Tom Bennett

Home » 2010 » September

Monthly Archives: September 2010

Die SEF, die, die, and die again!

Michael Gove has become an unlikely ally to the teacher; as of yesterday he announced the death of the SEF! Like a hideous vampire, this awful beast has roamed through the villages and cities of our schools, terrifying teachers (actually, boring them to death) and providing Head Masters with something to actually do since 2005. But now the beast has been cornered in its castle, and Gove has made official what teachers have been saying since this hideous piece of bureaucracy was dropped, unwanted from the loins of its laboratory origins: the SEF is an enormous waste of teachers’ and schools’ time. Here’s how he drilled the stake into the monster’s cadaverous heart:

Date: 23 September 2010

‘Education Secretary Michael Gove today announced another step in the lifting of the bureaucratic burden on heads and teachers. The school Self Evaluation Form (SEF) process takes days out of heads’ time and can cost schools tens of thousands of pounds. The Secretary of State has asked Ofsted to ditch it. It is the next stage in a rolling programme of reducing bureaucracy for teachers and trusting them to get on with their jobs.

The SEF asks teachers and heads to collect and verify facts and figures about their school in preparation for their Ofsted inspection. Headteachers say it can take many long hours to fill in and take teachers out of the classroom for extended periods. It can run to over a 100 pages once it has been filled in.

The Coalition Government has already taken several steps to reduce bureaucracy including

  • freeing schools from local authority and national government control by allowing them to gain academy-style freedoms
  • abolishing three quangos that created vast additional bureaucracy for schools without proven benefit
  • reducing the burden on teachers and improving the quality of inspection by asking Ofsted to change their framework to focus on four principal areas: the quality of teaching, the effectiveness of leadership, pupils’ behaviour and safety, and pupils’ achievement.

This rolling programme will continue into the autumn as ministers engage with teachers and frontline staff on their plans to give them more power and remove the form-filling and bureaucracy that takes them away from the classroom.

Michael Gove said:

The Coalition Government trusts teachers to get on with their job. That’s why we are taking steps to reduce the bureaucracy they face and giving them the powers they need to do a good job. We believe that teachers – not bureaucrats and politicians – should run schools.

The removal of the SEF was welcomed by teachers.

Kate Dethridge, Head of Churchend Primary School in Reading, said:

Removing the SEF will free up huge amounts of time – many heads spend most of their summer holidays updating the SEF, then you would need at least two or three senior management meetings to discuss it.

Amanda Whittingham, Assistant Head of Wensley Fold School in Blackburn, said:

Just to update the SEF took up two full days of work for the head, deputy and a paid external consultant brought in as an expert on filling in the SEF.’

See the whole article here.

Everyone back to mine. Bring some petrol and a book of matches. And some booze. We’re having a SEF bonfire!!!

This is almost as good as it gets for teachers, so make the most of this moment, before someone in the DfE thinks, ‘Why don’t we make it compulsary for all teachers to learn Gaelic’ or something.

How schools destroy expectations

There is a moment for every new teacher: the NQT with energy, enthusiasm and high aspirations, leaves the rarified air of the training experience and lands on Planet School. And suddenly you walk into an atmosphere that seems unable to sustain life, let alone learning.

But this is what New Teachers are fed as soon as they born, like some hideous Matrix, or Brave New World: don‘t expect too much; accept bad behaviour; let them get away with it; the kids can’t help it. It’s pathetic; it’s an absurd, surreal inversion of what we came here to do, and it’s such a clear assault on the way children should be raised and educated that it could be reasonably claimed to fall under the definition of child abuse.

Children start off knowing next to nothing about the world (apologies to the Continental Rationalists); they learn almost everything from…us. From their parents, peers and educators. If they are taught that cussing a teacher is acceptable, then they will do it when they please. And it may please them to do it a lot. So even if the parents haven’t set boundaries for them, we bloody well can- and should. And must. Deep down, most of them want us to do it- they crave boundaries, and security, and certainty, especially if their home lives are chaotic and barren. They might not realise it, but that’s what they need.

And if they don’t realise it, so what? It’s our job to provide it, because we are adults, and trained professionals, educators and mentors. It’s our role and our responsibility to provide boundaries and rules for them. And in that partially controlled, safe environment, we provide a climbing frame to make them more free than they could have possibly imagined. We restrict them to give them liberty, despite the apparent absurdity of that statement.

Any adult in any way engaged in the business of educating children needs to get on the bus with that very basic premise; and if they’re not prepared to do so, then it is they who should get off the bus and start looking for jobs in Tesco. It isn’t the ambitious, hard working teachers who actually have an intuitive understanding of what children need in order to succeed who should be shown the door, but the flaccid, workshy fops whose only ambition seems to be to make it to the end of their careers with as little contact with children as possible.

If an NQT doesn’t get this basic level of support then they should push the eject button and go somewhere that deserves to have them, because schools that don’t support their teachers should be drained of staff until they collapse like pub Jenga.

