|‘Do you know what value-added is….Pip?’|
Is it just me, or was Charles Dickens an education prophet for our times? Watching the BBC’s latest tent-pole master theatre for sleepy middle-class people slumbering their way through a period of feasting that for most represents a mere acceleration of over consumption rather than the commencement of anything unusual, I would say yes.
|How to motivate young male learners|
But hold! His life is transformed by the intervention of a rich sponsor, sort of like a private backer for home schooling. Pip becomes a fixture at Satis House, keeping company to the unlikeable, stuffed arrogance of Miss Havisham’s weirdo, home schooled child Estella. She insults Pip constantly, taunting him about his status in life in the first of a series of examples that seem designed to show us anyone richer than a blind beggar is a vile pervert. Of course, Pip falls in love immediately, presumably because Estella is the first woman he’s seen that isn’t covered in pig shit. Pip begins to learn about RP and fish knives to rub the edges off his common burr. Et becomes eaten, and ‘revolting, potty old woman’ becomes ‘lady’. Pip is encouraged to get in touch with his inner gentleman, which is in many ways a precursor of SEAL. His socialisation for greater things has begun.
Magwitch, unbeknownst to anyone other than his lawyers, has sponsored Pip in his elevation to the gentry. I can scarcely imagine any corporate fraud doing this today, when every charitable contribution is tax deductible and slavishly followed by kind publicity. Let no good deed go unrewarded, is the maxim that accompanies contemporary corporate largesse.
|I’m amazed Superman didn’t chin her.|
|‘It’s spelled B-R-A-I-N G-Y-M…’|
|In your f*cking DREAMS, Olsen.|
|‘Anyone here been inspected and speaks English?’|
|Michael Gove, yesterday.|
There are lies, damn lies, and of course, educational research. In science fiction you often find the alternate-earth trope, where history diverges from our own in significant and reflective ways. I feel like I inhabit one of these Bizarro worlds, where the evidence of my senses is contradicted every time I read anything that talks about classroom sizes.
I’m a teacher. I teach kids. There is one of me, and in an average room, 20-30 of them. That’s a reasonable optimal number, I think for large scale education systems that have the task of educating the children of a nation. No doubt one day we’ll be able to afford intervention quartets, tutored in personalised virtual bubbles. Not yet. On the odd day that some kids are out on trips/ kidnapped by pirates, the dynamic is very different, you get more time to spend with the kids individually, and you can have discussions and Q&As etc that genuinely address each student’s curiosity. Behaviour is inevitably better, as no one can hide in the tall grass of the crowd. Small classes are great, for teacher and student.
|He am not get my vote.|
Big classes are trickier. They take more handling, and certainly more effort from the teacher, particularly at the start of the relationship, keeping them on track. On one hand it’s a question of probability- if you increase the number of people in a room, you increase the chance that one or two of them will find it amusing to text unimaginative insults to other pupils in the room, or chat, or swing, or plot revolution in a million ways. And on another level, it’s about tipping points; the more people in the room, the more chance of confrontation between people, competing for the same resources, time, space, attention. A teacher’s focal point is finite- pour more kids into their sights, and detail is lost. Behaviour goes unchallenged by sheer volume; good and bad.
This is all axiomatic in my experience. I genuinely don’t know a single teacher who would substantially demur from my findings. My evidence is of course experiential, but from another perspective it’s broadly deductive, given what most of us accept about human nature.
|Why bitches be trippin’ ’bout class sizes?|
But apparently, this is all wrong. Apparently bigger class sizes are just fine. Apparently the more the merrier, like some enormous conga-line of education, happily side kicking through the assembly hall and into Oxbridge. Da-da-da-da- CONGA! Welcome to Yale, Darren.
Who says so? At ease, citizens, it’s the DfE. Sleep easy, it must be true. They’ve just published this report which repeats among other things, the claim (made in the past) that bigger can be better. It’s a long document, so allow me to summarise it for you:
1. Good morning citizens. I trust you slept well?
2. Comrades have been busy, and birth rates are UP
3. This means that more junior members of the community will be coming to a school near you
4. This leads to more students per teacher
5. Regrettably, previous administrations have made it illegal to have KS1 classes larger than 30
6. This oversight on their part is a result of revisionist panic, and is unpatriotic.
7. Because we know this to be true, we have cherry-picked research that confirms our belief that large class sizes are unremarkable. We call this type of research ‘robust’. Research that disagrees with our beliefs is called ‘unsubstantiated’. Then it is deleted from the records. What research? Do you LIKE living with your family, citizen? One thing we did agree was that making teachers work harder was cheaper than maintaining smaller classes. Isn’t that nice?
