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Ofsted ‘should be split into a million pieces, and then buried in the heart of a dying star’, suggest Education Committee.

Those key recommendations:

The Commons Education Committee made a surprising announcement today when it announced that the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s’ Services and Skills (Ofsted) should be split, not into the two parts detractors had previously imagined, but instead ‘annihilated by some as-yet undiscovered disintegrator ray,’ before the remaining dust pile is ‘cast into the Lake of Fire in Mordor’, preferably by a ruined, obsessive hobbit.

When asked to explain this apparently disproportionate response to recent reports that Ofsted was too big, too unwieldy to serve any of its functions with efficiency and focus, Graham Stuart MP, Head of the Committee gave this reply:

‘Naturally we are alive to accusations of excess, particularly in the current economic climate when the electorate are, quite understandably, seeking solutions that are both cost-efficient and future-proof. At first we were simply going to propose that the body be split into two agencies, one with responsibility for Education, and the other for children’s care. But then we were all in the bar afterwards, shot-gunning vodka through our tear ducts, and we thought, ‘Why stop there?”

‘Someone pointed out that this was the same Ofsted that claimed that behaviour was good or outstanding in 92%- 92%-of all schools in the UK, possibly because some schools dart their ‘special’ kids with ketamine as soon as they get the phone call, and all the SLT get back out on the corridors for three days.’
‘Some of them even need maps,’ he added.

‘Then someone else remembered that this was also the same Ofsted where, in some places, less than 10% of their inspectors are working professionals in the field they’re investigating. Fancy that. Imagine being a teacher when some cadaverous, old has-been or school drop-out comes into your room like a bad smell and tells you you’re unsatisfactory. I imagine some teachers would be a bit peeved.’

Binmen ‘to assess Heads of Ofsted’.

‘Then someone else remembered that this was the same Ofsted that used to- used to, mind- have ‘non specialist inspectors’ on some visits, ie people who have never actually worked in schools (lay inspectors). Isn’t that grand? Perhaps my nan could go and review the people who run Sizewell B, maybe grade them on their fail-safe procedures in the case of a partial meltdown. I bet they’d like that.’

‘By this point we were snorting Midori, and really got going. We talked about, how since the new stripped-down two-day inspections, almost every school essentially got the same grading as its examination results would predict, which made a few of ask what the whole bloody thing was actually for? Of course, by this point, some of us were sliding under the table, but  once we all got our second wind, we were back off the floor and dancing around a picture of Christine Gilbert, the Head of Ofsted. Did you know she’s the wife of the ex-government minister Tony McNulty?  I bet the interview was hard. We talked about how the things that Ofsted look for become the only things schools focus on, until teachers spend all their time fretting about healthy eating in maths lessons, and promoting numeracy in PE, and the world, essentially goes to Hell.’

‘Then, just about when dawn was coming up and we could barely move, we realised that the solution didn’t lie in just breaking it up into two parts. We liked the breaking up bit. That was on the right track. But then we put gas in the tank and decided, f*ck it, let’s do this thing. Let’s just blow it to smithereens instead.’

International precedents for Quango reform were promising.

Asked if any other alternatives had been considered, such as reforming the aspects of the organisation that weren’t fit for purpose, or redesigning the skill set for inspectors and their governing line management, Mr Stuart leaned back in his chair and made a thoughtful face for a second, before blowing a ring of cigar smoke towards the ceiling.

‘No,’ he said with a far away look, as if he was trying to think of something. ‘No, that won’t be enough. You know that bit in Star Wars, where the Death Star blows up Alderaan? Well, Ofsted needs to be on that planet.’

‘Not a proper acronym’, claims MP

‘I mean, it’s not even a proper bloody acronym for God’s sake. How do you get Ofsted from the ‘Office for Standards in Education, Children’s’ Services and Skills’? We might as well call it OFSECS, which at least has some prurient value.’

