Category: Michael Gove

A Conservative Vision: No Money, No Teachers

In November 2014, Tristram Hunt warned of the impending catastrophe in teacher recruitment. In an article in The Guardian, he pointed out the shortfall in meeting the targets for teachers entering the profession – an article that can be read here.  In March 2015, Mary Bousted of the ATL commented publicly on the numbers of teachers leaving the profession.  In April 2015, The Independent ran this article highlighting again the potential for crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We have been talking about a crisis on teacher recruitment for a while now.  Whereas once, it was passing conversation – odd drops in the number of applicants for once popular posts, gentle musings even, combined with a sense of optimism that things would pick up – perhaps it was a funny time time of year to be recruiting, perhaps people were just staying put – now, it seems that educators are staring with alarm at a growing hole in the teaching profession.  A growing hole in the shape of thousands of teachers we need, who just don’t appear to exist.  Only a few days ago, this appeared in the TES by Ann Mroz, highlighting again Nicky Morgan’s toughest challenge.  Getting teachers into the profession and getting them to stay.

As Mroz states, there are distinct and tangible reasons why teachers are in short supply.  An increase in demand for places due to population increases could be one huge factor in the need for a greater number of teachers.  However, combine that with the spreading thin of current teachers across an explosion of new free schools and academies and the lure of overseas teaching posts (with the almost opiate promise of tax free income and accommodation provided for free against the backdrop of austerity in the UK) and suddenly the maths doesn’t add up.  More institutions dilute the pool of teachers we already have.

And then we have the leavers.  Those who pack up their whiteboard markers with regret (for I have never met a teacher who left the profession without a wistful thought as to what could have been) and carry their stained coffee cups into the day to do other things.  Why would they stay?  One can only guess at the damage done to the teaching profession in the last five years by the Apollyonic Gove, dragging the profession through a valley of humiliation.  When the rhetoric is against the Blob, when the implication is that teachers are somehow lacking in the desire to improve – why would anyone be attracted into a one-way ticket to flagellation?  When the curriculum doesn’t stay still long enough to allow anyone to gather expertise, why would someone choose to place themselves into this educational Charybdis?  Even when there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Nicky Morgan, she chooses – on the day before the return to work – to announce her campaign against “coasting” schools.  The collective groan from my Twitter timeline cannot be ignored.

Her announcement today is offensive.  It implies that teachers and leaders are happy with average.  I have never worked with or in a leadership team where I heard the words: “Yes, I think our results will do just fine.  Let’s have the same results next year, in fact!”  If anything, decent results breed an intense pressure to increase in the following year a percentage pass rate that was hard won in the first place, particularly in inner city schools with challenging intakes.

We know we need more teachers.  It is undeniable that greater numbers of teachers are required in English, Maths and Science.  In 2003, the Labour government attempted to solve this shortage by introducing the Repayment of Teacher Loans Scheme.  It did not last long enough as an incentive and a study by Professor Coe of the University of Durham found that if teachers were leaving due to the pressures of workload and its adverse effect on personal well-being, the financial incentive to stay wasn’t great enough.

I absolutely believe that schools should pay to recruit outstanding teachers, but that can only happen without detrimental effect if there is a steady stream of talented people entering the profession.  As a senior leader in an inner city school, I have become increasingly aware of another consequence of the marketisation of education.  Now that we have schools able to set their own pay scales, the savvy teacher knows to negotiate.  Recruitment in shortage subjects has become an auction-process of staff going to the highest bidder.  How does a school, with no stream of private funding, compete with large chains who have salary points and incentives set above and beyond other schools in the local area? Experienced staff come at an absolute premium.  Unfortunately, that premium is out of reach for some schools.

