Month: March 2016

Arise, Teachers of England: the game has changed.

Yesterday, I was invited to speak to a group of actors and directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company about the crisis in our school system. We discussed in detail the narrowing of the curriculum through the government’s testing agenda, the asset-stripping of the public realm through the academies programme and the “culture of fear” that has taken hold in so many of our schools as a consequence of flawed accountability measures, leaving teachers and young people alike anxious and uninspired.

Many of the questions I was asked were, quite rightly, about what we can do about all of this. One member of the group expressed his frustration that a mood of “exhausted resignation” has settled over those who want to protect our public services. During the last parliament we held strikes, we went on marches and we signed petitions; at every step we fought the government and at every step we lost. I think this is particularly true of teachers. Defeat after defeat on workload, pensions and so-called performance-related pay have left many of our number asking: “what’s the point?” And it’s driven many of us, myself included, to take a break from the profession altogether.

The reason we failed in the past is that we were never able to make our message resonate with the public. Anti-union legislation brought in during the early 80s prevents us from striking over “ideology” so all trade union-backed campaigns are forced to focus on our own pay and conditions rather than the impact of the government’s policies on young people. To the average voter in middle England, if they were aware of NUT, ATL and NASUWT campaigns at all, the message would have elicited no more than a shrug of the shoulders and a mutter of: “bloody teachers are moaning again.”

But that may just be changing. There’s a palpable sense now, since George Osborne’s announcement in the budget that all schools will be forced into academy chains by 2022, that the public are waking up to the reality of what is being done to our young people’s futures. The needless turmoil being imposed on perfectly good schools up and down the country, the removal of parent governors and the murky secrecy in which the whole project is shrouded has caused millions of ordinary people to sit up and think again. Even several Tory councillors in middle England have gone public with their concerns.

So now is not the time for “exhausted resignation.” Now is the time to dust ourselves down and get ready to take up the fight again. For the first time since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the public are listening to us. For the first time, this may actually be a fight we can win. This is the time for teachers to start shouting. Whether it’s through strikes, rallies, petitions, social media campaigns or simply writing to your MP, let’s make some noise.

Do not go gentle into that good night. The game has changed; let’s pick ourselves up and defend our schools.

Budgetary Priorities

They only do it to wind us up. Just as Jeremy Hunt knows full-well that junior doctors already work at weekends, George Osborne knows full-well that not a single school in the country closes at 3.30pm. In every town and village there exists a mighty army of indomitable teachers and teaching assistants who, rather than allow the government’s mindless testing regime to deprive children of art, music and sport, put aside their exhaustion to lead extra-curricular clubs, choirs and workshops after the final bell has gone. If you’ve ever worked in an office and you occasionally had to do big, important presentations that took hours to prepare, just imagine having to deliver five hours’ worth of those presentations every day to 30 people, knowing you could lose your job if you can’t prove they’ve all understood exactly what you were saying. Imagine if you then had to use your spare time to prepare more presentations as well as providing personalised written feedback to every participant. Then imagine conducting an orchestra or refereeing football matches for dozens of excited, demob-happy children at the end of it all. All I can say is that, if George Osborne is going to give a bit of money to a small minority of schools so they can fund their after-school clubs slightly more generously, then fine. It’s a start.

According to most newspapers and TV channels, that was the main education story of the day: a bit of extra money to fund the extra-curricular clubs that already exist in a small minority of schools. That and something about fizzy drinks. But there was one other thing…only a silly little thing, really; hardly worth mentioning. It’s just…there was that bit where Osborne announced he was, you know, privatising the entire state education system.

Hang on…what?

Yeah. Just to be clear, on Wednesday the Conservatives brought to an end the system of democratically-controlled, locally-accountable education they themselves introduced 114 years ago so that every child in the land could go to school rather than down the mines or up the chimneys. Between now and 2020 all schools, whether they like it or not, will be forced to become part of an “academy chain”- this means they are privately-controlled but publically-funded. In other words: you, the voter, now have no say over how schools are run but you still have to pay for them out of your taxes. The contracts through which schools (and the often very valuable land they are built on) are gifted to these organisations are shrouded in secrecy, the financial arrangements made within them are often kept from the public and several of these chains are run by well-known donors to the Conservative Party.

