Michael Gove’s awful month

July 30, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Education | 3 Comments

The surprising thing about Michael Gove’s short tenure as Education Secretary is how quickly an appointment which began with such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error. The controversies Gove has been embroiled in since May have been entirely unforced errors; it is not beyond a Secretary of State to publish an accurate list of which schools will/will not see their building projects completed, nor is it beyond his ability to give a realistic estimate of how many would take advantage of his invitation to become academies.

The truth, as we now know , is that most schools in England & Wales didn’t await the Academies Bill with the same breathlessness Gove had when he rushed it through Parliament. Whilst it’s still probable that eligible schools will become academies at some point, the implication that over 1,000 would do so before September always seemed rather staggering.

But the relatively small number of actual applications for Academy status is something the DoE could and should have predicted. It can take some schools months just to change something as superficial as a school uniform. With a matter as significant as a long-term change in a school’s structure, funding & accountability mechanisms, those thinking about applying will have needed to be meticulous in their preparation. They would have had to consult not just with governors but with teachers, parents, pupils and, yes, those maligned local authorites they’re meant to be desperate to escape. They most certainly couldn’t have proceeded with the same haste as the Education Secretary might’ve wanted.

Moreover, the rewards for schools to become Academies by September weren’t nearly as great as Gove might’ve imagined. By the time he made his invitations, many schools had already set their budgets for the next academic year: they already knew their resources, class sizes, staffing levels, the subjects they would offer and the targets for their own improvement. In this context, the additional freedoms & resources offered by Academy status would’ve made little difference, so why rush into an arrangement which would have enormous consequences for pupils, parents & teachers?

Gove’s mistakes thus far haven’t been errors of policy, but of process. Of course parents want increased standards across the school system; they want it to be easy to get their kids into a good school close to where they live, and they’re willing to accept reform if it might make that wish a reality. But parents also value some measure of stability, certainty and reliability; they don’t want to be confronted with erroneous, ever-changing lists of scrapped school building programmes and they don’t want to hear wild overestimates about how many schools which will convert into academies.

It normally takes a good few years for the full effect of education reforms to be accurately measured & evaluated. If he carries on at this rate, Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.

Will education reform lead to a 21st century tripartite?

July 13, 2010 at 8:10 am | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

In The Guardian, Fiona Millar summarises what seems to be the most commonly-held nightmare scenario among critics of Michael Gove’s education reforms:

Most local areas will have a brand new school, but it will be an academy, outside the local family, with facilities that can outshine its neighbours.

Down the road will be another school, which has opted out because it is “outstanding” so almost certainly has a relatively advantaged intake. This school will enjoy more money, and many freedoms, far from the gaze of central government, which hasn’t got the capacity to enforce compliance in admissions, exclusions, special needs and taking those tricky children from the hard-to-place panel.

Around the corner will be the local free school set up by the yummy mummies and daddies, where pupils will enjoy a limited but high-status curriculum.

And then there will be the crumbling neighbours, who didn’t get BSF, doing their best with the pupils who no one else wants and sharing out the diminished pot of money left at the heart of the local authority.

The scenario Millar depicts is basically a 21st century tripartite system; free schools will be too small and exclusive to be a realistic option for most families, which will leave them with a stark choice. If they’re fortunate, they’ll get their children into ‘outstanding’, well-equipped academies which will be so over-subscribed that they can set tough admissions criteria and easily exclude those whose behaviour is disruptive.

If they aren’t so fortunate, their children will end up in a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive which is duty-bound to accept them regardless of background or ability, but which can’t attract the best teachers & students because their facilities and results pale in comparison. Thus a stratified education system is created (or sustained?) whereby parents with the most financial and cultural capital can achieve the best outcomes for their kids, at the expense of those with the least. Same as it ever was.

It must be said, of course, that Millar is hardly the most dispassionate or objective observer of our education system, and since Gove’s reforms are still in their infancy, it’s only fair to offer a few arguments in mitigation. First, Gove insists that academies will still be enouraged to offer advice and support to help ‘lesser’ schools improve their outcomes, and the Prime Minister pledged that they’ll still be obligated to accept pupils with Special Educational Needs.

