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’.’
|‘Ah! The laughter of children!’|
From the rural womb of Wellington, a post-modernist cement baby is born. If the Summer Edfest is James Blunt, the London Festival is Tuliza. Even the banners and livery of the event were spraypainted, Banksy style, on tarpaulins reminiscent of a CND march. If it had been any more metropolitan it would have had a roundabout.
After Gove, I bolted to see Charlie Taylor take part in a panel discussion about the future of teacher training. The former behaviour czar has been reincarnated, like the Doctor, as the head of the Teacher Agency in charge of the stuff, so I imagine this panel wasn’t too taxing. ‘Yeah,’ he could say. ‘It’s like that. Touch me.’ Taylor’s a rare thing: a man up to his armpits in the education business who actually knows which way up a child goes. Everything he did and said as behaviour advisor was intuitively and demonstrably sensible, and I expect he’ll be no slouch in training reform either.
He talked about School Direct, the school-based qualification system that emphasises practical experience. This has been criticised by some as dislocating teachers from the wealth of educational history and theory that underpins the profession. I’d respond by arguing that 99% of that theory is utterly useless until you have a bit of teaching under your belt. Sometimes even then. The consequence is complete greenhorns walking into school worrying if they’re meeting the 45 basic competencies, or satisfying the fifteenth spoke of the learning bicycle or something. Teaching is a profoundly practical activity. There is no tension between whether it’s an art or a craft or a profession or a blancmange; it has elements of the first three, at different times, in different proportions. It’s an acquired habit; it’s a character set; it’s a body of learned content; sometimes it’s even an interaction between all three. Sometimes it’s like shaving a chin or planing a door; at other times it’s as conscious and planned an activity as having sex on a ladder.
|The Institute had never looked lovelier|
Charlie’s top tip for new teachers was to lie in a dark room for a few hours every week and think about what you’ve done, like a chastened boy in a corridor. Dennis Hayes, his co-panelist, suggested going to the pub, but I suspect most teachers won’t take a great deal of prodding. Hayes, who spoke a terrifying level of sense about the intellectual poverty of much educational research, added that he thought every teacher needed to have read three core texts to consider themselves fit: Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emile, and Dewey’s The Child and the Curriculum. I have. The films were better.
Then it was my turn. After a clandestine coffee with OldAndrew I was contestant number three in a Gardener’s Time Q&A on behaviour: me, Paul Dix and Professor Susan Hallam. Michael Shaw, the assistant editor of the TES, hosted: a man who presumably keeps a painting of a wizened old man in his attic. He’s the Benjamin Button of the teaching press, and every time I meet him I want to buy moisturiser and maybe lay off the smokes.
Q&A; minimum preparation, and you have to sing for your supper there and then: produce the goods or get out, much like a classroom. I did my usual schtick of saying ‘Get them into trouble when they’re naughty and reward them when they’re good’ in as many variations as I could. It’s also the title of my next book.
Most questions were perfectly sensible; nobody wept. We picked over their entrails and poked around their chamber pots and divined and diagnosed. The standout moment came, however, when a lady in the front row asked us what should be done if students display, misogynistic and sexually aggressive behaviour. Professor Hallam, who is undoubtedly a woman of repute, intelligence and craft, gave an answer I can only describe as surprising. ‘Flirt with them,’ she said.
Uproar in the court. Mind. Blown. I could see a hundred eyeballs practically detach from their retinas and pop out onto the carpet, mine included. I have no idea what possessed a woman to say such a thing, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect a non-classroom practitioner to answer such a question, but I fear that this exemplifies a very serious point: the best people to advise on how to run a a classroom are those who actually do such a thing. Research is often a million miles away from practice, and boy, was it ever here. Flirting with kids who want to treat you as a sexual object will only do one thing: encourage further predatory behaviour. It demeans and insults the teacher, and provokes the aggressor to further heights of inappropriacy. The way you deal with sexual intimidation in classrooms is by shutting it down; by standing up to it; by crushing the merest flicker of it as it emerges. God help the child on my watch who tries to trash-talk a female teacher because of her gender.
