Thursday, 4 July 2013

An Ofsted Outstanding Mathematics Lesson

I have this little theory.  The Ofsted criteria is not responsible for most of the dumbed down teaching that I see when I visit schools.  In fact, it is far more likely to be the head teacher's screwed up interpretation of some course they went on 5 years ago.  So I continually see the same old things.
But why can't schooling be better than that?  Why can't we re-instill some intellect?
The Ofsted criteria isn't stopping us.
Below is the criteria for outstanding, alongside what I typically see when inspecting or visiting schools.
But it doesn't have to be this way... why can't the bar be a whole lot higher?  Here are some suggestions:
 Ofsted Criteria for Outstanding...What I see in schools... Why can't it mean this... 
Much of the teaching in all key stages is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils, including disabled pupils, those with special educational needs and those for whom the Pupil Premium provides support, are making rapid and sustained progress.Well, this is a pretty meaningless statement, so let's move on to the next... 
All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils. They plan and teach lessons that enable pupils to learn exceptionally well across the curriculum.Would appear that this means longwinded lesson plans with all sorts of groups and sub-groups identified in little boxes and some 'differentiated' resources that have taken an eternity to prepare just for this one observation lesson (because ask any kid and they'll tell you it's not usually like this)Teachers know the subject inside out and can see where it is going. They can go off at a tangent any time they like, allow kids to take them down different lines of enquiry, and they know what their kids can and what their kids can't do.
Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils' understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning.Fucking traffic lights and hands up with different number of fingers, smiley bloody faces and kids talking crap about what sub-level they are (even though this is utterly meaningless)Teachers use their wealth of experience to know how a lesson is going to pan out with kids of this ability, so they anticipate what to do. They TEACH the topic thoroughly at the start so that everyone can get on. Check kids working and answers as the lesson goes on and sort out kids with problems.
The teaching of reading, writing, communication and mathematics is highly effective and cohesively planned and implemented across the curriculum.Some sort of handbook, written by copying and pasting one from the internet, never read. Handed out during a Baker day. Forgotten. Inevitably contains dire phrases like 'children should be allowed to choose their own methods for multiplying'Schools employ people with brains, who are learn'd individuals, who know more than their own subject, so that the basic tools of learning – reading, writing and number skills – are automatically a part of everyone's repertoire.
Teachers and other adults generate high levels of engagement and commitment to learning.Edu-godamned-tainment. Everything must be fun, lots of happy happy faces. Don't worry whether or not they are actually learning. Nobody is allowed to feel, for even the slightest moment, any anxiety or any feeling that they might be wrong. Holy shit.Mathematics is demanding and the teacher has no time for spoonfeeding Engagement is about fighting with a massively difficult problem after being taught the skills and knowledge required to overcome it. Kids scratch heads a lot. High pressure, high feeling of 'oh-fuck-yeah' when answer is finally extracted from the haze.
Consistently high-quality marking and constructive feedback from teachers ensure that pupils make rapid gains.Bubbles and Blocks. Jesus. Twee statements that are never read because the start of lessons is invariably rushed and there is no time to think about what happened in the past. Teachers spending stupid hours marking page after page after page for no gain for anyone. They are tired and resentful, apart from some oddballs who have no better way to spend their social life. They twitch a lot and have difficulties with 'kids from the estate'Teachers actually KNOW their kids and know their subject. They keep them just on the perfect cusp of challenge.
Teachers use well-judged and often inspirational teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework, which together with sharply focused and timely support and intervention, match individual needs accurately. Consequently, pupils learn exceptionally well.Inspirational = pain in the arse, happy go lucky, weird nylon ties. Appropriate homework is largely unrelated worksheets handed out in haste because some ill conceived policy says every child must have three maths homeworks per week, regardless of whether or not they are needed or have any impact. Tick! Box filled.The teacher is a towering intellect. They know mathematics like the back of their hand and have kids hanging on their every word. They show mathematics being carried out with skill and a deftness that kids admire. They expect and demand kids take responsibility for their own learning, and it is simply a norm that kids turn up having prepared for the lesson.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Education World is Full of Dicks

On March 6th 2006 I was told that I have cancer. I consider myself very lucky for this to have happened to me. I know that might sound a little odd to some, but I am genuinely grateful that it happened. You see, life suddenly becomes short. And suddenly all the trivial nonsense dissipates into nothingness. You gain clarity. You understand what is important in life. You become, well, more alive.
And you reflect.
As I look back on my career in schools, I am proud of what I achieved and hand-on-heart believe that I acted out of what I saw as the best interest of my students. However, I cringe at the way that I behaved at times. There were times in my career when I was a dick. It was never my intention to be, and I hope the moments were few, but it is only with growing and age and life and experience and failures and successes that any of us can evolve in to better individuals. So, yes, there were times when I was a dick. When I was lacking in empathy or was too full of self-belief, when I was cocky or when I was ignorant.
For whatever reasons, I rose quickly through the ranks of roles and responsibilities in schools and found myself being promoted time and again.
There are two sides to how I feel about this. Firstly, the only real goal in my professional life has always been to contribute towards improving the lives of the young people in our schools. So through promotion, the net of influence that I could throw widened considerably and I was able to give something in some small way to more and more children. This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination – the further from the individual child you get, the greater the interference from structures, systems, bureaucracy and the practicalities of day to day life. You might, with the best of intentions, decide upon a new approach in school that you believe will impact for the better on every child, but by the time that approach has been handed down, interpreted or ignored, the impact could be minimal or non-existent. But still, you persevere nonetheless. It would be an interesting study to measure how much each new initiative from central government actually impacted at the individual child level. Take the National Strategies, for example: a small group of bureaucrats and consultants gathered at Sanctuary Buildings to plot an approach that every teacher would follow, ministers made announcements, and then Crapita (and CFBT before them) sent a small team of advisors into the regions to brief specially funded LA consultants. In turn, they briefed teachers. But, as we all know, there was little resemblance to the original diktat by the time it reached the teaching population. LA consultants would listen politely to the advisors, completely ignore what they had been told and then go off and try to talk to their teachers about good teaching. I recall sitting on a table of 7 or 8 regional advisors in a room of around 50 others, all listening to the National Strategies lead for mathematics wittering on with all the insight and empathy of someone who had long since forgotten what it was actually like at the chalkface. Mumbles of 'bullshit' and 'yeah, right' were plentiful. As an 'observer', I asked the folk around my table what they were going to do with the new instructions they had received, to which the general response was 'the same as always, ignore it'.
