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The Love of Money: How schools became Markets, and everyone lost.

Reading John Lanchester’s interesting Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay this week (and there’s a publisher-suggested title if ever I saw one. Because every author secretly dreams of calling their book Whoops! Mind you, they used to get away with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and such, so I suppose we reap what we sow). It’s a good explanation of the recent boom and bust moneyquake that has underpinned- or excused- the austerity frenzy coming to a Lidls near you. Did you know that the RBS was the biggest company not just in Europe, but the world?

I did not know that.

The salient point he raises is to do with capitalism in general. He traces the current financial clusterf*ck back to the fall of Soviet Communism, and the removal of a direct competitor to the free market model of economic and political discourse. With this removal, he argues, there was less need for the capitalist economies to justify their superiority over the repressive, but undoubtedly more societally inclined (at least on paper) Marxist experiments. Until that point, capitalism, for all its flaws, had produced what Lanchester describes as the most admirable societies ever seen- not perfect, just the best ones so far. The cause of this, he argues, is that the jet engine of capitalism was yoked to the oxen of social justice. Efficiency, enterprise and opportunity were tied to the generation of the maximum dividend of personal gain, tempered with social responsibility.

And removing the great Satan of Communism as an immediate source of geographical and economic comparison (China is, let’s face it, far away), meant that the economic engines were free to achieve escape velocity from those pointless, annoying liabilities we call justice and fairness. A triumphalist mentality emerged, where it was felt that capitalism could do no wrong, where it was felt that entrepreneurs should be freed from the shackles of taxation and restraint, and a free market should be more successfully realised. I mean, look at all the STUFF we have.

Fast forward through Thatcher, Reagan, and a worldwide surge in opportunism, Icelandic meltdowns and bank crashes, slow the tape as you approach the sub-prime tsunami that nearly drowned the world, and then let your finger drop on play when Fred the Shred gets his knighthood annulled (which will no doubt inconvenience him tremendously as he dries his tears with a handkerchief made of unicorn mane, and laughs from his golden throne on the Moon).

‘Did we win?’

This is not ‘Tom Bennett’s blog on fiscal responsibility’. High finance crosses my eyes like Marty Feldman, as it does most of us, which is precisely why the banks now resemble the shop floor of your local Ladbrokes, and withdrawing money is like enacting the Schrödinger Cat experiment every time you go to an ATM. And this is the point; economics are now ruled by a priest class, so remote and dislocated from common comprehension that they wiled as much power as the priest class in any pre-scientific society. They are the shaman (and shawomen, increasingly) who read the runes and entrails of our financial futures, and dictate, almost entirely, political policy around the world.

When I get some time I will revert to my blog default and rail against economics as another example of the voodoo sciences that have crawled into the popular perception as real sciences, when in fact, no one knows anything, as William Goldman famously said about movies.

But I am a teacher, and I know schools. And I know what happened to schools at the same time as this impossible sense of exceptionality and superiority crept into the collective consciousness of the men in the City and the Street; the language of the marketplace crept into areas of public discourse where previously they had been seen as necessary evils at most. Of course I’m referring specifically to education.

Even when I started just under a decade ago, I was amazed by how much we were expected to gobble up the gastronomy of the bean-counter. Everyone remotely related to schools and children had become a stakeholder; we were expected to produce returns on our efforts. Children avoided- just- being referred to as customers in mainstream education, but we are devilishly close to the concept at all times. Don’t believe me? Consider how much their views are now being taken into account, despite the concomitant lack of an obvious medium for the same communication from the teacher perspective.

I remember years ago I used to run one of many themed restaurants in the West End. No where before had I encountered the slavish ‘customer is always right’ mentality as I did here. One charmer put me up against a wall one night, hand round my throbbing jugular, and said he was going to ‘F*ck me up.’ Faith, dear reader, I lived. But the next day I was broken to learn that the company would pay him compensation and apologise to him; and I was told not to complain to the police, as it would damage sales, somehow. You might recognise some of the DNA from this incident in some schools, with their no-blame approaches to social responsibility.

‘How do you sleep?’ ‘On a bed of money.’

We see some of the most foul examples of this marketisation in concepts like value added, or FFT predictions (used as targets), target setting and a million varieties of ways in which the business of education is forced into the double columns of the balance sheet. Have we reached targets? Have we failed them? If we do reach them, what are the new targets? Pass me the smelling salts.

Of course, this model assumes that education is amenable to being circumscribed by the language of the bank, and this is where the bomb goes off. Education is not the same as selling lemonade and rose water at a jumble sale. Perhaps you noticed? The product of our labour isn’t easily numbered, weighed or measured. How we do it isn’t amenable to regimentation or standarisation. The effects of our efforts sometimes aren’t seen until decades later. Businesses run on the engine of arithmetic; but people defy this analogy with the abacus, because so much- my God, almost all, I should say- of our lives are not concerned with that which we can staple a number to. Our entire human experience is concerned with questions of meaning, value, emotion, desire and aspirations that are entirely resistant to enumeration.

Every time I see a number ascribed to something in education, I wince- a lesson, a school, leadership, the whole nine yards. I wince, as I witness yet another brainless attempt to shoehorn thoughts and dreams into the business end of a calculator. The two worlds barely intersect. They certainly don’t coexist easily, and often, like matter and anti matter, they explode on contact with one another. Children do not- do NOT- get more intelligent by 5% every year, satisfying the budgetary- sorry, pedagogic predictions of a well run saucepan factory, predicated on the model of a infinitely expanding market, which is another fairy tale, incidentally. Our teaching certainly doesn’t get better by the same. Yet we are assessed as if they are.