Help! Homeopaths are stealing my soul

Doctor I have a confession: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog is one of the best I’ve seen; he writes eloquently and with scorn about the ways in which quacks, medicine men, frauds and hucksters misrepresent science to turn a buck. His book is excellent and I’m a big fan.

Education is also full of sham scientific claims; I think it’s more vulnerable to pseudo science than even medicine, because educational theories are informed even more by sociology, psychology etc which are much ‘softer’ sciences than the natural sciences. Basically, it’s easy to verify beyond dispute that water boils at 100 degrees because it’s so easy to test and disprove. It’s much harder to prove that three-part lessons improve child concentration, or that school uniform has a causal link to grade performance, because there are so many factors potentially affecting the outcome that it’s extremely difficult to make any conclusive hypotheses.

But that’s ok. The only problem is when educational con men try to claim that their method is the only way to teach, and all you need to do is sign on the dotted line. A bigger problem is when the Department of Education fall for it and the gullibles try to sell it to us working on the chalkface. But that’s another post, another time.

I never knew I’d run into my own bit of Bad Science bother. It goes like this:

For a while I’ve been doing some freelance writing for the Times Educational Supplement, usually about controlling rowdy classes. The staff journalists at the TES often use me as a rent-a-gob when they want ‘a teacher says’ type quotes. On the 7th May an article appeared called ‘Doctor, Leave Them Kids Alone,’ which was about the issue of Ritalin and do kids really need it. They asked me if I had any experiences.

I’d taught a kid a few years back who was bouncing off the walls, until he was prescribed it- at which point he just kind of vanished into the background. It was a really marked change. Now, I’m not a scientist so I didn’t want to say anything other than my personal anecdotal experience. I’m also of the opinion that our culture tends to believe that all manners of social and cultural problems should be solved by a pill, rather than addressing the complex issues surrounding them (something I think you write about very well). But y’know, I’m not Tom Cruise, and I reckon there’s a happy balance to be struck between turning to the Pink Potion, and maybe dealing with stuff that life throws at us. So I contributed a few quotes about how this somewhat mental kid had gone from uncontrollable to Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and that I understood why the parents did it, but it seemed a shame for the poor kid. Nothing too controversial.

I blew cereal through my nose when I came across the following article a few months later on t’web.

It’s a homeopathic website (you know, that branch of alternative medicine, which claims you can cure arthritis, cancer, gout etc by drinking ….tap water. Sorry, Magic tap water).It quotes me without my permission (which I suppose is pretty small beer), indicating that I in some way endorse their homeopathic gumbo or support the ideas behind it. That’s probably the first problem I have with it. The second is that they then go on to quote from the pupil I discussed, saying, “I know it helps me in some ways, but I hate taking it,” Leon explained, “there are days when I deliberately avoid it. You just don’t feel yourself, you feel so drained out. It makes you feel disgusted and down. Like you’ve got no soul or something.”

Poor Leon. Boo hoo hoo. The only problem is I didn’t give the student’s name (because I like having a job), I’ve taught dozens of kids on Ritalin, and there’s no way they could know I was talking about him. PLUS I’ve never had a kid called Leon Perry. The last problem then is that they imply that the school gave him a ‘drugs or leave school’ ultimatum, which is just so laughable that I can’t imagine a school having the balls saying it to a parent. They’d get sued into the fourth world.

So what have I done? Well, I contacted the Bad Science B’wana himself, Ben Goldacre, because he’s performed a few homeopathic exorcisms in his time. Of course, he might be too busy to offer any advice. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get….

I’m off to drink tap water to get rid of my gout, or something.

PS If anyone reads the homeopathic article, please don’t leave any sarcastic messages for them yet. I need to keep the element of surprise.

Here’s Tom with the weather.

Had my four minutes in the limelight today, appearing for interview on the BBC1 Breakfast Show (with Charlie and Susanna!). Taxi arrived at 6am, confirming that it was actually real, and not some dodgy cheese I ate. Got to White City in about half an hour- I really recommend having rush hour at six o’clock- it’s much quieter.

Got to a spookily empty looking Beeb and led through the fables corridors, which are exactly as utilitarian as a public service should be. Sat in the Green Room (the peasants’ one, for people like me, not the Russell Brand one) and sat with all the other rent-a-gobs until it was my time.

Endured the red-faced shame of having man make-up. I think I may now have tide marks. I apologise for knowing what they are. Anyway, I was led on by the floor manager into a set with about five people on it; not intimidating at all. Charlie (he does wear a lot of make up. Looks about twenty years younger for it, so maybe he’s got the right idea) and Susanna were brisk, warm and efficient- I suppose that’s part of the talent of a job like that, to make the guest feel at ease; they certainly did. It didn’t feel like national breakfast TV at all.

