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“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?… Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?…The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”1984, George Orwell
|The new, neutral inspector|
You see it everywhere: CPD courses with names like ‘Teach the Ofsted way’ or ‘Integrating discovery learning into your virtual learning platforms the Ofsted way.’ Books, INSETs and agendas, all genuflecting at the altar, sacrificing children’s interests in the hopes that this year’s harvest of absolute grades and relative progress will be a happy one. Will the Gods be pleased? Have we done enough? Are our offerings sufficient, like Abel’s, or will we be marked, like Cain, as Unsatisfactory, and doomed to walk the earth, cursed by parents?
|‘And where is VAK in your planning?’|
Which finally brings me to the opening quote. The problem, which I’ll return to in a later blog, is the contemporary language of education. For decades now there has been a creeping shift in how it is even possible to speak about teaching, learning and schools. To put it bluntly, there is now a Newspeak dictionary of what it is possible and isn’t possible to say. People now talk about students as stake holders, and I think, Jesus, when did that happen? Classes as Learning Zones; corridors become break out areas. Pointless surveys and opportunities to bully staff are justified as ‘student voice, innit?’
|‘Ah! The laughter of children!’|
From the rural womb of Wellington, a post-modernist cement baby is born. If the Summer Edfest is James Blunt, the London Festival is Tuliza. Even the banners and livery of the event were spraypainted, Banksy style, on tarpaulins reminiscent of a CND march. If it had been any more metropolitan it would have had a roundabout.
After Gove, I bolted to see Charlie Taylor take part in a panel discussion about the future of teacher training. The former behaviour czar has been reincarnated, like the Doctor, as the head of the Teacher Agency in charge of the stuff, so I imagine this panel wasn’t too taxing. ‘Yeah,’ he could say. ‘It’s like that. Touch me.’ Taylor’s a rare thing: a man up to his armpits in the education business who actually knows which way up a child goes. Everything he did and said as behaviour advisor was intuitively and demonstrably sensible, and I expect he’ll be no slouch in training reform either.
He talked about School Direct, the school-based qualification system that emphasises practical experience. This has been criticised by some as dislocating teachers from the wealth of educational history and theory that underpins the profession. I’d respond by arguing that 99% of that theory is utterly useless until you have a bit of teaching under your belt. Sometimes even then. The consequence is complete greenhorns walking into school worrying if they’re meeting the 45 basic competencies, or satisfying the fifteenth spoke of the learning bicycle or something. Teaching is a profoundly practical activity. There is no tension between whether it’s an art or a craft or a profession or a blancmange; it has elements of the first three, at different times, in different proportions. It’s an acquired habit; it’s a character set; it’s a body of learned content; sometimes it’s even an interaction between all three. Sometimes it’s like shaving a chin or planing a door; at other times it’s as conscious and planned an activity as having sex on a ladder.
|The Institute had never looked lovelier|
Charlie’s top tip for new teachers was to lie in a dark room for a few hours every week and think about what you’ve done, like a chastened boy in a corridor. Dennis Hayes, his co-panelist, suggested going to the pub, but I suspect most teachers won’t take a great deal of prodding. Hayes, who spoke a terrifying level of sense about the intellectual poverty of much educational research, added that he thought every teacher needed to have read three core texts to consider themselves fit: Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emile, and Dewey’s The Child and the Curriculum. I have. The films were better.
Then it was my turn. After a clandestine coffee with OldAndrew I was contestant number three in a Gardener’s Time Q&A on behaviour: me, Paul Dix and Professor Susan Hallam. Michael Shaw, the assistant editor of the TES, hosted: a man who presumably keeps a painting of a wizened old man in his attic. He’s the Benjamin Button of the teaching press, and every time I meet him I want to buy moisturiser and maybe lay off the smokes.
Q&A; minimum preparation, and you have to sing for your supper there and then: produce the goods or get out, much like a classroom. I did my usual schtick of saying ‘Get them into trouble when they’re naughty and reward them when they’re good’ in as many variations as I could. It’s also the title of my next book.
