Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Education Education Education

This blog post is on education, something which I feel quite passionately about, and it is on something I saw over on the blog of that there Plashing Vole. I'll be analysing the initial article in a second but here it is in full: and here is Vole's reply

Let's meet the new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw!

(PS As I'm about to copy and paste, and due to the fact that Blogger is shit, my font is about to go mad. Apologies for that, can't see how to change it)

Walking through Mossbourne academy's long, high, glass atrium you have to speak in whispers, for every classroom door is left open to reveal rows of neatly uniformed children, heads-down in concentration. You could literally hear a pen drop. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Hackney-based academy's first principal and now England's new chief inspector of schools, believes every school could be like this.

Straight off the bat we have a pretty clear implication - this is the way it should be! This is the dream! As it is, I think it's junk. Nobody wants a raucous, disruptive classroom, but a classroom dominated by fear and utterly silent ain't brilliant either. The best and most productive lessons I had at school came when I was working with my friends - we communicated, we worked in teams, we could have a laugh with the teacher. School didn't seem quite so terrible when it was like that.

I don't want to over-egg this pudding because we've a lot to get through, but now that I'm sitting back and reminiscing - I remember the teacher who did quizzes for us, I remember the maths teacher who warmed our brains up every lesson with a 10-minute mathematics game, I remember the teacher who picked a student at the end of every lesson to count down whilst reciting an animal ("1,497 giraffes, 1,496 giraffes, 1,495... etc) and I remember how much fun that all was, and what good teachers all three were. On the flipside, I remember the teacher who everybody feared, who seemed to suck the joy out of everything. We sat in silence, we got out our books and we read, and woe betide anyone who spoke. That wasn't much fun, nor was it particularly productive.

Just one final point on this paragraph - the glee expressed over the rows of neatly uniformed, silent children remind me a little of Ritzer's "McDonaldization" term. Control! Efficiency! Standardization! Yay!

"There's a 'no excuses culture' here," he says. "We tell the youngsters and we tell the parents we don't care really what background you're from; it's where you're going that's the most important issue."

I'm not sure this article tells us the age of these pupils, but as it later mentions GCSE results I'm going to assume it's a secondary school. I don't know about anyone else, but I found secondary school hard at times because it was a real period of upheaval. Things happen in people's lives, and it is foolish to just dismiss them. "No excuses culture"? "We don't care what background you're from"? We're suddenly running into another worrying theme here - you don't fail. Failing is for losers, so forget about where you're from or what's going on, you pass, yeah? You fail, we don't want to know you.

But that's also bollocks. I've failed - too many times to remember. Lots of people fail things. Ever seen that Nike advert with Michael Jordan in, when he talks about how often he's failed in life? Nobody is perfect, and perhaps this is the right time to once again enquire how many times it took Michael Gove to pass his driving test. "No excuses culture"? So the kid who can't concentrate because he has ADHD - what happens to him? Rejected? The kid who comes from the broken home - because his father walked out on him and his mother- who lives on an estate where the police are round every night? Gonna despise him because his mother who works two part-time jobs to make ends meet can't afford to send him on an educational trip abroad? How about the kid whose mother has just died from cancer? He fails a Geography exam four days after her funeral - oops, sorry! No excuses here!

I promised myself I wouldn't get angry over this but I am, because two of those three examples are based on real people - people I went to school with, and it sickens me to think that they'd be branded as hopeless failures because that small thing called "life" got in their way sometimes.

The article is really long so I'm not going to analyse it in full. Let's fast-forward a bit...

The new chief inspector of schools, who took up his post this month, certainly inspires strong emotions. The education secretary, Michael Gove, has described him as a "hero"


Wilshaw has not set out to endear himself to teachers. Even before officially taking up his Ofsted post, he made a speech in which he said that in future a "satisfactory" rating by inspectors should be viewed as unsatisfactory, and that Ofsted should look at whether heads were being too generous to failing teachers when allocating performance-related pay.

'Well done Mr Jones, that's a rating of "satisfactory"....except that means "unsatisfactory". Yes, sorry Mr Jones, we can't find anything wrong with your teaching in particular, everything seems fine, yet that now means you aren't good enough and you totally suck, your pay is being docked and you are the weakest link goodbye!'

Here's the best bit folks.

A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, he added: "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."

How many times have I looked at that quote today? Possibly about fifteen times, and it still baffles and fascinates me in equal measures. Unless I'm reading it horribly wrong, Mr Wilshaw is suggesting that an "all-time low" level of staff morale is a good thing - "you are doing something right."

Hmm. Well, let's follow this one through.