And this is another gift of Conservative policy: increased pressure on school budgets.  Changes to Post-16 funding, changes to criteria in funding for pupil premium students, a commitment to only ‘maintaining’ year-on year funding overall – in real terms a reduction in per pupil funding – and changes to pension contributions have meant that schools face serious financial challenges.  How, in that context, does a school compete to recruit the best teachers and keep them?  One solution is in increase in pupil numbers.  Do we want schools to be busting at the seams with more students than the building can safely hold?  Some school buildings are not fit for the numbers as it is, especially in inner city areas.  Catering for more pupils becomes a Sisyphean task – more teachers needed to teach, bigger buildings needed to accommodate, more resources and still, in the heart and soul of this – not enough money.

The end result is not sustainable for a country that wants to compete internationally for educational acclaim.  To save money, you recruit (where you can) young, expendable and cheap staff that you can wear out with increased responsibility on top of teaching load.  These teachers have a life span of four or five years, which again, is fine and dandy if you have en endless supply of new teachers.  But we don’t.  And I don’t believe teacher burn out is an acceptable side-effect of poor funding policy.

It takes a brave government to step in and deal with the burgeoning issue of teacher recruitment and challenges to education funding.  I look at this Conservative government, as I did here in 2011, and I am not sure they are up to that task.


A New Year, A New Me: The Teacher Resolutions

At this time of year, with Monday morning looming larger than I’m comfortable with, I am filled with good intentions – ones that I abandon mid-way through September when I am heaped miserably on the floor surrounded by exercise books and reluctantly re-visit in January when resolutions are made by normal people who can wake up at a normal time and buy a coffee on the way in to work. I always look back in August and shake my head at just how naive I was to make them in the first place. But here I am, like a woman who has forgotten the pain of childbirth, making vows again for this coming year at school.

I vow to dress to impress and be the professional I know I can be

You know that you’re a teacher when you have ‘buying new shoes’ scheduled in for the weekend immediately before 1st September. You know that you’ve been a teacher too long when you’ve not only scheduled it in, but researched the specific shoe that you want in advance of the shopping trip. I’d like to pretend that I have only now starting doing this, but I have to confess that’s not true. Every year, I promise myself I will be as smartly dressed as I on the first day back, but every year, I catch myself falling into decline. The tailored dress has been abandoned in favour of the slouchy trouser and the coffee stains on my lanyard are almost pleasing to the eye, if you like modern art. The morning internal dialogue becomes fascinating because those new shoes inevitably hurt like *snitches* (even though you are still convinced the leather will give at some point) and you end up debating whether anyone will notice you’re wearing trainers. You examine your trainers to see whether you can claim that they are orthopaedic and therefore entirely essential for you to do your job. I say ‘you’ like this is something that many teachers do, but I think, in this case, it might just be me.

I solemnly swear not to get wound up by news headlines about English teaching or to utter the words “It’s all Michael Gove’s fault”.

It’s coming to the official end of open season on teachers and exams in the news, although I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years that suggests that open season has been somewhat extended. News headlines about teachers and teaching seem to be prevalent throughout the year; from what I can gather, if there is a social ill, you can rest assured that The Telegraph will point a bony, accusing finger at the nearest teacher, and follow it up with an ill-advised column by La Birbalsingh or Toby Young. I heard somewhere that teachers are about to be blamed for Syria. Get in line, Ban-Ki Moon, we’re still busy being blamed for domestic issues like obesity and riots. It’s all Michael Gove’s fault.

I promise to stay on top of my marking and do it diligently and without complaint

Now that Speaking and Listening has been abandoned as a concept at KS4 by the powers that be, I am sure that the volume of written responses from my students will increase and in this case, I must be better at marking – as must we all. This means that I must attempt to cover my exercise books in meaningful red/green pen (let’s not go there) and not have that sinking, guilty feeling when I think about my Year 7 books. Every year I implement what I like to call a ‘system’. This ‘system’ usually involves various pieces of coloured paper that track progress in exercise books (last year I downgraded and just used white paper – it was liberating) and scheduling in ‘marking parties’ with others who have my unfortunate habit of ignoring the call of mock exam papers and homework until it is absolutely necessary to deal with them. Dealing with the marking is better than having to answer to Year 10 asking when their work will be finished ‘being moderated’. And yes, they say it sarcastically, because they’re not stupid, most of them.