In addition, the Tory/Liberal pledge of a ‘pupil premium’ is meant to encourage schools to accept poorer students by paying more per head. The governement would also insist that substandard schools won’t be allowed to waste away, and can either be taken over or closed altogether if deemed to be failing. For the coalition, the market will drive up standards across the system, but the state will ensure that no child is left behind.

As is always the case, the impact of Gove’s reforms can’t be easily measured until a few years down the line, but there are a few observations to make at the outset. First, we should avoid buying into the hype that these reforms are radical. There is nothing particularly radical about giving proven outstanding schools greater freedom or in intervening aggressively with failing schools. Indeed, rather than fixating on those at the top & bottom, a more important test is the effect on schools in the middle band; the ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ schools which achieve decent results but don’t add all that much value to their students’ outcomes.

These are the schools which haven’t been invited to apply for academy status and will remain tethered to a local authority which now feels less of an obligation to improve its own schools. What incentive is there for an LEA to help a ‘good’ school become ‘outstanding’ if they know that it would end up applying for academy status and detaching from the LEA mothership? Not only would that authority lose funds, but it would also create added pressure on other schools in the authority. So why would they bother?

At this stage the biggest fear about the coalition’s reforms is that a policy for improving the outcomes of all schools doesn’t seem particularly evident. Without some clear idea of how to achieve this, or limit the impact of academies ‘creaming off’ the most able students, there is a greater risk that Millar’s nightmare of a socially segregated education system turns into a reality. We could avoid a return to the 1950s.

Better teachers

January 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Posted in Education | 14 Comments

As it’s one of those issues which makes trainee teachers tremble with trepidation, today we were treated to a whole day of seminars on the topic of behaviour management. Among the choices on offer, there was guidance on how to practice ‘assertive discipline’, how teachers could get involved in the ‘alternative curriculum’ and what the challenges are for children in care or foster homes. These seminars were incredibly valuable; delivered by experienced practitioners who knew what does and does not work in a classroom. At the end of it, troubled minds were eased, new ideas were hatched and enthusiasm for teaching was energised. Trouble is, everyone I spoke to felt like those seminars could’ve lasted for a week.

The truth about a PGCE course is that a year is insufficient time to train us into the teachers we’d like to be, nevermind what the schools or the state would like us to be. Sure, those who returned after Christmas are confident they can teach and are hungry to get back to it, but it’s simply not possible for us to smooth out all the rough edges, the minor flaws and missed opportunities in our teaching. The profession is simply so broad, and the requirements of trainees so numerous that there will inevitably be important areas which we never get chance to explore.

This matters because once you do qualify as a teacher, your opportunities for professional development are limited. There may be some all-day training sessions you can attend and there might be some INSET days which help departments reflect on their practice, but you don’t have the time to really dwell on your practice with peers and consider how you can make youself better. Indeed, the best option you’ve got is to return to university for further study, but if you can’t afford the fees, you’re forced to decline an opportunity which could enrich both you and your pupils.

Such is the strength of the hopes and fears we have for our children’s future, education is always one of the top issues each election year. Unfortunately, this leads political parties to become obsessive about monitoring teaching standards: the National Curriculum; SATS; Ofsted; league tables; Every Child Matters and Assessment for Learning were all intended to raise standards across the system, and yet each election finds all parties agreeing that these are insufficient metrics, and it’s time to add more.

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

It seems to me that the current obsession with raising teaching standards is reaching a policy cul-de-sac, so instead of reaching for poorly-thought-out, media-friendly soundbytes, how about we just accept that a year is insufficient for training us into brilliant teachers, and that we should either double the length of a PGCE or provide time for us to embark on the kind of professional development many of us would love to do?

Put another way, “won’t somebody please think of the children?!”

Lunchbox politics

January 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education, NHS | 2 Comments

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The process of producing a good lunchbox is one of trial and error; claim & counter-claim; constant negotiation between producer and customer. My brother and I weren’t easy customers to please. For a few years we were quite happy with Dairylea in our sandwiches, until we discovered that Dairylea was cheese, and ‘Mum, we don’t like cheese!‘ We went our separate ways after that: Jon took a shine to ham & tomato ketchup; I developed a thing for Bernard Matthews turkey slices, which she sprinkled with salt and sprayed with barbeque sauce.

