I’m well aware that wading in to this debate means I may need to head for the hills after pressing the publish button.
If you haven’t been on Twitter recently because you are that rare breed of teacher who actually switches off during the summer holidays, or indeed, traverses an entire career without feeling the need to add a personal commentary, then you will need a break down of the latest Twitterstorm. To save all of us some time, I’m going to personal commentary my way through the steps because why not?
1. It starts innocuously enough with @RogersHistory creating a list of Twitter educators to follow.
Classic mistake. You’re never going to please everyone, especially when your list is inevitably limited by your own networks and personal interactions. The anatomy of a list is complex and dictated by personal values and beliefs. The problem comes when someone is deemed to be of especial standing within the Twitter community; this may be determined by number of followers, frequency of tweeting, edu-appearances at conferences and frequency of banter. Here it seems that with great tweeting comes great responsibility – ergo (no, I can’t believe I am ergoing either) they have to make a conscious effort to include people of colour.
2. Someone notices that there are few BAME educators on the list
This is undeniably true. While it would be lovely if everyone in the Twitter education community could make a concerted effort to amplify the extremely impressive voices of BAME educators, we are not in that place yet. I can see that arguments like this may go some way in making people more conscious of the need to expand their personal networks. Or they might not. Either way, while it might appear to be a social responsibility to be inclusive, you cannot force someone to do that. Moreover, you can’t shame them into doing so.
As much as it’s entirely reductive to move this argument into the realm of numbers, but let’s look at stats. I believe there are 118 slots on Tom’s list. Of the 118, there are 6 identifiable people of colour. That’s 5%. If the stats on BAME nationally indicate a 13% population, then yes, Tom’s list is sub-optimal. I would like there to be more BAME people recognised, but I also know that this isn’t an objective list based on a universal knowledge of educators. It’s Tom’s list, based on the spectrum of his awareness.
3. People on the list and various others thank him for the list.
Well this is nice for them and I’m pleased they are getting some recognition. They seem to have been caught up in a kerfuffle not of their own making. Cue awkward thanks and a tactical ignoring of the debate, in most cases. Incidentally, that’s a dignified way to respond. Some might say they could get involved by suggesting someone they admire who may be BAME, but to be honest, they are just enjoying their holiday and didn’t know they would be at the centre of some sort of angry vortex.
4. A debate begins as to whether Tom should have included more BAME folk. Some people say that he should and some people say they don’t see why because he hasn’t included the tardigrades left on the moon recently.
Polarised debate is futile. Debates based on inclusion, race and diversity are problematic because they inevitably tap into hurt. Hurt because a belief has been challenged, and often proxy-hurt for a person that is being challenged on something they have done unintentionally. When people respond from a place of hurt, defensiveness ensues. It is never helped by cheerleaders who say, yeah, I think he should have included more left handed people, or people from Bolton because they never get recognised. That’s ignorant. It is ignorant of the narratives around race and exclusion. If you ever feel the need to make a joke about how more people with third nipples should have been included, just don’t.
5. The words ‘white supremacist’ are uttered and things start to get uncomfortable.
This is where it all goes to hell. If someone is called a white supremacist and they don’t believe themselves to be one, that’s going to sting. After all, they believe they would never behave in a way that could be construed as racist – meaning they would never punch someone in the face because of their race, or consciously discriminate against someone because they wear a burka.
However, I’m not going to stand on a bucket and shout “white fragility!”at them. Why not? Because not everyone in this debate has enough understanding of those two terms to debate them with any kind of sensitivity and nuance. People hear ‘white supremacy’ and see KKK hoods and violence. They don’t see the sociological aspects of the term because they may not have studied it, or discussed the structural aspects of it. It’s a blunt instrument to those who are not fortunate enough to have engaged in the detail. They don’t engage in the conversation enough to understand unconscious bias, and their own role in perpetuating that.
This might make me sound like the suffragist element of the inclusivity movement here, if you forgive the cross-metaphor. However, I’m not claiming that softly softly is better, I’m pointing out that the duty of educators is to educate, and that might mean explaining in more useful terms what a list that is BAME light might imply. Language matters. When you wield it like a weapon, don’t be surprised if people arm themselves and/or run away. The term forces people into a corner. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to come back from that.
6. Some people start compiling lists of BAME educators in an attempt to balance things round.
Thank you, folks. Carry on. Good job.
7. Some people insist that this is identity politics and that the only people complaining are ones who were left off the list.
I’m eye-rolling. What are you adding to the debate here? BAME people and advocates are not sitting at home waiting to be put on someone’s list. They are not saying ‘mate, put me on your list. It would make week 4 of my holiday 100% more palatable’. That’s not the point of this whole argument. The upset is caused by a genuine belief that BAME educators have been left off the list. Don’t make it personal.
Those who claim this is all identity politics, well, yes it is. That is also a nuanced debate and can’t be had during a shouting match held entirely in tweets. It’s also a massively unhelpful and unproductive addition because it doesn’t challenge thought or give people the inclination to ask questions.
8. The flame is reignited every time someone notices the argument and there is upset all round.
Stop fuelling the fire. That means I should probably stop too. Mostly because I’ve written this on a very long car journey to St Austell, much to the chagrin of the driver. We are here now.
Can we all shake hands now and go back to hating on people who are decorating their classrooms in the summer holidays?
A quick one to say that I have adjusted the name of this blog – and I’ll tell you for why…
- I’m tired of people joking about what happens on Google when they type the address looking for me. Apparently Google doesn’t cope. “Do you mean thenewstatesman?” No Google.
- I’m not that new anymore, I feel it in my bones.