I declare that I will get around the problem of it being ‘too late to go to the gym’ when I’ve finished work

As far as I can see, this one is only going to be solved by learning to incorporate gym based activities into my lessons. Forget Brain Gym, it’s Actual Gym and I’m probably going to be the only one doing it in the room, but I shrug nonchalantly in the face of embarrassment. Mine or anyone else’s. Yes, kids, two squats before I lean in to assess your work, a star jump or three when you get something right and some seated glute compressions when you’re doing controlled assessment. I’m quite amused at the thought of this resolution. I have visions of myself using the time spent handing out worksheets for sprinting around the classroom. It’s not quite the same thing as described in Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ in that it doesn’t create a marginal gain for the children – but it does create a marginal gain for the teacher. Every bit counts, folks. For anyone who is thinking of adopting my resolutions, this is one you may want to miss out. You can achieve the same effect by just joining a gym that opens late and actually going.

I strongly believe I can schedule in time to see family and friends

So, the last time I visited my mother in term time was, let me think, when I was school myself and went home at the end of the day. Seeing people is hard when you’re a teacher. You can’t see people who are not teachers because they say that thing about 9-3 and long holidays which makes me want to stick a fork in their eye and play Taylor Mali’s ‘What Teachers Make’ like water torture until they stop speaking. I have to confess that I become victim to a vague sort of martyrdom during term time that involves me feeling hideously sorry for myself for working ridiculous hours and needing the weekend to myself to recover. This inevitably means that I promise to see people that I actually like and admire, but cancelling because I can’t shift myself out of bed by 4pm on a Saturday and then it’s too late to do anything, isn’t it? I am resolving to schedule in my Life. There, I said it. I will see people and I will not be too tired or too grumpy or tell too many stories about what happened in form time. Friends, you may hold me to this.

I intend to like all my students without fail

Okay, I won’t use bad words about them. I promise. Does it count if I adapt the bad words or use euphemisms? While 99.9% of the students are lovely in some way, there’s always that child that you just can’t abide. It’s usually not the child’s fault; it’s something in you that is triggered by a facet of their personality, which results in a relationship that can, euphemistically, be described as ‘poopy’. They don’t even know they’re winding you up. I intend to give them the benefit of the doubt and to be compassionate about their character flaws. I know I can do it. This year I am stronger.

If you have any resolutions as a teacher, take a moment to affirm them. While I am about as far removed from a self-help guru as a human being can be without being in space, breathe in and let the air flow out, leaving the year you’ve just had behind. Feel the Vitamin D stored in your skin from the holiday you’ve just returned from and savour that feeling of being refreshed and resolute.

It won’t last long, my lovelies. Have a great year.

The Vagaries of the Exam Board: What’s in a C?

Heads of English across the country must be feeling more than a little hard done by this evening. I certainly feel it and what’s worse, nothing I say to my students makes the fact that they didn’t achieve the grade they were on track to achieve any better. After all, I may be annoyed by the grade boundaries changing in English, but they have been on the phone checking to see whether they can still go into further education.

Changes to the grade boundaries in English have turned GCSE results day into a mini-clearing frenzy for A-Level courses that should have been ready and waiting for some students. The frustration they feel is horrible to watch and we, as their English teachers, can only watch and wait to see whether the decision to change the goalposts is reversed or ameliorated in any way. For some students who thought they were on track to achieve highly, it may be too late. Their college may have already turned them down, while AQA and the other exam boards, the DfE and Ofqual defend and debate their position on grade inflation. It doesn’t seem fair because, quite frankly it isn’t.