But as soon as she’d solved the filling problem, then came an issue with the bread. Those thin slices of soft white bread which worked so well with Dairylea weren’t compatible with our various sauces, which leaked all over our fingers and (worse still) our clean white shirts. So she replaced it with those spongy, tasteless Warburton teacakes. Result.

But it was always the deserts which caused the most angst. Did we want Wagon Wheels or Chocolate Rolls? Jam Tarts or Fondant Fancies? Yoghurt or fromage frais? How do you keep yoghurt cool without resorting to an ice pack which’ll make your sandwich soggy? Had we been good enough to deserve a Tunnocks Marshmallow Teacake? And even if she did pack one, how could she make it so that the ruff n’ tumble of a rucksack didn’t get it squashed? Was there even any point putting a piece of fruit in there?

Were it not for love, my mother wouldn’t have bothered. Each tacky little Tupperware box we carried to school was an expression of devotion, and that she constantly evolved the menu to serve our fickle tastes was a sign that she wanted to send us to school with something from her to us.

Those who’re interested in reforming the British diet often make the mistake of talking about food as nothing but a clump of calories & carbohydrates, sodiums and saturates. Using the vast breadth of information about how our bodies work and what’s in the food we eat, they’ll explain the benefits of eating A, or why B should only be eaten only in moderation. From this information, they expect us to make well informed, healthy, rational choices.

Except that few of us look at food in such narrowly functional terms. Food can also be deeply personal – teeming with memory and emotion. I knew that black forest gateau was my favourite desert the moment I found out that it was grandad’s favourite desert. It’s also a fiercely stubborn habit: 15 years later, I still eat the crusts off my turkey sandwich first; Jon’s still making himself ham & ketchup; we still spoil ourselves with a nice, gooey marshmallow teacake.

My worry about the healthy eating lobby is that when they see that we’re not making the same self-evidently healthy, rational choices as they recommend, they feel the need to try a little harder, maybe see if a bit of state coercion will do the trick. That’s probably the surest way of getting people’s backs up and encouraging them to switch off entirely.

Some are going to reject all this nutritional advice in its entirety. Others will follow it obsessively. But I’m reasonably confident that most of us try, where possible, to incorporate it into our lives, so long as we possess the cultural & financial capital to do so, and it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of eating. But it seems to me that all these people can do without eliciting angry, defiant responses, is just put the information out there and let the rest of us decide what to do with it. Parents, in particular, have quite enough on their plates.

Picture by amanky (Creative Commons)

Blaming inclusion

October 29, 2009 at 9:22 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

When set against the context of the number of children you’ll teach throughout a school year, incidents of violent, abusive or threatening behaviour are actually quite rare. The occasions when a pupil dreams up allegations of abuse by a teacher are rarer still, and the occasions when those false allegations result in disciplinary action or a criminal conviction are even more infrequent.

That said, everyone’s heard at least one horror story about a teacher who’s been the victim to a malicious allegation. It does happen, and more can be done at school, local authority & central government level to ensure that good and safe teachers are protected from career-destroying fairy tales. Ending the atrocious policy of isolating accused teachers from contact with their colleagues would be a good place to start.

So it’s not like I’m ambivelent to or dismissive of a problem which does prey on a lot of teachers’ minds, and the general thrust of Jenni Russell’s piece on the topic is generally correct. Still, it is a Jenni Russell piece, and so every article must contain at least one moment of eye-watering idiocy:

Classrooms are becoming more difficult to manage because the policy of inclusion means that children with emotional, mental or physical difficulties are being put into mainstream schools without the extra support they need to cope.

Whether Russell is basing this on any actual evidence is unclear, but unlikely. For a start, when the DCSF asked researchers to look into the outcomes of inclusion (pdf), they found no evidence – none – of any relationship between inclusion policies and educational attainment. This means that whilst inclusion does not positively affect levels of achievement in a school, nor does it adversely affect it.

I’m also at a loss to understand what ‘extra support’ for support children with social, emotional & behavioural difficulties teachers are being deprived of. Every school in the country has someone responsible for organising provision for children with special educational needs, and they will often work with pupils, teachers, parents, social workers & psychologists to help each child achieve their best level of learning. Could there be more support? Sure, but we’d all have to open our wallets a bit more.