Most questions were perfectly sensible; nobody wept. We picked over their entrails and poked around their chamber pots and divined and diagnosed. The standout moment came, however, when a lady in the front row asked us what should be done if students display, misogynistic and sexually aggressive behaviour. Professor Hallam, who is undoubtedly a woman of repute, intelligence and craft, gave an answer I can only describe as surprising. ‘Flirt with them,’ she said.
Uproar in the court. Mind. Blown. I could see a hundred eyeballs practically detach from their retinas and pop out onto the carpet, mine included. I have no idea what possessed a woman to say such a thing, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect a non-classroom practitioner to answer such a question, but I fear that this exemplifies a very serious point: the best people to advise on how to run a a classroom are those who actually do such a thing. Research is often a million miles away from practice, and boy, was it ever here. Flirting with kids who want to treat you as a sexual object will only do one thing: encourage further predatory behaviour. It demeans and insults the teacher, and provokes the aggressor to further heights of inappropriacy. The way you deal with sexual intimidation in classrooms is by shutting it down; by standing up to it; by crushing the merest flicker of it as it emerges. God help the child on my watch who tries to trash-talk a female teacher because of her gender.
The Good, the Bad and the Unsatisfactory
Finally to the Pale Rider himself, the outlaw Michael Wilshaw. I’ve written before that I rate the Bishop of Mossborne highly. Unlike most of his detractors, he has actually pulled off the Holy Grail of education: turning lead to gold, or low-achievers into high. He attracts ire like lightning to a copper weather-vane, seemingly for having had the temerity of giving thousands of kids a chance of social mobility where little seemed to exist before. I know, burn the witch, right? He also doesn;t give a f*ck about what people think of him or his methods, which practically has me screen-printing T-shirts.
|Are you still using VAK?|
If other rooms were packed, this was a gangbang in a coffin. He read from notes, perhaps mindful of the press tendency to surgically dissect the most controversial words in any of his speeches and randomise them into headlines like ‘Wilshaw calls all teachers bastards‘ or similar. Everything I’ve ever heard him say was tough but practical. Criticisng the status quo doesn’t imply blanket condemnation; merely that things can improve. In a room full of teachers, he spoke of how good schools came from good leadership, and I saw an entire room full of people nod at once. He’s no fool. He seemed to go out of his way to congratulate teachers for being the catalyst of change in London, and foreshadowed the format of his annual report: more regonalism, more emphasis on the people who sit in the big chairs. A room full of people with little chairs lapped it up.
Then he launched into his new hit single: Oftseds with less box-ticking and more lesson observations. Inspectors trained not to look for specific teaching styles, gimmicks and legerdemaine. By this point the crowd were waving their hands in the air with lighters aflame. If he’d chosen to stand on the table, turn around and fallen backwards like Peter Gabriel, he could have crowd-surfed to Russell Square. He should do this kind of thing more often.Maybe he’ll do another tour.
Taking questions, he explained how he was often taken out of context; that the Dirty Harry comments were just a throwaway remark, although the chuckling press corps next to me conveyed their suspicion that The Man With No Shame rather enjoyed the Judge Dredd caricature. They might be right: he comedy-checked himself as he said, ‘I was marching- sorry, walking down a school corridor.’ Riffing on his own stereotype? And he got the laugh he was looking for. By this point in his own session, the Sorceror of Sanctuary House was dogfighting with the Red Army. The Unforgiver, by contrast, was dropping LOLZ like Dean Martin at a roast.
Time will tell if he also has enough medicine to drive his army of inspectors before him, or if they’ll continue to harrow schools with witless prescription, mono-dimensional metrics and snake-oil dogma. But he doesn’t deserve the rep that a hostile press has brewed for him: I haven’t seen a man more suited to the despotic reform that inspection needs, and schools should support his project in order to support themselves. They should expect inspectors to explain their judgements; they should expect them to be supportive and suggestive of ways to improve. An Ofsted Inspection should be seen as a chance to shine and improve, not an opportunity to pimp your data and get the FSM kids singing songs from Oliver, wearing flat caps with target levels painted on them.