The second side how I feel about being further and further up the ladder is one of deep sadness. Through promotion, and all that it brings with it in terms of workload and commitments, one is inevitably removed more and more from actually teaching. To drive to work each day knowing that all that you once loved about your job is now in the past is a melancholy situation indeed. But what if you never step up to the mark? This has always been my niggling conundrum. What if only those people desperate to get away from the classroom (as many of the Capita team were) take the decision to work their way up the ladder? Then we would all be doomed. So I have had to balance my emotions each and every time that I took on a new role. School management teams, local authorities, government education agencies and departments need to be filled with people who are passionate about making a difference, who are steeped in what it means to be a teacher, who understand the emotions of standing in front of a classroom full of children day in, day out.
Let me make this perfectly clear, I am not one of those people who think that you must have been a teacher to be allowed to talk about teaching and education. Indeed, some of my senior staff had never taught, yet were incredibly insightful about teaching and learning.
But, in the same way that I think politicians really should have had a real job (preferably a few real jobs) before becoming an MP, I believe that to set the direction of education does require an in depth knowledge of its workings.
This is not something that you can achieve in a couple or years, nor is it something you can achieve by working only in one institution. It takes time and a very broad range of differing experiences to give one a holistic view of how the system actually works (or doesn't).
I worry, then, that a great deal of the organisations, quangos, bodies, unions and the like, that shout so loudly about their particular burning issue they influence the direction of policy, don't actually have a clue what they are talking about. It seems to be an increasingly frequent occasion that I find myself talking – either face to face or via social media – with people in positions of authority who have either never stepped foot in a classroom or have taught in just one school. Who are... well, using the term I used about my arrogant young self, dicks.
There is, of course, something quite charmingly ironic that I can now see in these people what others must have seen in me. A cocksure, young intellect who quoted research and thought the answers were straightforward.
Now, I cringe as I hear of twenty-somethings with one or two years classroom experience giving speeches at conferences or attacking colleagues on Twitter. Kids who know fuck all, being put in charge of Free Schools. And the vacuous types who have no experience beyond an Oxford student life, pontificating and policy making.
Of course, the delight about this situation is, just as I did, they can simply brush me away as a grumpy old man. But guess what, here's a secret: I'm not. Indeed, getting older seems to me to be the most enjoyable thing in life. I'm terrifically happy. And have survived a career in education without a single chip on my shoulder.
I really rather love the fact that these arrogant know-it-alls believe they are the masters of some brave new world. I hope some of them are and will be.
But I also hope that catastrophic life events, whether joyous or tragic, bring the gift of empathy and perspective to some of them.
I hope that those who do, eventually, take the decisions that impact on all of our children do so from a point of view of experience and not as though they have simply read it in a book.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Office Staff

Too many teachers seem to forget that schools are not staffed purely by teachers. Often, in a large secondary school, the teaching staff are actually outnumbered by all those other members of staff who make the school what it is: caretakers, dinnerladies, cleaners, lab technicians, IT support, playground supervisors, teaching assistants, reprographics, art and technology technicians, the staff room tea lady, and the school office staff.
I have always found the main school office to be a haven of normality and down-to-earth-ness. The office staff that I have had the pleasure of working with have always been funny, charming, self-deprecating, friendly, interesting, intelligent, warm and kind. This is without exception. And it would be difficult to say that about any random slice of the teaching staff. I love the banter of the school office, I love the chats and the laughs. In several of the schools at which I have worked, the school office staff have been great friends and played a major part in my feeling happy at work. It would appear that there is just something about penning a group of adults in to a small office environment that leads to an overwhelming sense of support, loyalty and decency and camaraderie.
As Liz, Kath and others would testify, I have spent a lot of time in the school office – sometimes borne of necessity (having to complete admin tasks, budgets, exams returns, that sort of nonsense) but mainly the reason was to simply socialise with some of my favourite people in the workplace.
So I was absolutely shocked and saddened to learn in my early days as a teacher that my appreciation of them was not a universal. In all of the schools in which I have worked, and in many that I have inspected or supported, the school office staff would tell the same story of being treated like second class citizens. It would appear that there is a certain type of teacher, cancerous to each and every school, who believes that they are floating high above the mere working class office folk. They will flounce in to the office and bark at the underpaid staff, they will look down their noses and ignore any opinions that the secretary, receptionist, bursar or exam officer might have, they will expect (as though it were their unquestionable right) to be served and obeyed. I wish this was not true, but alas alas.
At one school, I heard the unbelievable story of the staff summer party. The invitation to which was, rightly, open to all staff at the school. During the evening, a vicious and insecure member of the teaching staff approached the small group of office staff, who were happily enjoying the evening sun and a glass of wine.  She sneerily informed them that she believed the party should be for teachers only and that they were not welcome. This on top of the snide and hurtful comments from a minority of others about the outfits that the office girls were wearing. The following year, all of the administrative staff refused the invite to the staff summer party.  And who could blame them.
I have struggled over the years to work out where this attitude comes from.
I seriously worry about some of the types of people that make teaching their career. It is full of oddballs. And this type of snobbish arsehole just makes the whole environment bitter and tiring. I wonder what it is that makes them feel superior? Is it that they have a degree? I certainly hope not because, and here's a little secret I'm letting you in on, degrees are incredibly easy. Any numbskull could pass a degree. So why isn't this often said? Well, that would be letting the rest of the world know that those of us with a degree (or several) are not actually any better than anyone else. And for some people that would be a scary thing to do because they need the status symbol.