8. We looked at some other countries that have completely different education systems and found that we couldn’t draw any conclusions from them either.
9. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about. And there never was.
10. England prevails, citizens. Tomorrow the weather will be fine, with a mild Easterly breeze at 10:14pm, which will last for approximately fifteen minutes.
The main thrust of the argument is that- and I am NOT MAKING THIS UP- is that the research is generaly inconclusive about whether larger class sizes have a negative impact on attainment levels and progression beyond school. That’s it: ‘we don’t know’. Which is a rather fabulous way of saying, ‘So let’s just crank up the heat on the teachers, because large classes are jess’ fine.’
Seriously, that’s what this document says, only it uses style and diction purdier than a five-dollar cabaret gal. Notice the appalling way that it drop kicks a steel-toed tap shoe right into the collective charlies of teachers in not one, but two ways:
|Your class, soon.|
1. Everything you lot say about class sizes can safely be ignored. Why? Because the evidence shows it. Our research is more valid than your professional judgement. It trumps the collective wisdom of your entire profession. You see, we have data, and the data cannot lie. It is sacred. The bones have spoken. Unfortunately, only we, the chosen, can hear what they say. It is no surprise that among the tumultuous cry for student voice, parent power, and anonymously triggered Ofsteds, the only group that is no longer represented by a significant collective mouthpiece, are teachers. The last time I was asked my opinion as a teacher was….ah, never. I had more say at the General Election
2. The kids are at the gates, and they all need taught. So, you’ll just have to work jolly well harder, rather than get any more funding for more teachers. Gee, thanks, Ministry of Funny Teaching. You are all heart. Is is Christmas?
I’m not Moses, but I have been to the mountain top, in this case, a classroom. My experience, and the experience of every teacher I know trumps your research every damned time. EVERY time. Once again, educational research wears a mask of propriety and causal certainty, while in reality it is little more than values dressed as facts. So, one more Christmas wish for Santa Gove:
Please can education climb out of the enormous intellectual abyss into which it has fallen, and stop making me think that the enlightenment is potentially a two way process? That would be DANDY.
I’m off now to prepare my megaphone and cinema sized lecture screen so that I can teach a stadium full of children about Socratic dialogues. When my classroom resembles the crowd scene from The Life of Brian (‘Yes, we’re all individuals!’) then I will reflect on this document and remember that really, size doesn’t matter. Excuse me, I have to go forget who your child is.
|Toby Young, you WISH|
Creationists, Fundamentalists and Anti-Interventionists may have 99 Problems, but now the Hitch ain’t one. Stop all the clocks: he is no more. Death punctuates all of us with its terminal period, and whether beyond that point lies the dissipation of the space bar, or a transfiguration into chapters unknown, is a question with little evidence to scaffold either option. We all choose our uncertainties.
But one thing is certain; he is not here; he does not sleep, to borrow Mary Frye’s valedictory balm. We should be wary of tearing our shirts too devoutly at the departing of anyone not connected to us by association; the real wound of loss is only felt by those close to the absent, the family, the friends. Fans and devotees must guard themselves against celebrity grief. True, by doing so we rehearse and explore our own reactions to the Great Ending, but importantly we can do as much through art or music, shedding tears for people that we have not only never met, but never could, until that other great curtain, between fact and fiction, melted away.
So: the Death of the Artist is a private grief for his circle; but we are permitted to doff our caps or raise a glass at the end of an impressive life. Probity demands that death ameliorates a man’s character, and we draw a discrete veil over his faults. By his own admission, he flourished more as a man of letters than a patriarch; his political see-saw is well known, and it is perhaps one of his greatest achievements that he could so solidly offend and consternate allies and foes on the left and right equally. He was the darling of the libertine in his devotion to the sensual; the hawk’s spokesman on Iraq and Islam; the Humanist’s avatar in his daisy-chain firebombing of faith and the faithful.
There is nothing to be surprised about by this. How eager some people are to ally themselves under a banner, to declare their allegiance to a bag of beliefs- perhaps it answers some need in themselves to belong, for their beliefs to cohere. Yet sometimes, how undernourished are those ideologies that demand unswerving loyalty or none at all? Much of the debate- political, academic, religious- in this country revolves around this brainless dogma; that you are either with us or against us. That if you are an atheist you must also be this, if you are on the left you must also be that. The articulate, scornful Hitchens epitomised the belief that ideas can cohere in a million different ways, equally valid. A socialist who embraced Bush’s American Exceptionalism could hardly be anything other than a fascinating example of free thought.