Admittedly, what we have now is an imperfect situation; it’s always going to be imperfect when you have finite resources but an infinite number of potential problems. But I think it’s worth remembering where we were before the policy of inclusion, which Russell blames for getting ‘violent’ teachers sacked. Before the journey towards integration and inclusion, most children with special educational needs were educated separately and as a result suffered castigation and humiliation. This meant that kids without English as a first language wouldn’t interact with their English speaking peers; that vulnerable kids would grow up lacking the confidence to fully participate in society; that children with mild disabilities would be mercilessly taunted as ‘spackers’.

If Russell wants to reverse this policy, shes’s welcome to go & vote for whoever will promise to do just that (the boys in blue might be a good bet). But the least she could do is be a bit more honest about what inclusion is, what it does, and that ending it won’t make teachers, pupils or the wider society any better off.

Ed Balls’ bungling of the Diploma

October 29, 2009 at 7:44 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Diploma BLTL

Personally, I think Barry Sheerman missed a trick when he accused Ed Balls of being ‘a bit of a bully ‘. If I were him, I would’ve asked whether he was also a bit incompetent.

The past few days have a number of bad headlines for the 14-19 Diplomas, the heavily-promoted new qualification which looked fine on Mike Tomlinson’s drawing board but has been blighted in no small part by this government’s own hubris.

In a story as striking for its gumption as its mendacity, the DCSF’s own advertisement for Diplomas has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for falsely claiming that the Advanced Diploma, which is meant to be the equivalent of 3.5 A Levels, ‘can get you into any university’. In fact, whilst there are plenty of universities which will accept your Advanced Diploma, there’s still very little enthusiasm for them in the elite Russell Group.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I happen to think that lying to young people – and about a decision as important & consequential as what subject they choose to study – is a pretty grubby act, irrespective of whether it was done by design or out of error. And we wonder why youngsters don’t like authority figures.

The second story is less shocking, but further underscores how badly the government has mismanaged the rollout of this qualification. According to the Association of Colleges, many learners are finding their Diplomas very hard, meaning that some colleges are reluctant to accept lower ability students, effectively cutting them off from what was meant to become the ‘qualification of choice’ . Parts of the qualification may need an urgent re-write.

This is bad news for two reasons. First, those students with below average scores are exactly the kind of people the Diploma was meant to help. By mixing academic work with vocational & skills-based learning, young people who had previously struggled with A-Levels might’ve found a better route to achievement & employment.

Secondly, it reinforces what has been the Diploma’s most crippling problem; its lack of credibility. New qualifications are always treated with suspicion & resistance, and that probably doubled when Balls got over-excited and dreamed publicly that they’d replace GCSE & A-Levels. He would’ve been better off keeping his mouth shut.

Not only that, but his department grossly over-estimated the number of students who would start taking the Diploma, fell 20,000 short of its target, saw it criticised for lacking academic rigour, rejected by the CBI, and then encouraged FE colleges to set them up whilst they were suffering a funding crisis. It’s been accused of being too expensive , damned for struggling to teach students the three R’s, has been incredibly awkward to timetable and accused of creating ‘SatNav students’ .

For those who see the Diploma as a potentially brilliant way of encouraging aspiration & social mobility, the way Labour has handled its introduction is dismaying. In a field so heavily scrutinised, and filled with such a diverse array of stakeholders, it was never going to be easy to bring the Diploma into mainstream education. But the gap between government rhetoric and newspaper headlines has become so cavernous that the very future of this qualification is being put at risk. A qualification will live or die on its reception from three groups: employers, universities and students. Right now, the Diploma is so tangled up in bleak headlines that none of these groups seem easy to impress.

There are, of course, exceptions to this bleak outlook, and local authorities would do well to study what they’re doing right in places like Bolton, which seems to have adapted to it incredibly well. But despite the valiant exceptions, the Diploma is still in trouble, and its future in the coming Tory government seems uncertain .

What’s become clear is that if the Diplomas turn into a failure, the blame will not fall on the people co-ordinating them, or those who’re teaching or studying them. No, the blame will fall squarely on the Department for Children, Schools and Families and its bungling Secretary of State. If that happens, being branded a bully will really be the least of Ed Balls’ problems.