Every Which Way But Home
|The Wellington College party arrived with little fuss|
If you live in an edububble it’s important to escape at times and speak to normal people, so I left, although before I did to my joy I saw Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington Towers being carried down the stairs in a sedan chair by monks in white samite*, just in time for his final address. The country mouse was visiting the town mouse. I wonder what he thought?
The Festival was a splendid thing. They should do it every year. It worked for Christmas.
*This may not have actually happened.
PS Thanks to Chris Husbands, Michael Wilshaw, Gerard Kelly, TES and the IoE for hosting the event, and for letting me come and caper.
|Conan the SENCO|
Sir Michael Wilshaw wants Heads to be more ‘odd’ according to this week’s TES.
While Sir Michael was not encouraging his audience to don flat caps and prowl buses, he did argue that the best heads think outside the box. “Don’t be afraid to be slightly maverick,” he said. “Do things out of the ordinary; don’t necessarily be a conformist. Strange is sometimes good. The best heads are often quite odd people – I think I was one of them.”
I will avoid the open goals that this offers, however tempting. Dame Wilshaw draws opprobrium like St Sebastian attracts arrows whenever he says anything, and adding a breath to the mountain of mockery he normally obtains would be as churlish as criticising 50 Shades of Grey for being ‘a bit shit’, which it is. I have to say, every moment I have spent working within a hierarchy indicates that he speaks the truth.
I once ran an achingly unhip dungeon of disco in Soho; sent a new general manager, we all waited for him to turn up. When he arrived (late) he was a six foot Sicilian dressed chin to boot in SS leather, shirt slashed to the sternum like Conan, a line of white crumbs pointing a guilty finger at his sinuses.
‘My Name is Alessandro Balisteri,’ he said, without warning. ‘You f*ck with me… I F*CK YOU ALL!’ And he stalked off, back to wherever nut-jobs went when you couldn’t see them.
|‘When the school bell goes- just TRY it.’|
My point being that, in the debauched swamp of the Soho scene, he was a perfectly evolved leader, and believe me, you did NOT f*ck with him. Nobody came late; nobody pinched a denarius, and it was all good until he was busted for Dysoning barrels of beak while rattling equally mad Italian hookers in the office. No one’s perfect.
I’ve worked with other Captains of mention; a TGI Fridays (don’t; just don’t) where Tim was the anti-Luca, running 100 men and women like a circus, knowing everyone’s birthdays, arriving first and leaving last, fuelled by confidence and self-belief and charm; like Vic from Passemores Academy, the blessed martyr of Harlow who burns with so much determination that no one gets left behind that you fear for his lifespan. There is no template for leadership, no check list of standards that, once met, obtain the magic formula, because it is a magic formula. Leadership as a concept has been picked apart by the witless jackals of middle management. Here is my checklist of what a good leader needs to have:
1. A spine
2. A clear idea of what they want
3. Knowing what the Hell they’re talking about.
|See? The data is clear.|
Beyond that, I’m out, because it can’t be reduced to a shopping list of invertebrate inanity, usually written by people who are themselves invertebrates. Leaders can be friendly or frigid; democrats or tyrants. The necessary descriptor would be ‘do people get behind them’ and ‘did it work’? Neither of these can be predicted or prepared in formula. As the renowned educationalist Baroness Mercury once said, ‘It’s a kind of magic.’ Like so many things in education, it is predicated on concepts that are relative to the observer and loaded with social context, which makes them essentially resistant to reduction. You could bottle lightning more easily.