The Good, the Bad and the Unsatisfactory
Finally to the Pale Rider himself, the outlaw Michael Wilshaw. I’ve written before that I rate the Bishop of Mossborne highly. Unlike most of his detractors, he has actually pulled off the Holy Grail of education: turning lead to gold, or low-achievers into high. He attracts ire like lightning to a copper weather-vane, seemingly for having had the temerity of giving thousands of kids a chance of social mobility where little seemed to exist before. I know, burn the witch, right? He also doesn;t give a f*ck about what people think of him or his methods, which practically has me screen-printing T-shirts.
|Are you still using VAK?|
If other rooms were packed, this was a gangbang in a coffin. He read from notes, perhaps mindful of the press tendency to surgically dissect the most controversial words in any of his speeches and randomise them into headlines like ‘Wilshaw calls all teachers bastards‘ or similar. Everything I’ve ever heard him say was tough but practical. Criticisng the status quo doesn’t imply blanket condemnation; merely that things can improve. In a room full of teachers, he spoke of how good schools came from good leadership, and I saw an entire room full of people nod at once. He’s no fool. He seemed to go out of his way to congratulate teachers for being the catalyst of change in London, and foreshadowed the format of his annual report: more regonalism, more emphasis on the people who sit in the big chairs. A room full of people with little chairs lapped it up.
Then he launched into his new hit single: Oftseds with less box-ticking and more lesson observations. Inspectors trained not to look for specific teaching styles, gimmicks and legerdemaine. By this point the crowd were waving their hands in the air with lighters aflame. If he’d chosen to stand on the table, turn around and fallen backwards like Peter Gabriel, he could have crowd-surfed to Russell Square. He should do this kind of thing more often.Maybe he’ll do another tour.
Taking questions, he explained how he was often taken out of context; that the Dirty Harry comments were just a throwaway remark, although the chuckling press corps next to me conveyed their suspicion that The Man With No Shame rather enjoyed the Judge Dredd caricature. They might be right: he comedy-checked himself as he said, ‘I was marching- sorry, walking down a school corridor.’ Riffing on his own stereotype? And he got the laugh he was looking for. By this point in his own session, the Sorceror of Sanctuary House was dogfighting with the Red Army. The Unforgiver, by contrast, was dropping LOLZ like Dean Martin at a roast.
Time will tell if he also has enough medicine to drive his army of inspectors before him, or if they’ll continue to harrow schools with witless prescription, mono-dimensional metrics and snake-oil dogma. But he doesn’t deserve the rep that a hostile press has brewed for him: I haven’t seen a man more suited to the despotic reform that inspection needs, and schools should support his project in order to support themselves. They should expect inspectors to explain their judgements; they should expect them to be supportive and suggestive of ways to improve. An Ofsted Inspection should be seen as a chance to shine and improve, not an opportunity to pimp your data and get the FSM kids singing songs from Oliver, wearing flat caps with target levels painted on them.
Every Which Way But Home
|The Wellington College party arrived with little fuss|
If you live in an edububble it’s important to escape at times and speak to normal people, so I left, although before I did to my joy I saw Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington Towers being carried down the stairs in a sedan chair by monks in white samite*, just in time for his final address. The country mouse was visiting the town mouse. I wonder what he thought?
The Festival was a splendid thing. They should do it every year. It worked for Christmas.
*This may not have actually happened.
PS Thanks to Chris Husbands, Michael Wilshaw, Gerard Kelly, TES and the IoE for hosting the event, and for letting me come and caper.
London’s first Festival of Education roared into Russell Square this weekend, hosting the capital’s yoorban answer to Wellington College’s fragrant mother ship. The Institute of Education, which hosted the event, is a great college inside a building that makes the elephant house at London Zoo look like the tea rooms at Kew Gardens. Stalin would have taken one look at it and said, ‘Blimey, that’s a bit brutal.’
