|I’m warning you|
Have you heard of Student Voice? Of course you have. If you haven’t been interviewed by a twelve year old, or sat in the stocks of a 360 degree performance management assessment while your more feral EBD customers pelt you with mouldy tubers, then you, my friend, teach on the Moon.
Have you heard of Parent Power? Stupid question; when they aren’t demanding to know why their children haven’t completed their A-level in Further Maths in year 7, setting up a Free School, or crucifying you with league tables, they’re logging onto the new ‘Rat on a school’ website designed specifically for people with personality disorders and bleak, flavourless lives to bleed their neuroses online while cry-w*nking into a sock.
Have you heard of ‘Teacher Voice’, the bold new initiative launched by the DfE to create a representative body that regularly polls and consults acting teachers, asking them about issues of pedagogy, how children best learn, what needs to happen in schools, classroom design, etc.?
NO YOU HAVEN’T UNLESS YOU LIVE INSIDE MY MIND. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Everyone BUT teachers has a megaphone in the meetings where nuts and bolts are cast. We don’t even get an invite.
I am put in mind of this point because of the #askGove project that is currently lighting up the switchboards of Twitter like a pinball machine. It’s an attempt, it says here, for the education select committee to get the views of teachers, ahead of a meeting with G-Diddy on Tuesday. Well, excuse me for pissing on your camp-fire of I AM LISTENING, but what on EARTH is this designed to prove? We can send him questions any time we like already. Does anyone seriously think that all their questions are being put, as we tweet, into a big sack, and the Education Select Committee will rummage round it, arm deep like Jimmy Saville, and pluck out something to ask M-Gove? ‘Now then, now then, here’s a question from Beth from Middlesbrough, and she’d like to know if you’ve ever gone full pelt with a tranny. Minister?’
I SUSPECT THIS IS NOT A THING THAT WILL HAPPEN. No, what will happen is that they ask the questions that they wanted to ask anyway, and use any goddamn data they fancy from the #askgove pool of tweets to justify their interrogation. It isn’t an exercise in listening, it’s exactly the opposite; it’s an exercise in appearing to listen, which as we all know from classrooms is ANNOYING AS HELL. It’s also deceptive, and patronising.
Who devises policy? Who decides how best children learn? Who works out if class sizes are important or not? Who creates systems of assessment? Who says if a subject, a skill, a project is workable, or a laboratory Frankenstein, engineered in a Petri-dish of good intentions? Everyone BUT us. Now does that sound sensible to you? It doesn’t sound sensible to me. In fact, it sounds perverse. It sounds like education is the ball everyone wants to play with, and the ones who actually do…you know, the educating thing….are the ones most removed from its design and execution. Isn’t that odd?
|In the Land of the Deaf, the big-eared man is King.|
It is my mission in life, because I am on a mission, to wade through the slurry and the offal of guano that rains on us like Satanic Manna every day, wave my tricorder at it, and decide one thing: good idea in the classroom or bad? Most of what showers down on us that was decided solely in a department of education, a cabinet meeting, a pow-wow with speech writers and focus groups, falls fairly and squarely into the latter category. I have had it up to here *indicates a spot between nipple and chin* with False Prophets telling us, the experts, what works, and what doesn’t.
We, as a profession, have been muzzled, fixed as neatly as any castrato. When Ofsted ties its horse to the front gates and bowls in like Berty-Big-Balls, it consults the school leadership, the students, even the parents. How are teacher views taken into account? When, apart from the ballot box, when single issues conflate into a million others, are teachers asked to indicate their preferences for how they would like to teach, for how they think children learn, and what they think about the latest oh-boy initiative doomed to die, like mortal men in Middle-Earth?
Don’t the Unions speak for us? Well, they have a different purpose these days, being focused more on pay and conditions- thanks for that, incidentally-than matters of pedagogy. They do act as a funnel for ideas and debate, but I don’t think I’m ruffling any feathers here when I say that’s not really what they’re about any more. Also, their intrinsic aim of defending the lot of the teacher, while admirable in many ways, isn’t the same thing as defending education itself, although it often identical. The GTC? The GTC is/ was a miserable embarrassment, because it could have been so much. It was meant to be a representative and regulatory body that ensured the profession was a profession. What it became also damned it; a punitive organ you only heard about when you had to cough up your fees so that you could receive a tatty circular sent to your previous address. Sometimes you heard about it when somebody got busted for downloading porn. It was the Vito Corloene of the quangos, awkward and unloved and it will not be missed.