So what is it that has gone wrong? I don’t feel that any teacher in their right mind fundamentally disagrees with the concept of keeping exam marking fair. What grates is the enormity of the changes that have taken place recently in the English qualification. The introduction of controlled assessment has been a mess from the start. I attended several meetings run by AQA in which confused teachers were given conflicting information about how controlled assessment should be delivered and administrated. One examiner said one thing, another completely contradicted it, another shrugged his shoulders and said: “Well, I don’t agree with the way it has to be done, but we just go with what head office ask us to do.” There are details that should have been ironed out – the amount of ‘data’ required for the Spoken Language Study (“three pages” and “one set” and “no more than a side of A4”), the requirements for a ‘plan’ for the controlled assessment task (“a side of A4”, “not too detailed”, “just a few key words” and “attached to task” vs “on an official cover sheet”).

No one at the exam board seems to know what is going on. Even simple questions as to whether in a re-sit, the highest grade counts or the terminal grade counts, haven’t been answered exactly, Some schools have been told one thing, others, another.

For me, one standardisation meeting earlier this year stands out. An examiner from AQA said explicitly that if controlled assessment folders combined should reach a particular mark, that would be enough to gain a C grade, as that was what last year’s results indicated. There were at least seven schools represented at that meeting who heard him say that and took him at his word that the boundaries were the boundaries, subject to little or no change.

Standardisation materials and previous grade boundaries are used to indicate what grade a student might achieve if they have a certain level of skill. Schools are issued exemplar material to show what is expected at the different levels of attainment. What is the point of those, if within the space of five months, the grade boundaries are altered beyond all expectation?

It seems that the massive change in specifications and the introduction of controlled assessment, combined with pressure from the DfE to ‘control’ grades has inadvertently or otherwise shown that the exam boards cannot cope with their remit. And it is not the exam boards that suffer.

The important numbers have been splashed across network news – the gist of it is that if you submitted your controlled assessment and sat the exam in June (at the end of the series – something that Michael Gove has been recommending for a while now), the grade boundaries were significantly higher than if you did the same in January. I do not accept the argument that grade boundaries have been adjusted to account for the two different ‘series’ or sittings – with no indication that this was going to happen. I do not accept that the grade boundaries have to change significantly between two exams in five months – the papers were not that disparate in level of difficulty. What is worse for is the situation with controlled assessment – if you handed in the same tasks, with the same mark scheme used in June as others had done in January, you did not achieve the same results. If the tasks haven’t changed and the mark scheme hasn’t changed for the controlled assessment between January and June, why have the boundaries changed? It is very simple to me, as it must be to many English teachers out there. It is an arbitrary change designed to prevent accusations that GCSEs are too easy.

In saving themselves, AQA and the other major exam boards have damaged students chances of future success. What’s in a C? It’s not just a measure by which schools are placed in league tables – it is a passport to further education and higher education. Some people argue that GCSEs don’t matter anyway. However, in a climate of fierce competition for top university places it, GCSEs matter more and more. Some university courses look closely at GCSE results, particularly when deciding between A-Level candidates with similar grades. Medicine and Law courses often place GCSE requirements underneath A-Level entrance criteria.

More than anything, schools place enormous amounts of pressure on students and staff to achieve those C grades. That often means weekends, revision sessions after school, phone calls, extra materials, blood, sweat and tears to ensure that each child fulfils their potential. We pride ourselves on being accurate in our predictions and realistic in our expectations – we don’t predict Cs when they aren’t deserved. To have months of hard work on the part of staff and students washed away by the whims of an exam board that is creaking under the pressure of its own revolution is heartbreaking for all, especially when so much rides on the outcome.

There are voices asking for a review – Stephen Twigg has said that there should be an investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee – but I’m not holding my breath. I’m needed in September to teach another cohort of GCSE students and my demise now would lead to even further instability.

The question that is hanging over our heads now is extremely demoralising. Next year, when we teach the specifications again (in their newest incarnation), can we with any level of accuracy say to a student that this is a C grade piece of work?