Why isn’t this bigger news? Well, partly it’s because most journalists find the subject of education fairly boring and rarely want to cover it in any depth. But it’s also because most of us who follow such matters closely have seen this looming on the horizon for some time and it therefore comes as no surprise. Indeed, most schools have already taken steps to protect themselves from being overtaken by a large, corporate behemoth, usually by forming trusts and clusters with other local schools that can be turned into less sinister and mysterious academy chains with relative ease.

What will this mean for our children? Well, if all schools are academies then, in some ways, no schools are academies. Academies have always been defined by the ways they differ from their local authority-controlled counterparts: they’re unconstrained by the national curriculum, they have to find their own HR and legal services and they have considerably more freedom over admissions. If these “distinctions” are applied to all schools, then what the government will actually be doing is abolishing the national curriculum (a bizarre new version of which was introduced by Michael Gove in 2014, creating a great deal of now seemingly pointless work on the part of many teachers), taking away legal and HR support from schools that still feel they need it and causing considerable confusion around the admissions process.

The curriculum is a moot point in the primary phase. Nowadays we live or die by our pupils’ KS2 assessment results and, sadly, it’s the content of those high-stakes tests that dictates what children learn between the ages of 5 and 11, rather than the largely tokenistic curriculum document. The removal of HR and legal services could be a problem for many smaller primary schools and I worry that their leadership teams will be forced to spend more time addressing those matters rather than addressing the needs of their pupils. What is really unclear, and a little scary, is what it will mean for admissions. The government’s mismanagement of a recent national crisis in school places has already created a chaotic and confused landscape. Many academies already appear to discriminate against lower-achieving pupils and their families, even though they’re not really supposed to, by claiming they are “unable to meet their needs.” What will happen if all the schools in an area, now granted the freedom to do so, start discriminating in the same way? What will happen to the children no one dares accept lest they bring down their test scores? My biggest fear is that local authorities will be hastily forced to set up large numbers of pupil referral units and special schools to educate all the children no one else will take, creating an underclass segregated by ability before they’ve even reached their fifth birthdays.

Perhaps with that very risk in mind, there is now some talk of handing control of admissions back to local authorities for all schools, which actually makes you wonder whether we’re just going full circle. After a few scandals, maybe legal services will get handed back, followed soon thereafter by financial accountability after a few academy directors, like Father Ted, are found to have unexplained sums of money “just resting in their accounts.” Before long, you wonder if we’ll just end up back where we started and the academies revolution will turn out just to be a really crap re-telling of “Animal Farm,” by the end of which the pigs have turned into men and half the farm has been sold to Sports Direct.

There’s no evidence that academies are any better or any worse than local authority schools in terms of educational outcomes so the big questions for most teachers I speak to are these: why take such a big gamble with our young people’s futures? What do the ministers taking these decisions stand to gain? Is it simply a question of ideology? And why all the secrecy? Whatever the explanation, it’s hard to believe the government really has children’s best interests at heart.

You can see why they were so keen to talk about after-school clubs and fizzy drinks instead.

Crisis Management

What a week it’s been. On Monday I published my article outlining the reasons I have decided to walk away from the teaching profession. I posted it on this website which anyone can see is not finished. I’m still very new to WordPress and I had intended to become much more proficient before the site was viewed by so many people. Since Monday evening, the website has been visited more than 120,000 times after the article went viral on social media, shared tens of thousands of times by people for whom it struck a chord. On Thursday it was published by the TES and on Friday I received an email from the deputy news editor of the Independent who intends to publish it on Monday. I set up this website with a view to making a living as a freelance writer when the curtain comes down on my teaching career (now somewhat famously) at the end of the academic year. What an irony (notice I’m following the DfE’s new exclamation mark guidance here) that my reflections on my old career should provide such a shot in the arm to my new one!

While it’s been exciting to see the enthusiastic response to my writing, I’ve been dismayed to read the countless emails and comments that have come my way from other teachers and ex-teachers with similar stories to tell. I’ve heard stories about successful teachers whose self-confidence has been utterly shot to pieces by the system we work in; of fellow professionals who have had to seek counselling or medication for depression or anxiety and even marriages torn apart by stress and workload. Compared to some of the stories I’ve heard, I have it easy. As I said in my article, my head teacher is one of the good guys. A number of people commenting on the TES Facebook announcement of my article remarked “55 hours a week? I work more than 70!” Well I don’t and at my school we don’t encourage our staff to either. So while I stand in solidarity with all those who are being pressurised to work a 70 hour week in other schools, for me the problem is not about the workload but the about the depressingly narrow offer we’re forced to make to our pupils.