I’d been invited to do my monkey dance in a Q&A on behaviour which gave me the double pleasure of participating and observing. Apart from comedy support acts like me, the organisers had pulled their fingers out and hustled up the biggest names in education- Sir Michael Wilshaw, Adonis, Charlie Taylor, Hattie- and even the Lord of Sanctuary House himself, Gaffer Gove. The headline act opened the show, in an inversion of normal rock gig chronological taxonomy. Logan Hall was packed to the rafters in a manner that normally only happens when PGCE students turn up for their annual lecture on behaviour management, if memory of my own PGCE serves. This was a Saturday morning, remember. It was the edu-equivalent of One Direction signing arses in Bluewater.
As Marx once said, ‘You have nothing to lose but tiers of local bureaucracy.’
The mood of the crowd was…well, let’s be honest, crowd moods are usually variegated, aren’t they? It was the world’s biggest staffroom: a few angry Trots wearing Michael Rosen masks*; a sprinkling of old-timers, part-timers, time-servers and first-timers. Some stalwarts decided to spend their Saturday morning outside the IoE handing out pamphlets and wearily waving a fairly piss-poor effigy of someone. You knew was meant to be Michael Gove because there was a note pinned to its straw chest that said so, in the manner of a satirical cartoon in Punch.
Gove is famously personable and charming, and so it proved. He was interviewed by David Aaronovitch who promised to be a spiky and intelligent host. Aaronovitch’s father, Sam, was a prominent Communist. As a member of the 1975 Manchester Uni team on University Challenge, he answered every question from Bamber Gascoigne with ‘Trotsky’, ‘Lenin,’ and so on, in protest against Oxbridge colleges being allowed to enter the competition separately. Nowadays people just get pissy about voting protocol when the X-Factor judges go to deadlock, but back then, game show protests were cold war arenas for class struggle, it seems.
Aaronovitch offered a polite but firm rebuke to the Secretary of State’s vision of the educated student, homing in on the predictable, but important saws of access, privilege, entitlement and offer. But the Grand Wizard of Surrey Heath did not, it is fair to say, fall off the back of a turnip truck, and he cracked every ball back efficiently enough. He was even wearing a tie as red as the spilled blood of revolutionary martyrs. But his master stroke was pulling out a book on British Communism from the fifties and quoting appreciatively about the sacred shrine of books that every home should have. For a moment I thought he would extend a black-gloved hand out to a weeping Aaronovitch and say, ‘David….I AM YOUR FATHER.’
Every time Aaronovitch said something like ‘Isn’t it true that you plan to boil G-grade students to make soup stock?’ Gove would nod appreciatively and say, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, I agree,’ before then launching into his calm and careful refutation. It had the effect of making the discussion seem enormously consensual, and gave Gove the air of a man who was absorbing the interviewer into his own argument. All you have to do is leave out the word ‘but.’
Poland! The New Educational Drinking Game
There was a bit of Poland, which appears to be the new Finland (take a shot!); a bit of vocational banter (Gove, quoting Blair: ‘If you ever want to declare war on Iran, do so in a speech about vocational education.’); a bit of ‘Why do you hate teachers?’ and so on. One blade asked why Academies terms and conditions were so bad, and was sent scampering with the reply, ‘Teachers in academies earn more,’ which if true, is a Trump Card. He said ‘Once you go to an academy, I’ve never seen anyone go back.’
Of course, a dialogue is less scripted than a speech, and a Q&A less still. There were, of course, the usual sad sacks who somehow imagine that ‘asking a question’ means ‘tell us your life story and put a question mark at the end.’ It was also an opportunity for a bit of tub thumping. In his answers we saw more shooting from the hip. Some answers possessed his usual precision, others pressed the predictable buttons on a few in the audience who were wriggling for a fight and a sound bite they could hate properly.