Ofsted would only comment that restructuring was a ‘matter for the government’. Then it closed the lid of its coffin, and refused to take any more questions.

If you build it, they will behave: the great behaviour myth of teaching and learning

‘That lesson was bare differentiated.’

Because I don’t get out much, I have a favourite false (or possibly just invalid) syllogism, and it’s from Yes Minister, the satirical political sit-com precursor to The Thick of It that now seems like a Golden Age of propriety and civic integrity. It goes like this:

P1: We must do something
P2: This is something
C: Therefore we must do this.

I mention this because there seems to be many government ministers and policy formers who apparently see this as the last word in logic. These are interesting times in Education; the Curriculum is being shaken down, sorry, up; Ofsted are being retrained to hunt different prey (presumably using the bloody undergarments of teachers who don’t value Geography as scent-markers). It’s all a bit up in the air again, and education has the atmosphere of the Museum of Baghdad after the liberation of Iraq. No one really knows what’s going on, and schools are feeling sore about the new baccalaureate because everyone looks like they do nothing but teach kids how to fail exams. In many ways it’s a great time to be a teacher.

And in other ways it’s business as usual. The Education Committee of the House of Commons has just reported back the following conclusions:

1. The curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all children

‘The report by the cross-party committee concluded: “Ministers should bear in mind that if the future curriculum is to have a beneficial effect on standards of behaviour in the classroom, it will need to meet the needs of all pupils and contain a mix of academic and vocational subjects, while being differentiated and enjoyable”‘

Says who? Says Graham Stuart, MP and committee chairman. You would hope that, as Mr Stuart has brought the tablets down from the mountain that he would have some kind of solid experience in classrooms to back up these claims. A brief search of his web page reveals…well, a career in publishing, which is nice, and presumably where he learned all that classroom management stuff he’s so good at. Give me strength.

‘Er, sums and Homer and that, innit.’

What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? It’s a topic I’ve visited before, but I’m happy to drop in again: can you imagine the neurosurgeon just about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair, when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge’s gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection? (On second thoughts, I shouldn’t give them any ideas.)

So why does teaching have to routinely endure the armchair wisdom of so many hapless, uninformed desk-jockeys? Because everyone has been to school, I suppose, therefore everyone has an opinion on it, in much the same way that because I’ve got a mobile phone I have an expert opinion on quadrature amplitude modulation.(I do incidentally; apparently they’re taking all our jobs and living twenty five to a flat. I mean I’m not racist, but they’re not like us are they?)

There’s a recurrent theme here: education is an open field; anyone can have a crack at it. I suspect that this is part of the problem with the Free School idea, but only time will tell. What’s obvious is that education wobbles under the weight of the legion values and judgements of battalions of nosey Norahs who have never set foot in a classroom unless they were learning Latin. The teaching ‘profession’ can barely call itself such any more; the juice has been squeezed from our lemons until these days we’re not much more than vending machines for the latest fashionable ideology or dubious international success story.

2. Good teaching causes good behaviour

‘Behaviour is one of the four key areas to be examined by schools inspectors Ofsted under changes announced.
Ofsted’s last annual report found that in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding.’

Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free: devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the (presumably deliberate) mistake in this reasoning?

P1: Some schools have outstanding or good teaching.
P2: Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour.
C: Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour.

‘One can do it like the man’dem, man’dem..’

Does it? Does it really? As Hume would say, this is an invalid deductive argument. It’s barely even an inductive one. Why not just as easily conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching? Because that’s exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If the class won’t behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child, have rewards, have them waving traffic light cards and pumping them with SEAL, but you ain’t got a thing if they won’t behave for you. Good behaviour is prior to good learning. If they don’t want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out, but you might as well try to teach a colony of seals on the beaches of Shapinsay.

That’s not to say that good lesson planning doesn’t help the situation, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren’t part of your behaviour management arsenal- in fact they should be- but the suggestion that what teachers really need to be focusing on is high quality teaching activities isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive.

