Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Great Expectations or Low Aspirations: High Hopes are the key to Academic ambition

‘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.

It’s rather good though, isn’t it? I say that as a man who has never seen Downton Abbey, or indeed ANY period drama outside of a cinema in recent years. It doesn’t appeal; inevitably it appears to be an endless Brownian motion of the same features, remixed into new forms, built with the same bricks of letters, engagements, prospects, tall, vicious suitors, inhospitable luxury and morally diseased, dysfunctional aristocracies. I suppose you could say as much about any genre; all sheep look the same to me, but to the eye of the experienced I imagine they’re as distinct as children.
It offered a rich vein of reflection.
Pip comes from an extended family of convenience. Had such things existed at the time, he would qualify for Free School meals so securely I imagine his face would feature in a DfE guidance pdf. Of course, schooling in a formal sense was impossible; even if such a facility existed within daily walking distance (which it wouldn’t unless he was fortunate to live near a large town with a charitable church) his family couldn’t spare him from the labour pool. That forge isn’t going to…er, whatever forges do…by itself, is it?
Of course, adult role models at home ranged from the sturdy, plain and reliable Joe, to the shrieking, anxious cruelty of his sister, permanently howling about the poor lot life has dealt her. Get in line sister, take a ticket and shut the f*ck up. Then there was the sinister, pathetic Uncle Pumblechook, the lazy opportunist of the family. It’s a wonder Pip wasn’t hanging about bus shelters scoring his name (Pip 1812 LOLZ) in the Perspex canopy. Ah yes, of course.
Education, of course, begins at home, which for a boy like Pip meant learning the trade of the house. There are worse trades than smithing, after all. People will always need shoes on horses, manacles melted together, pins made for shackles. I wonder if, even then, there were excitable futurists loudly  yahooing the death knell for blacksmiths as they looked to futures of uncertainty and social mobility. ‘We need to teach skills for the late 19th century learner!’ They would cry. ‘By 1855 most jobs will be in industries that don’t even exist yet!’
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.

Is this a bad thing? There are two reflections on children and human nature in general here: the first is that in my experience I have found that the doomsday device to education is when a child has no ambition for himself, or aspirations beyond the horizons of his eyeline. In one of my schools, the most kids expected was to get a job in ASDA if they were lucky, so why bother with Geography or Physics? Why indeed? Without Great expectations from child, parent and teacher, few will flourish beyond the demands of necessity. It is a fact, universally acknowledged, that a child in want of ambition must seek amusement elsewhere, and you’ll be lucky if it’s anything lovely.
On the other hand, another perspective would be to say, like Marcus Aurelius, that wisdom lies in being able to be satisfied by what you have. The market model of human beings as endless avaricious consumers reduces us to termites rather than men and women. As Buddha said, desire leads to dissatisfaction, which is the source of all misery. Maybe that was Yoda.
Either way, a seed has been planted in Pip’s mind. I’m not saying it’s a nice seed, as it seems to hover peculiarly around Estella’s knickers- sorry, hand in marriage- but there we are. The joys of the forge are no longer enough for the molten lava that bubbles and smokes in his britches. He will have Estella, or he will be damned, blast you.
What makes a man? This is one theme galloping through the whole text. Pip, raised at the forge, wants nothing beyond the bellows and steam of his role model. Given a glimpse of the ruined, delicate world of manners and fancy, his head is turned from the aspirations of his origin. But he has others teachers…
Magwitch, of course, his original benefactor. Like any child or man, Pip displays his true character under pressure; confronted with the slavering, ravenous old convict, he destroys hatred with kindness, and proves himself to be, in embryonic form, a creature of compassion and sympathy- unlike practically every other oddly-named  character in the story. Of course, this leads to his utter destruction at the hands of those more cruel, and therefore powerful than he, as is proper. Ask any new teacher.
Mr Guzzlepump

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.

