Our recent parent blog in support of comprehensive education garnered a huge amount of engagement from our followers.
So we thought we would take the debate one step further, and report on growing calls for private schools to be phased out and how to do it. Only this week the Guardian reported that there’s a proposal to get its conference in September to discuss a motion to “nationalise” private schools.
This comes after a similar initiative launched just a couple of weeks ago. Westminster hosted the first public meeting in decades to consider how best to phase out private schools. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Education Association (SEA) and drew – appropriately enough – a comprehensive crowd made up of experts, politicians and parents.
At the meeting the SEA launched a drive to encourage the Labour Party to embrace a much more radical agenda to sideline private education. This would mean doing more than the party’s current pledge to remove business rate tax relief on independent schools, and use the money to fund free school meals in all primaries.
The most forthright speaker on the panel was Robert Verkaik, the author of the excellent book Posh Boys. He argued that politicians needed to do far more – to abolish private schools’ charitable status, to encourage Oxbridge to make far more contextual offers to state school students (meaning they would be offered lower grades at A level to take account of an education less geared to getting into elite universities) and – most strikingly – positive discrimination towards state school students in key professions.
Fellow panellist Melissa Benn recounted a story about the Conservatives making similar noises a few years ago about people not being allowed to name their school on job applications, only for the former minister and current Provost of Eton, Sir William Waldegrave, to march into Downing Street and demand that the policy was retracted. The anecdote triggered groans from the audience. It tells you everything you need to know about the often privately-educated establishment, and how it maintains its supremacy.
A contrasting policy approach was put forward by Francis Green, author with David Kynaston of Engines of Privilege. They argue that the way to break the ‘pipeline of privilege’ is to ensure that a third of all private school students are from less advantaged backgrounds. It’s not clear how these students would be chosen – but it would not be on the basis of academic ability – nor whether they would enjoy being in a school dominated by students from radically different families. The school fees for this minority group would be paid for by the state. Isn’t there every chance these schools would break down into class war, given entrenched attitudes on both sides? It would make a riveting documentary, but it’s not at all clear how it would solve the private school problem.
All the speakers agreed that there was now a grotesque gap in resources between private and state sectors. Two factors were at play: in the last 20 years independent schools have hiked up their fees – aided by tax cuts for top earners – to fund five star resources. State schools meanwhile have seen a big increase in costs since 2010 with insufficient government funding to match.
One member of the audience questioned whether Theresa May had deliberately starved state schools of funds to build the case for the abolition of private schools. This was a joke question, but the fact remains that lots of politicians of all parties are beginning to see the educational apartheid we reside under in England as a major obstacle to social equity.
So what will Labour actually do? The new MP for Crewe, Laura Smith, pledged “Labour will not shy away from this problem”. Let’s see. Given that they have shied away from a commitment to wind up grammar schools under a National Education Service, one can only hope.
Perhaps the most effective way of emasculating private schools is to make non-selective education irresistible. That means funding comprehensives properly, and celebrating their diversity through a creative curriculum that gives every child the chance to develop their capabiliites. Above all, it encourages empathetic learning – listening to the view points of those different from ourselves.
It was none other than Andreas Schleicher, the inventor of the PISA international tests, who told the Education Select Committee a few months ago that the most important skill for the future would be “understanding other people’s point of view”. He also suggested that we in England are far too preoccupied by the ”top” students, and that the quickest way to improve our education system would be to focus on those who achieve the least. If that is not the death knell for private education, what is?
My daughter is a school refuser. She was diagnosed with Autism in March 2018 having suffered a mental breakdown at the end of 2017. She attended an Academy which operated a “Positive Discipline” system and before she was diagnosed she was in a cycle of negative comments written in her planner and detentions.
She was isolated 4 times in 2 years. Now, although granted an EHCP and a place at an independent school with a specialist resource, she has lost trust in the education system due to the injustice she suffered at her previous school. She feels that she kept her side of the bargain by attending mainstream despite finding it extremely difficult, until she eventually reached breaking point.
My daughter is highly academic but was punished for her autistic traits which I believe were deemed disruptive or not compliant with their discipline system.
Please sign and share this petition if you agree with banning isolation booths becasue they do not work and can be damaging for the mental health of children on the Autistic Spectrum.
Rescue Our Schools recently received an anonymous message from a parent whose son was about to sit SATS. His grandparent had sadly passed away during SATs week. The family told the school. What did the school say in response? Please delay telling your child about their grandparent’s death until SATs are over with, in case it affects their score. The parent was rightly disgusted at such a suggestion.
Over the last few weeks we have received other stories like this. Another parent told us that her child had become ill with chicken pox, but the school offered to send someone round to administer the test at their home.
The heads in these cases are giving very dodgy advice: the guidance on SATs, limited as it is, makes clear that heads in are in loco parentis. If children are upset or unwell, heads have a duty of care towards their students – in other words they shouldn’t put them in for SATs. This is a safeguarding issue. Above and beyond this, parents have the legal right to withdraw their children from school – whether that’s to avoid SATs or any other reason. They may face a fine, but we know of no case yet where that has happened.