The problem for school leaders is that decades of micro-management that would make the Vatican seem bohemian, and being judged by cold, cold data has resulted in their jobs being reduced to that of administering dogma, then looking up fearfully to see if they have been good servants or bad. I feel for anyone labouring under that yoke. Your role, one of the most sacred in society, has been turned from shepherd to bureaucratic piñata. Voltaire said as much: countries should be guided ‘by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude.’ WHile you might hope for a more democratic model, the essence is true- leadership requires men and women, not to aim for some swampish compromise where no one is happy, but to have a dream and create it, despite the world’s insistence to the contrary. Which means convincing, and where necessary, coercing.
Not unlike classrooms, funnily enough.
Wilshaw’s right, you know. Good leaders are often a bit odd. That’s what makes them good leaders.
In a formal announcement today, the Grand Inquisitor or Her Majesty’s Inspectorate revealed plans for ‘surprise trials’ for all baptised Christians of Spanish origin and any school covered by the Education Act, 1988. Miriam Rosen, the interim Inquisitor said that this would end the current practise of schools concealing heretical activities and breaches of Department orthodoxy.
|Students can now trigger Inquisitions.|
‘The catechisms of best practise are there for a reason,’ said Ms Rosen, standing in for Tomas de Torquemada, the previous Head. ‘Mainly so that we know who to burn at the stake and who not to.’
Answering allegations that the dawn raids implied that schools had something to hide, Ms Rosen was characteristically unrepentant:
‘Of course it doesn’t. The innocent, pious mainstream majority have nothing to fear. But anyone attempting to conceal any one of the seven deadly sins with the illusion of good data management…well, let’s just say that the auto-da-fé is just one of the many options we have; also, notices of special measures, but mainly auto-da-fé .’
‘By testing out unannounced monitoring visits, we will see if there is even more we can do to help schools address behaviour problems: for example, immolation. Teachers will be encouraged to confess their sins, before being taken in procession through the town, until they reach the quemadero, or burning place. At that point they find out if they were graded satisfactory, good, outstanding, or damned forever in the fire that gives no light.
In an article in today’s Witchfinder Times, it was reported that there were rumours that Michael Wilshaw, Head of Mossbourne Monastery in London’s deprived diocese of Hackney, would step into the Grand Inquisitor role.
‘We will have three weapons in the battle to reclaim schools as educational spaces,’ he said recently. ‘Consistency, uniform, discipline and clear leadership.’
Brian Mendicant, a teacher who asked not be named, said last night, ‘I wasn’t expecting this.’
Teachers filled the streets last night in tearful thousands as the news was announced that teacher standards would be include ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’
|More of this, apparently.|
‘Thank God, thank GOD,’ said one jubilant teacher, ‘This is what we finally needed after all the years in the wilderness. Now I know that I am supposed to both demonstrate and encourage basic manners and civility. Previously I wasn’t sure if I could swear at them, or call them little sh*ts, but now it feels like the scales have fallen from my eyes. Hallelujah! Can I kiss you?’
The New Standards were launced in response to criticisms that the old standards were old, ambiguous and vague.
‘These will be new, ambiguous and vague,’ one government spokesman assured us. ‘For example, teachers will be required to uphold British values. Do you know what that means? No, me neither. It might mean getting flustered in a queue when someone doesn’t have the right change. Or then again, it might mean marching into someone else’s country and strip mining it. See? Something for everyone.’
He added, ‘Teachers should make sure their personal beliefs “are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils’ vulnerability”.’ This finally clarifies the position that teachers must take if they, for example, feel tempted to tell small children that stealing is wrong, or that peeing in someone else’s shoe might be a bad thing. Clearly, the child must decide for himself if such matters are right or wrong- top-down, prescriptive brain washing must be seen as directly contravening their rights as guaranteed by the Geneva Convention.’