When Pip arrives in the New World of London lodgings he is accompanied by another kind of teacher: Herbert, the dispossessed toff with romantic aspirations below his station. Penniless for love, it’s hard not to champion this rare inhabitant of lands less viciously mercantile. In many ways, he’s the entrepreneurial template, without the big idea and the talent. Still, in a world where lineage and loot are the only paths to social mobility, there are few avenues for the little guy with a crazy dream.
In that sense, much has changed from Pip’s world to ours. The major social and economic reforms sponsored by successive generations of liberals, unionists and reformers have been aimed  at varying definitions and styles of emancipation and enfranchisement. Can you imagine an inclusion manager in 1820? Alas, I certainly can these days, which just goes to show that history can be cyclical as well as linear. The value of your empire can go up as well as down.
It’s worth noting that Pip receives, at  Herbert’s hands, an education in…well, bugger all it would seem by our standards. Voice coaching, to shave the soil and hedge  from his vowels, to be replaced with the adenoidal , hesitant whine of Brian Sewell, where everything is just, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, how awful, how very, very awful. He also learns to dance, with Herbert revealing a hidden talent for dancing backwards (I suppose you pick up a few tricks when you’ve been cut off. Also: prison); he learns to pick a wine, join a club and cut his former father-figure off like a proper rotter. What, at this point, has he learned? In a formal sense, he’s had a seven year apprenticeship (sponsored and paid for by Ms Havisham, which had me thinking, who was getting paid there? Seems to me like Pip was on the job already) as a smith. Bet all that blacksmith training came in really handy in Rules, or trading bone-headed bon mots with the rogueish, dissipate Baron Von Cockensnarler. What a waste.
How far have we come? A 21st century Pip would be a comprehensive veteran, of course; his family would be classed as long term unemployed, the smithy ruined and cold. Unless his family were particularly aggressive, Pip would no more be learning the trade of his forefathers than any other child in his class. He would be learning about Arthur Miller, and Ecosystems, and the role of local government in the democratic process. It would be an act of peculiar obsession for any local dame, however grand, to devote decades of plotting to raise up, then ruin the aspirations of any young man, although I like to think that Ms Havisham’s brand of insane, maudlin self-pity is an immortal tumour in the human condition. She would wait forever if she had to. You’d certainly be hard pressed to find an escaped convict with a pot of buried gold that would sponsor any child, no matter how many mutton pies he offered. If so, it would be called ‘Convicts’ Cash for Kids’ or something satanic.
These days, children not only can, but must submit themselves to civil education, or their families must provide evidence that alternative equivalents are being provided; otherwise, the gaol beckons for them.
The question is, are our expectations for them any higher than they were in Dickens’ day? I would say sometimes, no.

In life, we often get what we expect, not what we deserve. We create cages within our own minds, and say that the horizon is as high as we lift our eyes. How many children sit in a school where the targets on their books say G, F or E? How many schools are judged by the damnable, damned engines of purported certainty that the Hellish FFT data suggests? How many teachers look at a kid and expects nothing from them? How many parents? How many schools? I set all my pupils two targets: one given them by the desiccated, blasted data that precedes them, and one of my own, which is far more important. And I let them know it.
 Rarely do I set anything other than an A. Why? Because I bloody well expect it. I don’t care how poor a kid is, and I certainly don’t give a damn what some hypothetical bell curve says a kid is capable of. If they have a sound mind in the most general sense, I tell them where they’re aiming- an A. I know how to do it. I know how they can do it.  If we don’t get there, then I don’t waste a tear on it if everyone tried their best, including me. Especially me, sometimes.
I despair of our contemporary insistence that children submit to market models of tagets, when they are human beings; that teachers kneel before the tyrant of the perfectly elastic, infinitely expanding mad universe of the stockbroker. I’m not a middle manager in a branch of Comet. I’m a Teacher.

Until we have a system that demands- and expects- all students to try their best and do well, rather than concedes that they can’t, and so the bars must be set lower and lower until they bury themselves in the ground, then we will get exactly the children we deserve. You want social mobility? You want an end to generational narratives of endless, empty poverty?
Expect more.
Expect Greatness.

The Ten Commandments of Lazy Education Journalism

I’m amazed Superman didn’t chin her.
Like Siddhartha Gautama beneath the Bodhi tree, I have sat still long enough in the festive post-prandial hibernation of the Christ’s Mass to obtain wisdom. I have seen the patterns, mine eyes have seen the glory…of education journalism. There is an enormous number of excellent edu-writers; there are also some seasonal space-fillers that crop up every week or so, clearly putting beans on the table. So, here is wisdom; here are the sacred templates. HERE are the great shibboleths of the broadsheets, tabloids and streaming online content providers. Know these rituals, and understand.
1. CHILDREN FAILED BY SCHOOLS, REPORT SAYS. 
This is my favourite. Failed. Every week we’ve failed some subset of the school population, normally because a statistician has drawn a circle around a scatter graph cluster of data points and decreed that they are somehow oppressed. The problem with this perpetual non-logic is that it rests on the knuckle-headed assumptions that everyone can succeed equally. Well, I have news for you, philosophy fans: if you build a mountain you get a valley. As Syndrome said in Pixar’s meisterstűck The Incredibles, ‘If everyone’s special then no one is.’ 
It also rests on the axiom that if someone doesn’t do very well then it must be someone else’s fault. Which is great if you believe that responsibility doesn’t exist, and we have no free will. At what point do we say, ‘No, YOU didn’t try hard enough’? I love teaching children; I want them all to do well. Despite my heart-prayer for this to be so, some won’t. You can give your heart only to find they left it on the desk next to some chewing gum. Who failed who?