I am not anti-market; as Friedman said, show me a system that has worked better- but that doesn’t mean that I welcome its presence in every facet of our lives. I don’t judge my relationships by their numerical value, because such things are impossible to unearth. I do not love my family because they promise me secure returns on my investment. I do not teach because I add value to their grades.

I teach because I love them, and my subject. And I love both of these because I find them intrinsically valuable. Isn’t that what life is at least partly about? Discerning what is valuable, and valuing it?

Not the market. Not making money. Not adding value that never existed anyway. Love. Not money.

STRIKE! The farmers and the locusts.

Available from all good Waitroses

Strike day today. Perhaps you noticed? The Brothers and Sisters were knee deep in the entrails of stockbrokers today, as the workers of the world united and raged against the machine, and the machine stroked its white cat and wondered how it could manoeuvere forty thousand people onto a table so it could laser them into dog food.

Last night saw me jet off from parent’s evening to speak at a meeting of NUT comrades in Wembley Park, which I am sure earns me an in with Arthur Scargill if I ever meet him at a cocktail party, which is unlikely. Although I was running on fumes after a rewarding, but exhausting day telling people endlessly about their child’s undoubtedly unlimited potential, the welcome was warm and as ever, and it was an honour to speak and be listened to, talking about things I love to talk about: behaviour, behaviour behaviour. I even bumped into a few familiar faces.

‘I object to be compared to bankers.’

I striked/ struck today, not because I am particularly animated by gestures, or by the illusion that George Osborne will magically pull a string of endless magic beans out of his anal iris that can pay for adamantine pension pots (although that’s one circus I would QUEUE IN THE RAIN to see). It’s been a long time since a British strike reversed a policy so deep and indomitable. If you believe the financial wallahs (and I have to, although I am perfectly aware that their pronouncements are as solid as strawberry mousse on most things, given that the future is a foreign country, and no man knows the hour of his departure, or foreclosure) then we are very much a busted flush; that we have lived beyond our means for too long; that the guardians of our financial destiny have written cheques that posterity could not cash. The cupboard is bare.

And I didn’t strike because it was demanded; I am obstinately personal when it comes to morality, and I weep to think of anyone striking because they were afraid not to- and don’t let’s pretend that this isn’t the case. Every man and woman has the right to chart the course of their own conscience, and I often feel that if it wasn’t considered such an imperative to do so then many people would strike more easily. A picket line chills my heart- it is the opposite of what I believe freewill and ethics to be about; the good will, freely chosen and decided in a conscious, conscientious way. Forcing people to comply is what the bad guys do.

‘No, Mr Bennett, I expect you to DIE.’

So what did I strike for? Not because I believed it would change matters; but not as an exercise in futility either. I stepped out for a greater cause; because when people take to the streets, governments are reminded of a fact that remains tacit in the main; that they remain in place at our behest; that we are the final arbiters of their destinies, and therefore our own. The moment the people decide they have had enough, they can shrug their shoulders and all shackles melt away, as if they were never there. This is the power that people have, and it is the power that they forget. ‘No’ is the most powerful weapon in the world. ‘No.’

Of course, the Masters of the Universe have a million tactics to deter this power- and in some sense rightly so. The wisdom of the herd is often no closer to wisdom than that of a real herd; Plato derided Democracy as the will of the lowest common denominator, saddled with charismatic false prophets who can promise bread and circuses and lead the proles by the nose, as long as there is grape and grain to keep our mouths moving and our eyes shut. You know the rhetoric. Some of it is true.

But there is one last, doomsday weapon; the decision by people to refuse. It’s blunt, but then so is a nuclear bomb. Hobbes feared no government even worse than poor government, and perhaps he was right; civilisation rattles along on the rails of rule, and we forget the privations of nature at our peril. Revolt easily runs into ruin; the London riots give us a glimpse as to what can happen when manners and civility are set aside for egoism and the savage pursuit of happiness.

Even THE EMPIRE is in.

Which is why rulers should pay heed when people fill the streets. Because it indicates that the rule of law is being challenged, not by opportunists and empty-headed hoodies farting on their leather-effect sofas, but by the people who drive the trains that keep everyone going to work, the teachers who teach their children, and by the men who pick up litter and change hospital sheets. People.

Should we consider that the cupboard is now bare? Of course we should. That’s not why I was out. I was out because the farmers have been blamed for the prodigiousness and cavalier avarice of the locusts. Wealthy men have been allowed to play roulette with the savings and securities of helpless people who have been forced to entrust these people with their futures, only to find them used as a gambling chip on the baccarat tables of Wall Street and the City. There is an excellent- and unavoidable- case for contracting public expenditure. But I will watch my pension wither on the vine with a smile and a handshake the day that I see the same happen, proportionately to the Masters of the Universe. When the Lords and the CEOs and the Eloi agree to catch a tube, defer a bonus, or vote down an autopayrise…that’s when I’ll feel happy about the Big Society. That’s when I’ll believe that, to some extent, we’re in this together. Until then, it’s business as usual in the ghetto.

No exceptions.

I mean, I KNOW life isn’t fair. I know that shit rains down on us from birth to the moment we topple with exhaustion into holes we had to dig for ourselves. But that doesn’t mean I have to hold out a soup bowl, catch it, and wolf it down with a smile.


The Battle for the Educational High Ground: how deep is your love?

‘Do you have any fantastic SEAL resources for me?’  

WARNING: Contains references to Bunny-Huggers.

There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you’ve seen it, I will anticipate your attempts to recite it verbatim; and if you haven’t, the example is redundant. All that needs to be said is that in one scene a small group of ultra-activist politicos pour scorn on the revisionist, repellant views of their former colleagues. One is, of course, the People’s Front of Judea, and the other is the Judean Peoples’ Front. Both are splinters from the same branch; both are anathema to each other. Both seem, outwardly, to be identical apart from in ways that would require Brian Cox and a very big microscope to discern. Perhaps not even then.