Perhaps because of this ability to hold chameleon beliefs, he appealed to a broader church than otherwise. But never in the history of eulogies have I so often seen the line, ‘I didn’t agree with everything he said, but…’ than with the Hitch.
Redundant, redundant phrase; is there ANYONE with whom you are in complete agreement? If so, marry them; or smash the mirror before you. It is often said that we should never meet our idols; they will only disappoint, because there will always be a departure point, however remote, between the incarnation of your aspirations and the real thing. Every mind is unique; every life is a fingerprint, indistinguishable from itself, infinitely unique. It is the ability to acknowledge that another’s views might be superior to yours, no matter how firmly they are held, that marks us as civilised. It is the essence of tolerance, liberalism, the relativism necessary for us to endure the existence of others, to refrain from demurring the ideas of others simply because they are foreign.
Reading Christopher Hitchens reinvigorated my desire to be a writer, which had been burdened with the ballast of years in the wilderness, failure and cynicism. Life is too complex to claim any man as an inspiration, but his pen was certainly part of mine. I missed his extraordinary gift for oration at a recent event at the South Bank, a few weeks ago, and instead we were ‘treated’ to a stream of the literati eulogising him as he wasted on his death bed. But in reality nothing was missed; the desire to see one’s heroes, while perfectly human, is a somewhat sickly aspiration.
In a week in which it is revealed that thousands of teachers have to sit the basic QTS standard tests in literacy, numeracy and IT proficiency several times before they pass, it is entirely apposite to raise questions about the quality of the written thought in schools, and how we communicate the importance of this skill. Here, surely, is a matter of fundamental importance in education, and it is a grisly realisation to know that even as I mention this, it proves to be, for some, a shibboleth that marks me as reactionary and redundant.
But literacy cannot ever be allowed to be a taboo; it is the vehicle for intelligence. It is the engine that propels thoughts into the minds of others; it is the surgeon’s tool kit that furnishes scalpels and sutures for concepts both subtle and coarse. It is a foundational skill, and few things can replace its position of importance in the aims of education. The anxious debate of what and how to teach our children withers before the sacred task to communicate literacy. To that end, I despair when I see how children enter secondary schools with the functional skills of an infant, yet they are still expected to keep pace as the Key Stages roll on, and they fall farther and farther behind into apathy and failure.
Take every child out of every other lesson until they are literate and numerate. I teach non-core; I would happily see children devoid of education about Easter and the Five Pillars of Islam if I thought they could write their names and express themselves with care, in print. My God, look at what people like Hitchens can do with 26 letters. In the beginning was The Word, you will note. How true that is. When I write- and I claim no proficiency- it can feel, at the best of times, like fire pouring from your fingertips, and all is right with the world, merely by the successful sequencing of one letter after another. PAL lessons, Citizenship, The Ecosystem, everyone take a ticket and get in line. The kid needs to write.
Which brings up the subject of legacy. You may subscribe to the transcendent sweetness of an immaterial meta-existence. My judgement on this is quiet, and I affect mutism in the presence of mystery as my defence. Devout atheists like Dawkins claim that the absence of evidence can prompt only a conclusion of rejection; I sense another option- silence. That which can be neither inferred from logic nor demonstrated by example, is beyond our poor capacities for conversation.
I have two responses to death, which I find helpful. One is to consider that the departed are, like any pattern or atomic form, a temporary structure, a house built of straw. Before they appeared, they were the constituents from which they came; afterwards, they form part of something else. In this way, we live on, not just in the thoughts of others, which is surely no less magnificent, but also as part of an endlessly rocking tide of creation. Our atoms transmigrate in way that would satisfy the most committed reincarnationist.
The other is a personal one that I have written about before; Herr Einstein sketches, in a manner permitted even for the layman like myself to appreciate, that time is relative; that on some level, all time co-exists, and it is only our mortal perception of its mystery that divides its ocean into arbitrary sectors we call ‘past’ and ‘present’. In the same way that ‘over there’ and ‘here’ both exist at the same point in time, so too can all points in time be seen as enjoying an eternal existence, although considerations of eternity lose all meaning when considered from this angle. What this means is that everyone you have ever loved, or ever will love, coexists in an enormous tide of proximity, separate yet perpetually unified.
- Do not stand at my grave and weep,
- I am not there; I do not sleep.