Why do some heads do this? We all know the reasons. We have an utterly punitive accountability system, in which schools are judged by their SATs results. A couple of children withdrawing from SATs can affect their data, bump them down the league table, trigger an Ofsted inspection, and in the worst case lead to the head being forced to leave, and forced academisation or a new sponsor taking over.
No other country in the world puts these pressures on headteachers. Those pressures are passed on to staff – who can be paid according to the results they get from their class – who in turn can very easily pass it on to the children in their care. It’s only human to do this. Once you understand the high stakes environment in which heads are operating, you understand why some of them behave the way they do.
But we know from survey after survey that the vast majority of heads think SATs are damaging to both children’s education and their wellbeing. They don’t like doing them. Nor do teachers. So in this sense they are collaborating with a system they fundamentally oppose – and they have that on their conscience until SATs are got rid of.
For children this means that too many of them are suffering in so many ways. Most of the parents who got in touch with us wanting advice on withdrawing their children were doing this because they wanted to protect their children.
Protect them from the unhappiness they thought the tests would unleash. Isn’t that what any caring parent would do? Some parents had assured their children they wouldn’t be sitting the tests, only to be told at the last minute that boycotting would harm their school. With a heavy heart they sent their children to school. We know that some of those students were upset and even crying at doing tests they thought they would avoid. What kind of system is this? It’s a hostile environment not just for learning but for happiness.
We can’t carry on like this. So how do we change the system? One strategy is to encourage more and more parents to boycott SATs next year if they think this is the best thing for their child. That’s assuming this government is still in power, which is a big if. It’s worth remembering that they are now the sole defenders of SATs – the Lib Dems, Greens and now Labour all oppose them.
But a much better way forward would be for heads to come together and vote to boycott SATs en masse next year. That requires the unions to come together on this – in particular the NAHT, which has the greatest number of primary heads.
The NEU, meanwhile, has just opened its ballot on a boycott. We would urge as many members as possible to vote. Under the government’s tough new rules unions need to get more than 50 per cent of members participating in a ballot for it to have any validity. Of those, 80 per cent (yes, it’s that high) need to vote for a boycott.
The stakes are high. – just like the system we must unravel. Winning a vote for a boycott will be extremely tough. But this is a critical moment. NEU members, when you receive your ballot paper, please think of the thousands of children who are being damaged by SATs. Then cast your vote accordingly.
Too much change and high levels of pressure can be so detrimental to our children’s mental health. So I decided to look into things and see if we had any options.
For weeks now I have seen a lot of my son’s peers feel the overwhelming pressure of performing for the SATs tests, completing plenty of practice papers and getting upset that they may not be achieving the results expected or desired. I’ve seen kids turn up to school during half term for holiday clubs aimed at SATs practice, missing out on making memories with family or friends, and losing out on the chance of a well-needed break from schoolwork. All for the sake of assessing their schools’ performance. Is this really what they need, right before the transition to secondary school, and saying goodbye to a handful of their childhood friends?
By chance (or divine intervention, or fate, if you believe in either) I saw a social media post made by the group More Than a Score. They provided a bulk of information that outlined the options we had and some practical help for parents wanting to seriously consider withdrawing their child from the tests.
I started by sending a letter to my son’s school, stating that I would like to withdraw him from the tests, and welcomed any discussion. This was followed up by a brief ‘meeting’ during my son’s parents’ evening appointment, in which the deputy head just happened to pop in and tried in earnest to convince me into reconsidering. Multiple iterations of “His results are brilliant, he really is doing well!” and “He really doesn’t appear stressed with any aspect of the tests” were offered to me, but of course he wouldn’t feel stressed, because by this point we had already decided he wouldn’t be sitting them, so he was more than happy to complete any class work or home work. I firmly believe his marks on any preparation work were because he had a distinct lack of pressure. And besides, his capabilities were never a concern, he’s generally a smart kid. I explained that my disagreement with the tests were simply that there are better ways of assessing the school and their staff, and alternative ways to monitor the performance. Then I was hit with this…
“Basically, we as a school need his good marks to reflect well on us. It makes us look good”
Coming from the deputy head I was a little shocked, but I replied, “Well he isn’t a pawn and he won’t be stressed out for the sake of a league table”. I was quietly satisfied with this, and left this eye-opening parent evening.
Skip forward to the Friday before the start of ‘SATs Week’ and I receive a letter from the head, to ‘clarify the situation’. Full of references to the STA (Standards and Testing Agency) and their regulations/guidelines in respect to attendance marks, it was made clear that even if he wasn’t to sit the tests that week, he could be made to sit the tests up to 5 days after the last test was sat. He would also have to be kept away from all of his peers, and so they would make arrangements to segregate him during the time frame of the tests (both at school and home). There was also a nice mention of the fact he wouldn’t be able to attend the celebratory class meal to a local eatery with his friends, just for good measure. As if the bribery would have won him over?