Sat in a pub recently with a friend, we both mulled over the question of whether people like this enter the teaching profession or is it perhaps the teaching profession itself that makes people like that.  Whichever it may be, I can't abide the horrid social divide that some stuck up individuals create in schools.
The office staff are my heroes - even the barking mad, GP-receptionist types.
It is sad that in an environment where we are supposed to be role models to young people, there are those that treat other adults so badly.  Every school has these people.  If you are reading this and think that they don't, then it's probably you!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Local Authority

There are around 150 Local Authorities in England, between them overseeing the work of approximately 28,000 schools. There is no set formula for how the authority should do this and the staffing structures, strategic plans, methodologies and quality of delivery varies wildly between them. Some LAs are highly respected by the schools in their jurisdiction, some are laughably poor, some authorities influence national policy, some have little impact beyond their own border (or indeed within it). As a school inspector, it is very easy to discern which sort of authority you are in. Just innocently utter the words "and the local authority?" at any point while talking with the Headteacher and you will know immediately by the look on their face.
For some reason, the South West of England seems to be blessed. Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Devon LAs have all impressed me at some point for a variety of reasons. The Midlands is hit and miss, the North West often reflects a general distrust of councils and local government, London is barmy but with some shining stars.
Local Authorities used to appoint a Director of Education to drive forward their approach to working with schools, but in recent years this has generally morphed in to the irritatingly twee Director of Children's Services, to reflect the change made under then Secretary of State, Ed Balls, from the Department for Education and Skills to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Of course, the very second the Tories walked through the door to Number 10 at the last election, the department was renamed Department for Education. Oh, how ill informed ministers love to tinker with the national education structure on a whim.
Within an LA, it is the norm that the Director for Education (or whatever) will earn a rather handsome six-figure salary in large authorities (they vary massively in size). I have no problem with this whatsoever in the case of a Director with real drive, vision and practical capabilities. But, and I will not be the only one, my goodness have I met some buffoons happily plodding along achieving next to nothing and pocketing the cash while they can. There is an old saying: Those who can't, teach. In education there are two other sayings that I can often see the reasoning behind: Those who can't teach, inspect. Those who can't be a Headteacher, be Director of Education.
When the Local Authority is good, it can be really good. They will recognize that their role is to be the critical friend, to be the support, to unburden schools so that they are freed up to do the important task of teaching children, to continually challenge lapse practice and put in place meaningful support at all levels. Many Local Authorities across England have such a reputation for excellence that they have been able to embrace a sense of entrepreneurship and sell their wares to neighbouring authorities, central government, the private sector and overseas. Not only does this bring in additional funding to the LA so that it can continue to invest and innovate, but it cultivates an environment of deep thinking and inspiration in its staff, making it a more rewarding place to work and in turn easier to recruit the best possible staff, thus creating a virtuous circle.
Sounds great, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, many of these authorities have not been able to work out how to cope with the recent cutbacks to local government funding and have misguidedly and shortsightedly decided to divest, losing a wealth of knowledge and expertise with the staff that they make redundant. The consequences of which are already becoming clear: standards will fall.
Some Local Authorities are not of the creative, forward thinking type at all. These are the authorities that conjure up the stereotype that inspectors, consultants and advisers are just a bunch of failed teachers or folk who could not hack it in the classroom. The fact is, and there is little point in denying it, that many are.
Some local authorities are sanctuaries for the unhinged, loopy or incompetent. But, of course, such is the cosiness of local government employment that you can be as stark raving mad as you like without any risk of losing your job. So, as though put out to pasture from the schools from which they came, scores of men and women in ill-fitting cords, checked shirts, shapeless frocks or aging suits, plod around the dusty corridors of county hall with the pressures of a real job long since lost in the memory.
This would all be fine if they were simply left to amuse themselves with crosswords and lovely cups of tea, but alas they are sent out in to the world of schools to irritate teachers.
This irritation can take many forms – they appear incredibly skilled at creating situations likely to make an otherwise calm teacher swing for them. Imagine, if you will, it is a Baker Day. One of the few days of the year that schools shut their doors to students in order to allow time for teachers to engage in some form of professional development. This is rare. It is rare to have time to stop and think, to work with colleagues, to grow as a teacher and learn new things. So they are precious. So why is it, then, that the dispossessed, the drunk and the lame that are the plodding local authority consultants pick these days to interfere at their most?
It is not my intention to put down LAs and their staff – I pointed out that many are wonderful – but I do wonder what their purpose will be in the brave new world of Academies, Free Schools, large federations, Teaching Schools and the privitisation of education. Where will these poor old luvvies go?
I anticipate that we are not too long off a national campaign to adopt a consultant. Can you home one?

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Private Education for All?

I read a blog recently from Harry Webb, Why Conservatives are Wrong About Education. Although the blog is confused about what being a conservative actually means, there were some points that got me thinking. Really the post is about a top down, state-centric education system versus a free market approach.
Interestingly, Webb is arguing for the former – a socialist approach. Yet he ends the blog saying that all kids should be able to have the type of education those privileged to attend private schools have.
The trouble with this, of course, is that the private system is entirely about choice, it is entirely a market approach. Consumers can send their children to any school they wish and so are able to choose based on how well they think a school will perform for their child. And if the school is crap, they send them elsewhere.
An argument that bounces around a lot in education is whether schools should be able to be privatised and particularly whether they should be allowed to make a profit (interestingly, this argument often ignores the fact that there are already schools in England that make profits).
As a conservative, I do believe in the market. I believe that individuals should be at the heart of their own lives and should be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
So what if, instead of the socialist, top-down approach, we said that every single child can have a private education? What would this do to education and standards?
The starting point to this discussion needs to be to point out that economically it is entirely possible.
There are private schools that charge massive fees, but actually on the whole, the majority of the 2500 or so private schools in England do not. The price of private education has risen sharply in the last five years, but even now the average annual fees for non-boarding come it at around £11,000. And remember, this figure is skewed upwards because of the very high charging schools.
