Tom Bennett

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

‘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.

Behaviour Chat with Charlie Taylor at the DfE: Die Hard- in a ministry

The Department for Education, and it seems, Charlie and Lola.

Mile End station, even by the standards of the staunchest Pollyanna, is an unlovely troglodyte’s cave; get out at Mile End station and you expect to see still-smoking Sobanries on the floor, and wonder when the Soviets bailed. Get out at Westminster, the Jubilee flagship station, and you’re in an alternate dimension of the future where the Empire never waned, all elegant mechanical spires and Olympic engineering. Such was my after school journey last Thursday, when I had the pleasure of attending the Ministry of Funny Teaching, sorry, the Department FOR Education. I emphasise this in case anyone mistakenly thought that prior to the name change in 2009, they were actually AGAINST education. Mind you, they paid for me to do Brain Gym, so who knows?

The raison d’etre was to take part in a Q&A with Charlie Taylor, the incumbent behaviour czar to the government, in a live recording taking part inside the DfE. The brief suggested arriving at five for a seven o’clock start, and I was wondering what would take two hours. I was kind of hoping there would be some kind of secret mission for me. Alas it was only the cover-every-eventuality turbo-planning of someone who was probably used to last-minute-Larrys goofing their schedules. Still, if there’s a next time, I’m chipping up at five-to with a cheeky grin.

An estate agent would describe the interior as generously appointed. It’s quite beautiful, with cities-of-the-future offices suspended around an enormous atrium. It would make, I’d like to suggest, an excellent setting for the next Die Hard movie (‘Yippee-kai-ay, Mumsnetf***rs!’).

NUT ‘most wanted’ list.

There’s even a two-lift system: one of them allows the Morlocks to toil endlessly in the darkness, while another allows the Eloi to ascend to the loftiest heights; access to the second is gained only by, I presume, a retina scan and a password (I tried ‘full pelt’ without success). It reminded me of the lifts in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York; one set accommodates the people wearing fanny-packs, while another allows Paris Hilton access to her private eyrie (a guard told me, ‘These lifts aren’t for people like you,’ and I said, ‘What, with jobs?’)

The waiting room was decorated (and I use the word with caution) with a chronological series of education secretary mugshots; a Butler, a Baker, an Academy Maker, that kind of thing. No M-Gove yet. But how long? The average tenure in the top chair seems to be just under two years per Grand Fromage. One more brown envelope, one more tart talking to the Sun on Sunday, one more cabinet musical chairs, and suddenly there’s another A4 glossy pinned to the wall of the waiting room. Ah, momento mori.

I was hoping for The Thick of It, or at least the Office of Information Retrieval from Brazil; instead I got an open plan layer cake characterised by air, light and space. Of course the damning deal you make with the open plan is that you trade discretion for the Panopticon of the communal space. A chum at the TES described to me how their office goes onto Gove-standby when the Great Man wants his pencil sharpened or something. Pity these mortals then, who are on Def-Con Gove AT ALL TIMES. They must be in a state of permanent priapism.

Maybe not.

Full pelt with a Tranny

BALLIN’

Everyone was charming and kind. There’s a cafeteria (aspirant regime-topplers seeking clues, take note of my blueprint clues) at the base of the beast, open plan, of course. It looks lovely, like the showroom of the Chelsea Habitat. Unfortunately, like a McDonalds drive-through, all the seats are designed to get you off your arse and back on your feet after five minutes. They might as well attach them to the mains with copper wire, for all the comfort conveyed. Does that all sound a bit Michael Winner? I’m sorry *moves to the breakfast area, meets De Niro for snax etc*

The broadcast was fine- I’m happy to talk about behaviour until the universe succumbs to entropy. Charlie Taylor is, I gots to say, one of the most maddeningly reasonable men I’ve met in education, possibly because he knows what the f*ck he’s talking about, which is often uncommon. He’s that rare thing- a man talking about teaching and classroom management who has actually scaled the peaks before telling everyone else how to get there. I rate the fella, despite all attempts to find some significant dispute between us on matters of cheeky monkey management. Alas, I couldn’t find a credit card to winkle into the space between our views. He also looks a bit like Clint, which should please Sir Michael Wilshaw. I have high hopes for Teacher Training.

‘Yippee Kai-ay, memo-leaker.’

Anyway, if you want to see it, the DfE have it on their Youtube channel, and I’ve posted it below. Yes, they have a Youtube AND a Twitter account AND a Facebook and OMG HAVE YOU SEEN WHAT THE DEPARTMENT OF TRADE JUST POSTED ON THE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE’S WALL I NEARLY PISSED MYSELF SHE’S A TOTAL BITCH HAHAHAHA ARE YOU GOING TO THAT THING AT BRUSSELS?


*Michael Gove likes this*
*Stephen Twigg likes this if everyone else does*
*The Daily Telegraph likes this even before anyone else knows about it* 

What would you like me to ask Charlie Taylor? #asktaylor

Remember #askgove? Of course you don’t, it was a fraudulent merkin of a listening exercise, designed to give the appearance of consultation but with all the structure and definition of a collapsed duodenum. Teacher Voice, as regular readers might already know, is somewhat of a hobby-horse of mine, inasmuch as it occupies my every waking thought and damns me in my dreams in a feverish chase. Quite simply, there are next to no (*checks*….sorry, that should be just ‘no’) effective avenues for the opinions of the teaching profession to be communicated in a meaningful way. Any consultation is ad hoc, cherry picked and designed to confirm the desired answer. C’est la guerre.

Any opportunity to match the profession with those directing the course of the profession is something to be seized. So I was unusually happy to be asked to host an on-stage interview with Charlie Taylor in this year’s Festival of Education. Who him? Shame on you; he’s been christened the Behaviour Tsar by the PR wallahs/ compliant news vendors, and is the DfE’s advisor on behaviour management. Man; ‘behaviour czar’- I was stuck with ‘guru’. That makes him, like…an archduke or something.

This blog is a request, a simple one: what would you like me to ask him? Unlike some special advisers, he’s a man of the profession; I like a lot of what he’s said, to be honest, and take issue with parts, so I’ll do my best to unpick and unpack the thinking behind the man who has the prestigious and prodigious ear of M-Gove.

Leave your questions in the comments below (with a name if possible), or send it to me on Twitter, and I’ll line up the best ones.

Your servant

Tom

PS I will be blogging and live tweeting the CRAP out of this year’s festival. Possibly even during my sessions.

PPS While ‘Have you ever gone full pelt with a tranny?’ is indeed an excellent question, it regrettably will not make the cut, for reasons of time.

Some links to Charlie Taylor:

DfE advice on behaviour management
‘Bad behaviour should be identified early’
Guardian feature

Festival of Education. Book NOW, earthlings. I’m also doing a ‘workshop’ on behaviour management and education in general there. What more could you ask for? Come along and say hello.