The teachers in a school aren't happy. They don't like the new headmaster because he's introduced a climate of fear, hostility and unnecessary competition. Remember, under this guy's Ofsted, "satisfactory" is now BAD so teachers must strive to be the best, goddamnit we want results! I've been told by a former teacher that a staff room is a funny place as it is - where bitchiness, mutual dislike and jealously prevail - but now it's going to get worse. These people are no longer colleagues, they are now competitors. Lots of experienced, reliable and GOOD teachers can't be bothered with the hassle, so they leave after being tapped up by a private school twenty miles down the road, and are replaced by wide eyed yuppies straight out of teaching school. Some are good - let's not presume otherwise - but some aren't. Parents and students aren't happy - where did all the good teachers who knew the place inside out go? Some teachers can't cope with the increasingly hostile environment, so go off work because of stress - quick, we need some supply teachers who are notoriously bad brought in to help us out! The school gets the worst Ofsted rating they've received since 1974, parents aren't happy, board of governors aren't happy, local education authorities aren't happy = more stress and a heavier burden on teachers = the rolling stone of decline starts on its journey = staff morale at "an all-time low". Still, sounds great!

If all that sounds a tad melodramatic, you are probably right. So how about this real life example for you. My secondary school was excellent. Well respected and liked headmaster, very good teachers, healthy Ofsted reports. Headteacher left and was replaced by a man that most of the staff (I'm going on word of mouth here) didn't like. The good teachers all left, within five years the school was branded a "failing school" and the last I heard is that it's going to be knocked down and the students will be shipped off somewhere else as the school gets incorporated into another to make a "faith academy". Good stuff! Still, I imagine staff morale is pretty low right now so that's okay.

The reaction from teachers has been predictable: one internet poster compared Wilshaw to a South American dictator. "The lunatics have taken over the asylum," remarked another.

It's almost as if teachers understand teaching.

"Little things like insistence on uniform, pupils standing up when the teacher walks into the room are all important in giving structure to children's lives," he says. "We have a very long teaching day for some children – if they are falling behind we keep them back at the end of the day so that they can improve their qualifications."

Wrong again Wilshaw!

My brother is eight years old. His literacy, comprehension and reading abilities are extraordinarily good for a child his age, apparently, and an educational pyschologist told us that she's never encountered a child like him before. However, his maths isn't very good. He may have dyscalculia, and he really needs help with his maths because he struggles. At the moment, his school have provided him with a qualified person trained in all of this stuff to come in once/twice a week and help him, and his headmistress works with him in an isolated environment as well. That's all appreciated, and it is helping. But what if they decided to do those individual sessions after school? 

He's tired, he's seeing his friends leave and off to kick a football around somewhere, he's hungry because lunch was three hours ago, he's not sure why he's been asked to stay behind because for the past god knows how many years he's been told that staying after school was a punishment, called "detention". But my brother hasn't been bad, he just struggles at a particular subject. So whilst he's thinking that this is unfair, and the teacher is thinking "I've got marking to do, plan tomorrow's lessons and get ready for parents evening on Thursday, why is this kid still here now?" he just gives up. He can't be bothered, and he wants to go home. Productive?

One final thing on that bit - I'm all for the first half of that sentence. No problem with uniforms and being respectful towards teachers and headmasters. We had that at my school and it didn't do us any harm. Just the way these things are addressed in this article seems scarily sinister - as Vole alludes to, very "Demon Headmaster"-esque.

There's no disputing that the strategy has paid off in terms of exam results. Eight out of 10 gained five or more A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths last year –well above average. This year, 10 have been offered places at Cambridge.

Yet suspicions abound – could Mossbourne be attracting brighter pupils than other local schools? Certainly the academy has a wide catchment area, so it is likely to gain applicants from motivated families – currently 60% of its pupils come from within a kilometre of the school and 40% from further away.
Living where I do, this is very familiar. The school near me, Thomas Telford, takes in all the academically bright students in the area - usually white from affluent families - gives them all a laptop and incredible facilities and then boasts that its exam pass rate is excellent. Funny that.
While Mossbourne may look like a school with a tough pupil population, five minutes in George Green's says it isn't. A small batallion of helpers in red jumpers nurtures and cajoles the pupils here.
"I feel very intimidated by this government, and I'm not a woman who's easily intimidated," she says. "I don't think they understand what we're up against, and I don't think they want to.
I find it difficult to believe that a Government made up of multi-millionaires are either out of touch or don't give a shit.
Conversations with leaders in the world of education about the new chief inspector of schools are revealing. A real sense of anger is mounting, yet most aren't quite ready to express it publicly yet.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, couches her remarks in broad political terms – she's due to have her first official meeting with Wilshaw later this week. After all, she says, chief inspectors never have easy relations with the teaching profession, nor should they. But she adds that last week's announcement of an immediate inspection of Downhills, a Haringey primary school the government wants to force into academy status, leads to suspicion that Ofsted is now a political weapon.
I think I've read enough. I thought that idiot boy Gove was bad enough, but this article has made me fearful about the future of Ofsted, their motivations and their accountability. I'll be out of (higher) education soon, fingers crossed, but my brother has a long way to go yet, and I worry for him.

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