He gave them it when he said, ‘You can’t have education without assessment’, and some of the crowd visibly quickened, taking their safety catches off. So far, so reasonable: what country would invest 5% of its GDP on something without a means of regulation and evaluation? Then, the House of Commons pugilist came out as he added, almost an afterthought, ‘Without assessment, it just becomes play. We need to know.’ Cue: Oktober Revolution. ‘What an idiot!’ hissed an unhappy woman behind me. ‘A fucking idiot.’ A great deal of rhubarb, rhubarb followed.
Gove was unbowed; instead of retreating he advanced. Answering the challenge that focussing on the Ebacc would kill off the arts, he replied that he hadn’t seen a single academically excellent school that didn’t; also promote outstanding arts and sports – which is probably true, although when asked if that was true in Singapore, his reply that they had lots of after school clubs prompted snorts of derision from a lot of people who, apparently, knew the Singaporean school system intimately. There was a question from a woman who rocked our worlds by saying, ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gove,’ and everyone clutched their partners and thought, ‘My God we’re somehow in France’. She wanted to know if Gove valued ‘Community Languages,’ and he scored points by explaining to Aaronovitch what that meant. He just emphasised how important languages were in general, sidestepping the whole ‘Why don’t you teach Urdu?’ argument quickly. Mainly because there isn;t anything you can say about the topic without alienating someone.
He explained why RS wasn’t in the Ebacc by referring to its existent state of being a statutory subject in all schools, out with of the National Curriculum, and he didn’t want to unpick too many stitches otherwise the whole tapestry would fall apart. Aaronovitch made a funny face and pointed out that Gove didn’t normally seem too bothered by tugging on the odd thread with all his might. But no politician wants to either drop RE completely, and lose the entire religious vote, nor defend it too openly, alienating the secular demographic. Leaving things alone and not talking about stuff is the safest bet for a man who answers to a ballot every five years.
Somebody wanted to know why he insisted on demoralising schools by using critical language about some schools, and there were nods from a few; he responded by saying, ‘There are schools that aren’t good enough and my job is to point out that some schools are inadequate.’ Which seems fair enough. I scratch my pointy head at people who get upset when someone in charge of something criticises the status quo. What’s the alternative? Say that everything is great? Clearly it isn’t so, and if the Boss of Schools said it was, I’d think he was a bit simple.
By the end, he probably hadn’t won over any hard liners, but he probably didn’t make too many enemies either, and possibly showed a few that he, just like them, wanted the best for children and schools. Aaronovitch’s earlier point that he wanted to simply replicate his own school experience could be answered by saying, ‘Well, good: I wish everyone got the chance for such an education,’. The educational debate polarises so easily in this country that it practically shatters into two suspicious satellites, revolving around each other in perpetual enmity. The truth is that both camps have more in common than they think; there are no enemies of children in this discussion, simply two tribes, going to war.
Later on, I congratulated Chris Husbands on the Festival, and he replied, ‘It was ‘a hairy ride, but worth it.’
At least I hope he was talking about the Festival.
IN PART 2: Charlie Taylor; My session; Flirtgate; Pale Rider, Michael Wilshaw; summing up
*not strictly true. Or even loosely
The edu-interwebs were crackling with fury this morning. Glenys Stacey, Head of Ofqual, has published her report into this season’s controversial GCSE results, where accusations of dumbing down and political expediency have been volleyed back and forth across the net. Ofqual’s response has been the equivalent of two neighbours arguing about each others’ dogs, and one of them goes, ‘Ah, but you’ve been burying postmen under your patio!’ Ladies and gentlemen, this hoe-down just got interesting again. The claim, in summary, is this: some teachers in some schools have been routinely over-marking coursework in an effort to obtain higher grades. My poor iPhone nearly melted through Earth’s crust when I turned it on; the most common response was that of ‘teacher bashing.’
