-bullying displays which adorn their schools’ corridors. 

It is particularly troubling to see so many individuals who should no better berating exclusions. It is indeed a worrying fashion. Exclusions exist to protect our most vulnerable kids. They must be permitted. Otherwise, anti-bullying week is a hollow slogan, devoid of intent and promoted for no other reason than to make us feel better.