About those thuggish teens

October 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

You might well have seen this already, but last week’s Guardian ran a survey of the attitudes of teenage boys and found that, in spite of the caricature, our young lads happen to be ambitious & mostly happy in their school/family/social lives. 

What did shock me, however, was seeing the extent to which this caricature dominates the media being proven with numbers:

In the survey, conducted by Echo, 78% of teenage boys said adults had a higher opinion of teenage girls than boys. An Echo survey earlier this year, commissioned by Women in Journalism, examined the language used to describe teenage boys in the media. The most common word was “yobs” (which appeared 591 times over a year), followed by thugs (254 times), sick (119), feral (96) and hoodie (60). More than 60% of the stories about teenage boys concerned crime, and 90% of these showed them in a bad light. Boys interviewed by the Guardian for a report in tomorrow’s Weekend magazine said they felt demonised by press and politicians.

Is there any wonder?

Gove & education: one last thing

October 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

I’ll quit this issue soon, but there was one other part of Gove’s speech last week which I found pretty irritating:

The body responsible for writing the curriculum – the QDCA – spends more than one hundred million pounds every year – and after hiring an army of consultants, squadrons of advisers and regiments of bureaucrats they still wrote a syllabus for the Second World War without any place for Winston Churchill.

I guess it’s always possible that he’s right. Maybe there’s some secret document doing the rounds, written by scores of ‘unaccountable quangocrats’ which does indeed remove Winston Churchill from the history curriculum. But it would have to be a secret document, because when you hop over to the QCDA’s website, you’ll actually find quite a few references to Britain’s Greatest Ever Tory. He’s mentioned here, here and here, in these guidance notes for teachers and, rather inconveniently for Mr Gove, in this rather unwieldy PDF (p22):

A world study after 1900: A study of some of the significant individuals, events and developments from across the twentieth century, including the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and their impact on Britain, Europe and the wider world.

[...]

Examples for 13: a world study after 1900 Individuals: Winston Churchill; Adolf Hitler; Joseph Stalin; Benito Mussolini; Franklin Roosevelt; Mahatma Gandhi; Mao Zedong; Martin Luther King.

So what obscure document have I dredged up for this snidey little ‘gotcha!’ post? A little thing called the National Curriculum.

Now, I don’t really expect Michael Gove to have read the damn thing – I haven’t even done that myself yet, and I’m expecting to teach. But I do think it’d be a nice if he stopped telling other people who haven’t read it that hundreds of millions of pounds are being squandered to remove Churchill from classrooms.

This isn’t to say there’s uniform agreement on Sir Winston’s prominance in history classrooms, and I happen to think that people should be able to disagree in good faith without being accused of being either elitist or practicing ‘dumbing down’. Nor should it detract from the points in my earlier post that developing skills should take greater prominance over factual recall.

But I would hope that the least we could expect from a wannabe Secretary of State was having a decent fact checker on his staff. Perhaps we should set it as homework.

The Miseducation of Michael Gove

October 10, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Education | 3 Comments

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Given where I am and what I’ve decided to do with my life, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve been casting an apprehensive eye over Michael Gove’s plans for education reform. Like many people, I’m not exactly reassured.

I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a difference between the harmless conference season patter Gove practices now and the more mundane – but massively consequential – steps he’ll take as Secretary of State. On arriving at the DCSF, he’ll hopefully be informed that most schools do, in fact, have school uniforms, that classes are often set by ability and that for all the horrid neglect of Winston Churchill in history lessons, kids are at least not being taught that WWII was won single-handedly by a smilin’ Joe Stalin. What plays well in the papers and to a conference crowd often gets forgotten or watered-down when the realities of government actually set in, and that probably holds true with these proposals as well.

But what I’ve found interesting – and very frustrating – about the past week has been what it’s revealed about Gove’s narrow, straightjacketed view of what learning is for, and how it’s best achieved.