Let’s take a closer look at that. What did she actually say?
“Children have been let down. That won’t do. It’s clear that children are increasingly spending too much time jumping through hoops rather than learning the real skills they need in life,” said Stacey. “Teachers feel under enormous pressure in English, more than in any other subject, and we have seen that too often, this is pushing them to the limit.”
This is clearly the kind of retaliation Sean Connery would have advocated in the Untouchables– ‘One of them pulls a knife, you pull a gun; they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.’ This is a damn-your-eyes, balls-out, attack-as-defence come back, make no mistake. But to be fair, it isn’t naked teacher bashing; in fact, it sounded more like an attack on the system inside which teachers operate than a direct claim that teachers are shifty.
And let’s be clear: the system has been shifty; it was designed, if anyone can’t see it, to facilitate and encourage systematic grade manipulation, for the following reasons- if you create a high stakes school assessment facility, where the metric of 5 A*-C becomes the sole difference between damnation and salvation AND you simultaneously provide the participants of that system with the means by which they can avoid the former by fair means or foul, then, as any economist will tell you, you have created a fertile plain upon which manipulation can occur.
I have heard some people describe this as ‘not cheating’, because it is within the regulations; that because it is permitted by guidelines, it is therefore just. I can think of few things more depressing than people doing something they know to be wrong and calling it right because the law permits it: see adultery for details. It is cheating. To give a pupil a higher grade in the school-entered component of a GCSE in order for that student to obtain the magic C, is cheating.
I’ll tell you what else has been immoral- targeting borderline C/D students. In what world, other than one obsessed with 5 A*-C, would schools target only students who will obtain a benefit to the school? I’ll tell you who I target- ALL my kids, because they all deserve an education, and to do the best for themselves, not because my grades look groovy. The message anything else sends is: are you stupid? Then we don’t care about you- you’re a lost cause. Are you bright? Good luck, we don’t give a damn about you either, thanks for the C. It’s educational apartheid, and children become instrumental to the school’s interests. I didn’t come into the profession to make schools look good.
Course work is a rotten system of assessment for academic subjects- even if only a few schools practice the dark arts, through a process of Darwinian competition, pressure rises on other schools to do the same. To quote Hobbes, ‘It only takes one thief for all men to bar their windows.’ Or to inflate. Such is the damning legacy of a one-dimensional metric like league tables.
I have heard people bluster, ‘Oh, how can you say teachers would do that- we’re better than that.’ That is unbearably naive. In a system designed to reward only the winners, it is inevitable that the rot of inflation sets in. And let’s not forget that grade inflation is a fact accepted by all parties, and by Ofqual itself. Unless you believe that teachers are made of finer moral material than the majority of people- and I don’t; we are human- then you cannot imagine that teachers are not just as subject to the vices of the human condition as much as the virtues. Even if you did believe such a thing, competition to achieve would drive many to sin.
So quite apart from the separate issue of the fairness or otherwise of the June boundaries, what Stacey is saying is correct: coursework and ‘controlled’ assessments (aye, there’s an oxymoron) are some of the worst ways to obtain a fair result in examination. The alternatives are imperfect, but less than these. Having work marked by class teachers also results in one of the worst possible detriments to the principle of fairness: partiality. The subconscious temptation to mark according to what you already think of a student, is well documented by research- which raises all sorts of discriminatory issues.
One final point; while I agree broadly with Stacey on this point, isn’t it odd that, back in May of last year, she was complaining about the term ‘Grade Inflation’? I blogged about it here, when she said:
“I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression,” she says. ‘Inflation’ has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”
Has she been converted, like Malcolm X in his cell? It seems like she now concedes there might well have been inflation, ‘unhelpful’ or not. But we need to keep these two issues separate- the GCSE results controversy, and coursework/ CA manipulation, and not pretend that the moral ambiguity of one cancels out the other. If we as a profession cannot condemn bad practice when we see it, then we will never learn, and improve. It behooves those of us who disagree with a system that encourages cheating, and the cheating itself, to say so.
