Saturday, July 26, 2014

My date with Robbie Coltrane

My God! They were right. She really does look like Robbie Coltrane. My colleagues had been ribbing me for most of the day about my impending meeting with Miss Saunders.

I feel like a child as her gigantic hand envelopes mine in a vice-like grip. I proceed to lead her, and her daughter, down to the meeting room. We sit opposite one another, separated by a long, rectangular table. I feel nervous. She is a formidable looking, rather intimidating woman.

‘I am quite concerned about Charlie, Miss Saunders,’ I say, leaning forward, my forearms resting on the table. ‘She regularly truants my lessons and failed to attend yesterday’s detention – the detention that we agreed upon when I spoke to you on Tuesday.’  I wait for a response. There isn't one, so I awkwardly continue.  ‘She even poked her head through my classroom window to tell me that she wouldn't be coming. I was astonished by her brazenness – she clearly found it funny.’ Again, I wait for a response that isn’t forthcoming. Charlie sits smirking. Coltrane just stares at me as if to say: And…? Is that it?

After a long, uncomfortable silence I turn my attention to Charlie. ‘So what’s going on, Charlie? Why are you behaving like this?’

‘I walked out the other day ‘cause I was ‘ot. I asked you to open the door but you ignored me.’

‘That is simply untrue,’ I protest, momentarily stunned by an unexpected accusation. ‘I would not refuse a reasonable request like that. I just wouldn't do it!’

‘Are you calling my daughter a liar?’ At last, it speaks. I think I preferred it when she was inscrutably mute.

‘In this instance, Miss Saunders, she is not telling the truth,’ I say. Charlie slumps back, clearly reveling in her mother’s misplaced, irresponsible support.

‘Well, you obviously show ‘er no respect – calling ‘er a liar – so no wonder she plays up. Why should she respect someone that doesn't respect ‘er?’ Miss Saunders’ amorphous face ripples and reddens as she ferociously lays into me. She really has found her tongue.

‘Miss Saunders,’ I say, desperately trying to maintain my composure, ‘I invited you here to talk about your daughter’s behaviour in a bid to help her. Yet not once have you reprimanded her for what she has done.’

‘Don’t tell me what I 'av or 'aven’t done,’ she replies. ‘I know how to bring up my daughter.’

‘I’m sitting here watching you. Not once have you turned to her and said that her behaviour is unacceptable. Even if I did refuse to open the door – which I didn't by the way – do you still think it acceptable to walk out of a classroom because it’s too hot? What about the other students, what if they all decided to do the same?’

‘I’m fuckin’ going. You've got no fuckin’ respect.’ Coltrane struggles to her feet. I remain seated. If I stand up now it could inflame an already pretty flammable situation. She storms out. Charlie follows, still smirking, enjoying every minute. ‘You’re a fuckin’ dick’ead, mate.’ Coltrane’s parting shot pretty much sums me up – I am a dickhead…for organising a meeting with her.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gove's reforms will expose rather than reverse Britain's educational decline

Like Thatcher's before him, Michael Gove's demise was greeted with gleeful cheers from the militant Left and disconsolate tears from the libertarian Right - peppered, of course, with a fair bit of enraged apoplexy. Peter Oborne, for example, columnist for The Daily Telegraph and unapologetic Govian neophyte, described him as 'the greatest education secretary since the Second World War', and angrily dismissed his removal as 'an act of sabotage' orchestrated by George Osborne's Machiavellian desire to dispense with his rivals and succeed David Cameron as Conservative party leader in the not-too-distant future.   

James Forsyth, another centre-right commentator and passionate Govian apostle, bemoaned his departure as a sop to the cosy Etonian club that dominates political and public life. Children schooled in the old Etonian art of power, he lamented (something Michael Gove wanted to extend to all, regardless of socio-economic circumstance), will now remain unchallenged by their state-school-educated contemporaries, courtesy of the former Education secretary's dastardly removal.