Now, in the state system the amount of funding provided per child might appear to be lower. But actually, it isn't.
I'm writing this on a flight, so these figures are from memory, but the amount of money dedicated to education that then goes in to the schools budget is around £64 billion per year.
There are approximately 8.1 million children in schooling.
This gives an average per child per year funding of around £7,900
But, and here's the real point, the amount of tax receipts dedicated to education overall is around £97 billion.
This gives a funding of around £12,000 per child per year. More than the average private school child.
So what if, instead of funding a Department for Education, Local Authorities, layers of consultancies, Quangos (or 'Executive Agencies' as they have been lovingly rebranded) and Ofsted... Instead of funding all of this... what if every single parent was simply issued with an education voucher for £12,000 per child per year? Parents could spend this voucher at any school of their choice.
Perhaps then, schools would strive to be the most attractive, schools might want to shout about their grades and extra-curricular offers and so on.
This is what running a private school is like. Having to attract enough students to make the venture economically viable. And parents having choice. And when consumers have choice, they choose the best they can get.
I'm neither advocating this approach or saying that it shouldn't happen, it's just that Harry Webb's blog made me think it might be worth a debate.
Of course, as a libertarian, my instincts are to allow the money to go straight to the parents and schools in this way. I baulk at the billions that are wasted and would rather local communities were given the ability to set their own destinies.
I understand that this is the socialist's nightmare – to trust individuals – and that they feel the need to control and nanny. But what if a free market approach could lead to bettering the life chances of everyone in our society?
I'd love to hear what people think about this in both camps. I'd be interested to be convinced that the socialists are right. Or a 'third way'?

Saturday, 27 April 2013

It's Behaviour, Dummy

I had just finished a school visit on Tuesday afternoon when I was picked up by a Sheffield taxi driver at the main entrance.
I asked for the Station and we set off in to town. He asked me where I was headed and I told him I was going back to London. Figuring that I had something to do with education, he ventured 'are you an inspector?' I told him that I was just visiting some colleagues and tried not to get in to much more of a conversation, wanting just to sit in quiet for the 20 or so minutes it would take to make it through Sheffield rush hour traffic.
But this chap wasn't giving up. He continued to chat about schooling and the state of education. But it was quickly clear that this wasn't just your usual taxi driver rant. The guy knew what he was talking about.
He looked at me in his rear view mirror, his eyes full of sadness and told me, 'I'm a teacher. History.'
He left that in the air for a while until I asked him the obvious question, 'why are you driving a cab?'
And the discussion that followed echoed hundreds of conversations I have had with teachers over the years. Simply put, and this will come as no surprise, I'm sure: the behaviour of children at his last school had driven him to give up. More than that though. He could have handled the children being badly behaved if other colleagues, and especially managers, had taken his side.
Instead he found that sending a child out resulted in him being berated by the head of department; calling for SMT support resulted in an 'off the record' talk about the quality of his teaching and how he might best 'engage' the children; a phone call to a parent to tell them about their child's poor behaviour inevitably meant a visit from the head of year to ask him not to do that because the parents had complained.
So he quit. And now he drives a cab around Sheffield, happy but for those calls that ask him to pick up at schools, which remind him of how belittled, humiliated and betrayed be felt at the hands of children, parents and low quality school leaders.
Before I get in to the main purpose of this blog, let me just make this clear: if you are a headteacher and an adult comes to you for support, no matter what the circumstances, no matter if you think they are the worst teacher in the world, no matter what you hear from students or parents, your job is to support them. To trust them. To treat them like a human being. If you can't do that, then you have no right whatsoever holding the position of head.
This taxi journey discussion played more heavy on my mind than it might usually – after all, this is something that I hear very often. His story is so typical and behaviour is the single issue that really matters to most teachers. It is the key reason for leaving the profession. It is at the heart of working conditions and is the one thing that teachers value above all else (most teachers I know see good behaviour as far more important than a pay rise).
I woke up the next morning still thinking about the taxi driver. The history teacher.
And then I made a mistake that I often make when bleary eyed and stumbling around the house at the crack of dawn, I switched on the wireless and it was tuned to the BBC. I really don't know why I do it to myself. I should have learned a long time ago that the Beeb just drives me insane.
The news story being discussed as my ancient radio came to life was the launch of a report from the Children's Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson. In yet another vicious attack on the profession, Dr Atkinson berated headteachers for sending children home without completing all of the paperwork.
I switched the wireless off, cursed a bit, did some angry Tweeting and then thought again of the cab journey the previous evening.
Firstly, if you have never been a headteacher, shut the hell up. You have no idea, absolutely no idea, how hard the job is and how much bureaucratic crap one has to deal with.
Secondly, and more to the point, when did it become acceptable that a single child is allowed to rob 30 other children of the chance to be successful? When did the bleeding hearts, the vocal minority, the wets, make it so ingrained in Britain that the child is always right and the teacher is always wrong?
Not on my watch. And not on the watch of any good headteacher.
If a child is ruining the education of others and the best course of action is to send them home, then trust headteachers with the responsibility they have been given (to provide the best education for all) to get on with their jobs.
Dr Atkinson's remarks are unhelpful and insulting.
I absolutely despair when those who have no idea what it is like to be in schools, no idea what it is like to see on a grown man's face the shame of being bullied by children, think they have the right to make such sweeping remarks.
I don't know who these idiots are that have made 'inclusion' such a perverted scenario, but I do know that parents I meet and talk with all agree: if my child was in a class with a disruptive child, then I would want (and support) the headteacher to remove that disruptive child so that my child can learn. That is fairness.
I have written before about inclusion, so won't go in to this more now.
I could tell a hundred stories about nightmarish behaviour in schools, about adults driven to distraction, about little bastards who get away with it because some headteachers have bought in to the 'needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many' bullshit.
