Category: Academies

Creating Citizens: The Political Teacher


On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history.  I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small.  The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU.  For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.

After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials.  At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem.  But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect.  We had been due to travel that evening.  I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.

The rest of the day seems hazy now.  We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments.  But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP.  It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.

On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings.  There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.

It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day.  I am a teacher.  I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.

And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics.  I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do.  I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom.  But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario.  We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.

Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education.  Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries.  It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems.  With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”

No one had a definitive answer.  Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.

The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking.  To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets.  Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar.  Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education.  Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this?  It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.

So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds.  We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle.  The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise.  And we do need to be specific in our work.  If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that.  Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.

A step further might also be required.  What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility?  What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level.  What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?

I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word.  By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU.  I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society.  I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.

What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means.  While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.

I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities.  I came home and I knew I had to write this.  Talk about politics with your students.  Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone.  Be the democracy you want to live in.




July 7th: Preventing Radicalisation in Schools

In the staffroom of a 1960s built comprehensive in the heart of East London, the radio is on under single-glazed windows that let in the heat of a July day.  In itself, that isn’t unusual. I pass through without giving it a thought and without registering the looks on faces of teachers who are hearing something out of the ordinary.  The light streams into the room; I head to photocopy, anticipating the inevitable surliness of the reprographics technician who wants copying done in advance at all times, with no exceptions.  He isn’t there so I copy surreptitiously and sneak back out with a criminal lightness.

By lunchtime, I have taught all day and still have two lessons to teach until the blissful moment the school is empty and I can breathe.  My feet are complaining, so I head back to the staffroom to find more teachers gathered round the radio.  And now I know something is wrong.  The radio tells me.  It is surreal, I think, whilst trying to block out the insistent crying of a colleague whose partner works near Kings Cross.

I went through there this morning, I think. On autopilot, bus to Kings Cross, through the side entrance, down towards the Hammersmith and City Line going east.  It was early, 6.30am perhaps.  And it strikes me, in the way the unreal and the strange has a habit of doing so, that I can’t get home.  How am I going to get home?

In the end, after hushed chats and practical exchanges between colleagues, I climb into a car and am driven back to Finsbury Park.  I have never seen London in this way before.  The people walking strike me not as Londoners who have just experienced the horror of a terrorist attack, but of characters in a movie or a music video.  REM’s Everybody Hurts, when they all just get out and walk.  They just get out and walk.

Ten years later, and on the ten year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in which 52 people lost their lives, I can’t help but take a moment to examine whether we are a society have made any headway against extremism.  The Prevent Duty was published on July 1st this year, only a few days ago; it outlines a statutory duty for schools to spot signs of radicalisation in young people and build resilience to radicalisation through the promotion of FBV, the latest acronym to be presented to education professionals: Fundamental British Values, in case you are not aware.

The double edged sword that is asking teachers to spot potentially radicalised young people is already part and parcel of conversations I have held with colleagues and friends.  While in principle, the concept of being able to safeguard effectively is at the very heart of a teacher’s responsibility, we as experienced professionals know that if teachers were the final line in preventing harm to young people, we have not done brilliantly.  Not because we do not care – somewhere in our teaching histories, we have all been appalled to discover that a child we know, that we have taught, is on the child protection register.  We have been appalled to discover the sometimes horrific circumstances of our wards.  But also appalled that we did not see it.  That we were too busy marking, or making exam entries to have noticed. Or worse, that there was something that we could not possibly have seen.

And it is this that becomes the flaw.  Yes, we have the duty to enact the Prevent strategy in schools, but that does not mean we have the expertise.  Did I miss the training provided by experts on how to spot a potential terrorist in my classroom? Even as I type this, I wonder what that training would even look like.  Underneath the sincerity of such an ideal is a murky truth that I’m not sure we are ready to confront as a profession.

Do we suddenly look at our Muslim students more carefully now?  I am reminded of the discomfort of ordinary Muslim Londoners when they boarded trains and planes in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings.  The actions of a few people marked their experiences for a long time, in the same way that now, the fleeing of schoolgirls from a school in East London means that the movements of Muslim students suddenly becomes a matter of national debate.  How do I know if a child’s unformed thought is radicalisation or the product of the foolishness of the young that will be grown out of?

I cannot even think about the consequences of another terrorist attack on London and I am left bewildered by the dilemma of this situation. Does the quest to create a safe society necessitate the potential false criminalisation of the innocent?  I would hope that I would know the difference between a radicalised child that is dangerous to society and a misguided child who requires debate and dialogue, but I am left uneasy at the thought of having to make that decision – for the simple reason that we as teachers are standing on a line that marks society’s needs on one side and the needs of a possibly damaged child on the other.

