Thursday, 31 January 2013

“The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

My one true wish for the future of education in the UK, or in England at least, is to see politicians removed from education. Not politics you understand, but politicians. We are in a political profession, even if we profess no party preference, or if we express that we have no political interest, those are actually political decisions.

A Department for Education, not run by elected politicians, or career civil servants, but by good educational professionals would be my Utopia. This is my presentation as part of the #blogsync initiative

I am not going to say 'Michael Gove is an idiot', because that it too easy to write, and in doing so we are not actually doing our profession any good whatsoever. We are professional and reasonable people; name calling and mud slinging do not represent intelligent thought. Like it or not he was elected democratically (don't start me on the democracy of a coalition) and in this country we don't rampage through the streets and shoot down helicopters because there is a new curriculum initiative.

However this does not stop us having rational debate and saying that what he is doing is wrong.

Like many teachers at a senior level, I have an MA. Three years of hard work in my own time, travelling up to 80 miles on a round trip once a week or so, I wasn't going to waste my time. The time I used was spent on gathering evidence, from the research of others and from my own work in the classroom. No evidence, no MA basically. There is little evidence in Gove's ideology.

The one source he has quoted, Daniel Willingham, is a cognitive scientist, not a primary or secondary school teacher, in the USA, a country with perhaps more rigid curriculum rules than our own. He has researched brain mechanisms and memory, and has dismissed the usefulness of learning styles. He appears to be Gove's guru, and the source of his obsession with rote learning and the rigour of exams.

Phonics: I am not opposed to phonics as such, it is a way of teaching reading, but not the only one. The evidence base was very narrow. A study in Clackmannanshire, the smallest authority in Scotland, is the basis for the introduction of synthetic phonics in England. Too narrow a base, in a part of our nation with a different educational system. The testing too is a political tool. The use of nonsense words, whilst enabling new language learners to show their phonic skills, actually penalised good readers who for example might read the nonsense word 'dess' as 'dress' because they want to start reading real words to make sense of the nonsense. This appears to have penalised more able readers in their scores, and impacted on schools in the 'leafier' suburbs.

Rote learning. One small aspect of our battery of teaching tools. Useful for some children, not for others. Examinations. I am not opposed to them per se, but they prove what? Memory of facts, memory of set answers. Do they prove application of known skills? Already there is anecdotal evidence from the few remaining selective schools that children are being tutored purely for the entrance examinations, and not for their school work. As a result children are going to the grammar schools with level 3 and in some cases Special Educational Needs (other than ASD and Aspergers) that such institutions have not had to deal with before. Realistically if a child is going to cope with the demands of grammar school and the competition with other pupils, they need to be going there at level 5.

Academies. Another example of double standards. Entry criteria differ for a start. Teachers do not have to have recognised qualifications, yet there is a requirement to reach a certain standard in mathematics. There has been a head appointed at the Pimlico Academy Primary Section without any educational qualification. How on earth will there be any credibility there when a qualified and experienced teacher is criticised. Roke school in Croydon, a previously outstanding school had one rogue set of poor SATS, was put into category and is being forced into academy status in the Harris chain.

Decisions about school status aren't new though. Comprehensive education was a debate from the 1960s, but even then as a sop to Edward Heath, Harold Wilson agreed that Bexley would retain its Grammar Schools.

The Curriculum. We are being bombarded with changes in terminology. Is it inverted commas or speech marks? Determiners or articles? The Government is in place to run the country, not to dictate to us the way that we speak and the grammar that we use.

Mr Gove, like so many of his predecessors, is not a teacher. It is very easy to knock teachers. Just look what the panel did on last week's Question Time on the subject of school closures, even the normally logical Ian Hislop. Criticism of the decision to close schools based not upon the considerations of the Health and Safety of the children or staff, or on the ability of the school to offer an adequate day's education, but on the inconvenience of having to take a day off work and look after your own children.

Enough knocking of Gove. At least he is an Education Secretary to remember. Apart from Ed Balls the only one I could remember without reference to Wikipedia was Kenneth Baker, and I am someone who keeps an eye in with what goes on in politics. Oh there was that woman from my primary school days who took away my free milk. Name slips my mind at the moment. Even Shirley Williams, one of the few politicians I have time to listen to, and an eloquent supporter of the comprehensive system, made sure her daughter got a place at a selective school.

The current reforms, including academies, free schools and federations of schools, may sound the death knell of Local Education Authorities. Not a bad thing some people might believe. I have heard various authorities described as incestuous (metaphorically), corrupt, short sighted, and self interested. Again politics comes into play here.