‘You are extremely welcome,’ he said, before leaving for an Idea-Shower to rewrite the American Constitution in Trustafarian patois, and updating Delia Smith’s instructions on how to boil an egg.
|Draper: unconcerned by Value Added.|
Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Hackney’s celebrated Mossbourne Academy has been making headlines by suggesting that school leaders need to be just that- leaders, rather than democratic pansies more interested in harmony and coalition than decisions and actions. True dat: schools are ravenous beasts, bubbling with hundreds of agendas (the kids, the staff, the LEA, the parents, the governors), and if there’s one thing I learned running night clubs in the Wild West of Soho, it was that if you want to lead people you need to actually want to lead them. It meant that, even if you had reservations about one’s right to dictate to another, there it was- that was your job, and if you felt uncomfortable with it then there were plenty of other people who would be happy to oblige. Or worse, you could just hang on and try to ride every wave that surged beneath you. You could do that for quite a while, actually. You would never achieve very much of what you set out to do, and by the time you left things would be how they panned out, rather than where you wanted them. But if you were happy with that kind of existence then it was possible.
Or you could try to be a leader. Which meant discovering what your views were, and deciding that was what you would pursue. I learned to my cost that if you didn’t have strong views about how they should be, then you would never create anything worth while. Schools are bodies made up of hundreds of sentient cells, all with their own views about how the world should work. They can’t all win. And if you try to keep as many people as possible happy, all you create are the conditions where the unhappiness is maximised. I liken it to a classroom: can you imagine how it would look if you said that every student could do what they wanted? Of course you can- some classes are like that already.
|‘Hello, OfSTED. Let’s get you out of that dress.’|
The point is that the teacher has to set the agenda for the benefit of the majority. I think that ever since the invention of democracy we have somehow absorbed the belief that democracy is the best and only way to run every institution, at any level. That may be true at a national and international level, but the closer to the private sphere we get the poorer that paradigm looks- it’s like using telescopes to examine tissue samples. No parental relationship can run by the single transferable vote; no first-past-the-post can govern the workings of a factory. And governance by committee doesn’t work in a school, or as I like to describe them, ‘dream factories’.
The ironic thing is that when presented by strong leadership, people often complain about it; but when it vanishes, everyone realises that they miss the good old days, and can the grown-ups come back? That doesn’t always translate to the national theatre, but there are echoes. And something that always strikes me about leadership is that I’m not entirely sure that it can be taught in any meaningful way. Oh, I know there are courses and INSETS and colleges and expensive three day residential coaching clubs where you can drop a month’s salary on some hard-on with a clip-on microphone telling you how to Awaken the Giant Within. I’ve been on some. But did anyone come away with anything other than a vague sense that being a leader somehow meant walking up to people and telling them how awesome you were?
Leadership, like status, is one of those metaphysical entities that exists in a non-materialist way; it’s a relationship, a subjective state that exists between two people. If you possess an official rank of some sort it helps, particularly with adults who acknowledge that rank. Being possessed of a certain character is enormously helpful- stubborn, single minded, confident are three qualities that spring to mind. It possibly also helps if you’re a bit unbalanced too, maybe slightly scary or unusually charismatic in a fashion that usually masks enormous insecurity or enormous levels of self-possession. But I think I might side with Nietzsche when he said that character isn’t a quality you possess; it’s a description of how you acted, thereby making it a retrospective assessment of your career and character, rather than something that can be obviously emulated.
Plato and Plutarch saw leadership as a list of virtues one had to possess; in the 50s Stogdill and Mann believed that people who were leaders in one circumstance might fail to be leaders in another- witness the modern attempt to describe some PMs and Presidents as good at war, bad at peace, for example. Apparently identifying virtues is now fashionable again in leadership theory, which is nice.
I wish all the Neo-Caesars seeking the Big Chair could just can the reflective mind maps, and stop fretting about whether they’re autocratic, democratic, authoritarian, narcissistic or laissez faire, or whether or not they meet the emotional appetites of the people that work for them, and just bloody get on with it. Just bloody lead. Dare to be wrong, and make some sodding decisions. Life isn’t a committee. You may make an arse of yourself. That’s why you’re paid the big bucks. Oh, and grow a pair.
|Celebrity Free School|
Jamie Oliver’s at it again.