I’m reminded of this every time I wax down my cyber surfboard and catch some wwwaves in the edunet (apologies if neologisms make you sick a little bit in your mouth *heaves* it’s ok, I’m fine), especially at the beginning of the school year. When I started teaching, the geography of the profession was so alien to me that everything looked the same. Now that I am a man, I can tell accents apart, as well as dogmas. You know how they’re always telling you to be a reflective practitioner? What they really mean is ‘I want you to agree with everything I tell you.’ Which is funny, because the last time I checked that was the opposite of being reflective.

So I followed the opposite of the advice in every teacher training manual, and tried to become a reflective practitioner. Those of you kind or sympathetic enough to read my columns, blogs or books will be familiar with some of my more frequently visited tropes- bad educational science, the commodification of learning, and the behaviour crisis, to name three. I’d like to pick up on another, which I’m going to call..

The Great Education War for the Moral High Ground.

(If I can boil that down to one word, I can sell it to Michael Gladwell and we can go to print with it. Anyway.)

This is something I frequently see in any online discussion of education, in the badlands of Twitter, and most conspicuously, dripping from the pages of commercial educational websites. In the style of all good philosophy teachers, I’ll define and illustrate with an example. Or was it exemplify with an illustration?

‘The belief that one’s own approach to education is the most positive, compassionate and moral. Often accompanied by the unshakeable belief that unbelievers are cruel, tyrannical child-haters who would be happier grinding preschoolers into strawberry jam and catching truants with a crossbow.’

A child’s dreams, yesterday.

I only say this, because I find that in every village of the enchanted Kingdom of Education, there’s a well-meaning crier in full throat, shouting stuff like, ‘Every child who leaves school without succeeding is my personal failure,’ or ‘There is a rainbow inside every student, and our job is to let it out.’ Or, my personal favourite, ‘The job of the teacher is to learn from the students.’ I’m serious, I’ve seen all these turkeys.

Smurf Spoiler Alert!

Now, on the face of it, it rather paints one as a bit of a meany to be critical of such sentiments, as if one were standing outside the cinema before The Smurfs started and shouting that Gargamel gets slotted in the end. But there is a danger in tacitly accepting this kind of babble, as if you were some kind of Teacher-Santa, indulgently messing the hair of a child and saying, ‘Oh, you kids.’ Because behind every platitude, there rests an enormous tangle of assumptions about the aims of education, how children should be educated, directed, and led. If you, for example, believe that ‘Every child is a butterfly’ or some flannel, then you’ll have a very distinct approach to setting targets and discipline, than if you had the belief that every child was, say, composed of fire ants or tsetse flies.

So when I read something else on Twitter like ‘If you catch them being good, you’ll surprise them into learning’, I feel like I’m reading a Cat Calendar, or the memoirs of Liberace or something. Yet inevitably if you challenge the integrity and authenticity of such comments (which, I might add, worryingly get about a million thumbs-ups, likes, retweets or however cyber appreciation is expressed) you get scowled at for being a downer. But this is the problem with platitudes; because they are broad, vague, poetic and ambiguous, they can be read in so many ways. And they certainly don’t require any experiential support or evidence- their strength lies in their musicality, or the chord of emotional resonance that it rings in the reader. In other words, they rely on rhetoric rather than reason.

Is this you? I can see you.

It’s almost as if many in education wish to be prophets, not coming down from the mountain, but climbing up, ever upwards, desperately trying to evade being beaten to the moral high ground. They have to be the ones who love children the most, the ones who want the best for the child. Often the only way to achieve this is to exaggerate the claims of their nearest competitors; so if one educational bunny-hugger claims that most children respond best to praise rather than admonition, someone else will say that ALL children respond in such a way. And usually, such views are irritatingly, cloyingly, depressingly optimistic. Nothing against optimism, but remember that it’s an attitude, not a policy.

Also, they usually tend to be of the ‘progressive education’ flavour, which always gets my goat nicely. Any criticism of such inevitably attracts one of the stock ‘Your paradigm rests on the factory model’ or something equally moronic and incorrect. My favorite response is usually when I make some sniffy comment about the failure of IT to revolutionise the classroom, and someone says, ‘Dude, this is the 21st century,’ as if we should all be in hover-boots by now. ‘Why don’t you work in a profession with no children if you want to bully them?’

Well I have something to say about that. I love children; I love teaching children, particularly in the secondary age range. I adore education, and I adore my subjects. Since becoming a teacher I have never been happier, and I have never felt more like I was achieving what Aristotle would call my Eudaimonia, my flourishing. Giving punishments makes me feel desperately uncomfortable, and maintaining the cold stare, the silence, or the disappointed tone, makes me squirm inside. But I know that I have to set sanctions because I want my children to succeed, and sometimes, admonitions and sanctions are the best way to set students back on Straight Street. I believe that the rest of society has already thought of this idea for keeping peace and encouraging good behaviour- it’s called law, which is never perfect, but the boys in the lab have yet to get back to us with anything better.

So whenever I hear some well-meaning, pointy-headed middle-brow tell me that detentions don’t work, that children will behave if the lessons are good enough, that setting sanctions trains them into habits of cruelty and resentment…well, I just feel kind of annoyed that these people have been allowed to ruin the education of thousands and thousands of children for generations. Being anything less than firm with many children will result in them playing hopscotch on your good intentions and ambitions. That doesn’t mean hitting them, or shouting at them, or dangling them from the edge of Canary Wharf or something. It means being firm. It means setting boundaries and sticking to them. It means having high expectations of children and not accepting it when they want to immediately give up.