For instance, take this list of topics Gove wants kids to be taught in history lessons. All our Greatest Brit hits are on there: the Roman invasion, 1066, the Bill of Rights, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act, both world wars (with particular emphasis on the awesomeness of a former Tory PM!) and something rather vaguely called “Modern history to the present”.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with having knowledge about these or any other areas of British (or even – gasp! – non-British) history, and it’d come in extremely handy if your son or daughter ever wanted to work in a museum or on Time Team. However, the emphasis here is on what is taught, when it should really be about what is learnt.

A few years ago, former Ofsted chief inspector Mike Tomlinson produced a report offering a vision for quite far-reaching reform of 14-19 education in which GCSEs and A-Levels would be replaced by a range of different diplomas. The suggestions were mostly ignored by the government but for two key areas: a range of diploma lines would be rolled-out (albeit very slowly), and the whole curriculum would pay much greater attention to developing skills.

It is this ‘skills agenda’ which is currently writ large on the education landscape. Under greater competition from developing economies than ever before, Tomlinson was just one of many people to identify the need for children to develop a generic, transferable set of personal, learning & thinking skills which could equip them to thrive in a jobs market that none of us can predict. The accumulation of knowledge is still important, but developing a child’s innate ability to acquire knowledge for themselves is equally vital.

These aims aren’t ‘fashionable nonsense’ dreamt up by an ‘educational establishment’ hobbled on ‘political correctness’; they were devised with the express wish of sustaining – nay, revitalising – the economic competitiveness of UK PLC.

Does the Conservative Party share these aims? If this prescriptive, restrictive list of history topics is at all representative of how the Tories view teaching, I would assume they don’t. It’s a list that reeks of rote learning; of cramming hundreds of tiny little facts in a child’s head, with less time to help them learn how to think, argue, critique, or imagine. What this kind of thing is really about is satisfying our mystifying fetish to test, test, test children into automatons.

I could, of course, be reading too much into a little list which was passed onto a curious journalist, and the Tories might be fully committed to allowing the skills agenda to flourish. Nonetheless, it’s important to ask these questions because Gove’s attack on educators was so broad, so uncharitable and so hyperbolic that it acted as though the past 10 years have been nothing but a long line of ‘fashionable nonsense’, ‘political correctness’ and miserable failure.

Such thinking would be deluded. Labour’s not got a great track record on education, but it has got some key decisions (Every Child Matters, promoting inclusion, developing skills) correct, and it’s always difficult to overturn good policy. Besides, times and attitudes have changed, teaching practices have altered, ways of thinking about teaching & learning have transformed and I suspect that Gove’s apparent intention to revisit the flawed old practices of the past will be met with even greater resistance than he currently expects. He may find, as another history-bound Tory might’ve said, that the teachers are not for turning.

Banning the BNP from classrooms?

June 23, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in Education | 4 Comments

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I doubt this’ll work for everyone, but before deciding whether or not to support some new legislation, I like to set a few simple tests. First, the proponents would need to convince me that the problem they wish to address is important enough to require legislation, that only legislation could solve this problem and that the proposed legislation will actually work.

Next, you’d have to be pretty circumspect in ensuring that the ‘solving’ of this problem wouldn’t then create a chain of unintentional negative consequences in the months & years to come, and that it doesn’t further restrict the liberty of people whose behaviours aren’t bothering or harming anyone.

By those standards, I’m not yet convinced by the recent call from the NASUWT to ban members of the BNP from the teaching profession.
Obviously, there are very good reasons why you wouldn’t want your child taught by a British nationalist: you’d have doubts about the quality of the teaching and their ability to evaluate a child’s work; you’d worry that they’d foster divisiveness in their classrooms and shove hateful half-truths into your kid’s head.

Even the party’s stock expression of outrage unwittingly reveals why a ban might be preferable. Their spokesman told the BBC: “People have different opinions, but they can leave their politics outside of the classroom.” Whilst true, that’s utterly beside the point. Teachers regularly come into contact with pupils weren’t born in this country, or whose parents weren’t born in this country, and who might only speak English as a second language. These kids are obviously going to need more help to get through school: they might require differentiated work, need a little more time to understand what’s being asked of them, or benefit from a specially-trained foreign language teacher sitting with them in lessons.

As a member of the British National Party, you’re more likely to be predisposed to hostility towards the immigrants who ‘leech’ off our public services, and this threatens to compromise your commitment to serve the public as a whole, rather than some imagined white, anglo-saxon subset. All of this could make you a spectacularly bad teacher.