Not happy with his earlier campaign to harpoon the kamikaze attitude that some of our kids (and let’s face the truth, their well-meaning/ unpleasant and red-faced parents) have towards brightly coloured yoghurts and breakfast cereals with the word ‘Coco’ in them, he’s going for the White Whale this time: inspirational teachers. While you could quibble with the authenticity of anything made for television, I can’t help but wish him luck as he assembles an all star cast to try to re-engage disaffected kids back into education by using field leaders (and inexplicably Cherie Blair. I’m unaware that they had made a GCSE out of ‘Being Ghastly’ yet) to seduce the NEETs back into the classroom. Of course, it’s possible to suggest some slightly dodgy assumptions behind this all- that teaching is something anyone can do, and all they need is expertise in a field, which in my experience is far, far from the truth- teaching is a skill and a character set separate from the discipline you teach, and it’s why new teachers have a hard time for a few years before the kids have a war council and say, yeah, she’s had enough, allow it.
But you have to admire his guts, and I wish him all the best. Frankly if Daley Thompson had been my PE teacher I might have done a bit more jogging, but that’s mainly because I assume he wouldn’t have amused himself by calling me a poof and jeering at me as I missed passes like most of my teachers did.
Floella Benjamin is making a stand!
The former Playschool presenter turned politician (typical- Italy gets Cicciolina, we get Floella Benjamin) is standing in the wilderness wearing sackcloth and ashes, living on a diet of wild honey and crickets, and warning us of the dangers of…childrens’ television. Apparently some parents use it as a child minder. How about that? Strange: I seem to recall a childhood sitting in front of the test card, waiting for the girl to make her move at tic-tac-toe before I sat down to an unguided, parent-free hour of…Playschool. It must have been an invented memory.
|It is unlikely your teacher will look like this.|
Saw The Children’s Hour at the Comedy Theatre last week, Lillian Hellman’s powerful drama about two teachers destroyed by the false accusations of one of their students. Although the star wattage sometimes threatens to overcast everything else (Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss act the stage off, although it was nothing compared to the dumbstruck sensation I felt when I realised I was in standing right behind Christina Hendricks, who turned round and met my eyes with what I’m sure was a moment when she thought to herself, ‘Don Draper? Here?‘), it’s a fine story that feels like The Crucible set in a boarding school, or the McCarthy Trials, as insinuation and allegation become just as damaging as the truth could ever have been.
It reminded me that at present teachers aren’t guaranteed anonymity when allegations are made against them, although the new Education Bill promises to remedy that comic state of affairs. But many teachers still suffer with suspension ‘while matters are being investigated’, something which by itself can be seen as mortally shaming, and indicative of guilt in the eyes of others. It also reminds me that in many cases, one teacher’s word is simply not enough to substantiate a claim. A colleague of mine used to work in another school, where one of the pupils told him to ‘Go f*** himself sideways,’ or some similar Wildean barb. The teacher took it to the Head who told him, ‘Ah, it’s one word against another. Nothing we can do.’
Grow. A. Pair.
|This is why I read books.|
|Ball: legend of mathematics.|
Finally, I see that Johnny Ball’s getting aggro from climate change enthusiasts over his views about the scientific reliability of same. Now without wishing to wade into the rights and wrongs, I’d just like to confirm that Johnny Ball was, at the same time as I was singing about bus wheels along with Floella Benjamin, like unto Jehoshaphat in mine childish eyes, and frankly he could go postal in the Lakeside Thurrock shopping mall and I’d be tempted to fund his legal defence. Johnny, I salute you, and your controversial views, because the more people get engaged with scientific analysis, the more immunised we all become to bullshit and cant. You, Tony Hart and Tom Baker did more to teach me how to love learning (Think of a Number/ Take Hart/ The Book Tower) than a host of drippy educationalists, some of whom mocked my lack of affinity with matters athletic, as I indicated before). May your elbows be empowered.