Why? Because on the TES Behaviour Forum I chair, I deal with complaints every bloody day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this snake oil as the remedy to their classroom woes. When they find it doesn’t work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves.

I learned this the hard way, like many teachers; I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm and ingenuity, but found that to my new classes, I may as well have been talking in Swahili, as they listened in Armenian, because they couldn’t give a monkeys. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be the behaviour first and de Bono’s Learning Hats second (and believe me, it’s a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had tamed them to a satisfactory level, I could restore creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate of course; but the emphasis in the early days needs to be getting the classes under control first. As the control deepens, so too can challenge and intricacy. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

This myth is cultured in other political Petri dishes:

‘Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “An appropriate, relevant and broad curriculum that keeps pupils engaged is absolutely fundamental to good behaviour.’

Again, there is some truth in this, but misplacing the emphasis can lead to teacher training disaster:  ‘absolutely fundamental’ means, to me, ‘cannot exist without it’. This is demonstrably untrue: I know scores of experienced teachers who could sit a class down with an open book and tell them to work through 100 maths questions, and not hear a peep for fifty minutes. Not exactly what you might be looking for in a class necessarily, but it proves the point.

I want lessons to be interesting, challenging, fun and inspirational- who doesn’t? I would love it if they were all like that. But just because something is desirable doesn’t mean that it is a necessary component, or even that it is possible. Put simply, much of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve a good education is boring. (Just saying that makes me feel like Ofsted will burst down from the ceiling on static climbing ropes like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.) But it’s true; it’s not all interesting; in fact I’ll go further- a lot of learning is a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That’s not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but a admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. To be frank, that shouldn’t even be a controversial statement, unless you think that the suggestion that ‘building up your quadriceps will require exercise’ is controversial.

Somewhere along the line we picked up the assumption that all learning can be fun. Oh really? A big shout going out right now to every single one of the children I have taught who studied and worked hard even when my lessons weren’t based on quiz shows or involved human pyramids or playing at Rock Stars. Nothing hard ever happens without hard work. If we demand that all lessons engage then we are making an electric rod bristling with broken glass for our backs. What we demand is that all pupils try, that they behave. Then it’s up to us to make it as engaging as possible. But I won’t apologise for some lessons that bore even me. that’s the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. ‘It’s your fault- the lesson didn’t engage,’ the argument goes, which is about as logical as the proposition that people get burgled because their homes aren’t secure enough, or look too affluent.

Free Schools led to unusual sponsors.

The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham doesn’t want to be left out, either. The curriculum revamp is ‘narrow and restrictive’ he says, and could lead to children behaving badly. Oh aye, they’ll all be out on the streets with burning torches and pitchforks when they have to do Geography and French, won’t they? (Presumably Citizenship and BTECs do nothing but soothe the savage breast. Oh that’s right. They don’t.) Andy Burnham is well placed to talk about the effects of the curriculum on education, having spent a few years as a researcher for Tessa Jowell before entering politics, so he knows exactly how these things work. And next week he’ll be redesigning the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, because he saw Horizon once.

While I have my sopabox out, there are a few observations I’d like to make about the new education Bill:

1.Pornography and mobile phones added to the list of items schools can search for.

Fabulous. The power we’ve all been waiting for. Actually, if my biggest worry at school was the possession of a few mouldy Jazz mags, my life would be a lot easier. And frankly I’d be more surprised to not find pornography on the average adolescent’s mobile phone, but there you go, it’s nice to know we can.

2. Schools told they can search for anything they have banned 

Brilliant. So to that list I’ve just mentioned you can add, ‘anything else you can think of.’ Actually this is a rather good idea. I vote for ‘existentialist literature’ and ‘unhappy thoughts.’

‘Nah mate, it’s the fan belt.’

3.Appeals panels are no longer allowed to tell schools to reinstate a pupil who has been expelled, but they can ask them to reconsider their decision.

And we’ll say ‘F*ck off, thanks.’