|‘Oh we can HEAR you; we just don’t have to GIVE a sh*t.’|
And now there is nothing. The Schools Council, the GTC, all lost, like the library of Alexandria. Nobody speaks for us. Worse, we have even forgotten there is an us. We have lost consciousness. Never consulted, we now no longer even act surprised when we are not consulted. A generation of teachers have gone through the system who have never experienced what it feels like to question educational orthodoxies, who seem to be unaware that other orthodoxies, equally contestable, even exist. Teachers who have sat obediently through MAs and PGCEs who have never known anything other than the dogma of group work, of thinking skills, of learning hats, or levelled assessments, of value-added, of target grades and FFT, of green marking ink, of graded inspections, of skills-driven learning, of APP, personalised learning, AFL and positive behaviour management. We have become like the inhabitants of Huxley’s World State in Brave New World, unable to conceive of other realities.
This situation will last as long as we permit it. We are legion because, of course, there are many of us. Every teacher needs to wake up; to remember that the duty they serve is greater than any directive or article of best practise. If you saw a child being man-handled on the street would you ignore it? I hope not. If you see a child’s future being wrecked in an act of abstract abuse, should we look away. Worse; should we enable it? Of course not. Teachers, we need to speak up and tell people when they’re doing it wrong. You have every right; YOU are the expert on education.
And what of the commentators, the Professors of Education, the advisers, the talking heads? They too have their place in the discussion on education. Their ideas are useful, and important too. For all the faults I sometimes paint, we need them to act as a check and balance on us, to detect the counter-intuitive flaws of the classroom, to advise and challenge. They also care about education, and often, they have skills we lack and need. But that isn’t what they are right now. Right now, they are the ruling class, the Alphas to our Gammas. We barely register on the RADAR of the war room. In the Secret Garden of Education, the gardeners are now absent, replaced by flower arrangers. Like bee-keepers; they want the honey, but they couldn’t make it themselves. If ministers ran a hive, they would probably advise apiarists to wake the bees up with Radio 4 and warm air because ‘research suggests honey production accelerates in these conditions.’ Either that, or they would slice each tiny insect open, looking for the honey.
So from now on, I invite you to remember that you have a teacher voice. We are the only missing guest at the party; in fact, there isn’t even a seat for us.
Teacher Voice Manifesto:
- Realise we are a marginalised group.
- Admit that we know most about what happens in classrooms
- If educational research contradicts classroom experience, and the shared experience of your peers, then defer its acceptance until the research has been explored and reviewed
- Speak. Up. Raise your voice at every staff meeting; email the HELL out of people with whom you disagree.
- Ask for explanations of every policy you feel is damaging and dangerous to children
- Raise your points with line management, governors, anyone you feel needs to know.
- Seek positions where you can influence policy yourself.
- Discuss and debate and defend your experience in every arena, virtual and solid, from chat-rooms to the staffroom.
- Always stay focussed on what we should be doing- educating children to the best of our ability- rather than what you are told to do: for example, raising the school GCSE rates. Such things are extrinsic goals, incidental to our objectives.
- Campaign at all times for teacher views to be taken into account at every stage of interrogation and data sampling. Who conducts national surveys of what we think any more, unless they want to sell us something?
‘PERHAPS YOU CAN HEAR ME NOW, F*CKER?’
Brothers and sisters, boys and girls, it’s time to crash the party.
The league tables are out, and everywhere education analysts and correspondants are spontaneously giving birth parthenogenetically in their scramble to sieve and distil evidence that justifies exactly what they already thought. You can almost hear the collective sigh, from Whitehall to the Western Isles, as people look at exactly the same figures, the same data, and deduce completely different conclusions. Fill in the blank: ‘___________ category of students did better/ worse then ________ category of students. This clearly shows ___________. Glasses will flip elegantly between half full and half empty for about a week, I should think. And then, like December the 26th, everyone will clear the wrapping paper away, after a bit of a scrap, and think exactly what they always did.