I will include here, by means of example, an excerpt from a chapter of a book I wrote some time back:
I have witnessed many shocking incidents in my time as a teacher. Once as we returned from a school trip, a meathead of a parent attacked a colleague as he stepped from the bus. I have been involved in calming down a child while he held another at knifepoint. There was the boy who walked in to my sixth form lesson and struck one of my students across the head with a metal table leg because he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him. I have seen a teenage girl punched to the ground by her own father at a summer ball. There was an occasion in Northampton when a gang of expelled students had come on to site and spray-painted extremely offence material on to the cars of the staff. But none of this has shocked me as much as what happened while working at Pope John School in Corby. Several Advanced Skills Teachers, Consultants and Advisors from across the county had been drafted in to the school in order to try to help raise standards from the most dire of states. The school was suffering badly and was earmarked for closure. I was posted in the school one day per week to work with the mathematics department. I spent many days during the summer holiday working with the newly appointed Head of Mathematics in creating schemes of work and resources so that the teachers could have a better chance of success come September. Within three weeks of the school term starting, the new Head of Maths had resigned and left the school. There was a staff shortage and the teachers working at the school were fighting against the most difficult of circumstances. A young teacher had taken on the role of leading the department and was doing all that she could to keep things moving along. I worked with some fantastic students at the school, giving extra time after hours to hold revision lessons and spending far more time on the assignment than I really had. Many areas of the school had descended in to chaos. Students were out of control and some staff simply hid themselves away.
One Monday afternoon, I was due to work with a young female teacher with a Year 11 class. She was a beautiful young woman, always smiling and delightful to talk to. She had arrived from Ghana, a successful teacher, only a matter of weeks before the start of the school year. She put such effort in to her lessons and had a real desire to help the students. Her lesson was already underway when I entered the class via a rear door from an adjoining classroom. She was at the board trying to explain some mathematical concept, but no-one was listening. Some students had headphones on, some were doodling, others chatting to each other. I had never seen this perspective of her daily grind before, usually I would enter the classroom with her and the students would sense that they needed to behave because there was a stranger in the room. But now, here I was sat secretly at the back of the room. In front of me a row students were chatting away, still wearing their coats, bags on the desk and completely oblivious to the teacher. One student, a scrawny, horrid little shit, started to make monkey noises at the teacher. I could barely believe it and was thoroughly ashamed to think that this poor girl's working days were typified by this sort of experience, I had a deep despair at the thought of her going home each evening to her own family and having to put on a brave face. I was about to collar the lad when he decided to take it even further and began chanting over and over again: "Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger"
The teacher caught my eyes and I could see that she was gently weeping.
I stood up sharply, throwing my seat back against the wall. The boys turned around.
"Get up!" I barked at him.
He stood and tried to have some swagger about him, but it was clear that he was terrified.
"Follow me!" I marched out of the room and the boy followed. He tried to catch up with me and say some words but I ignored him completely.
We reached the school reception. I stopped and turned to him. "Name!" I ordered and he told me. I am not terribly proud of what happened next, but I also find it hard to regret since I later found out that this is what this boy did every single lesson.
I asked the school receptionist to get the child's father on the phone, even though I know that this was not the procedure that should have been followed. She tried the home number, no response. Tried his mobile, no response. Finally she handed me the receiver as someone at the man's workplace answered the phone. I asked for the father by name and was told that he could not come to the phone in work hours. I explained that there was a "situation" at his son's school. A few moments later, he came on the line asking if everything was okay. I shoved the phone into the boy's hand and roared at him "Tell your father what you did!"
He stood there shaking for long moments, not willing to speak. "Tell him!" I yelled again. Finally in a broken voice he said, "I called my teacher a nigger"
In a factory on the other side of town, his father went ballistic. The boy was crying now and he handed me the phone. "Come and remove this boy from these premises." I told the parent simply.
Fifteen minutes later the reception doors swung open and the father charged in, grabbed his son by the arm and marched back out again.
Our support in the school continued for many months, but in spite of this and the efforts of many, many good people, Pope John School never did recover from its downward spiral. There were protests and campaigns in the local newspaper to try and save the school. But I will say here now, I am glad that it was eventually closed and that those children were given better hope by being sent to a stronger school.
For weeks afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about the pretty, young teacher going home knowing that the humiliation would all begin again tomorrow.
I know that this can happen to teachers regardless of race, colour or creed, but I believe that it is simply a fact that Overseas Trained Teachers get a much harder time from students.
(from Chapter 34 'More On Being a Teacher', Mark McCourt)

Working in schools is the greatest job in the world.  But it should not be underestimated how much of a decline there has been in the last 15 years in terms of both pupil behaviour and the attitudes of parents.  If Dr Atkinson wishes to peddle such crap, my personal opinion is that she should first have to endure the humiliation that some teachers face on a daily basis.  She should have to lie awake at night with palpatations, unable to rest, with tears in her eyes.  She should have to lose her appetite and have family life destroyed.  At that point, then feel free to come back to headteachers and make recommendations about how they should deal with the tiny minority of children who cause this distress.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Every Single Child Can Pass Maths

As the coalition government pushes forward with reforms to the National Curriculum in England, the spotlight is once again on the debate around the 'right' mathematics curriculum.
The desire is, of course, to raise standards (whatever that might mean) and there are arguments and counter arguments aplenty. What shocks me is that on all sides of the debate, the ever present excuse that 'some kids' will never be successful in mathematics rears its ugly head.
This has got to stop.
Enough is enough.  No more excuses.
Except for the rarest of child, we are all born with the same capacity to learn. Every single child, on the day of their birth, has it within them to leave the schooling system mathematically literate. I'm not talking about everyone being a Fields Medalist or mathematical genius, just that everyone can attain a level of mathematics that ensures they have access to all other learning and can continue to learn if they wish. A level of mathematics useful and practical in their future lives.
And one of the main reasons that so many do not achieve this level at the moment, is that so many people in the education world seem hell bent on setting the bar far too low and excusing under performance.
When children enter the education system, say at 3 or 4 or 5, when we are first able to influence their path through learning, they are no longer equal. The experiences that they have had in their early childhood have changed them. They are at different starting points.