Well, no, because I thought I knew what that was – now, I can only say, this might be a C grade, or it might be a D grade – don’t ask me, because the exam board might decide I’m wrong. I don’t really want to see the look on that child’s face when I basically admit that I have no idea anymore.

The Death of Empathy: Who is to Blame?

What do misbehaving students, a bus crash in Coventry, the Tottenham riots and our current government have in common?

The concept of empathy is one I have long been interested in. Differences between students can often be attributed to varying levels of empathy – persistent low level misbehaviour speaks volumes about that particular child’s lack of empathy for students around him or her.  Generally speaking, the more empathetic a student is, the better their relationship with their peers and the adults around them; it comes as no surprise that these students often achieve more highly than less empathetic students.

Simon Baron-Cohen’s brilliant and precise ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty’ had me thinking about the links between empathy and student behaviour.  His assertion that certain people exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood” may seem only to apply on the surface to those with diagnosed pathological conditions and yet, as teachers, particularly in urban, deprived areas, do we not see these behaviours exhibited by our poorest behaved students on daily basis?  These students turn into the adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them.  Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.

Whose responsibility is it to teach people to consider others, to be more empathetic?

The curriculum (when we have one coherent one) ignores this life skill – it is overlooked by those who design the curriculum, perhaps out of a mistaken belief that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to develop levels in empathy in children.  We don’t explicitly teach empathy; it is a by-product of studying History, Literature, PSHE and RE but it is not something that is taught as a life skill that can mean the difference between success and failure.  It doesn’t fit onto a league table.  It would look odd nestled in the data outlining A*-C grades including English and Maths.  And yet, in our society – one that is struggling against a ‘me-first’ culture highlighted most horrifically by the Tottenham riots – we can’t afford to ignore the impact of ignoring this most human of skills.

Recently, in Coventry (a town blighted by the German bombing and then by some shockingly poor architectural choices), a bus carrying passengers crashed into a pawn shop, scattering the gold in the window display.  I would like to think that if I was on a bus and this had happened, my fellow passengers’ first instincts would be to check on each other, to make sure that everyone was safe, out of danger and uninjured.  But no: many of the passengers and onlookers began looting the gold, scrabbling in the debris for what they could gather up.  They left the scene with their pickings.  When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with other instances of disintegrating empathy.  Only someone with very low levels of empathy could set fire to buildings that may be occupied during the Tottenham riots; only someone with very low levels of empathy could assault a Malaysian student and pretend to be helping him.  Lack of compassion has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – a recent study by the journal Psychological Science suggested this week that the less compassionate you are, the less moral you become.

Where, then, does a decreased ability to display empathetic behaviour come from?  Have we always been this way?  In a lesson with Year 11 students, we were discussing Hamlet.  In analysing the line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, my students made the link between the quality and style of leadership and the knock-on effects on state and society.  Claudius, the ‘king’, is rotten and therefore, the country is too.  We don’t have to travel too far to see the parallels in our own society.  Empathy is not a feature associated with the Coalition government, or those appointed by it.  Sir Michael Wilshaw’s statement almost sums up my argument: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right”.  When you’ve finished being astounded by the sheer bullishness of the line, it is hard to find an iota of empathy in that sentence.  The sacking of Downhills Primary governing body by Michael Gove can be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of empathy.  The act in itself is the result of complex wranglings influenced by the need to demonstrate total control over a system that is powered, ultimately, by human beings with human feelings.  Whatever our opinions on school underachievement, the end result leaves onlookers asking uncomfortable questions about the methodology of improvement on such a public scale.

Combine Sir Michael Wilshaw with Michael Gove, add in cuts to services such as domestic violence support charities, whisk in a whole host of measures that adversely affect women and ethnic minorities, and sprinkle liberally with a reduction in public sector pay in the poorest areas and you’re left with a potent mix that may account for the unease in communities.  It’s a recipe that lacks one vital ingredient: empathy.