If ever you needed proof that decoding data was akin to reading the entrails of a butchered goose, then feast your eyes over the bloody giblets of the educational commentatori over the next week or so. Let me know when it’s finished, because my philosopher’s soul cannot bear the simultaneous, effortless prestidigitation that accompanies the assertion that academies are both the solution and desecration of education’s young dream, that lollipops, group work and independent learning tasks result in exponential rates of value-added, and a million other axioms welded, unwillingly, unwittingly to the innocent, unassuming figures.
I’ll leave that to my betters. What I will do is pick up on the first wave of analysis I walked into; this article on the BBC News website. It was comedy gold, and managed to commit about five out of my ten favourite lazy education journalism clichés that I wrote about here. YOU WOULD ALMOST THINK THAT PEOPLE DID NOT READ THIS BLOG AND IMMEDIATELY AMEND THEIR WRITING HABITS.
1.’Just one in 15 (6.5%) pupils starting secondary school in England “behind” for their age goes on to get five good GCSEs including English and maths, official data shows.’
The crux of this proposition seems to be the quite spectacularly unspectacular claim that many students who start off secondary school with low grades/ results/ reading ages (insert your barometer) often fail to dazzle the world with their understanding of Proust and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle by the time they leave, as measured by average GSCEs. So let me get this straight– are you implying that kids who aren’t doing well/ aren’t too bright in year 7, are often still not doing well/ aren’t too bright by the time they leave school? WHATEVER NEXT? People who eat too many buns often more overweight than other people? Short kids become short adults? Who knew?
Another beautiful assumption is that this kind of thinking requires that we accept there is a level they should be at by that point. Of course, what this means is that there is a statistical mean that most have reached. Which means there will always be some above and below that magical intersection of the many and the few. If everyone reached that point, then…the point would simply be moved higher. The headline might as well have read ‘not everyone above average’ and stood back in awe at itself.
2. ‘The government data published as part of secondary school league tables suggests the majority of schools are failing struggling pupils.’
OH THE DATA SUGGESTS THAT DOES IT? WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME OVER HERE AND SUGGEST THAT? OH BOY I HOPE YOU DO BECAUSE MY FRIEND I HAVE A NEW TYRE IRON I WANT TO TRY OUT.
We’re failing them again! Failing, I tell you, failing! Man, that is fighting talk. Every time someone falls over, someone has failed them. When a patient dies on the table, did the surgeon fail? Or did they die? When I see a KitKat wrapper on the pavement, have the rubbish men failed? Is a mugging a failure of the police? It’s raining today. Did Michael Fish fail? This absurd, utopian framework, where anything bad that happens is evidence that someone somewhere has failed is laughable. I particularly like how the definition of failure here is ‘not making everyone smart,’ ‘Not getting everyone 5 A*-Cs’ (which was itself a target plucked from the ether) and ‘not ensuring everyone succeeds.’ Jesus CHRIST but that is a high bar to hurdle.
And that was just in the first two sentences.
By the time they got to:
‘As expected, those from disadvantaged backgrounds (classed as those on free school meals or in local authority care) do less well.’
…I gave up. My satire muscles are sore from straining. New bollocks, please.
|‘An empire will rise in the East…Danny Adams in 11F will get a B…’|
|‘CVA is dead! Long live VA!’|
|He is so wise.|
|What some schools see when they get data.|
|It’s gospel, mate.|
NICK GIBB HAS HIS BALLS OUT TODAY! Calm down, major, his Crystal balls. Today’s piñata is the Great Satan of Fischer Family Trust data, and the lesser demons of value-added and predicted grades, and boy am I going to beat the HELL out them.
He’s- quite rightly- spoken out against the gamification of league tables, where schools, in an attempt to meet the success criteria dictated to them, put their shoulder to nothing but those criteria. Every teacher knows about this- intervention classes aimed at C/D borderline students; not entering the hopeless for final exams; press-ganging children into high-value BTECs for point score advantage, and so on. It’s evil, but perhaps understandable when the stakes for schools are so high; let your slip show on the league tables, and you might as well load all six chambers of your gun with dum-dums and press the muzzle to your temple.
So what’s the Funky Gibbon proposing? Stand easy citizens- schools will be exhibiting their Contextual Value Added scores from now on, not unlike a baboon, presenting its ghastly floral undercarriage. Gaze into the abyss, for it cannot be unseen.