- I talk about education and ed-adjacent things. New title is fitting.
- I am keeping the ‘stateswoman’ because I like my politics.
And that’s it!
A blog post that hits the nail on the head. A lot.
If you follow me on Twitter you may already have seen me go into Hulk-smash mode about Guardian education writer Janet Murray’s article, “Why I sent my child to a private school.” Here’s my (slightly) more reasoned response:
Firstly, I won’t scold individual parents deciding they want to go private. I’m sure at least some of my friends will go down that route and, though I may disagree, I’m not going to lecture them at one of those Islington dinner parties us strawman liberals are alleged to attend every weekend. I know there are situations — for example extreme bullying, behavioural issues or unusually poor teachers — that might lead some parents to decide that their current school isn’t working. Just have the decency not to pretend that you’re taking a brave stand against an overwhelming tide of left-wing militancy that doesn’t actually, y’know, exist.
Murray’s article is a classic…
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Nothing beats the stress and tension of exam season if you work in a secondary school. For students, exam season is a wake-up call, one of the first moments that they realise there are some situations where only their own brain and effort will get them through. For teachers, exam season is the culmination of months of hard work. The children’s futures, the school’s reputation, the views of parents, all of these things prey on the mind of the diligent teacher.
There is a reason why exam nightmares are common, even after you leave school. Who hasn’t woken of a morning, felt a creeping remnant of humiliation stemming from a dream in which they turned up to an exam naked and unprepared?
Soon, my anxious Year 11 students will file into the building from their ‘study leave’ and fall silent as the exam regulations are read to them. Some will be unconsciously twisting bits of paper, nerves betrayed by the physical act of shredding their exam timetable or the last few revision notes they made. Some will be steely-eyed, determined; others merely hoping they make it to the end of the exam having written something, anything that might do them justice.
I look at them as individuals. It saddens me that so much of their future is determined by exams that don’t necessarily reveal the extent of their intelligence. Watching Sir Keith Robinson’s fantastic RSA lecture, ‘Changing Paradigms’, made me wonder whether testing our students in the way we do enables them to demonstrate their true potential. The concept of uniform assessment, influenced by a historical shift towards standardisation for the purposes of national productivity, does not allow for a true reflection of a child’s abilities, particularly when that child falls outside of the ‘norm’.
Take the English Literature exams, recently earmarked for reform after being designated ‘soft’. Fears that the exam has become too easy means that it will be subject to yet another change, having already been overhauled by the exam boards in 2010. However exams are viewed by policy advisers, Education Secretaries, the press and the public, only an English teacher can explain that for some students, English Literature exams in any format are extremely difficult. Only an English teacher, someone who sits with children every day to help them learn the core skills of inference and deduction, analysis, evaluation and synthesis, can explain how an English Literature exam may be problematic in any format for students who come into secondary education with low reading ages. It is these students who struggle to keep up with the demands of courses that expect them to be able to make complex and adult judgements when the mere act of reading the text can cause embarrassment and frustration.
While most schools’ titanic efforts in raising reading ages are often successful, consider what a child has to do in the current English Literature exam. Firstly, have an acute understanding of 15 poems, their language devices, structural features and implied meanings. The criteria for the exam suggests that the top grades can only be achieved if a conceptual response is created. It is not enough to display knowledge about the poems, they need to conceptualise their response to take into consideration an author’s possible intentions. Secondly, they respond to an Unseen Poem – a text they have never seen before. To many, this may not seem impossible. One sample test paper had the word ‘waltz’ in it. For inner city London students, despite efforts to increase cultural capital, many will not be familiar with the intricacies of a Bavarian dance possibly dating from the 1750s. Michael Rosen is particularly lucid on the cultural bias of exam papers when he speaks about SATs papers being designed under the assumption that every child has parents who speak to them about botany and geology, take them to museums and expose them to music beyond that of the current chart. If a vital key word in a poem relies heavily on the assumption of student’s background, surely we are just perpetuating social mobility issues?
Students are also asked to write about a novel and a play. Answering a question about whether Inspector Goole is a mouthpiece for J.B Priestley’s socialist message seems straightforward. As does examining an extract from ‘Of Mice and Men’ for close language details. As does then relating the content of the extract to the whole novel and then finally, when hands are tired and minds are fraught, linking all of this to what is shown about America in the 1930s.
The issues lies in the fact that each question is given a time allocation of 45 minutes – in the case of Unseen Poetry, a mere 30 mins. I know that my students understand, with a depth of detail, the finer points of a text, however, can they ever fully show their appreciation in 45 minutes? How many English teachers have sat at their desks knowing that a child is incredibly bright and articulate, either verbally, or with longer stretches of time to construct an argument, and known that 45 minutes will not ever reveal the real extent of their skill? A former student of mine was one of the most articulate students I had ever taught – someone, in fact, with huge cultural capital. However, high-functioning Asperger’s and a slow writing speed meant that he did not really have the chance to shine.
This is not an argument for the dumbing down of English Literature exams, it is an argument for a real and lengthy consideration of the purpose of assessment and who is best qualified to conduct it. If we expect our students to sit the same assessments, in the same length of time, yes, we do achieve a standardised environment in which students can be measured against their peers. Whether this is a fair assessment system is questionable. Our children are not standardised units. Give them the freedom to demonstrate their abilities, and, as usual, they might surprise us.
The New Stateswoman is not going to fall into the trap of responding immediately, in a fit of pique, to the Evening Standard’s front page on London illiteracy rates. She will think, reflect and effect a measured response, full of well thought out vitriol, possibly tomorrow.