On the other hand, Christine Blower celebrated the apparent efficacy of her union's strike and menacingly, if indirectly, threatened Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove's replacement, with a similar fate should she dare to upset her members by, among other things, attempting to improve our schools.

It may or may not surprise you to know that I do not agree with either view. Neither do I share Peter Hitchens' typically surly and uncharitable assertion, though, that Michael Gove 'is the most overrated Education Secretary in recent British history'. On the contrary, Michael Gove, in my view, deserves credit for some courageous and long-overdue reforms.

Through his refashioned National Curriculum, for example, the core subjects have been injected with more rigorous, knowledge-based, intellectually challenging programmes of study - a reform that not only reverses a child-centred obsession that's scandalously led to nationwide, multigenerational ignorance and entrenched disadvantage (especially when one considers the private sector's unwavering focus on rigour), but one that really does force teachers to adopt a culture of high expectations, rather than one that simply pays lip-service to this hitherto overused, largely meaningless, shibboleth.

After years of government- and teacher-sponsored dumbing down, moreover, he has imbued our national qualifications with real value again. Many so-called BTEC equivalents have been abolished; others toughened up to more accurately reflect their stated value. Likewise, GCSEs and A-levels  have been armed with gold-sheathed rocket boosters as end of course exams replace their modularized, easier predecessors. Thanks to Michael Gove, no longer will our children be hoodwinked into taking meaningless courses, cruelly convinced of their artificially inflated value by venal politicians and their self-interested colluders in the teaching profession. For this, the former Education Secretary deserves considerable credit.

He also deserves credit for redefining what makes a good teacher, debunking long held prejudices that outstanding teachers talk less, encourage children to work collaboratively (in other words, in groups) and reject didacticism in favour of emollient facilitation. It's now, thankfully, all about pupil progress, without reference to teaching style.

He's granted Head teachers greater autonomy over behaviour management, allowing them, for the first time, to permanently exclude unruly pupils without the threat of having their decisions overturned by detached, all-powerful appeals panels. In addition, teachers no longer have to give 24 hours' notice before detaining a pupil - another potent, enabling reform that should, if used, make a profound difference. On reflection, I find these changes extremely difficult to oppose and, quite honestly, feel baffled by the profession's general hostility to an Education Secretary with the vision and courage to push them through.

However, as welcome as they are, these reforms do not go far enough. In fact, as they currently stand, they will only expose rather than reverse our educational decline. As a consequence, and with much regret, I do not view him as the 'great reformer' he's reputed to be by the likes of Peter Oborne and James Forsyth. Increasing demands through tougher exams and a more challenging National Curriculum, for example, and for all their merits, will not lead to higher standards; instead, as pupil outcomes get worse, unable to cope with the extra challenge, they will only illustrate the system's shortcomings, shortcomings that, unfortunately, Gove's reforms do not adequately address.

His attempt to reintroduce teacher-led, traditional lessons has been thwarted at every turn by Ofsted's refusal to play ball. Just last week a Civitas report exposed the organisation's unwillingness to enforce the will of its Chief Inspector who, in this case at least, fully supports Michael Gove's reform agenda. In reality, then, away from the headlines, child-centred learning continues unabated, leaving yet another generation to wallow in a morass of ignorance and want.

Most significantly, though, and this will come as no surprise to those of you familiar with this blog, he has not done enough to challenge the truly appalling behaviour so prevalent in our schools - behaviour that leads to such poor educational outcomes for so many of our children. OK, as already acknowledged, I concede that he's given Heads more power over behaviour management, but, quite often, those same Heads are unwilling to use their newly acquired authority, so indoctrinated by fluffy group think they've become - my Head being just one example.