Pick a Card…any card
Now I have a problem with CVA. Not me personally- my CVA is, thankfully, bulletproof, fireproof, and susceptible only to Kryptonite, and I only say that so you don’t think I’m a bitter victim of its diabolic engines. I just don’t think it’s that useful. In fact, I think the way it’s used, it’s corrosive, and actively damages education.
In many ways picking a fight with predictions is an easy task, because I’m attacking the belief that we can tell what is going to happen about things that have not happened yet. Can you see where I might be going with this? Nobody can tell the future, not even with a great big telescope and all the data in the world. Not even then. While science has offered us many sweet meats and shiny trinkets in the fields of the natural world, it has yet to lift its petticoat in any meaningful way in the realm of something more stubbornly unpredictable: us. Human beings resist the reductive powers of physical determinism; we just won’t do as we’re told. This is why we are human, and not, say, a Meccano Set.
The problem is that schools are- now, at least- very much in the business of predicting the future. Why? Because..well, the simple answer is because Lucifer the Hoofed one rules this world, but that won’t get me into the smart edu-blog clubs. The other answer is that we are required on an annual basis, to show that children have made good progress, not merely an A, or a B, but progress; that they have become smarter. The hope is that it’s something to do with us. How do we show this? By comparing what they get to some notional projection of what they ‘should’ have obtained. And that’s where the problems start.
If Little Davina or Limoncella start year 7 with a level 5 in English and Maths, then we know that’s good- probably better than most of her peers. So you’d hope she’d leave with a bag full of A’s at GCSE wouldn’t you?
|Your data manager, yesterday.|
Most schools (and by most, I’m suggesting 100%) use Fischer Family Trust (FFT) or ALIS data to set targets for pupils. What am FFT? They’re an organisation that sell data; they take the results of all the children in their data set, and then track the % of those children on, say, level 4 at the end of Key Stage 3, to see how many of them achieve an A or a B or a C at the end of their GCSEs. They then plot statistical projections of likelihood that Davina will get those grades.Sounds simple. On this level, it is. Then the problems start:
Here are SOME of the problems; I’ll deal with more in a subsequent post:
1. Nobody but wizards can understand how CVA is calculated. Do you know how many factors are taken into account when constructing the predicted median for a school’s grades? Here are, I think, the key ones:
- pupils’ prior attainment
- special educational needs;
- English as an additional language;
- pupil mobility;
- age of pupils;
- an ‘in care’ indicator;
- free school meals status; and
- a measure of social deprivation.
These are then thrown into the tombola of certainty, the handle is turned, and the future is born, neat as an egg. When Einstein published his theory of Relativity, it was alleged (probably erroneously) that at that point, only a dozen men and women in the world could fully understand it. The number is even smaller for CVA calculus. It is a done deal; the High Priests have spoken, and we must genuflect to the wisdom of the ancients. I’m not saying they’re lying or anything, I’m just saying I have a gut mistrust for any pupil prediction that can be obtained with NO KNOWLEDGE of the pupil whatsoever. This ties into my next point:
2. It’s de-professionalises the whole role of the teacher. Excuse me? You want to say what one of my students is probably going to get this year….and you haven’t even met them? You say that you DON’T sit in the classroom with them every day, working with them, talking to them, marking their books and correcting their mistakes? Well I do. I know my students. I can see their potential. I have my own data set I base predictions on, and it isn’t one I can write down or reduce to an algorithm. It’s in my mind, and my gut, and it’s part of what being a teacher is about. My contempt for the practise of reducing children to points on a scatter graph is endless and bottomless. It could boil iron.
3. They’re NOT predictions. I can’t emphasise this one enough. EVEN THE FFT DOESN’T THINK THEY’RE PREDICTIONS. They are wise, the wizards of the Fischer Family. This is a common problem: often, research is published in any field, with sensible, delicate, cautious conclusions, only for the recipients (in this case, politicians, journalists and school leaders) to go OH BOY LOOK AT THESE COOL PROPHECIES WRITTEN BY THE WIZARDS IN THE MOUNTAIN. THESE ARE OMENS FOR SURE LOOK THE BONES HAVE SPOKEN.
Here’s what the FFT actually have to say:
‘The FFT Data Analysis project produces ESTIMATES of likely attainment. The estimates are calculated for each pupil and, from these, school and LA estimates are calculated. They are called estimates – not predictions or targets – because they provide an estimate of what might happen if your pupils make progress that is line with that of similar pupils in previous years.’