I had been planning to write a wider range of articles in the coming weeks. There are all sorts of other interests about which I wanted to express my thoughts but, given the incredible response to my previous article, I think I will focus for now on trying to speak up for the teaching profession, especially in terms of the primary system from which my experience stems. I’m escaping from the education system’s clutches but I have no intention of giving up the fight. The best way to push back against what is happening to our schools, whether you’re a teacher, a parent or just a concerned citizen, is to unite, to share our experiences and to keep insisting to anyone who will listen, in one voice, that our children deserve better than this.

Thank you for all your support over the last few days and please keep the emails and comments coming. In my first article I signalled my retreat but the fightback starts here. Watch this space.

 

 

The holidays don’t make up for this

I am part of the Teaching Crisis. In that sentence I wrote “the Teaching Crisis” with capital letters and a definite article as though it were a well-known, named thing like the Banking Crisis in 2008 or the Abdication Crisis in 1936. It isn’t but it should be.

Since September 2013, I’ve been the deputy head of a large primary school in inner London. The head teacher I work with is fantastic. We have a committed, talented team of staff and governors and the young people I teach are always entertaining. The pay is pretty good. I’m currently undertaking my NPQH (National Professional Qualification in Headship) so I’ll soon be ready to apply for the top job at a school of my own. But I’m not going to. In July I’m walking away from the profession that has been my life for more than twelve years and I genuinely don’t know if I’m ever coming back. I’m not alone.

This is the story of the Teaching Crisis.

I’m wandering off into the sunset after twelve years.

 

In 2003, during my third year at university in Sheffield, I started volunteering in a local primary school. After three years studying philosophy, as theoretical and abstract a discipline as you can imagine, there was a real thrill to feeling like I was doing something “real”- helping little people to read, write and do maths. Realising that I could inspire and motivate the pupils I was working with was really exciting and I decided that I wanted to be a teacher.

Even then, the primary education system imagined by Blair’s government was full of frustrations- primary schools were just stumbling out of the tyranny of the “literacy hour” in which all English lessons were taught (and inspected) according to a centrally-dictated timescale presented as a patronising diagram of a clock. The effectiveness of schools was judged largely on the contents of huge ring-binders full of arbitrary targets and tokenistic policy statements referred to, somewhat dubiously, as “evidence.” Worst of all, for me, lesson plans were tortuously shoe-horned into detailed, prescriptive Microsoft Word tables which required almost every box to be filled with some sort of jargon, just so it looked impressive in one of the aforementioned ring-binders.

Ring Binder, Loose-Leaf, Binder, Fold, Office

Within this bureaucratic landscape, however, there was still (just about) time for the part of the job that mattered: getting to know the young people in your care, understanding what made them tick, and finding ways to reach them on an individual level. You could placate the various rampaging paperwork trolls with a couple of hours a week of judicious “copy & paste”-by producing just enough A4 sheets of edu-waffle to make them go away and let you carry on with your actual job.  The KS2 assessments (what we have been incorrectly referring to as “SATs tests” since the 1990s) were constructed according to a rigorous and clearly-prescribed set of criteria and schools were held accountable for their performance in them- but this was only one part of what made a school “effective.”  Back then, very few head teachers would have had to choose between their conscience and their job. For all their faults, it’s worth remembering that the cornerstone of the Blair government’s education policy was a document called “Every Child Matters.”

Sun, Children Drawing, Image, Drawing, Paint

During the last three years of the Labour government, there was a real sense of light at the end of the tunnel. It felt as though, after more than a decade in control of primary education, they had finally come to understand it. Under the (actually quite impressive) leadership of Ed Balls, the rebranded Department for Children, School and Families started issuing edicts that actually kind of made sense. They ditched what remained of the primary national strategies which dictated how maths and English should be taught and they commissioned Sir Jim Rose to produce a comprehensive review of the primary curriculum, which suggested that traditional subject divides be replaced with broader areas of learning and stressed the importance of play, particularly for younger pupils. It promoted the development of good speaking and listening skills and the value of nurturing beneficial character traits in young people such as resilience and independence, as well as the clear focus on maths and English that already existed. The Rose Review was far from perfect but, having been authored by a former HMI director of inspections on the basis of broad consultations it set out a direction of travel which almost everyone that knew about education agreed with. Everyone, that is, apart from the new shadow secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families. And there was an election coming up. Balls out- balls up. Enter stage hard right, Mr. Michael Gove.