But here's the thing: so bloody what.
It is not good enough to use this pathetic excuse to consign thousands of children to a life of being mathematically subnormal. It is not good enough for a profession to throw its hands in the air and say 'well it's not our fault'.
And just while I'm on this, if one more person says to me that these children are from 'certain types' of background, if one more person tries to tell me that being poor means you are screwed before schooling even gets its hands on you, then I will clench my fist as tight as I can and smack that person firmly in the face.
When I hear apparently intelligent adults writing off kids 'from the estate', I want to scream, I want to drag them from their comfortable lives and show them that poverty is not an excuse – there are millions of parents around the world facing the most incredibly challenging circumstances who love their children dearly and do an amazing job at raising them, including instilling a love of learning and a desire to be successful. It has nothing whatsoever to do with income level and everything to do with bad parenting – and these people are in every walk of life.
Regardless, it is a pointless argument. The fact is the children arrive the way they arrive. It is what we then do to them that matters.
During their short time in school, the average child attends 1600 hours of mathematics lessons.
Let's take, for ease of argument, a benchmark of success as Grade C at GCSE (though this is, frankly, a joke). If anyone pauses for just a few moments, looks at the requirements for gaining a Grade C and then considers that each child has 1600 hours of instruction to get there, they would quickly come to the conclusion that this MUST be possible. Absolutely must be. Geez, a trained monkey could get there in that time. Grade C mathematics is not taxing. It just isn't.
So why do thousands of children find it so incredibly taxing? Well, the simple answer is that the 1600 hours of instruction that they receive isn't doing the job for them. Kids fail GCSE mathematics not because they can't do the stuff that forms the Grade C checklist, they fail because they haven't got a clue what is going on in mathematics. They, at some point along the way, dropped the ball.
Recently, I have been writing a curriculum for mathematics designed to take any person learning mathematics from the point of starting to understand numbers and counting all the way through to calculus. I firmly believe that every single child being born today has the capacity to, and with the right journey could, achieve this level by age 15 (far beyond the expectations of the current curriculum).
Mathematics is not an arbitrary set of topics for study. It is a discipline founded on well-defined axioms. Like playing a piano concerto, writing a great novel, or baking a cake, you cannot produce the goods without understanding and knowing the foundations.
And the really irritating thing is that we know, and have known for hundreds of years, what the journey through mathematics needs to look like, what it needs to consist of, if one is to be able to use mathematics fluently.
I cannot say this strongly enough, but if you do not have a full grasp of numerosity, place value, the base 10 system, arithmetic and proportional reasoning, then you are... well... fucked.
And, just to add at this point, with regards to the axiomatic nature of mathematics, at the level of foundations there is no namby-pamby way of 'discovering' this knowledge.  They are axioms, that's the point.  You just need to know them.  Someone needs to tell you, and you need to remember.  The numbers are 1, 2, 3, 4... and that just is so.  A square is called a square, nothing is going to change that.  Numbers in place value columns are linked by a scale of 10, get over it.  Later on in mathematics, once these fundamental elements are known, then the excitement begins and one can construct all sorts of new knowledge from these axioms combined with logic and imagination.  But if you don't know these things, you can never ever get there.  Just in the same way that if you don't know the English languge, you can never ever write Hamlet.
Yet, even though we know this, for some inexplicable reason, the curriculum and the teaching of it, seems to ignore the fact that these fundamentals are non-negotiable. The curriculum, especially when enhanced by the inspection regime, puts mathematics, as a set of skills, on a fast moving conveyor belt that is impossible to stop or rewind.
Except for the fact that the current National Curriculum is so low in its aspirations and expectations, the topics there are all fine and good, nothing controversial. But it just pays no attention whatsoever to how mathematics must be mastered at each level before moving on.
I am sick to the back teeth of meeting 15 year olds who are being asked to solve algebraic equations or analyse graphs, when they can't even perform basic arithmetic or know how the number system works. What the hell are we doing to these kids.
And they are not rare – these kids are everywhere.
Somewhere along the line, the conveyor belt served up arithmetic, say, but they didn't grip it, they didn't get it, they didn't get there. For the moment, forget why. It doesn't matter, it's just an excuse. Yes, maybe they are a pain in the arse, or were away, or they have mental parents, or the most difficult lives. It does not matter. What matters is that, by simply continuing on with the next topic, we are screwing these kids over for life.
Mathematics teachers need to be brave. They need to ignore Ofsted or idiotic SMT who haven't a clue what they are talking about. Mathematics teachers need to know mathematics. They need to know their kids. They need to know who has and who hasn't mastered the foundations and they need to ensure that every single child does so.
You see, the thing is, it might seem scary because the curriculum powers on and you might feel that you are behind, you might feel someone will 'tell you off', but for Christ's sake, the only thing that should matter in teaching is doing what is right for learning. Sometimes you need to rise up.
And you know what, it isn't rocket science. When kids understand and know the basic grammar of mathematics, they are able to accelerate through the other stuff.
Instead of trying to shoe horn every kid in to learning what the scheme of work says they should be learning because of the year group they are in, actually bother to sort the problem.
And everyone blames everyone else. Secondary teachers blame primary teachers, who blame policy makers, who blame the mathematics society and on and on and on...
But the truth is, it's our fault. All of us. As a society we have all been complicit in allowing expectations to fall so dreadfully low.
If you are a teacher and you have a child in your class (doesn't matter how old they are) who doesn't know and understand the foundations I listed above, please, please, please stop the conveyor belt and get them to master these. They all can. All. Do not accept the nonsense some peddle that some types of kids can't. It's not true. They can. Have that as your expectation and aspiration (and if you don't, then perhaps teaching is the wrong career).
I often refer to mathematics as a giant Jenga. At the top, the wooden blocks represent those mathematical concepts that we want the kids to be able to do at the end of their schooling, aged 15 or 16. The GCSE topics. But they are not failing mathematics because they don't know these topics. They are failing because the blocks much further down, the foundations, are loose, wobbly or completely missing and so the whole tower tumbles.