During his tenure, rather frustratingly, Michael Gove made lots of noise when it came to behaviour, but much of it was hot air, platitudinous drivel designed to get a headline. For example, the use of reasonable force to restrain uncontrollable pupils is too vague and open to question – I can certainly see the lawyers rubbing their hands together at that one. Increased powers to stop and search those suspected of skulduggery are equally nebulous and frankly, unwanted – we are not police officers. Moreover, surprisingly, some of his reforms actually conspire to encourage the bad behaviour he said he wanted to eradicate. Through financial penalties, to give one such example, schools are now discouraged from permanently excluding persistently disruptive pupils. This is absurd. Schools should be urged to follow clear, easily understood sanctions ladders. If this means permanent exclusion as a last resort, a final sanction when all other avenues have been exhausted, so be it. They certainly shouldn’t be penalised for following their own procedures, procedures that exist to protect the education of the majority. 


'So what needs to be done?' I hear you say. Simple. Through a refashioned Ofsted school leaders must be forced to address the issue of behaviour in a much more meaningful way, only then will we see lasting improvements. Inspectors must indeed make it their number one priority. This will need, I suspect, especially when one considers their continued defiance of Michael Wilshaw's leadership over teaching styles,  a drastic, wholesale change of personnel - preferably to include the voices of commonsensical teachers and educational bloggers (here I am!) - accompanied by root and branch reform. They must forensically examine behaviour policies, question students and classroom teachers and, most importantly, and this is where Michael Gove again deserves some credit, arrive without prior warning. All schools, not just some, must be seen warts and all, only then will inspectors get an accurate picture. 


If adopted, and I implore Nicky Morgan to seriously consider it, this approach will initially lead to an increase in permanent exclusions that should be facilitated and supported through the creation of more specialist schools specifically designed for children with behavioural and emotional needs- something that could be encouraged through Michael Gove's Free Schools programme. 


A similar remedy should accompany the long-overdue reversal of David Blunkett's cruel Inclusion policy - a policy built upon the tacit, misguided assumption that children with often severe special educational needs should be educated in mainstream schools.This can only be seen as a missed opportunity, thus far.


Finally, for all their fanfare and the impassioned hysteria surrounding them, Academies and Free Schools aren't the game changers being touted. They are instead a continuation of the Marx-inspired status quo: the very same Leftie group-thinkers dominate the top positions with one significant change, thanks to Michael Gove: they now have more freedom to do their worst.


The lesson here for Nicky Morgan is that you can create as many Academies as you like, but, in my experience, as someone who works in one, they will make precious little difference without recasting Ofsted and through it, addressing the issues at the heart of our educational malaise: poor behaviour and trendy child-centred teaching methods. Who knows? Perhaps Michael Gove needed more time to become, like Thatcher before him, a truly great reformer.

Also published on www.conservativehome.com on July 24, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Like a veteran, I subconsciously bury the worst excesses of my wartime experiences

Jake was strutting around wearing a black hoodie again. As he scampered up the steps he brazenly offered his salutations, impervious to the fact that he wasn't wearing the correct uniform. ‘Alright sir?’

‘Not bad,’ I replied, wearily ignoring his all too obvious transgression. I was, in all honesty, unwilling to receive a predictable volley of abuse for an audacious attempt to enforce the school rules, a foolhardy act that would invariably go unsupported by our SLT. Two menacing looking year 11 pupils proceeded to swagger past, their identities obscured by scarves. Bright white trainers had replaced their school shoes and, like Jake, they both wore the sinister looking, ubiquitous black hoodie. In an attempt to shelve responsibility, I deluded myself into thinking that a member of our pastoral team must have challenged them by now, it was 10.30am after all. 

A group of four pupils gathered in front of me. One spat out his chewing gum and mockingly laughed as another member of staff asked him to pick it up. In response to the teacher’s further, more forceful insistence, he angrily shouted, ‘I ain’t fu**in’ pickin’ it up!’ before nonchalantly turning and walking away. Meanwhile, another pupil was on her phone whilst, further away, a gang of three, shouting and screaming, ran in and out of a classroom – unwisely left unlocked and unattended by a rather na├»ve supply teacher.