I know I would make the sensible choice and follow the guidelines I have been given, but I worry about a ripple effect becoming a tidal wave.  Students need to trust their teachers; without this, the possibility for small, dangerous thoughts left unchecked and hidden increases the risk to us all.  We risk alienating the children that we are mandated to protect.  Nusrat Faizullah, a woman I had the privilege of knowing during my teacher training, has written about how we need to create dialogue between the communities.  She says: “What we need are approaches that are positive about people’s identities and that bring communities together, rather than drive them apart.”  Her whole article can found here.

We cannot escape the reality of our times, but more than ever, we as teachers have not only the duty to ‘Prevent’ but to debate.  We go back to FBV here.  It is a Fundamental British Value to hold fair and open dialogue in a democratic society.  That is what we want to uphold.  That is how schools can change the frontline of education to one that does not stigmatise its charges, but encourages them to discuss, to hold our own version of truth and reconciliation.

When, on July 7th, ten years ago, 52 people died, I was teaching in a school that had a large population of Muslim staff and students.  I will never forget what one student said to me.  He expressed his sadness that a terrible tragedy had occurred.  But he turned his face to mine and asked: “Will they blame us for this?”

This week, it is our duty to remember those who died in the 7/7 bombings and think of their families’ loss.  After that, we have to go to work finding ways to debate our world and the place of religion and race within it so that child – that universal, fearful child – can turn to us, rather than away from us.  And that we as Londoners can feel safe in our lovely city.  That is the real meaning of ‘prevent’.

Anyone Can Teach (Fingers Crossed!)

I can just see it now. Imagine in a few months time, an opening evening for prospective parents at a fairly established academy. Concerned parent approaches teacher, standing cheerfully in a beautifully designed classroom. “I do want to send my child here,” Parent says, fidgeting slightly. “And this is a terribly awkward question, but I do need to ask.” Pregnant pause. “Are all of the teachers in this department, you know, qualified to teach?”

When a news story hits the pages of the press that leaves your heart in one place and your head in another, there is only one thing for it. Today is one of those days that I once again raise my pen to examine the wisdom (or lack thereof) of those in charge of education policy. This time, the nation has been regaled with the announcement from the DfE that academies will be allowed to recruit unqualified teachers to work in their institutions.

This proclamation has me thinking. Firstly, did the blessed department not see the Daily Mail headlines on this decision, announced so tactically on the day of the Olympic ceremony? Perhaps the story will get lost in a multi-coloured haze of Olympic Rings and discarded McDonald’s wrappers – at least, I imagine, that’s what our policy makers hope will happen. I can see it now – phrases that will inevitably be used by each an every publication: dumbing down, lowering of standards, yet another nail in the coffin. Okay, so the last one is mine. I am filled with a sense of gloom, and not just because the weather has turned again.

Secondly, I have to ask myself to slow down in my response. Is this announcement as universally a ‘bad thing’ as many educationalists and union folk will claim it to be? Well, in a word, yes. I have pondered, most fairly I might add, on the merits of declaring this move as a strategy to drive up the quality of teaching and learning in this country. I can admit that allowing experts in their field into schools – those people who have worked in industry, or for many years in the music industry, for example – may bring a certain something to the complex flavour of a school. It may loosen some of the restrictions on hiring those who have proven themselves to be excellent instructors (and I say ‘instructors’ deliberately, for there is yet a distinction between those who hold QTS and those who don’t) to teach in schools where recruitment and retention are problematic.

Even slowing down to reflect, I am left with the same conclusions. The sad truth, unavoidable in this climate of teacher-bashing, is that the headlines that come with this announcement will only serve to embed the negative perception of the profession. Indeed, the word profession is paramount when we discuss teaching. For so many years, teachers and school leaders have battled to create a profession in institutions where traditionally, teaching was not seen as one in the truest sense of the word. One only has to remember the days of the teacher cliche; patches on sleeves, coffee and grumbling, vocational mothering and the ability to stick pasta to paper were all one needed to be a part of the ‘profession’. School leaders and countless influential educationalists have professionalised the job – it is academic, it is smart, it is rewarding and it is socially acceptable. We have moved from ‘those who can’t, teach’ towards ‘those who can, teach’ and we may have even been flying towards ‘those who know how to do it well, teach’. How can this not be seen, as the unions have pointed out, as a retrograde step?

Does anyone else see the appeal of ‘those who think they can have a shot at it, go ahead and teach’? I’m not seeing it, myself.

Does an instructor have the same awareness of the requirements of teaching well? They may be able to deliver their experience, their insight, but the complexity of what happens in the space of an hour-long lesson is not to be sniffed at. An outstanding teacher makes hundreds of decisions in that time, based on an understanding of the art and science of teaching – they may have spent years perfecting it, studying it, evaluating it. I see the difference between qualified and unqualified all the time – as do many others. There is something to be said about someone who has learned the skills that are needed to lead children towards their futures; there is certainly something to be said about those who have not. You may think: there are plenty of teachers who do not have those skills! My only response is: by suggesting that more people who do not have the skills to teach well should be allowed to work in the same organisations as those who do know, the distinction will only become more problematic. There will just be more teachers who do not know how to do their jobs properly.