Trouble is, by banning members from the teaching profession, you’re automatically assuming that their private political affiliations are inevitably affecting their classrooms. Unless it were born out with proper evidence, this seems like an assumption too far, and one which doesn’t really tally with other examples of where one’s personal beliefs come into conflict with professional duty.

An A&E nurse is surely going to resent stitching-up some self-inflicted, drink-soaked casualty when (s)he knows there’s some old age pensioner still waiting on a trolley somewhere. But that nurse isn’t then going to refuse to heal them, is (s)he? Likewise, prison wardens might be repulsed by some of the criminals under their protection, but they’re still duty-bound to stop them from coming to any harm.

Is a dislike for immigration really going to be so visceral that they’re unable to do their jobs properly? Maybe in some cases (in which case you remove them, and refuse to allow ‘but my party told me not to!’ as an excuse), but I’m sceptical that the incidence of teachers whose BNP membership makes them crap at their jobs is high enough to instigate a ban.

Ultimately, you want as few poor-quality teachers in the profession as possible, and membership of the BNP is inevitably going to raise questions about your professional integrity & judgement. But if you’re going to remove nationalist teachers, it should be for proven examples of professional misconduct, not for membership of a party which there’s no law against joining. If we’re going to beat the BNP, it’s not going to be by aping their tactics.

Which genocides to teach?

April 1, 2009 at 4:00 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Ellie Levenson asks an important question: should the Rwandan genocide be a part of the national curriculum in schools?

Since 1991, teaching the Holocaust has been a mandatory component of the national curriculum, taught in history to students between the age of 11 and 14. It can be studied again as part of the second world war for GCSE history, and there is also scope to cover it in English, politics and citizenship classes.

Yet, time and again, teachers find students respond to these classes with a belief that genocide could not happen today. Some teachers are countering this by teaching their students about the genocide in Rwanda, which started 15 years ago this April. Over a period of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were killed after the shooting down of the president’s plane sparked a campaign of violence throughout the country. There was no intervention from the international community.

Despite this, the Rwandan genocide is not part of the national curriculum. Instead, it is down to the enthusiasm of individual teachers. One such teacher is Sam Hunt, assistant headteacher at Sandhurst school, a mixed comprehensive in Bracknell Forest, Berkshire. Active in Holocaust education, she thought it was important to teach children about more recent genocides, and was invited to visit Rwanda by the founder of Survivor’s Fund (Surf), an international organisation supporting survivors of the Rwandan genocide. There, she learned about the genocide and met survivors firsthand.

More here.

NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March

Only our schools will reduce youth crime

February 24, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Education | 2 Comments

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the many shades of wrong in Chris Grayling’s big speech – not least because you’ve probably read septicisle’s strong critique and nodded/grimaced in all the right places – but I do think there are aspects of his fondness for child curfews which need addressing.

First, we should remember that the child curfew already has a long and undistinguished history as a tool for cutting crime. In 1998, Labour made it possible for courts & councils to impose curfews on children under the age of 10, but just a year later it was clear the measures were a flop and even Jack Straw admitted it was a mistake. Undeterred by the failure and apparently oblivious to all the voices who insisted it was a bad policy, the government extended the measures in 2001, this time including children up to the age of 15. They returned again in 2008 as the panic over gun crime saw Labour scrambling for more tough-sounding measures to stuff in its Youth Crime Action Plan. So Grayling’s idea would be – by my count – the fourth attempt by a government to use curfews as an effective crime deterrant. There’s a word for people who try the same thing over and over again, but expect a different result.

The child curfew always strikes me as the modern day equivalent of the ‘clip ’round the ear’; an easy newsbite which is eulogised as a means of keeping the streets safe and disciplining tearaway teens (in spite of evidence to the contrary) but completely ignorant of the economic, emotional and educational aspects which underlies their behaviour. It’s true that there are kids in this country who are troubled and who make trouble for the rest of us. Their numbers are exaggerated – even amongst working class children – but they do exist, they’re difficult to reason with and even harder to control. But one thing Early Intervention has found is that at-risk children start exhibiting signs of being in trouble when they’re in primary school, and if those warning signs aren’t detected and treated as easly as possible, then disruptive and ‘anti-social’ behaviour is much more likely later on in life. Your ability to alter a child’s behaviour and life chances at age 5 or 6 is much greater than at 14 or 15.