What do we want? More rigour! How do we want it? We don’t know! Leaky cauldrons, draughty doors and the English Curriculum
|‘I want them doing bare Homer an’ Ovid an’ that.’|
There’s a draft English curriculum floating around, in advance of actual proposals in the next few months. How do these things escape from the laboratory? They should frisk everyone leaving Sanctuary House. Or just stop telling people, which ever’s easier. If there’s a draft, shut the door.
As usual with such things, a bunfight has emerged. Dame Gove has been castigated by Stephen ‘Equaliser’ Twigg for, among other things, an apparent lack of rigour. It is, La Twigg claims:
‘..preparing to introduce a narrow and out of date curriculum that will take us backwards.’
What definition of narrow he’s using, I’m not sure; the curriculum is, if anything, becoming more fluid and open to interpretation and personalisation. It’s becoming less prescribed. If that’s narrow, then I wouldn’t like to see him reverse a Transit Van backwards into a parking space. And ‘out of date’? Please, God, don’t let this be another allusion to the apparently essential 21st century skills that so many have unwittingly adopted as dogma. Alas, it probably is, as the cult of the 21st century (or now, as I like to call it) appears to count the Labour spokeman as a celebrity member, like Scientology, but without the evidence base.
‘Incredibly there is no mention of the importance of spelling…’
That takes balls, I tell you. Marks for spelling, as a government source mentions (check his pockets, by the way, there’s draft documents just walking out here) were removed by the previous opposition’s predecessors. So that’s a funny thing to get all cocky about.
‘There’s no mention of creativity and being able to think critically or understanding opposing points of view in any of these sources.’
Now that’s odd: to criticise something for being too narrow (and previously, too prescriptive, too didactic) but then to try to finger it for being lacking in substance, is a tricky piece of legerdemain, and I salute the attempt. But it doesn’t make sense. The proposed curriculum (and of course, it might look nothing like the finished article) looks set to be far less set in stone, and far more open to teacher and school customisation. It’s Gradgrind in reverse.
The complaint continues: the draft ‘makes no mention of the importance of taking part in structured group discussion or listening skills to judge and interpret what a speaker has said.’
That might be because the teacher should decide how best to teach their own students, and not be subject to the donkey-headed assumption that group work is the only or best way to learn anything. It’s a strategy, nothing more, and not always a particularly effective one. It seems to me that the only ones talking from the hip today are the opposition benches, and carelessly at that. And the only ones who seem to be suggesting that the government issue Mosaic tablets of what kids should and shouldn’t learn, and how, are Labour.
Every ministry, everywhere wrestles with this demon: do we allow individuals to have power, or do we centralise? The temptation to inhale all autonomy into the centre is understandable- why go into politics if you intend to give power away?- but history teaches us that this is the struggle between tyranny and the barbarism of the state of nature. Teachers have trudged like yoked cape buffalo for decades in a curriculum that seeks to obtain almost daily direction, in a witless attempt to generate precise, mathematically calculated results. The recent moves to loosen these chains has the potential to transform teachers from galley slaves to, at the very least, the bloke with the tom-toms and the broom handle, if not actual captains.
That’s something to be desired, not feared. Of course, for many of us, it will be an uneasy transition. We’re so used to be being told exactly what to teach that having the cage door opened will terrify. I saw an experiment once; monkeys, bred in captivity are offered an open door for the first time. As you might expect, it takes a while for any to dare to poke their noses outside, even when tempted by bananas. Some of the stalwarts who do so pad around nervously in their brave new world before….going back into the cage. And then closing the door behind them.
If the door is being opened for us, even a crack, we need to be bold enough to cry freedom and tear through, pushing it hard with out shoulders to allow others to follow. I mean, have you seen the bananas out there?
Quotes from article here