LEAs are in the firing line of Government criticism if they appear to be failing their childrren. Derby and Coventry seem to be areas where an axe is likely to fall. Other authorities too are under pressure, and inevitably someone will pay the price. The nature of political self interest though means 'blame someone else'. This is true at National and Local level, and unfortunately in some schools too as some of my Twitter followers will attest to.

Is this personal you ask? Yes it is. Previous readers of my blog will know the experience my wife has suffered. One set of poor results due not to bad teaching but to the fact that the LEA had forced children upon the school who were not going to achieve level 4s. The current year 6 will achieve good results. Three other heads were dealt with in the same way, in word for word identical situations. The quota that the LEA could say to the Government to protect themselves for a while longer. Well: this affects people. The social, economic and emotional strains that this has imposed on our family probably mean nothing to the people who made that decision. My inability to speak out to a greater extent, down to the love and trust I have for my wife, is heartbreaking.

Politics you see affects people and unfortunately that has hit us hard.

Local politicians it seems are always putting their nose into schools for their own benefit. My old primary school, I discovered recently, has the former Lib Dem candidate for Parliament, and a local councillor, as its chair of Governors, and many of my old school friends, now parents at the school, tell me the feeling is that he holds the position very much for his own self promotion. His children don't go there. He lives in a different part of town.

Unions too. You don't escape my ire. Not the people at the top. You do a good job in the most difficult of circumstances. I mean the so called activists. Active you may be, but on whose behalf. Calls for strike action, refusal to hand in plans and cover for sick colleagues! Like I said before we are professional and children are at the heart of what we do, and a single day, even a single hour wasted can impact on the learning of a child. Much of this activism is aimed at getting up the noses of Heads and the SLT, and is often lead by teachers who are themselves ineffectual. Majorities in strike ballots may be mentioned, but many members don't vote. Not because they can't be bothered, but because they remember incidents such as David Blunkett cowering in the toilets at the NUT conference to escape an angry mob. Not a nice man I would agree, but a blind man, a frightened blind man. A most embarrassing day for the profession and manna from heaven for the right wing press.

We all hold political opinions- that is only right and proper in a democratic and free thinking society, and as good teachers we encourage debate and discussion. But politics affects us all as I hope I have illustrated.

Governments change, and bring their policies with them. It would seem unlikely at this stage that the current Government will be returned in 2015, though you never know. Likely then a new agenda, possibly one very different from that of Michael Gove, a man making more change than any of his predecessors. More upset, more change.

So I would like to see a Department for Education, and local administration of schools, whatever form that takes in the future, free of politicians and political motivation, but run by education professionals, without a personal agenda, not driven by the desire to force people out and humiliate them, but with the desire to build independently minded and compassionate young minds. If this country is going to have the future leaders that it deserves, this is where they will grow from.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

We Need To Talk About Making A Difference

Back in September I mused about the effect of the Fifty Shades books within society in general, and with a few references to my own observations. Little did I know the impact this would have and my Twitter follower numbers jumped as a result. There is a wider issue to address here though. 

Domestic Violence has always been with us; so long as groups of two or more people have lived in the same place in fact. Whilst I was growing up, it was very much a subject that wasn't discussed. I remember hearing the term 'Battered Women' or 'Battered Wives' as a youngster. How patronising do those words sound now?

'Polite Society' in our very middle-class town on the Lancashire coast didn't discuss such issues like this, or divorce, mental illness or alcoholism. Going comprehensive was enough of a shock for a town with two reputable grammar schools. Sociology wasn't even an A-level option at my sixth form.

It was only when I was about to leave home for University that I found the truth about why my mother's two sisters had divorced their first husbands. Abuse had begun for both on their honeymoons; one verbally abused and belittled, the other beaten on a regular basis. This was my first realisation of the way that some men could conduct themselves. My father would never have done this to my mother; 52 years together attests to this.  Now I knew why I wasn't allowed to meet my uncles again. 

When I met my wonderful wife, she told me of how her father had treated her and her mother. Again this was something unspoken and unchallenged. His behaviour was not faced up to other than by social exclusion. Though driven by alcohol, gambling and what would probably be diagnosed now as a form of autism, the patriarchal nature of society meant that my mother-in-law was unable to leave him until after nearly 30 years of marriage when the divorce laws changed, and to allow my wife   to prepare to take her O-levels without  fear of what might happen next. 