The inevitable consequence of a right-wing government that is more interested in the stick than the carrot and nothing in between can only lead to a society that reflects their own lack of empathy.  Society is a mirror of leadership.  I don’t imagine the Coalition government sees itself in the Tottenham riots, or the bus passengers that looted the pawn shop – but maybe it should.  Maybe it should.

Free Schools: Toby Young vs The Guardian

Am I the only one to feel a steady sense of disquiet when reading Toby Young’s rather vitriolic comments on The Guardian’s news splash on Free School funding? From someone who is attempting to lead the vanguard of the Free Schools movement, it is somewhat surprising then that the words “dunce’s corner” and “antediluvian teaching unions” should stray forth from the mouth of one who will be in charge of a teaching institution. In a blog for the Telegraph, that is precisely what has happened.

Forgive me for thinking that the phrase “dunce’s corner” was consigned to the history books in forward thinking institutions and that educational reform had erased this sort of language. Perhaps I have missed something about the esteemed Mr Young. Perhaps I mistook him for someone who cared about teaching and the way that educational professionals present themselves in public. Political mudslinging is not something I associate with the best leaders in education. Toby Young’s language in reaction to The Guardian’s entirely justifiable news article on how the taxpayer’s money is spent suggests to me that he has not considered what it means to lead an educational organisation.

This is only compounded by scathing reference to teaching unions. One of the first things a teacher learns when starting on their educational journey is that no matter what you do, become a member of a union as it may prove invaluable if something goes wrong. In schools where unions are belittled and marginalised, discontent and mistrust become endemic. Teachers need to feel protected within an increasingly litigious society. Some of the best head teachers I have worked with value the input of the variety of unions and understand the impact of having a comfortable workforce who have an organisation to turn to when things go wrong, as inevitably, they do. Perhaps I mistake Toby Young’s meaning when he calls unions ‘antediluvian’; maybe he does value their work and understand why they are necessary. Or maybe a man of his background, educational experience and life story finds it difficult to see why they may be of value, even when they protest and disagree and, God forbid, defend the rights of teachers regardless of the political party in power.

He also states that The Guardian stands alone in its criticism of Free Schools. I beg to differ. There are many who have been critical of Michael Gove’s education reforms; many of those are experienced teachers who understand what those so called reforms actually mean for students and parents and communities. Those critics aren’t sceptical because they have a political agenda – they are sceptical because the world they’ve worked incredibly hard to build is being turned on its head. This doesn’t make them dunces, it makes them cautious about change, which in some circumstances can only be a positive thing. Caution and questioning are essential in educational reform; they don’t prevent change, they merely interrogate it. If Toby Young doesn’t appreciate the need for interrogation, close scrutiny and the possibility that some people may criticise, he’s entering the wrong profession.

Do I support the creation of Free Schools? My own misgivings lie in the possibility that they may engender greater division in communities, particularly in terms of faith and inter-faith understanding. I admire the sentiments behind some of the faith organisations creating Free Schools, however, I suspect that just because you say that a school is open to everyone in reality it will be known as a school devoted to a particular faith and remain closed to those of different faiths and none. Do I believe that Free Schools will drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. It was said that the academies movement would change the face of education and it did do that, but did it drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. Declaring that one thing, in this case allowing parents, teachers and communities to set up their own schools, will single handedly raise attainment, close the achievement gap and increase social mobility, seems a little far fetched. I want to believe, but as a teacher and someone who likes to ponder on those things, I think healthy scepticism is allowed.

As a reader of The Guardian and someone who cares about how the government implement and finance educational reform, I can’t help but feel that, unintentionally or not, I have been called a dunce by Toby Young. Believe it or not, I’m not taking it too personally. I do worry that the West London Free School will be run by someone who doesn’t value a diversity of opinion or political differences. Someone who believes that it is acceptable to point and laugh at the lone voice in the “dunce’s corner”. What kind of message does that send to parents and children?