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London Festival Of Education Part 2: Teacher Training, Flirtgate, and The Pale Rider

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‘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.

Flirtgate

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.

No.

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.

Marchgate

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.


3 Comments

  1. Can I have a bit of a bash at your early comments regarding teacher training?

    You suggest that most theory is completely useless to trainee teachers, perhaps even to those who have been in teaching for a short while. This isn't really the case at all. Perhaps there is a bit of overkill in places – e.g. my course goes into the intricacies of Bruner for a day which was baffling – but I think it is hugely important to take a bit of time to understand that knowledge for children is constructed. The whole 'kids as empty vessels' approach appeared to me quite a common misconception among my course mates at the beginning of the PGCE. Is it not worth spending some time to correct this?

    Further more, as Chris Husbands may well tell you, there is an important theory to history education (my subject; I cannot speak of others) which ought to be learned by student teachers before they pack their bags and head into school. Teaching you say is a body of learned content. History is not. It is a form of knowledge. It is well worth spending a few weeks grappling with this concept before you attempt to teach the subject. One must further understand what children's thinking is like in relation to the key curriculum concepts before one could ever hope to move them on adequately rather than have a stab at what we think might be vaguely useful.

    Then of course there is the important recognition that teaching is a community and the best teachers are magpies. I have no idea where I would be now if it wasn't for my PGCE course mates who are enormously helpful, offer guidance through problems and generate a wealth of hugely creative, original and successful activities. In school you simply don't get a fraction of this.

    But then again, this argument is a bit of a misnomer. We spend the overwhelming majority of our time in school anyway…

  2. Hilary Nunns says:

    I was in the Flirtgate session and to be honest I thought I must have nodded off when I heard the comment made by Prof Hallam. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed only to witness the look of shock and horror on most faces. At this point I realised I was fully awake and in the moment. Yes, people who run classrooms are the best to advise on running classrooms!

  3. Sue Sims says:

    History not a body of learned knowledge… Ah. That explains why none of my English Language A-level student actually know any history. They've spent the last five years learning to detect bias, to analyse sources and to give their opinions on events they know nothing about. By Year 12, they have vague memories of the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII's six wives, and the First and Second World Wars, plus some odd nuggets about Slavery and Suffragettes. They know nothing else at all, and trying to get them to fit linguistic changes into their historical and social contexts is completely impossible, because none of them, even the brightest, have any sort of timeline in their heads. Don't believe me? Ask them which came first, the Reformation or the abolition of slavery.

    I've been wondering for years why my students, who are often more intelligent than I and know far more science, are so ignorant of history – far more than I was at their age, although I'd had to drop history at the end of the third year of secondary school. Thank you for enlightening me.

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