- I am a thousand winds that blow,
- I am the diamond glints on snow,
- I am the sun on ripened grain,
- I am the gentle autumn rain.
- When you awaken in the morning’s hush
- I am the swift uplifting rush
- Of quiet birds in circling flight.
- I am the soft starlight at night.
- Do not stand at my grave and cry,
- I am not there; I did not die.
- Mary Frye
Hitler gave us a Snow Day.
Tales of the Unexpected: the school was shut today because, during BSF work, builders discovered a suspected World War II bomb in the foundations of the rubble that was our modern wing. You might be more surprised to learn that BSF work still happens somewhere than the idea that Nazi ordnance underpinned the load bearing walls of our science wing for seventy years.
Everyone to the Andersons! Getting hundreds of children safely outside is easy when everyone’s done the drills a thousand times- an example of the utility of all those dreary mornings spent counting heads in the rain in response to a nervous alarm system.
What’s harder is resisting the urge to say, when pupils ask why they have to leave immediately; ‘A NAZI BOMB from the PAST!’ I believe that mumbling a few words about ‘No cause for alarm’ is what Plato would have called a ‘Noble Lie’ if such a thing could be said to exist. A Noble Lie. My conscience is clear, although misleading children sticks in my throat, even at such a time, to avoid panic.
There are few, if any times when you can say that the Luftwaffe disrupted your lesson plan. Risk assess THAT, f*ckers. ‘Name of potential hazard: Incendiary Bomb. Actions taken to minimise risk of injury…er….being born fifty years after the Blitz.’ What next? Stubbing our toes on Saxon bear traps?
Who knows what lies beneath the ground upon which we tread? Amazingly, many of the kids just took it in their stride, having been raised with the seige narrative of the Blitzkrieg from the cradle. ‘Just a bomb, Mum….a German one,’ I heard one girl say on the phone to her mother. Moments like that remind me of the perfect adaptability, resilience and good humour that lurks in the hearts of all people, along with all of our other less utopian potentialities.
|‘Make sure you DO NOT MISS the cursed Behaviour Guru!’|
Of course, in perfect human obliviousness, some people were crowding round the entrance of the site to see if they could see anything; also absolutely human, however much it may assist them winning next year’s Darwin Award. Who can blame them? The chance to see The Hurt Locker happen before your eyes doesn’t come often. It reminded me of when I ran a nightclub in Soho, just as the IRA were wrapping up their act back at the turn of the Millenium. A bomb could turn a nightbus into confetti two streets away, and people would ask me- without missing a beat- if I knew whether the N33 was still running through Trafalgar. Ah, the IRA, you almost get nostalgic. They were proper terrorists; even gave you a warning call and a password. Are you listening Al-Queda? Are you?
People often wonder, ‘How could you live in Sarajevo, in Baghdad, in Belfast during the fighting?’ And of course the answer is, you just do. The human spirit casts many shadows, but it is infinitely flexible, durable and pliable, strong as steel when it needs to be, and soft enough to curve round any obstacle, given time.
Take THAT, Hitler.
- SEAL for Nazis
- Nazi Learning Styles
- Nazi Gym
- Assessment for Nazis
(That’s enough Nazis, Ed)
|‘The cheeky f*cker!’|
Dear Santa Gove
I know a lot of people say that you’re not real; I know a lot of people don’t believe in you at all. But in the spirit of Christmas, here’s my wish -list for the teaching profession (and myself) this year. I’ve addressed it to Mossbourne Academy, because that’s where you seem to be the most.
1. An OfSTED inspection followed by a Section 48 Inspection where I get graded Outstanding each time OH YEAH I FORGOT I ALREADY GOT THAT THIS WEEK DAMN BETTER NOT MENTION IT
Sorry, got that out of my system now, I promise.
2. A unified Exam Board, or at least exam boards that don’t whorishly lie back and whisper how easy they are, to tempt a stream of suitors into their boudoirs. The exam system has been exposed this week, in a series of shocking revelations that many teachers, myself included, can only describe as No Shit, Sherlock? Exam boards compete with each other for market share, you say? Surely not! This is the worst kept secret in education. I used to mark for different exam boards, and I was shocked by how easy it was to be recruited- fill out a form or two and you’re in. Training was all online, and moderation was done in a suspiciously positive way (‘I think you’re being a bit harsh’ etc). What was even odder was that I was asked- repeatedly- to mark papers in areas where I had clearly expressed that I wasn’t qualified. Of course, I declined, but it doesn’t say much for the ‘stringency’ that an exam spokesman expressed this week. Sir, you have BALLS in your mouth.
|The new AQA reps, yesterday.|
38,000 papers in England and Wales were regraded this year after teachers asked. 38,000! When 100 people say you’re dead, lie down. When 38,000 people say you’re dead….well, lie down, I guess.