It was break-time and I was on duty, charged with policing the rear entrance to the main building – apparently, only pupils needing the toilet and those with permission slips may enter. I sipped a pale, rather tepid mug of tea as I surveyed the playground. Mobile phones, hoodies and trainers were everywhere, littering an otherwise pleasant, some might say quintessentially English, pastoral scene. They have become so commonplace, one could be mistaken for thinking them mandatory additions to the official school uniform. I looked around and started to count the number of infractions on display. One, two, three, four…sixteen!

'My God!' I thought, experiencing a rare attack of reality. Yes...sixteen rules were being broken! I suddenly realised the rather uncomfortable, shameful truth that I’ve become immune, indifferent and numb to our students’ hostility to authority, openly demonstrated by their shocking willingness to challenge and abuse the individuals charged with wielding it - us. In short, they flout what exists of the code of behaviour with impunity. My moral compass has indeed been recalibrated: right and wrong, good and bad, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, these have all been clouded and confused. Like a veteran burying the worst excesses of his wartime experiences, or an abused woman interpreting her partner’s ire as a benign manifestation of marital concern, I have subconsciously repressed my natural response to the behaviours exhibited by our pupils and, for all intents and purposes, normalised them in an effort to preserve what little sanity I have left. The alternative is too uncomfortable to contemplate. In order to protect my health and mental well-being, and without the means to do it, I no longer even attempt to enforce the school's rules.

Moreover, and perhaps more indicatively, neither does our SLT. I frequently witness our senior leaders ignore bad behaviour that should be challenged. They shamelessly turn a blind eye to pupils indulging in the most shocking activities without so much as a gentle plea to stop. With resigned indifference, I recently witnessed our Head ignore several pupils loitering in the corridor during what should have been third lesson. She never even stopped to ask why they were there. The fact that they were shouting, swearing and disrupting other classrooms didn't seem to matter - she was obviously far too busy. Or, more to the point, perhaps she was using the same defense-mechanism as me – bury your head in the sand and you live to work another day. The alternatives are either early retirement or stress-induced insanity.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Wilshaw must continue his courageous crusade against 'The Blob'

Several weeks ago, on the Today programme, Michael Wilshaw pointed out, quite rightly, that schools have alarmingly low expectations when it comes to their most underprivileged pupils. Apparently, according to Ofsted’s uncompromising Don, many of our educational institutions are betraying our most socially and economically deprived children by tolerating bad behaviour and with it, underachievement. Just last week he continued to bravely challenge the ‘mediocrity and failure’ so depressingly prevalent in Britain’s schools.

I represent that rarest of endangered species: a teacher willing to speak out for the Chief Inspector of Schools and against the prevailing educational orthodoxy responsible for these failings; however, in doing so, I run the risk of committing professional suicide. As a consequence, and to my everlasting regret, I have decided to use a pseudonym in an effort to conceal my identity. That I feel forced to remain anonymous is indicative of the Stalinist fear that exists in the collective consciousness of the teaching profession. In short, any form of dissent, any dissenter, is purged from the profession. Speaking out has indeed never been more dangerous; but, in my opinion, and more importantly, it has never been more necessary.

I work in a failing school - plagued with behavioural problems, poorly managed and infected with a culture that actively promotes failure. Of course, these interrelated causal factors, as in other such schools, invariably lead to poor examination results. Yet instead of the school addressing the first two – poor behaviour and poor management – in an effort to improve our headline figures, it has hitherto attempted, with some success, to manipulate performance indicators by coercing pupils into choosing easier courses (usually BTECs) and, in many cases and on many occasions, effectively cheating – the Senior Leadership Team often railroads staff into passing pupils that have clearly failed. (This is something, incidentally, that is becoming harder thanks to Michael Gove's long overdue reforms that demand an element of external assessment and more rigorous external investigation of internally assessed coursework.) This manipulation and malpractice, though, thankfully, hasn't been able to mask the school’s obvious failings when it comes to pupils achieving 5A*-Cs including English and maths, not to mention the failure of our pupils to secure the new English Baccalaureate. When you include these ‘real’ performance indicators, our results remain woefully, abysmally poor.