Afterwards we made small talk for about ten seconds and I was off in another taxi and back to school, just in time for briefing and the shower of glory from school kids that only an appearance on telly can guarantee, no mater what you’ve done. I swear I could go postal with a sniper rifle, and they’d bump me if they saw it on Bang! Goes the theory.

Afterwards, every social networking device I had was paralysed with all the data bottlenecking from people whose breakfasts I’d ruined by my invasion. I can only apologise to them all. What a hoot.

Television! Drug of the Nation!

I’ve just been asked to appear on BBC1 Breakfast News at around 7.20am tomorrow (Friday) so I can whore myself shamelessly for two minutes, while talking about the importance of school uniform. Read that anyway you like. Apparently the taxi will come to pick me up at 6am, presumably to whisk me into make-up, and Marmalade jokes with Carol Thatcher in the Green Room.

Might tell them I’ll get the Tube instead, and claim the fare back off my licence fee. I’ll try not to be too awful.

The Dangers of watching a kettle boil

‘The Behaviour Guru’ came out last week; all the right aunties etc have received their free copy. I even swallowed my pride and signed a few at the request of friends, although I suspect I’ve just damned myself to Hell forever for doing so.

Amazon UK has a strange feature; it informs you exactly where you are in the book sales ranking. There is nothing in the world better at reminding you that you are a speck of dust in an infinite galaxy than logging on to the sales charts. It’s like gazing into the abyss. And quite right too. Worrying about your rank is like worrying about how many people like you. I don’t write this stuff to make pals (although it’s undoubtedly nice when it happens) but to try to pass on useful knowledge and skills to people who are going through the same obstacle courses I did in education. The goal is a bit more than getting to number one. I mean, right now, Tony Blair is number one in the book charts, and he’s definitely going to Hell.

‘UK slipping down graduate league’
BBC online, 8/9/10

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (who dem?) says in a report today that the UK has fallen from third highest to fifteenth among top industrialised nations for the proportion of young people graduating. The tone of this, and similar reports suggests that the general mood should be one of panic, as the UK finally succumbs to the death rattle of a pneumonic nation in decline.

Quite apart from the creepy racism implicit in this kind of thinking (‘we’re even below them,’ you can hear them shudder. ‘The Poles. The Irish. Our children will be cannibals.‘) there are other reasons to unclench our buttocks and relax after hearing this kind of thing.

1. It’s not a race. Who benefits from the knowledge of these enormously relative positions anyway? Did you know what position we were in last year? Or the year before that? How would you have felt if the headline had read, ‘Britain in top twenty nations for graduates, for tenth year running.’? Maybe proud, maybe not. This article is all about perspective, and the way in which truth is presented to us to suit the agenda of the writer. When did you stop beating your wife?

2. It doesn’t compare like for like. Normally when you present a top twenty, you define the criteria by which subjects are ranked. Record sales, for example (in the days when records actually existed) providing an easy scale to chart the hit parade. But ‘percentage of graduates’ conceals deep underground oceans of differences. Do we mean universities or colleges? How long do they have to study? What can we say about the relative quality of the courses, or the integrity of the assessment and graduation system? I read a similar report today which claimed that the University of Cambridge had ‘finally’ pipped Harvard as the best University in the World. Excuse me as I pop my Dom Perignon (that’s not prison slang), but who decided the criteria? Why wasn’t the criteria different? You don’t have to have a degree in science to appreciate that Humanities graduates (e.g. journalists) don’t require quite the burden of proof or the same rigour of methodology in order to accept the informal findings of a survey, no matter how pale the provenance, as the natural sciences, which at least have the appeal of being reassuringingly, soul-destroyingly refutable.

3. The timing is suspiciously right. Don’t get me wrong; I also want funding for Universities to be maintained (somehow; don’t ask me how. I’ve already checked down the back of my sofa), but the upcoming University Funding Commission is looming, and further education institutions are bracing themselves for an onslaught. Voila! a survey alleging to prove that we’re slipping behind the dagos, and if we’re not frightfully careful, the Queen will be smoking Turkish cigarettes and speaking German. Again.

4. It’s not all bad news. Would you like to know who we’re doing better than? Canada, for one. Yes, Canada, that cesspit of poverty and ruin. Er, actually, have you seen Canada? It’s a Utopian counter-example to the British adventure. Enormous, gorgeous, prosperous and notably, with a higher standard of living than we have. You can feel it in the air. It just feels…richer. The infrastructure is new and maintained; the air is clean; the transport is a model of civic excellence. We’re wonderfully smug in the UK about our fabulous international gold standard of living, but I think many Britons would benefit from taking a ferry to Denmark, or a red-eye to Vancouver in order to feel like third world migrants must have felt like landing on the Limehouse docks in 1880. ‘Blimey,’ they thought, ‘They seem to be doing alright.’

I delight in reading educational surveys. I get a warm glow whenever I see them leading the breakfast news or the second story in a newsheet. My hamster gets an even warmer glow when I shred them and line his cage with the remnants.

That’s a lie. I don’t have a hamster.