I have never directly experienced or even seen or overheard any form of Domestic Violence, but the experience of loved ones has made be realise over the years the extent of what takes place behind closed doors. The perennial 'I walked into a wardrobe door' or 'I slipped on the stairs' is sadly a real life experience for many women. In my first real job, one young woman came into the office each Monday morning with obviously thickly applied make-up, covering bruises on her face. Her partner met all the stereotypes; thuggish, muscly from the gym, never accepting that anything he did or said was wrong. Her brave actions in eventually going to the police, together with a diary of her injuries that, unknown to the rest of us, had been kept by a very quiet and sensitive lady colleague, eventually saw a court order barring him from the house they shared and the area around our offices. 

We cannot stereotype abusers. Many are of the thuggish mentality. I have heard 'I gave the missus a good slapping to sort her out' in the pub in the past. However DVA is not a white working class issue. Abuse transcends class boundaries. There are apocryphal stories of doctors knowing where to hit so the bruises don't show, of lawyers using their professional links to protect themselves. How true these are, we can only speculate, but it happens in every town, in every social group, and it crosses cultural boundaries too. In some cultures it is indeed regarded as acceptable and in the case of the UAE legal to do so. 

If anyone was in any doubt about the nature of Domestic Violence, a viewing of Paddy Considine's wonderful 'Tyrranosaur' is advised. My wife found it painful viewing at times, but it is a portrayal of Domestic Violence and the possible eventual consequences of it. I won't spoil the plot for you, but next time it is on Film 4 or Channel 4, set your box to record.

It blows apart the stereotypes too. Peter Mullan's portrayal of the angered, raging, possibly mentally unsettled social misfit Joseph is not the abusive character that his initial behaviour suggests. Olivia Colman, always marvellous and often underrated, plays the timid Hannah who suffers at the hands of James (Eddie Marsan). They live on the nice middle class estate, where one might believe this wouldn't happen, whilst Joseph inhabits the council estate where street justice seems to hold sway. 

Nor is Domestic Violence purely a male issue. Female to male violence occurs too, the recent Coronation Street storyline telling this very sensitively. Also it affects same-sex relationships too. A dear gay friend of ours recounts a tale of being beaten by a former partner, a bit part actor in Science Fiction programmes in the 70s and 80s. 'I regularly had the shit kicked out of me by a gay Cyberman!' 

The vast majority of Domestic Violence is however committed by men against women, often with injurious or fatal results. And it isn't just physical violence too. As the nature of society changes, so do the tools of abuse. Psychological abuse, 'You're not good enough' repeated belittling in private and in public. Economic abuse through deprivation of money, comments about clothes, size, hair style. The abuser may deny that this is the case, but continual wearing down is symptomatic of bullying. In these days of social media too, when we all seemingly have access to a range of devices, Twitter and Facebook, including the use of fake accounts, the use of snooping devices and the hacking of emails is a frighteningly real occurrence. 

The issue isn't one of violence necessarily. It is about control, which may lead to violence as the only way to exert it. Many men are emotionally incapable of dealing with other men finding their partner attractive, or of facing the consequences of a break up. The beautiful young woman who was scarred for life and blinded in an acid attack is the most shocking example of that. Sadly there are others. 

Men clearly don't reveal themselves as abusers in the early days of relationships, and warning signs might not be easy to spot. What makes a man a perpetrator? That is not easy to answer, but challenging the issue before it emerges is surely one way of ensuring that the incidence of DVA is addressed. 

In my role as a primary school teacher, if we see signs of problems at home we have child protection procedures to follow. For obvious reasons I won't discuss those here. But we also have a duty to challenge behaviours that we see. I always deal firmly with boys showing aggressive behaviour to girls, and I know from teachers in other schools that on occasion sexual language is used by children as young as 5 or 6 towards the opposite sex. Our PSHE lessons address issues such as bullying and inappropriate language and conduct. Recently, in Black History Week, a child expressed admiration for Chris Brown. A reminder of his conduct towards Rihanna rather balanced out that argument. 

Whilst men are responsible for the majority of the issues of abusive behaviour, and whilst figures of the percentage of women being abused is frighteningly high, it needs to be remembered that there are plenty of decent men out there. Most are passive, and wouldn't take part in DVA but probably wouldn't challenge it. Some of us however do speak out!

We aren't knights on white chargers, or even outrageously chivalrous, but believe quite simply that DVA is wrong and shouldn't happen. We would just like to be heard more often!

Some come on Gentlemen! This is your chance. Challenge abusive behaviour when you see it. And to really make a difference ensure that DVA is not brushed under the carpet by the politicians. Sign the e-petition so it is discussed in parliament. should take you there.

So there we are! I hope this isn't patronising. It won't get my daughter her A-Level Sociology if she copies this. But this is heartfelt by someone who cares and wants to make a difference.