So if you want to be seen as serious about reducing youth crime, stop bringing out the Shadow Home Secretary to announce a few feeble, second-hand measures. Instead, bring us a Shadow Education Secretary to explain how he’ll rig the school system so that kids who exhibit signs of trouble can get the kind of help which might save them.

Farce of the day

January 24, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education | 1 Comment

File this one under ‘Colossal Mismanagement’:

One of Labour’s flagship academy schools – the first to be headed by someone without classroom experience – was branded a disaster yesterday, four months after it opened.

Inspectors paid an emergency visit to the Richard Rose Central academy, in Carlisle, where pupils were reported to be fighting in corridors and vandalising school buses.

The inspectors are expected to write a damning report, placing its future in doubt.

Teachers have threatened to strike over the school’s “weak” management and pupils are refusing to wear uniform today in protest at how the school is being run.

Now, the existence of one unmitigated disaster doesn’t necessarily prove that Blair’s famous education reforms are a complete failure – there are some which have been fairly successful. But it’s certainly a cautionary tale which proves that conscientious oversight is important. This next part has by far the most damning details:

The schools minister, Jim Knight, visited the academy yesterday, promising to do all he could to turn it around. This could include replacing its governors.

He admitted that the closure of two local schools – St Aidan’s and North Cumbria Technology college – to create the academy had “not gone well”.

Teachers’ leaders say civil servants were urged to delay the opening of the school because pupils at the two schools did not get on.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “These were totally different schools and these pupils were engaged in an underground war against each other. People had to work quite hard to keep the two sets of pupils apart.”

So in other words… they closed two schools whose pupils hated each other and grouped them in one shiny new super-academy under the leadership of someone with absolutely zero education experience.

You wouldn’t need a crystal ball to figure out what was going to happen next…

The test fetish

November 20, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Whilst I was still at university, I carried out research into the effects of testing in primary schools, and came out of it with the rather unpragmatic belief that all standardised examinations should be abolished. We’re still a long way from that ever happening, but the recent termination of SATS for 14-year-olds should still be seen as a progressive step away from testing our kids into form-filling oblivion. Here, The New Statesman carries an article by a teacher of nearly 20 years experience, explaining the damage this fetish does to children’s education:

The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children’s zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable. The root of the problem is this: the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively. At a stage in their education when pupils could be reading great literature in English, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the forces of the universe in science, they have instead been plodding through tedious practice papers and learning the wording of the relevant mark schemes. They have not been educated; they have been trained simply to jump through the hoops of the exams.

More here.

The terror of territory

October 14, 2008 at 9:10 pm | Posted in Education, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments

As part of a Rowntree Foundation report into young people, a group of kids were asked to draw pictures of their neighbourhoods showing those areas they felt safe in and those they felt too frightened to go near. The image above is one of the chaotic, heartbreaking examples.

The JRF intended to better understand what role territorality (defined as “a social system through which control is claimed by one group over a defined geographical area and defended against others”) plays in their lives, and given the increased concern about gang violence – which is largely based on territory – this is a timely intervention. The report found that territory is a concern for many young people, but particularly those in deprived areas; they protect their imagined boundaries to the point of obsession, and any ‘incursion’ could be met with ugly consequences.

The reasons for this behaviour are numerous: friendship, respect, the power inherent in thinking you ‘control’ a certain area, the fact there’s nothing else to do. Like any other social norm, it’s a generational trend, learned and imitated from the example of their older peers, and those who embody it the most are also most likely to be associated with underachievement in school, crime & other ‘antisocial behaviour’.

The report essentially concludes that this aspect of childhood & teenage experience needs a lot more work at a policy level, but any attempt to solve the problems it creates must involve a greater effort at having kids from different areas socialise with each other in safe situations.

I’d like to write about this some more when I’ve got the time, but in the mean time I’d recommend this report by Rowenna Davis, whose reporting on the problems facing the young has been exceptional.

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