We should all feel really ashamed that we allow young people to leave schooling without these foundations. For it is these that will enable them to learn more. Without them they are imprisoned for life.
I hope that a new curriculum for England will be high in its expectations and aspirations. I hope that teachers will see that there is no point in moving children on from one skill to the next to the next if they don't have at their disposal the basic grammar, the language of mathematics that allows them to learn. I hope that headteachers will tell their staff to ignore the age of a child and instead focus on diagnosing what they do and do not understand so that they can ensure each child leaves schooling able to be successful in mathematics. I hope that Ofsted take their head out of their arse and stop bleating on about age related expectations and instead focus on making children better at mathematics.
I hope that a new curriculum will bring about real improvements in the life chances of the children being born today so that, by the time they reach age 15, the current GCSE grade C topics look like an amusing set of piddling easy tasks because they have gone so much further and mastered the subject in a way that everyone of them is capable of doing.

This blog led to a discussion on the TES forum.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Paedophile Nation

Remember in the 1990s when dogs were really dangerous? Every tabloid splashed across its frontpage photos of face-blurred chavs with bulldogs on taut leads straining to attack some dim child or slow pensioner. Growling and drooling.
Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells wrote letter after letter to MPs and Aunty Beeb. Oh, there was outrage alright. These insane mutts had suddenly been struck with an insatiable taste for human flesh. And all this because their slow-witted, tracksuit wearing, council estate owners were mistreating the fucked up hounds and training them to be vicious monsters, probably propping their eye lids open with matchsticks and forcing them to watch hours upon hours of fascist propaganda.
Oh gosh! The country was in fear. Terror.
As ever, government reacted in its usual pathetic way – more legislation. Who cares about personal responsibility, eh?
But of course, it was all complete bullshit. Dogs were not suddenly more dangerous. There was no massive increase in attacks. Folk were still raising their pets well. A tiny minority of incidents were blown out of all proportion and used by the vocal minority to, as always, force upon the entire nation pointless and unwanted new laws. And this is one of the characteristics of modern Britain: the government's response is always to legislate, to make more people in to criminals, to monitor, to control.
There has been a movement for quite some time now in Britain, a movement determined to remove any possible risk from life at all. To remove any notion that one should take responsibility for one's own actions. To make the nation numb. Passive. Apathetic.
Commentators from around the world have, with increasing regularity, been looking at the progress of Britain and seeing in it a slow, but purposeful, move towards fascism. Towards a totalitarian state. A police state.
And yet, talk to just about anyone in Britain itself and they will scoff at this suggestion. The population has become politically sedate.
I shiver when I read accounts of intelligent, rational men and women who could feel something taking hold in early 20th Century Germany, but who did not run. Did not try to change the political direction. And then realised it was too late.
Britain is now devoid of politics. The main parties appear to have gravitated to the middle, there is little real difference. Obsessed with spin and always trying to say what they think people want to hear, rather than what they actually believe or hold dear. But it is a deception, they are not in the middle. Both parties, and this thoroughly shames me as a Tory, have bought in to the easy option of jumping when the vocal minority shout. And why wouldn't they when the rest of the country is so silent?
And why are the vocal minority vocal? And why are they the worst possible people to influence law?
They are those who have suffered. They are those who are driven by intense emotion. So we have new laws, given the Christian names of lost children, to calm traffic because pressure groups of those who lost their dear, beautiful children scream at the top of their voice. And why wouldn't they? They should.
But law, law should not bend.
Since 1997, over 8000 new laws have been introduced. Each one of those laws represents the removal of a freedom from every single person living in Britain.
Someone is beaten to death by scum in one of our town centres on a Friday night, and the sinister, nameless authorities use these tragic events as an excuse to blanket the entire country in CCTV. And they will tell you, it is for your safety. Always for your safety. Yet, even the government's own data show that CCTV has zero impact on this sort of crime. None. Not a bit. (the only exception is theft from cars in well lit carparks)
A child is killed by a speeding car, and speed cameras are everywhere.
These measures all have the same effect, they remove the need to think. They remove the need to behave in a responsible way. They hand over one's conscience to the State.
Many of our liberties have been stolen away in the name of such tragic stories. And then 2001 happened. The attacks on New York signalled a new fervour for legislation and the removal of human rights in Britain. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act was Labour's ultimate strike at liberty, a complete upheaval of the law, which extended massively the powers of the police and removed many rights that people still to this day believe they have (such as an absolute right to trial by jury, the double jeopardy rule, the right of a prisoner to apply to the High Court regarding bail). All in the name of 'your safety'
As the passion and fury around 9/11 dimmed, a new threat was needed. A new way of introducing far reaching laws that would allow government to delve in to the private lives of each and every person in the land.
And they call it safeguarding.
Dogs, terrorists, murdered pensioners. All emotive stuff. But nothing compares to protecting children.
For years now, po-faced, flaccid nincompoops have sought to drain every last drop of happiness from daily school life. They fought to have camcorders barred from school nativity plays, they campaigned for children to be wrapped in cotton wool during PE, they harangued teachers with threats of legal action over every single aspect of school trips to the point where teachers just stopped bothering to run them, they shouted from the rooftops 'Health and Safety', they wanted each child to be free of any possibility of losing, they pressured schools to listen to the children through 'student voice', they wanted every child to be exactly the way they said they should be (and bugger their own parents), they relentlessly bombarded government with their awfulness because they knew they had allies in the shape of people like the horrid Harriet Harman.
None of this, none of it at all, has made the lives of children better. None of it helps them and none of it, especially, safeguards them. By putting children in bubbles, they are not stronger, they are not more able to deal with danger. They are overwhelmingly less able. They are not aware of risk and how to deal with it.
Just like many other teachers, I have experienced the despair at seeing a previously bubbly, bright young student turn, more or less overnight, in to a grey eyed, slate faced shadow of themselves. Child abuse is evil. It can break a child's soul. There is no excuse and the world would be a better place if such horror did not occur.