Sometimes this means showing them that your boundaries are meaningful, and patrolled meaningfully with sanctions. But these are behaviour modifiers, with an aim to providing the best habits to learn and flourish. They are the product of love, in exactly the same way that a parent will scold a child that acts cruelly, or selfishly in order to teach them to pursue other aims. It’s because of love, not in spite of it.

To allow a child to do as they please, embedding habits of egotism and indulgence, is one of the cruellest things you do for them, particularly if you’re interested in social mobility, which I believe is rather popular. Love is a broad enough concept that it often gets confused with the emotion part of compassion, but this is only an incidental, second order characteristic. Love is directed outwards; love seeks the  true benefit of others, even at the expense of yourself.

What does that mean to a teacher? That means putting the educational aims of the class before your own selfish desires, laziness, angst or anxiety. It means working as hard as you can for their benefit. It means identifying their benefit in the best education you can provide. What it doesn’t mean is indulging their immediate desires, or deferring to their whims, because what serves the immediate pleasure of a child will often be to their eventual detriment, in the same way that a child, if given the choice, might defer salads and study for marshmallow and chocolate pizzas (which I have actually seen on sale in Glasgow, of course) and COD. This isn’t an anti-child manifesto; it is profoundly pro-child, and an acknowledgement that children aren’t angels or devils, merely human, just as we are, with all of our wonderful virtues and vices, frailties and perfections.

As teachers, we need to be more muscular in this aim; we need to be unafraid to state that these simple axioms are at the basis of the classroom relationship. We mustn’t be ashamed to say that we’re in charge of the classroom, that the child is subordinate in authority to the adult, that the teacher is the expert, and that praise and blame are equal partners in the field of behaviour modification.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to believe in the power of someone’s dreams. Hold onto your dreams, and don’t stop chasing rainbows.

‘Children should run everything’ says person paid to say children should run things.

The world of politics was rocked today by claims by the Children’s’ Commissioner  that children should be in charge of everything.
‘It makes perfect sense,’ says the former Director of Learning and Culture at Gateshead Council. ‘Children are essentially just as good as adults, and anyone that says that they are in some way subordinate to them is an enemy of children, and we don’t want to be enemies of children do we? Do we?
Asked what implications this might have in practical terms, she elaborated.
‘Well, for a start, I’d bring the under twelves into the Crown Court- throw out all those dusty old men with their frightfully ageist views, and get some innocent, honest common sense into the courts. Of course, they’d have to have some time in the afternoon for naps…but there’s no change there, eh?!’
‘After that, we could get to work on the real problems- adults in politics; we could have all the MPs replaced with regional Youth Mayors, who would listen to the people who really matter- the children- before making unbiased, careful decisions that would represent  everyone, not just a handful of geriatric pedagogues. Next we could have children panels selecting CEOs of national companies, and designing bridges and ships and space rockets and that. How hard can it be?’
But it doesn’t end there. ‘Eventually I plan to apply to the European Court of Human Rights to force every lecturer in every University to resign, to be replaced by a five-year old called Darren, who’s got some really, really interesting things to say about Call of Duty: Black Ops. Once we’ve done that, we can move on to those other bastions of discrimination- research laboratories. Have you seen CERN? Not a toddler in sight. How on Earth do they expect children to be effectively represented in particle physics? It’s disgusting. Just because they can’t count past twenty yet, doesn’t mean they have nothing to add to the debate about the existence of the Higgs- Boson.’
Ms A’s latest announcement comes after her recent comments in the press that children should be part of the selection and recruitment process of new teachers, including grading lessons and forming part of the interview panels. Teachers were last night said to be ‘unsurprised’ by the news:
‘These figures are a damn disgrace!’
‘To be frank, it’s just another day, another shitty dollar for us,’ said Mr Mendicant, a year 8 Science teacher. ‘Everyone and his donkey has a crack at how they think we should teach- in that respect, the teaching profession is not unlike a Rubik’s Cube left alone in a room full of bored neurotics. Nobody can keep their hands off it, and everyone thinks they know how to solve it. It was only a matter of time before someone thought that kids could tell us how to do it better than we can. After all, what do we know? We’ve only got degrees, years of life experience and a professional qualification. Of course an overconfident ten year-old can tell us how to do it, or what kind of skill set would be required to do the job well. Of course they can.’
Asked if this attitude was simply cynicism, and that children could offer a unique perspective as to what makes a good teacher and a good lesson, Mr Mendicant rolled his eyes so far back they practically detached from the optic nerve. ‘Yes, that’s an excellent point. Except for two things: 1. We were all children too, so actually we already possess their perspective, only we’ve added life experience to their incessant, egoistic demands; 2. What they like might not actually be relevant to what makes a good teacher, like being strict and making them work hard.’
‘So actually, that’s not really a good point after all. Now you’ll have to excuse me, but I have my annual pay review in a few minutes with my year 9 class, and I’m hoping I played them enough Doctor Who and violent pornographic cartoons to qualify for a point on the salary scale. Wish me luck.’
Your new Minister for Education.
The outspoken public figure has recently defended herself against claims that she is being paid not unadjacent to £138,000 per year for what is essentially a non-job. ‘No, no, no, no,’ she said. ‘That’s not true at all. I’m paid three grand short of the Prime Minister to tell people that children should run everything. See? That’s a proper job. Well worth what I imagine is approximately three times your salary.’
‘Teaching? Now thats a non-job. Anyone can do it. Why, my two year old Springer Spaniel could probably deliver a decent three-part lesson on the Tudors. In fact…that’s an idea.’
A Facebook site was created last week, thought to be the work of a rag-tag band of disgruntled teachers, called, ‘If children are such f***ing experts, why don’t they run the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ? Just a thought.’ The Office was unavailable for comment, as everyone was watching Charlie and Lola and sewing sequins onto their Stetsons in preparation for an early evening birthday party.
Maggie Atkinson is thirteen and three quarters at heart.