2. NEW LEGISLATION SLIGHTLY ADVANTAGES ONE CATEGORY OF CHILD; OTHER CATEGORIES SLIGHTLY DISADVANTAGED
‘It’s spelled B-R-A-I-N G-Y-M…’
I learned this from a comic book: everything is connected. If you hold a hand out to pull a castaway onto the lifeboat, the boat shifts. Water your plants and you drown a mole, that kind of thing. No man- or demographic- is an island. I’m vaguely aware that the universe is finite and so are our resources. So whenever anything- and I mean anything- is decided in education, then the weight on the seesaw changes. This apparently terrifies some people.
3. MINISTER PROMISES NEW FUNDING FOR INITIATIVE
This is the feelgood version of the story. There might be some opposition grumbles in paragraph ten (‘Why didn’t they do this sooner?/ This isn’t far enough’ etc) but usually it’s trumpeted as hard as the press office can tweet and ingratiate. But just wait a bit and you get….

4. MINISTER PROMISES THAT INITIATIVES SECURE DESPITE ROUNDS OF CUTS
This is Act Two: the project starts to hit the buffers. Money is usually the Kryptonite. Eventually the lovers part, a message is lost, and we fall into the tragedy of Act Three….
5. NEW MINISTER DEFENDS DECISION TO AXE DEPARTING MINISTER’S INITIATIVE
Ministers have a shelf life of about fourteen months before they get palmed off to the Department of Silly Walks. Now, far be it from me to imply that this might not be long enough for any new initiative to bed in and take effect, but…it isn’t. And you think the new minister in town wants to run with his predecessor’s train set? Of course not. He has toys of his own, and a reputation to create. He’s there for about ten minutes before he’s like GUYS GUYS YOU SHOULD TOTALLY SEE THIS AWESOME NEW THING THAT I AM GOING TO DO TO SAVE EDUCATION. YOU SHOULD TOTALLY ALL DO THIS FROM NOW ON.
In your f*cking DREAMS, Olsen.
6. NEW STUDY BY ACADEMIC EXPERTS CLAIMS SOMETHING TOTALLY F*CKING OBVIOUS
‘Children learn better when nobody has a gun.’ ‘Kids who stay up late al night playing Skyrim are tired the next day.’ ‘Some kids are a bit bored in lessons.’ That sort of thing.
7. NEW STUDY BY ACADEMIC EXPERTS CLAIMS SOMETHING F*CKING RIDICULOUS
This is the counterpoint to (7), above, and proves George Orwell’s possibly misquoted aphorism that, ‘Some ideas are so stupid only an academic could believe them.’ Examples include..well, there are too many to do more than scratch the surface, and besides, you probably battle with them every day yourself. ‘Multiple Intelligences’ is one. Group Work as the Holy Grail of learning. Student interviewers.  Green ink for marking. Every week a fresh pile of shit steaming and gleaming, and dispensed like stone tablets from the Mountain Top. And more, always more, coming to a classroom near you.
I’m writing a book about this, so if you want to read more, wait nine months and buy a copy. Whattya think dis is, a LIBRARY?
‘Anyone here been inspected and speaks English?’
8. SURVEY CONDUCTED BY PEOPLE SELLING THINGS CLAIM CHILDREN LEARN BETTER IF YOU BUY THEIR STUFF
This is a great space filler. Whenever things get a bit quiet, out come the press releases and off goes the journalistic integrity switch. Isn’t it nice that some journalists help out people who want to flog you stuff, or who have gone to the bother of commissioning surveys that prove what they already want you to believe? God, PR research makes me want to stick my fingers down my throat. How do they sleep? (‘On a bed of money’ sayeth Don Draper)

9. THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY IS VERY IMPORTANT
Blah blah information, blah blah 21st century learners, blah blah changing economy, PISA, falling behind Madagascar, blah blah blah something about computers. Will this do?
10. SCHOOLS BLAMED FOR SOMETHING WRONG IN SOCIETY: SOMETHING TO BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOL TO FIX PROBLEM
See: the riots; poor diet; illiteracy; crime; not knowing who Henry V was; rudeness on tubes; low voter turnout; everything else. I love these kinds of stories. They imply that schools are somehow external to society, the launch pads for children entering our Brave World. Which is odd because last time I looked schools were entirely IN society, part of it and perfectly integrated. If I were to think of an institution that exists outside of the real world, I’d probably be looking at the Mir Space station. Or a Montessori school! Even then.
Of course schools have a part to play in societal progress. But only an idiot would think that the way to improve voter turnout was to design the unlovely, unloved subject Citizenship. Perhaps if politicians didn’t sicken most people’s entrails quite so much we might be more inclined to pop an X in the box from time to time…
I’m sure I’ve missed a few hundred memes here. Feel free to leave your own suggestions….

Class Sizes Probably Don’t matter, claims people who don’t teach in classrooms

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:

Dear Santa. 

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.


Tom

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.

Christopher Hitchens, Death, Writing and the Literate Mind

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011
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

Keep calm and…..HITLER!!! How I learned to love the Bomb

It isn’t.

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.

Next week:

  • SEAL for Nazis
  • Nazi Learning Styles
  • Nazi Gym
  • Assessment for Nazis

(That’s enough Nazis, Ed)

Dear Santa Gove: this Christmas I would like…

‘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…..

FIGHT!!!

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.

Tom

Police were the rioters, not us, claim rioters