Of course, I do not believe for a second that any school leader worth their salt would recruit members of staff that are not capable of actually teaching. Most leaders are acutely aware of what is needed in their organisation, just like in any other. That is why most school leaders employ peripatetic staff to deliver expertise in areas of the curriculum that need this support. We see it all the time in Music and Art and Drama – but the difference is that they are not called ‘teachers’.

Devaluing QTS at this time will only serve to hammer home what many people have thought for a long time – anyone can do it, and so they do. Anyone who remembers the government call for parents to fill in for teachers on strike will understand just how ridiculous the notion is. Not to mention that some of us who work in academies have had to work quite hard to raise the profiles of the places in which we work, against a fairly vituperative backlash from some quarters. This announcement only makes it harder for us to prove that we are committed and qualified education professionals, as opposed to evil government stooges.

Harumph. That is my final word.

Academies – not as big a deal as you think

Of course, where better than the graceful bastion that is Islington Green to start this blog post?  I, being a teacher in North East London, was perusing the shelves in Waterstones just off Upper Street, as one does of an evening when one isn’t marking or planning lessons.  To my surprise, a familiar face from my past appeared.  I recognised her first as the fiercest Head of Year I have ever worked with; she was reknowned for the fact that her bark and her bite were equally menacing.  We hadn’t seen each other since I left my first school, nearly six years ago.

Cue phatic communication of the most banal sort – oh, don’t mind the deliberate omission of my first school’s name; this is my attempt at discretion.  “How are things at — School?”  I asked, genuinely interested but conscious that a friend of hers was waiting patiently to move on, doing that shuffling feet thing that only happens when you really don’t want to have a quick chat and would much rather be sat in Ottolenghi, eating a giant pink meringue.  Former fierce colleague kept it short and conspiratorial.  “He – ” she lowered her voice, referring to the dreaded relatively young and upwardly mobile headteacher whom everyone pretty much disliked, ” – is thinking of turning us into an academy.” 

I oohed, as was expected.  “Well, you know…” I shrugged.  She was not to be dismissed so easily.  “You’ve worked in two academies now,” she pointed out, as if I hadn’t noticed.  She leaned in closer, possibly so as not to be overheard.  “What is it, you know…like?”

I pondered for a moment, as my mischievous streak debated whether to inform her about the secret document all academy staff are forced to sign, in their own blood, waiving the protection of the European Working Time Directive and how TUPE staff are regularly forced to eat dry bread and marmite during lunch break. 

You see, here we must pause and consider my first school, as it may go some way to explain the fear in my former colleague’s face when she announced the possible conversion to academy status.  If I were to say that the atmosphere there was somewhat combative, somewhat antagonistic and certainly somewhat resistant to change, I would be making three of the biggest understatements I have ever made.  The school was characterised by its absolute inability to recognise the good in anything new.  I think, to this day, it is the only school I know of that voted against BSF funding on a variety of so-called principles, even though Ofsted had declared the building unfit for purpose – and won!  Former colleague, as much I respect the work she has done over the years, was a product of that environment.  Change is bad.  We don’t know what’s going to happen, therefore, we don’t like it.

So, after two academies, I feel I am in quite a good position to make comment.  There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the idea of academies.  Where successful, they have been funded by interested and valuable contributors, private sector or not.  Where successful, staff and students have, in most cases, benefitted from new buildings, a wealth of resources that LAs couldn’t afford and didn’t have the imagination to think they were needed.  Where successful, academies have had to fight to prove their worth and when staff teams fight for something together, it drives improvement. 

Yes, there is always the question of those academies that have been less successful.  Having worked in one, I can, without malice, state that the problems were not caused by concept of a school becoming an academy; problems were caused by individuals, as they often are in schools.  Individuals, who for various reasons, didn’t want to see change – who were caught up in the strange mythologies associated with academy status.  Or, just as difficult, individuals who couldn’t lead change. 

Former colleague, I wanted to say, we are so far past the debate as to whether schools should become academies, here in 2011.  Academies are doing great things – the children are happy.  They don’t care whether their school is a comprehensive or not; they want to know whether their school will provide them with laptops, and a recording suite, and a multi gym they can use after school, with their parents.  They want to feel proud of the building they spend time in every day – and believe me, it shows when they are proud of their building.  Call me brainwashed and thrust some anti-academy NUT leaflets under my nose: I like my academy.  It’s a good place to be.

Former colleague was still waiting for me to respond.  I gave her a smile, which may have been patronising or reassuring, or both.  “You know, academies,” I said, “they’re not as big a deal as you think.”