Atten-HUT! Troops to Teachers sees battlefield promotions lauded- but is the science solid?

 I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There’s something so intuitively respectable about the BBC’s venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove’s drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it’s seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).

If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys’ School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from  military backgrounds, which shouldn’t really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were ‘more resilient…less down-hearted…and more robust.’ As Mandy Rice Davies, said, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he.’

Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn’t have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. ‘They just look at you,’ one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you’ve blown your stack, and for most kids it’s better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn’t agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.

Troops to Hogwarts

Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia’s Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn’t make up a name like that because you wouldn’t believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.

Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school’s TTT project spoke proudly about bringing ‘discipline into an undisciplined world,’ and frankly, I couldn’t agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets’ Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he’s a real person, so he’ll have to content himself with a notional award instead.

So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.

And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that’s what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that’s when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. ‘Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,’ we were told. ‘Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,’ it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a ‘stellar performance,’ he said. Twinkle, twinkle.

Now that didn’t strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I’m allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I’ve been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, ‘Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment…’ I’m just funny like that.

So I did a bit of, rooting around on t’interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that ‘Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.’ Which isn’t really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? .

As I say, I’m sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: ‘The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.’ That’s the state office. Of course, that doesn’t suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I’m just saying, that’s all. Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence, though?

So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.

The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn’t come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That’s not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don’t know why the other third didn’t reply. We don’t know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don’t know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren’t sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.

And it’s details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I’m certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.

Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- ‘how well do you feel …’ questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who’s to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What’s to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn’t the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it’s like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.

The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:

‘the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.’

In other words, we know it’s all just opinion and self analysis. But we don’t think it’s a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it’s not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn’t prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It’s not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.

The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn’t even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn’t they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don’t know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I’m sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn’t it?

So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:

‘In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery,, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).’

Call me a gutless limey cynic, but ‘equally well in Reading’ and ‘a small but statistically significant advantage’ in Maths doesn’t exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by…..yes, William Owings. And it wasn’t published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, ‘submitted to ‘Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008′. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed?   Have a look at the front page. It’s got a lovely ‘Troops to Teachers’ logo all over the front. I’m don’t have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report….

(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)

In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, ‘A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,’ and ‘Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.’ So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute…..

It’s not that I’m against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to ’em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn’t do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.

It’s an emergency! For God’s sake, get me a social scientist! Why misunderstanding the aims of research is crippling education.

I’m elbow deep in gizzards this week with the number of geese I’ve slaughtered in the name of prognostication. I haven’t developed an emergent tendency towards serial killing; I’ve just been trying to answer an age-old educational conundrum: do schools need more money? And answering that seemingly simple question led me to question the whole educational research racket, or at least its misappropriation by the people we trust to run the show.

My unconventional approach to divination and revelation was prompted  when the government published school-by-school spending figures along with last weeks’ league tables. Although the DfE is being coy, claiming that this publication is purely linked to the aim of greater transparency, we all know that nosey Noras will be asking if schools give value for money. Very sneaky. So how do we know if more money actually leads to better results in education anyway?  A BBC report from the 14th of January looked at the evidence:

‘A recent Pisa study from the OECD, compared academic performance across a wide range of countries and offered some support for the government’s view that money is not a key factor. Another study, by Francois Leclerque for UNESCO in 2005, surveyed a wide range of other economists’ attempts to find a correlation between resources and results. Some found a positive correlation. Others found the opposite. Leclerque concluded that, whichever view you took, it was as much a matter of one’s previous belief and opinion as it was of scientific knowledge. (1)

One major study (by Hanushek and Kimko, 2000) looked at pupils’ international maths scores and compared them to several different measures of school spending.It is not clear whether spending more on schools leads to better results. Their conclusion was: “The overall story is that variations in school resources do not have strong effects on test performance.” (1)

So that’s all perfectly clear then. At least we have all the data we need to make a decision. Not.

Think about what’s happening here: tens of millions of pounds spent, an equivalent proportion of academic labour, the finest minds in education, all focused on one point, one question, like shining a million light bulbs onto a spot and turning it into a laser. Only to find that all you have is a very bright room, and an army of moths dive bombing the window.

If you turned that focus, funding and fervour on to a physical task, you can imagine the mountains that could be built, or abysses excavated. If it was directed to an object of material interest such as ‘how high can a house of cards be built?’ then we’d have the answer by tea time and all be driving home in our 1976 Gran Torinos with the overspend. So why the problem uncovering truths in educational research?

The answer lies in the methodology and expectations of social science itself, and their differences with the Natural Sciences: chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, oceanography, etc- anything that is amenable to the scientific method of study. The social sciences- and I’ll be coming back to that term later- is the attempt to replicate  that method in the field of human behaviour. As the latest marketing meme-worm would say, simples.

What is the scientific method? In essence it is based on the following process:

1. Data regarding physical phenomena are collected by observation that is measurable and comparable.
2. This information is collated and a hypothesis is constructed which offers some kind of explanatory description of the events described by the data; to look at it another way, we discern a pattern in the data that offers the potential to predict or define, usually on the assumption of causality, but often with a purely descriptive intent.
3. This hypothesis is tested by experimentation. The hypothesis is then either immediately discarded with the introduction of this new data, or tested again. The more profound and extensive the testing, the less uncertain the hypothesis is claimed to be.