Darth Vader, Star Wars, Alliance, Body, Criminal, Dark

What’s strange is that the first two years of the Dark Lord’s attack on primary education were happy ones for me. Yes the government websites had been rebranded (the “Department for Education” now replacing the all-too cuddly-sounding DCSF) but the school I was working at during that era was led by a brave, inspiring head teacher with his own sense of what he wanted to do, regardless of the noises coming out of Whitehall. We rode out what one colleague of mine from the time once referred to as the “phoney war” in relative peace and quiet. We scaled back the bureaucratic burden (goodbye to detailed lesson plans and officious-sounding acronyms like IEPs and APP grids) and replaced it with a few simple, manageable systems for ensuring children enjoyed learning and developed confident, resilient personalities. Like anything else in education, what we were doing wasn’t perfect but I was a Year 6 teacher at the time and I have no doubt that most of the children I taught then had been much better prepared real life than those leaving primary school now.

2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsessive focus on results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped started to engender a culture of fear at every level of management. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, head teachers began to make more and more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time, particularly through unrealistic and unmanageable marking policies. The government stepped up their anti-teacher rhetoric in the media as they fought a series of battles with our unions over cuts to our pensions and the introduction, against all the evidence, of performance-related pay for teachers. The failure of the free school and academies agenda to provide sufficient school places for four-year-olds was causing rows between communities and local authorities over school expansions and “bulge classes” (one-off additional classes in particular year groups at particular schools.) Perhaps most seriously, the constant changes to primary assessment started to squeeze out everything from the curriculum that wasn’t directly concerned with producing short-term, measurable units of an increasingly abstract notion called “progress” in reading, writing and maths.

People, Child, School, Genius, Blackboard, Student

It was in January of that year that Sir Michael Willshaw, the chief inspector of Ofsted, had made his now infamous comment that “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ then you know you’re doing something right.” Four years on, as he prepares to stand down as chief inspector, I suppose we can only congratulate Sir Michael on having met his own success criteria during his tenure so completely.

Baby, Face, Head, People, Person, Young, Suckling, Sad

And now, at the tender mercy of Nicky Morgan, this tragic tale reaches its conclusion. The primary assessment system has been overhauled completely and, unless you want Ofsted to sack your head teacher and give your school (and the land it’s built on) to one of Michael Gove’s friends (or if your school is already controlled by one of Michael Gove’s friends) you have no choice but to teach to a dull, uninspiring series of tests that have precious little relevance to the twenty-first century lives our pupils are going to have to navigate.

Me dressed as a SATs paper when we still had a sense of humour about it all.

 

We used to be inspiring young people, opening their minds to new possibilities and giving them a lifelong love of learning. Heaven knows what this strange game we’re playing now is supposed to accomplish. Teaching was once a creative, optimistic, energising job. Not in the Gove-Morgan world of coordinating conjunctions and “formal written methods.” Got a passion for music? Primary teaching is not for you. Want to inspire children with drama? Go hug a tree, you Corbyn-loving hippie. Think children should learn about their local area? Officially that’s fine (it’s on the meaningless, untested part of the curriculum) but just make sure you link it to your grammar objectives because any child that doesn’t understand the precise grammatical role of the subjunctive mood at the age of 11 will henceforth be branded a failure. I mean, do most Tory MPs even understand the precise grammatical role of the subjunctive mood?

Trying to inspire children with drama like a tree-hugging, Corbyn-loving hippie.

 

At my own school, we’re still (just about) able to strike a balance between what we believe and what is imposed from above but doing this is getting harder every year. Meanwhile, it seems teachers in most other schools are monitored, examined, scrutinised and graded as though working a 55-hour-week for 32 hours’ pay is a special privilege of which they should be continually proving themselves worthy. Being a teacher should be a privilege and it was a privilege not so very long ago. But it isn’t at the moment. Not like this. Teachers want trust, respect and the right to exercise their own professional judgement.  They want the system they work in to be designed by people who understand education. They want a school system run for the benefit of pupils, not politicians. Most of all they want to be listened to. Without these simple courtesies (for that is all they are- all we’re asking for) it’s just not worth it.

And no, before you ask, the holidays don’t make up for it.