Parents, so often treated like imbeciles by educationalists (especially working class parents) are not stupid. They recognise the school’s myriad failings, its crude attempts to cover them up, and vote with their feet. The school’s population has fallen exponentially over the last five years. This creates a self perpetuating cycle that spirals downwards. Informed parents send their enthusiastic and well-motivated charges elsewhere, often leaving us with the most dysfunctional families and sociopathic children. These pupils are way below the national average in terms of ability, and some are beset with behavioural problems and tormented by the consequences of family breakdown. Not a good recipe for success. Every year our intake not only gets smaller, but progressively less able, rendering our chances of improvement that much slimmer.

It must be added that notwithstanding the above, many of our pupils have great potential, and most, at least initially, do not engage in bad behaviour, despite their challenging backgrounds. However, unfortunately, the ethos at the school fosters confusion, evokes feelings of resentment and cultivates an environment that, as a consequence, encourages recalcitrance. This isn’t a criticism of the teaching staff, but of the management. It is the culture that needs to change and this comes directly from the board of governors and, particularly, the SLT.

In short, Children that need, more than most, clear boundaries supported by robust systems, have neither. Our pupils, good and bad, quite understandably have little faith in the school’s rules. Opaque, nebulous systems (the result of badly written policies) mean that choosing an appropriate punishment for a specific transgression is solely the domain of the individual member of staff, bereft of a clear behavioural policy to refer to. Indeed, this ‘privatisation’ of school policy leads to inconsistency and confusion for pupils and staff alike. Each teacher will dispense the sanction they feel appropriate, some harsh, some lenient.

In contrast, successful schools with robust systems have specific sanctions, codified in transparent behavioural policies, for specific transgressions. There is no inconsistency. If a pupil sprays graffiti on the toilet wall, he knows the punishment to expect. If he has consistently failed to live up to classroom expectations, he knows the consequences. Of course there will always be a degree of inconsistency in the classroom, every teacher is different. But an over-arching code of conduct, supported by strong, equitable sanctions if broken, is essential for raising standards, both behavioural and academic. Alas, this  is our greatest failing, and it is compounded by an ideological commitment amongst our SLT to a misguided moral relativism that confuses things further.

Every pupil that breaks a rule is treated uniquely and subjected to a personalised punishment. For example, if a child-in-care steals a mobile phone his/her punishment will be less severe than a child from a stable home who commits the same offence. In other words, the punishment is relative to the child’s social circumstance. Again, this creates confusion. The kids have no idea what they can and can’t get away with because decisions are arbitrary and lack systematic reasoning. It is also morally reprehensible and, in my opinion, unjustifiable to effectively apply different rules to different pupils. The children are intelligent enough to know that some are treated with more compassion than others; some get more chances and are given more time when it comes to staffing, all because of their respective backgrounds.

It smacks of favouritism and elicits a perverse response. The well behaved pupils, even those fortunate enough to be brought up in more benign social circumstances, come to the logical conclusion that it doesn't pay to be good. The bad kids are getting special treatment. Even though their punishments will in many cases be more severe, and they know they will be, the good kids become bad kids. They think, exasperatedly, ‘Why should we follow the rules when others don’t with impunity?’ So instead of one or two unruly pupils in each class (something to be expected), there are ten, perhaps even fifteen. The majority created by us.

This shameful sequence adds up to nothing less than a gross dereliction of duty. The school is failing in its most important job, indeed, its raison d’etre: the nurture and cultivation of children into adults capable of living fulfilling lives and reaching self-actualisation. How can they do this if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong – surely the sine qua non of every child’s holistic development? Michael Wilshaw must continue his courageous crusade against the educational establishment’s misguided belief that deprivation invariably leads to failure. Our children’s futures depend on it!