I’ve simplified the process on a similar scale to describing Moby Dick as ‘a big fish’ so forgive my brevity. There are long established difficulties with this method that offer challenges to both the philosopher and the scientist: have I tested enough? Is my interpretation of the data biased? Have I collected the data in an ethical manner? Have I performed relevant tests? Are there alternative explanations? Have I mistaken correlation for causality? And so on.

But scientists have one fairly large trump card to play when contesting with chippy Humanities graduates about all this: science seems to work. Your car works; your phone reliably transmits emails of funny dog pictures around the world; planes have a habit of not falling from the skies. If the scientific method isn’t perfect, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

And of course there is a much more profound question: is anything certain? Rationalists like Descartes would say that there are things that can be ascertained by the pure light of reason itself, such as his own existence (in the much misquoted Cogito, Sum). But what about the world? Descartes’ argument for the proof of an external world is as convincing as the plot line to My Family, and most people (certainly anyone other than lonely, friendless hermits) turn to our observation of the world as the best basis for understanding how things work: broadly speaking, the empirical approach.

But Hume (certainly one of the most readable of the British Empiricists) famously drove a bus through the empirical claims to certainty, by describing all predictive statements about the world (The Sun will rise tomorrow; water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, etc.) as inductive inferences. In other words, they rely on our assumption that the future will be like the past, which of course is something we can never test. To understand the importance of this, we can look to the example of Popper’s Black Swan Problem; until the discovery of said sooty avian, any European would have said that all swans were white, and they would have had millions of observations over centuries by millions of people to back this hypothesis up. Of course, no hypotheses can ever be established beyond doubt, and any decent scientist is aware of this.

But this isn’t a problem of science; it’s only a problem of people who misunderstand the scientific method: it never sets out to establish foundational, necessarily true propositions; it only seeks to establish more or less probable hypotheses, nothing more but certainly nothing less. It’s enormous success has led many people to become acolytes of this New God, ascribing to it the infallibility normally reserved for the theistic God or his chosen representatives. But science doesn’t make these claims. It simply observes, records, considers, and reflects. And when something seems to work, it runs with it. No other method comes close to its predictive and descriptive powers, so until something better comes along, we work with it, and ignore the spoon benders and the homoeopaths who chant and caper, and believe that because empirical scientific claims lack certainty that they can be contested, dismissed and replaced with their own particular and peculiar branches of witch craft and ju-ju.

Which brings me to social science finally, and its germane offspring, educational social science. The desire to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the social sphere is entirely understandable; after all, the benefits that have been obtained from the laboratories and notebooks of the men in white coats have given long life, comfort, leisure time and most importantly, Television and Mad Men. Imagine the benefits we could glean if we turned our microscopes and astrolabes away from covalent bonds and meteorological taxonomy and towards the thing we love and value most: ourselves. Cue: psychology, anthropology, history, politics, educational theory, etc. Now all we have to do is send out the scientists, and sit back and wait for all that  lovely data to be turned into the cure for sadness, the end to war, the answer to life’s meaning and while you’re at it, how best to teach children.

And yet, here we are, still waiting. The example I gave at the start of this article serves as just one illustration. For every study you produce that demonstrates red ink lowers pupil motivation, or brings them out in hives or something, I can show you a study that says, no, it’s green ink that does the trick. For any survey that shows the benefits of group work, there are equivalent surveys that say the same about project work, or individual work, or the Montessori method, or learning in zero gravity or whatever. It is, to be frank, maddening, especially if you’re a teacher and on the receiving end of every new initiative and research-inspired gamble that comes along. The effect is not dissimilar to being at the foot of an enormous well and wondering not if, but how many buckets of dog turds will rain on you that day, and how many soufflés you’ll be expected to make out of it. To quote Manzi:

‘Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including the impact of proposed government programs. The missing ingredient is controlled experimentation, which is what allows science positively to settle certain kinds of debates.'(2)

And that, I think, summarises the problems teaching has with the terrifying deluge of educational research that has emerged in the twentieth century and beyond, and the apparently awful advice that has drenched the education sector for decades with its well-intentioned by essentially childish misunderstandings. When I entered the profession I met many old hands who would greet each new initiative with a pained, ‘Not that again,’ expression in the style of Jack Lemmon chewing tinfoil. At first I thought they were merely stubborn old misanthropes, but now I see that they were at least partially motivated by desensitisation; that they had sucked up scores of magic bullets and educational philosopher’s stones catapulted at them over the decades, and had learned to wear tin helmets to deflect as many of them as possible. None of this justifies ignoring new ideas, but it’s easy to understand why teachers become immune to the annual initiative.

And yet, even this is to be unfair about the nature of social scientific research and its alleged conclusions. In the field of Religious Studies, for example, I find an enormous deficit of research that claims to point to anything intrinsically predictive or definitive. Much of the research in this area is acutely aware of its limitations, possibly because of the explicit understanding that any discussion of faith matters automatically put one in the proximity of discussions about truth and validity, opinion and subject bias. Of course, there is a lot of bogus research that deserves to be laughed at too, but it’s interesting that in a field so contested one should find such care. Social science only gets itself into hot water when people take its findings as more than what social scientists would actually claim, namely that it possesses any kind of claim to finality and certainty.