 

The People who Want Britain to Leave the EU

cropped-cropped-beach-photo1.jpgThe People who want Britain to leave the EU

The people who want Britain to leave the EU say it isn’t because they don’t like foreign people. They say it is because of democracy. They say they don’t want politicians elected by people in other places deciding what their laws should be. The people who want Britain to leave the EU say it isn’t democracy when politicians elected by people in other places decide what their laws should be.

I live in Wood Green. At the last election the people who live in Wood Green elected Catherine West to be our MP. This means we elected her to be the person that gets involved in deciding what our laws should be and we call this democracy. However, the main people who decide what our laws should be are mostly politicians elected in other places. David Cameron wasn’t elected in Wood Green. Nor was Michael Gove.  Nor was Jeremy Corbyn. Nor was Ed Miliband. Nor was Nicola Sturgeon. Nigel Farage wasn’t elected in Wood Green or anywhere else. The reason most of the people who decide what my laws should be were not elected in Wood Green is that there are lots of other places and lots of other people, including all the people who want Britain to leave the EU. The other people in the other places also chose an MP at the last election to help decide what their laws should be and we call this democracy.

Even my MP Catherine West isn’t in exactly the same place as me. Often we are both in Wood Green but not always. Even when we are both in Wood Green, Catherine West and I are usually in different buildings and even if we are in the same building (like at public meetings) we sit in different chairs. It would be pretty strange if I sat in Catherine West’s chair, especially if she were trying to sit in it too. The people of Wood Green elected Catherine West as their MP at the last election and we call this democracy.  The people of Wood Green did not elect me as their MP at the last election, and they wouldn’t want me to sit in Catherine West’s chair, especially while she was trying to sit in it too. Often Catherine West is in the House of Commons because that is part of her job and the House of Commons is where she (and other politicians elected by other people in other places) gets involved in deciding what our laws should be. I am not usually in the House of Commons because I am not the person elected by the people of Wood Green (or any of the other places) to be involved in deciding what our laws should be.

I am also not in exactly the same place as the other people who voted in the last election in Wood Green. Often I am in my home and they are in theirs. If I am at the shops, some of them will be in the park. Some of them will also be at the shops but they will either be at different shops or standing in a different spot in the same shop. This means that even the people who elected the same MP as me are not in exactly the same place as me. In fact, the politicians who decide what our laws should be are always elected by people in other places because each of us is only in one place at a time and most other people are in other places.

The only way the politicians who decide what our laws should be could be in exactly the same place as all of us is if all of us were in exactly the same place all the time, or if each of us made our own individual laws with no governments at all. I don’t think the people who want us to leave the EU would support either of these ideas.

If you don’t want everyone to be in exactly the same place all the time and you don’t want each of us to make our own individual laws with no governments at all, then you will sometimes need politicians elected by people who are not in the same place as you to decide what your laws should be and we call this democracy. One downside of democracy is that you can’t decide what most of your laws should be because the number of people who aren’t you is bigger than the number of people who are you (which is one because only you are you.)

In the EU there are politicians called MEPs. British people decide who some of them are and people from other countries decide who some of them are too. The number of MEPs elected by people in other countries is bigger than the number of MEPs elected by people in Britain because the number of countries that aren’t Britain is bigger than the number of countries that are Britain (which is one because only Britain is Britain.) Those MEPs decide what some of our laws should be. Like in the UK parliament, most of the MEPs were not elected by people in exactly the same place as me. The people who want Britain to leave the EU don’t mind MPs being elected by people who aren’t in exactly the same place as me but they don’t want MEPs to be elected by people who aren’t in exactly the same place as them. This is because all MPs are British but some MEPs are foreign. It has nothing to do with not liking foreign people. It is because of democracy.

David Cameron isn’t in exactly the same place as me and nor is Michael Gove. I am glad about that. However, David Cameron and Michael Gove can decide what my laws should be because other people (who aren’t me and who also aren’t in exactly the same place as me) decided that they could and we call this democracy. The people who want Britain to leave the EU don’t mind that because David Cameron and Michael Gove are British. The people who want Britain to leave the EU don’t mind politicians elected by people in other places deciding what their laws should be as long as those people aren’t foreign.

The people who want Britain to leave the EU say it’s not because they don’t like foreign people. They say it’s because of democracy.

Saying you want to leave the EU because of democracy sounds better than saying you want to leave the EU because you don’t like foreign people. So maybe some of the people who want Britain to leave the EU are only saying it’s because of democracy when in fact it’s because they don’t like foreign people.

Sometimes people say one thing when they mean another and we call this democracy.