I’ve already blogged about grade inflation (here), but I can confirm a few things: I have heard of examiners passing on ‘tips’ at ‘training sessions’, and I know teachers who have been told what ‘might’ come up. But even without empirical evidence, it stands to reason, by all that’s holy, that when you have several boards all selling their products, the pressure to compete, however fractionally, is overwhelming. They would have to be moral paragons NOT to do it- that, or not-for-profit organisations. Aw, shucks, they are. It is planning for disaster to create a situation where boards compete; it is the point where the market must be absent; when quality is required, not utility or quantity. Capitalism is a fabulous tool for achieving many things, but when it comes to values like integrity and academic rigour, it can f*ck off.
They can’t massively outbid each other, of course- too obvious. So they slack off, year by year, eyeing each other like perverts in a car park, careful not to lunge ahead of the pack. Which would result in a gradual year-on-year improvement in grades. Goodness, which is exactly what we’ve got.
So, Santa, nationalise the buggers please.
2. Stop worrying about Finland, for Christ’s sake. Finland is Finland. Let them worry about how they teach their kids. Stop comparing grades with other countries, like some anxious willy-watcher in the Leicester Square lavvies. How on earth can different country’s grades be compared when- and I say this with some patience- WE DON’T SIT THE SAME EXAMS. I’m no statistician (I use tongs rather than handle the filthy thing) but the last time I looked, trying to divide bananas by porcupines simply left you looking stupid, and your fruit bowl looking somewhat ghoulish. Pisa says we’re falling behind. Others, like the TIMMS tests say we’re just dandy.
|‘Now I like Ed Balls….’|
Now, I like Pisa. But I also like TIMMS. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…..
CHILL the FUCK OUT about Pisa, Santa.
3. Remove the requirement that schools that exclude pupils have to suffer their exam grades in the hereafter, AND have to fund their places at their destination schools. You say you’re interested in behaviour? Well, Holy Smokes, me too (check my nick-name if you don’t believe me). That’s because there is NOTHING more pressing in education right now than helping teachers and schools get behaviour sorted. And to be fair, you’ve made many encouraging moves in this direction. But then you blow a hole in the bloody boat by adding that cowardly clause at the end. There is nothing more certain to discourage a school from excluding a pupil than the treat of financial impediment. Schools are propelled by money, and they will do many, many things before they will wave good bye to a £5,000 cheque, even if it does mean holding on to a mentalist and ruining it for others who value education enough not to tell their teachers to go fuck themselves.
4. While you’re at it, how about we INVEST in a few special schools, eh? All these pupils I want to exclude (and it isn’t many) need to go somewhere. Right now they just get passed round LEAs like some particularly vile version of pass the parcel, only instead of a parcel it’s a dog turd.
They need somewhere meaningful to go. That means specialist provision, in institutions run by people who are trained to deal with extreme spectrum behaviour AND are good teachers. Yes, that DOES sound expensive, doesn’t it? Tough. If you’re interested in social mobility (and I am) then you’ll want to prevent all those lovely drop-outs turning into NEETS, and you know how many NEETS end up with the title ‘Prisoner’ before their name, don’t you? You know, those frightful coves smashing up Tescos last Summer? Them.
5. Brainwave, Santa! How about we acknowledge that automatic deference from children is a long-gone social institution, and train teachers properly, which means in SCHOOLS and UNIVERSITY together. And focus on behaviour management just as much as bloody Thinking Hats and Multiple Intelligences, for God’s sake.
|IT’S THE ONLY LANGUAGE EXAMINERS UNDERSTAND|
6. While we’re at it, let’s have an end to the stream of bullshit and cant that pours from academia into teaching. Let’s put social science back where it belongs- as a commentary on the human condition, not pretending it’s a predictive natural science. That way we can stop guff like learning styles and Brain Gym before they even get to the classroom, and we can mothball catechisms of the education establishment like the Cult of Group Work and the Three Part Lesson. Just because we want to put a genie in a bottle, doesn’t mean it can be done. Just because we can measure something doesn’t make it important.
7. Also, a pony.
That’ll do for now. I may think of some other things I’d like. If I do, I’ll let you know. Merry Christmas.