Any good piece of social science I have read relating to education is always upfront about the limitations of its method of testing; is always tentative in its assertions, and always hesitates to assert anything substantially beyond the data obtained. But I have also read a great deal of bad research that appears to think itself a branch of physics: this method, it thunders, produces this result. A key problem here is what might be called high causal density: when we attempt to ascribe a social phenomena to a particular causal precedent, we immediately run into the problem that any one behaviour (such as improved grades or behaviour) is extremely hard to trace back to a given event; there are enormous numbers of factors that could correspond to the outcomes under examination. Thus, if I introduce a new literacy scheme in school based on memorising the Beano, and next year I see a 15% rise in pupils obtaining A*-C in English GCSE, any claim I made that the two were connected would have to wrestle with other possible claims, such as the group being observed were smarter than previous groups; or they had better teachers; or they were born under a wandering star, ad infinitum. This causal density is particularly noticeable in endeavour that studies human behaviour, with its multitude of perspectives, invisible intentions and motives. Put simply, people are infuriatingly difficult to second guess and predict.

The position is similar to the weather forecasting. We might be able, broadly speaking, to predict that Winter will be colder than Summer. But anything much more specific than that gets harder and harder; even the Met office doesn’t issue long term forecasts any more; there just isn’t any point. And their daily forecasts update every few hours or so; that’s because the factors involved, while potentially measurable in principle, are just too complex and numerous to be done in practise. The problem is multiplied when we consider that human behaviour may not, after all, be reducible to materialist explanations, and therefore escape causal circumscription entirely. The debate over freewill is far from over; indeed, it is as alive as ever.

This problem possibly wouldn’t upset too many people (namely that many people engaged in the field of social scientists have a shaky grasp as to the powers and frailties of the scientific method itself, and produce papers that are riddled with subject bias, observer bias, researcher bias, and the desire to produce something that justifies their tenure and funding), except that as a concomitant to its claims to provide meaningful guidance in social affairs, it also expects to be used- and sometimes succeeds- in driving the engine of policy making in front of it. And that, dear friends, is where people like me come into the equation.

Here are some of the things that are assumed to be axiomatic truths in the contemporary classroom:

1. Lessons should be in three parts
2. Children putting their hands up is bad
3. Red ink will somehow provoke them to become drug dealers and warlords
4. Every lesson must have a clear aim
5. Every lesson must conclude with a recap
6. Every lesson must show clear evidence of progression, in a way that can be observed by a blind man on the moon with a broken telescope.
7. Levelling children’s work is better than giving them grades. Grades are Satanic

I could go on, but their aren’t enough tears in the world. These are just some of the shackles that teachers are burdened with, dogma with which they must comply. Why? Because someone, somewhere produced a study that ‘proved’ this. And that proof was taken to be gospel, and then passed down by well-meaning ministers, the vast majority of whom have never stepped in a classroom in a pedagogic manner, unless accompanied by cameras.

So that’s where we stand right now; social science being produced by the careless, consumed by the gullible, and transmitted down to the practitioner, who waits at the foot of the well with an umbrella. In this arena, is it any wonder that the teacher has been devolved from respected professional, reliant on judgement, wisdom and experience, to a delivery mechanism, regurgitating the current regime’s latest, fashionable values? No wonder teaching is in a bit of a mess right now. We’re not expected to be teachers; they want us to be postmen.

In this vacuum of credible knowledge, is it any wonder that teachers feel uncertain, misguided, confused about their roles, about the best way to teach, and troubled by the nagging suspicion that the best ways to teach are staring right at them?

The most certain assertions are those that make the least specific claims, and fit the greatest number of observations and data. These are the principles that teachers should be guided by, and that’s why your own professional experience is at least as good a guide as the avalanche of ‘best practise’ and OfSTED criteria that resulted from the misappropriation of science; and in many cases, your own experience will be better. If you have  years of experience and genuinely reflect on your practice, if your classes are well behaved, the children express enjoyment and the grades are good, then some would say your experiences were merely anecdotal; but I would say they were a necessary part of professional wisdom and judgement.

In fact, I would say they were better.

A priori, the social scientific method is best used as a commentary on human beings and their behaviour, not as a predictive or reductive mechanism. So the next time you read another piece of educational research hitting Breakfast TV, feel free to say, ‘Oh really? That’s interesting.’ But make sure you hold your breath. And get your umbrella and saucepan out.

1. BBC News What Does Spending Show?
2: Jim Manzi, 

 See? I put references and everything this time. That was so people would take it more seriously. Homoeopaths are really good at this, especially when they’re referring to other homoeopaths, quack PhDs and dodgy journals run from the back of someone’s health food shop.

All your homework are belong to us: Policing Cyberspace, and the week’s news in education

As I write, the Catholic Church is setting an extra space at the table for married priests; Zsa Zsa Gabor has had her leg amputated; the Periodic Table is being rewritten to allow for average nuclear weights; MySpace is being dressed for a coffin; somewhere in an endless, vast blackness, Voyager 1 is close to entering interstellar space; and in Italy, the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he could toe punt a cardinal into the Tiber and still get elected. We live in interesting times.

Here are some other interesting things in education this week:

1. Spoke to a brilliant school police officer, PC Anonymous, who told me about the virtual problem taking up a real-time chunk of his life: Cyberbullying. I’ve written about this here. This is now a huge problem, as the anonymity of the internet, and the dislocation of intent and harm caused by typing away on your lonesome, contributes to an explosion of children saying very nasty things indeed about their peers in a very public way. The odd thing here is that many of the comments made would never have seen the light of day had they not been facilitated by the secret, undercover world of the internet. In essence, Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for people to be bullied, victimised, subject to harassment and intimidation. And let’s face it, at least it sometimes takes balls to say those things in public; in your bedroom, hiding behind someone else’s name, it becomes as easy as logging on.