But even with that, even with the knowledge of what it can do to children, the case is not that liberty should be quashed.
I would rather be stabbed to death on a dark street than have my every movement watched by the State on CCTV.
There is no bogeyman, there is no long coated, thick spectacled pervert on the street corner or hanging around the playgrounds. These caricatures exist because the country does not want to admit that which is so unpalatable: almost without exception, child abuse is a home issue. Almost without exception, child abuse is a family issue.
Look, terrible things do happen. There are incredibly rare events when strangers harm children. They do happen. But they are so rare, they are so out of the ordinary that they are not the real problem. Yet it is these events that are driving child protection legislation and policy. Such a huge amount of time, resource and money is being directed in the wrong place. Instead of teaching children about how families operate and how sexual contact within the family is not something they should hide away, instead of teaching children about how to express their fears, about how to cope with family situations that are wrong, instead of spelling out to them what can happen in families and what they can do to make it end if it does, Britain is obsessed with the cover story. Not looking inward. Looking for the bogeymen. And relentlessly chasing innocent people. Demonising teachers or scout leaders, making it unacceptable to film normal family home movies that capture moments such as sports days and nativity plays, creating an atmosphere where busy bodies in chemists are reporting to the police normal mothers who arrive to collect photos of their children playing on a beach or laughing in the bath.
Child protection in the UK seems to be focussed on everything other than protecting children.
Schools that put blanket bans on youtube and social media sites are not, as they believe, helping to keep children safe. They are making children's lives more hazardous by burying their heads in the sand and not addressing the issue. If your school bans chunks of the internet, then they are idiots. Children don't have these controls when they leave the school gates and use the wifi in Starbucks on their iPad. They don't exist in this unreal world that some schools are trying to create. So by ignoring the world they do exist in, schools are not able to have the proper discussions about how to use the internet responsibly and how to take care of oneself. Don't block the internet, instead talk to children about the fact that much of what is on there is garbage. Talk to children about their online presence and the fact that there are idiots online pretending to be someone they are not. Teach them how to spot the signs and who to talk to if they are concerned.
It seems like it has been a long time since we were honest with children. In the 1960s and 70s when I was a child, you were simply told that some people need to be avoided. You were told about what can happen. And you were exposed to risk in your life so that you could learn to deal with it. From crossing a road, climbing a pylon or playing in a river, to getting in a car with a stranger. You were told: this happens and this is what the consequence could be. And then it is over to you, to use your judgement and common sense, to act responsibly.
There are no more incidences of child abuse now than there were in the 1950s. There are no more dangerous dogs. But Britain seems fixated on the issue at the moment and the tabloids, and the BBC in particular, seem to want to portray Britain as a nation of paedophiles. It isn't.
People are good. And that should be the default, not suspicion.
This fever that is gripping the nation at the moment is what is allowing a whole new swathe of legislation to be proposed. All of it removing rights from the ordinary citizens of this country. The Data Communication Bill, if passed into an Act of Parliament, will hand unprecedented access to personal information to numbskulls in local authorities. Your every email, internet search, phonecall, text message. All accessible to a range of people with absolutely no need to access it. And no right.
As the European Court of Human Rights, particularly following the case or R vs Marper, were right to assert, the UK state is already too invasive. This has led to the only great achievement of the current government: the Protection of Freedoms Act, which passed in to law last May. This Act seeks to undo much of the invasion in to personal privacy that had become so much the norm in the previous administration.  It is what has quite rightly brought about the scrapping of the CRB and Safeguarding Authority, replacing them with the much more measured DBS.
And just this week, three High Court judges ruled that the CRB was unlawful in that the checks are a breach of human rights.  When a woman in her 40s is denied a job as a carer because she walked out of Superdrug without paying for a packet of false nails a decade before, then surely even we all know that the grip of CRB had gone too far.
So thank goodness that common sense seems to be making a small comeback.
But it has not yet had enough of a resurgence.
Whenever I talk about this subject (and by the way, why is it so unacceptable to some that I do?), I am greeted with the same drowsy chant, 'if you have nothing to hide, what's the problem?"
Well here is the fucking problem: it is none of the State's business what I, or anyone else, chooses to do. So long as individuals are not breaking the law, then the State should keep its nose well and truly out. I am dumbstruck that anyone thinks it is acceptable to have the level of surveillance and intrusion that is now the case in Britain, let alone that which is being suggested.
And it seems that the cunning tactic of those who seek to create this sort of Britain is to brand anyone who questions it extreme. To try to use taboo to silence. To suggest that not wanting a police state is in some way equal to condoning child abuse.
Well it is not. And those who think so are, in my opinion, very sinister. Those who think that the individual is not allowed to question the State, are sinister. Those who think that they have the moral right to tell other people how to live their lives, are sinister.
Since the Jimmy Saville allegations came to light, the BBC has run on an almost daily basis some new paedophile story. And what strikes me about most of these stories is that they are cases that have not yet stood the test of law. Saville himself has never been tried by jury, so those allegations remain just that, allegations. Michael Gove was right to argue that teachers accused of abusing children in their care should be given anonymity until such point they are charged and tried. The Beeb, tabloids and local press seem to think nothing at all about dragging individuals through the mud as though they have been found guilty of a heinous crime.  It is nothing short of a modern witch hunt.
It is time that the UK stopped and looked at itself in the mirror. Time to get back to a common sense level of legislation. Time to have child protection policy that actually protects children and faces the stark reality that they are most at risk not from some lurking monster, but from their own family.  It is time to understand how incredibly rare such abuse is.  It is time that checks and balances are put in place so that those, so tragically hurt, are not able to change the law by screaming the loudest.
And it is time that joy returned to our schools. Where parents and communities are not treated like monsters, where protecting children does not mean the loss of liberty from all, where it is ok to have freedom even though that may mean an occasional accident.
Those meely mouthed killjoys who, for their own screwed up reasons, think that failing to win the egg and spoon race scars a child for life need to be prevented from setting the agenda. People are good, but life is risky. We shouldn't pretend otherwise.