NOT predictions. NOT targets. That’s because they’re professionals, who are more than aware that we cannot tell the future. They’re statistical guesses; they’re probability fields; they are the statistical equivalent of saying that Summer will probably be hotter than Winter, but we don’t know if it’ll rain today or not. The comparison with the weather is appropriate: we know what water is; we know what heat is; we know what pressure is; but the enormous density of causal factors makes weather forecasting impossible for more than a few hours in the future. The Met office gave up long-term forecasts a long time ago. And humans, as I repeatedly point out, are a Hell of a lot more complex than a damp bag of warm gas in Brownian motion. (Most of them- I saw TOWIE once)
|‘What band should we use, oh omniscient one?’|
So when the FFT says that a given child is estimated a B at GCSE, based on prior attainment data, once social and circumstantial factors have been accounted for, what does it mean?
Almost nothing. Almost nothing.
What it means is that many children with similar socio-economic and attainment levels achieved that grade. So what? Most children in Mozart’s street didn’t grow up to write The Magic Flute, but he did. Most children from Omaha, Nebraska didn’t grow up to lead a black consciousness movement, but Malcolm X did. I taught a kid who scraped a C in bottom set RS, who scored a U in AS, and then an A at A2. The human spirit is a genie; it is absurd, noetic, a screaming eagle of ambition and indeterminacy. It is a ghost, a comet, a nuclear furnace of optimism and ambition and impossibility. It is also a disappointment; the anti-life, failure snatched from the jaws of victory. House prices can go up as well as down. That is what makes being alive so glorious and terrifying.
I have a knowledge of my children’s predicted grades that approaches telepathy, because I know my subject and I know my kids. But every year I am knocked sideways by kids who exceed my expectations and those who ridicule them. Nobody can predict the future. Guesses are fine, but let’s admit that’s what they are.
Let’s stop pulverising children with our bureaucratic assumptions about their potential. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be told by your teacher that your prediction is a D?
You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That’s the target I set myself, and if I don’t get it, well, I try again next year. I don’t cry into my coffee, I just try again.
Here’s a thing: what does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’? Have you ever seen a kid revise, and try to get a B? It’s nonsense. Kids try as hard as they can/ can be bothered, to get the best grade they can. If you set a child to run 100 metres, and they really bash their guts out on it, can you imagine asking them, ‘What speed were you going for?’ No. They just run. They just run. Target setting has become the fetish of 21st century teaching. It is another ravenous, ridiculous imported imaginary animal from the paradigm of the market place, where ambitions are plucked from the air- and they are- and called ‘predictions’, when they should be called ‘hopes’.
When I worked for the Great Satan of commerce, every year our units were given sales targets to reach. Meeting them, would ensure we survived. Failing to meet these targets was an assured spell in the cooler. The targets were usually ‘Last year’s sales, plus 5%’. Brilliant. How long did you think it took for them to come up with that?
Aggregating outta Here
The market has infected the classroom, and I use the word infect carefully. It is a sickness that cuts down children, teachers and learning. It is already absurd that the economic model is predicated on infinite expansion, in a world that is plainly finite; it is doubly absurd to do so in a room full of children, nenulus and spectral a commodity as you can imagine, in an environment where they are learning, an abstract multiplied by an abstract. The Data Oracles pretend they are dealing in beans, when they are counting intangibles. They are trying to catch a fairy tale with an iron claw.
I have no idea what they have in their nets. But it isn’t real.
I’m not finished with you, CVA *looks sternly at it*. Keep looking over your shoulder.
UPDATE: In response to some comments to this blog post, I’ve added another supplementary post to it here. I haven’t changed this blog, because I think the discussion makes more sense if I jes’ leave it as it is.
|‘Right- MANAGED MOVE’|
|‘When shall we three meet again?’ ‘Depends on the grading’|
|‘No come to me wid them aagiment deh. Chah!’|
There exists, in at least one of the galaxy’s infinite universes, a comic so bad, that even putting Doctor Doom in it can’t save it. And it’s about teachers. Here‘s the link. My blog can only contain so much..whatever it is. The horror. The HORROR.
|‘WHY are you always picking on me?’|
DfE Guidelines now suggest that the following reasons for being late to your lessons should be considered as acceptable:
|‘We read a thing, right…’|
|‘I need a long lie to function.’|