So how does he tackle it? Scotland Yard now has a dedicated unit for dealing with this problem, and all that a police officer has to do is to contact this unit, who in turn contact Facebook- if they see any posts that break their terms and conditions, they can perform the ultimate digital disinfection: deleting the account. The reason that this is important is that many teachers and SLT think that this is a complicated, technical process; it’s not. It’s as simple as reporting anything else. And believe me, it’s worth not ignoring this kind of bullying- to the victims, it’s as real, and perhaps often more personal, more private, than traditional bullying over pocket money, because it invades their bedrooms. Worse, it involves their on-line personae. We have a generation of children who increasingly identify their self-image with their on-line presence; their avatars, their usernames, the groups they join, the content they generate. For someone to have that element of their identity attacked is to feel a very peculiar and omnipresent form of being haunted. The on-line world has no physical form; it surrounds us conceptually. How do you run from that?

And it’s not just teenagers: in 2009, research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network suggested 15% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying, often from parents. 

Equally, the sensation of having one’s account removed is, for some teenagers, akin to having an elbow removed (or a leg?). In some ways, it’s the perfect sanction; for some, devastating, yet involving no actual physical punishment, merely the to-be-expected outcome of breaking a contract, buried deep within the bits of Facebook nobody ever reads (usually right next to the bit about them owning everything you upload to Facebook, and your rights to privacy, which can be summarised in a haiku). You can tell that it’s traumatic, because there are Facebook groups already called things like ‘They deleeted mi payge for no reeson Facebuk ar crimnals,’ and other unlovely contortions of grammar and syntax. (Oddly  enough, although finding some of the settings information on Facebook is so complex that it appears to be an attempt to introduce gamification into the experience, the terms and conditions could be discovered by a dog with no nose.)

Here are some of the transgressions for which Facebook can delete your profile. Section 3 of their terms of use say:

  1. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  2. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Section 4:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal profile.

So if you have to deal with anything along these lines, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well it’s the Internet, innit?’ Give your friendly copper a call, and watch some instant justice being meted out, Tron-style. I guarantee satisfaction.

2. I adored this story about Leonora Rustamova, a teacher who was sacked in 2009 for posting fiction on-line that featured staff at her school, as well as students, and included scenes of a…sexual nature, including the sexual fantasies of named pupils about…er, her. Far from thinking that perhaps, maybe, just this once, she might have stepped over the line a bit, she defended her actions as innovative and was designed to engage the boy pupils. I. Bet. It. Did.

Insanely unguarded woman; it’s the lunacy of the ‘I was just trying to get them on side’, and her defiant refusal to see that this might be so far off the spectrum of acceptable practise for a children’s guardian, that makes her exactly the sort of person the CRB is designed to snag. The reason why I love this story, apart from its sheer mentalness- and after all, nobody really got hurt as a consequence- is that it acts a perfect baseline for any teacher wringing his or her hands and wondering if they should allow students to, for example, email homework to them or something. ‘Oh well,’ they can now say, ‘At least I’m not Leonora Rustamova.’

3. Also from the BBC, a report from a ‘leading digital education charity, the E-Learning Foundation’ suggests that deprivation in the UK now has a new face, and a brand new benchmark to which it can refer: a million children in the UK lack access to the internet at home. You heard me. A million. The report suggests, in the most serious tones, that many of these children risk being severely educationally disadvantaged by this lack of access. You can almost hear the knuckles being cracked as hands are wrung. Is that a Mission Bell I can hear?

I imagine that starving Kenyan children are extremely concerned about the rising levels of deprivation experienced by their British counter parts. Perhaps we should start a campaign in Haiti, asking them to contribute any Palm Pilots and iPads they may have spare. ‘Please. Just one Wii console is enough to keep a whole gang of teenagers in Bradford  above the digital poverty line for a month. You can make a difference.’

World poverty. Perhaps they’ve heard about it? There may be an Oxfam in your high street they can pop into and pick up some notes.

4. And, of course, a mention has to go to the English Baccalaureate, which is presently enjoying the attention of more suitors than a female toad trapped in a pond with a dozen Romeos. This is because the Humanities segment has been specified, by Gove personally it seems, to mean History and Geography. Cue: campaigns by RS teachers everywhere, paralysed with apoplexy at the thought that schools will sling all their Bibles and Prayer Mats in the room marked ‘Citizenship’, next to the desks with inkwells and the SLTs’ testicles. But of course, it’s always enjoyed a peculiar, special status on the curriculum- a compulsory, yet non-national curriculum subject with legally defined entitlements (although many schools ignore them, and OfSTED seem to have ADHD about it when they pop into schools). I suspect that RS will endure this regime, as it has for so long. Like the Vatican, it measures time, not in heart beats, but in centuries.

The Catholic Church has created a branch of itself to accommodate the Anglican converts who have flown from the Church of England into the Highest of the High denominations: it’s called the Ordinariate, in a thrilling choice of nomenclature that could have emerged from a Phillip Pullman novel, with its suggestions of hidden societies and secret orders. These new priests will operate, not in an diocese, but in a notional space, rather than a geographical one, and be headed by an Ordinary, which as a title, is not devoutly to be wished, perhaps. Or maybe it’s a bit like Surgeons being called Mister– they’re too cool to be called Doctor.So in an way, they’re a bit like the members of a Facebook group, linked by conceptual association and abstract affiliation. I wonder where their server is?

Probably not Myspace.

Life not imitating art # 332: You know The Shawshank Redemption, the film that’s on everyone’s top ten lists even though it’s good rather than great, and if I’m honest,  a bit hackneyed and predictable? There was a charming scene where hero con Andy Dufresne locks himself in the Warden’s room and plays The Marriage of Figaro over the tannoy to a transfixed, transported prison population. Well the same thing happened in a school near me this week. Only the hero of this story thought that, with his thirty seconds of precious privacy, he would treat everyone to heavy breathing instead of opera. Get busy livin’, people.