At this point I reached out for some advice, as I was honestly a little overwhelmed and wanted to be clear of where to go from here. I contacted Rescue Our Schools who along with a colleague gave me some solid guidance. I wrote a reply outlining the fact he would stay home for the days which they have tests, and would be back after the last test had been sat. I also made it clear that he would have access to his friends and the internet, and so had every opportunity to gain knowledge on the test contents, and therefore would not be eligible to sit any the following week. I got no formal reply from the school, so I went on with the plan I had outlined, enjoying 3 and a half days in the sunshine and getting in some well-earned fun. He attended the first afternoon session after the last test was sat and congratulated his friends on their hard work, happy and ready to tackle the last few weeks of his primary education with his friends.
It can be really difficult to navigate your way through the decision to withdraw your child from SATs. It isn’t made easy for us, and I believe that is for a reason. Here are the main things I would advise after our experience.
1.Try to give yourself plenty of time to communicate with the school. Some headteachers may not have the information readily available, so give them and yourself time to seek out any information needed. Opening the conversation well in advance can really help you to avoid feeling rushed into making decisions.
2.Make it clear you would be happy to discuss things with the school, and remind them that you not only worry about the stress put on the children, but also the pressures for the teaching staff.
3.Clarify in a letter to the head, that you will be keeping your child off school for the days of the tests. Also include that they will have access to the internet and their friends, and so will not be eligible to be entered for the tests in the following week. This is crucial, and will prevent them from going against your wishes.
So, recently I became a tutor. I am probably one of very few who are doing this for free. I’ve never wanted to be a tutor, but I have been put in a position where I feel I can’t refuse. Let me explain.
I would like to introduce you to my student, Oliver (not his real name). He is fourteen years old and has moved schools three times in his secondary career. But he is now off-roll.
Oliver has a temper. He has answered back; he has been in fights. He accepts that. His mother accepts that. Oliver has asked for extra support to deal with the anger which only explodes inside the school gates; mum has asked for extra support to help her son deal with this volatile behaviour. He talks to her about his feelings towards school, towards his dad, towards his future. But they both acknowledge external, professional support is needed here. This, however, is no longer on offer. The focus has been on punishing his behaviour following a strict, zero-tolerance policy rather than enabling him through counselling or mentoring, for example, to understand and manage his behaviour in order to tackle those issues arising in the school context. Vital services such as CAMHS have been reduced to a bare minimum and support teams, such as learning mentors are becoming a thing of the past where once they were so essential during the school day for many students, and therefore so valued by teachers and parents.
Now, I have known Oliver for two years. His younger brother is one of my youngest son’s best mates. There is no doubt he had his guard up on first meetings. He didn’t make eye contact, he reluctantly answered questions directed his way and he quickly removed himself from the space to avoid more following. But I think this can be explained and understood. I think all his behaviour can be explained and understood. And I will say at this point that during our three tutoring sessions so far, I have seen Oliver start to trust me, to smile and to feel comfortable offering interpretations and asking numerous questions. He will say when he doesn’t know, he will have a stab in the dark and happily seek support. The ingredients surely for a model student.
Anyway, mum refused to send him to school when he was told he would be in isolation, questioning its benefit when both she and her son had repeatedly articulated their need for support, not just the same ineffectual punishment. Fixed-term exclusion was then threatened. At this point, she’d had enough. This was the last straw in what she felt was a losing battle. His mother, holding herself together, asked if I would tutor him a few weeks ago, but the tears in her eyes gave her desperation away. She is a single mum with an ex-partner who occasionally makes an appearance, offering little support and no regular, reliable parental input. She is studying full-time to achieve her dream of working in the health sector whilst also working as a care-worker to pay the bills, including the rent for their small flat above the shops on the local high street, and, of course, she is bringing up her two sons.
I have only heard her side of the story, but I fear that I have heard the other side of the story via reports exploring the off-rolling of vulnerable students in the media. If you watched Dispatches a few weeks ago on the subject, you will have seen children with ADHD and autism amongst other special educational needs, sitting at home with parents who, as one said, had felt ‘like a burden to the school’. Oliver’s mum said to me, ‘I can’t keep fighting.’ She talks a lot about the system, about feeling pushed around by ‘It’ and how ‘It’ doesn’t listen to her. So, now her son is sitting alone on his laptop in a small flat and she is paying a weekly fee to an online tutoring company to prepare him for his GCSEs. His visit to my house once a week is his one excursion in education and during my time with him, it is evident that this boy needs school.
He is becoming socially isolated. One of the triggers for his behaviour many years ago was becoming the victim of ongoing bullying. Initially, he fought back as instructed by dad. He got in trouble. He was then told not to fight, so he stopped. But the bullying didn’t stop. Now, he is able to hide away. He feels safer, but he is becoming a recluse. On leaving my house when we first discussed our plan for English tutoring, he was concerned because it was 3pm and he might bump into his friends on the bus. This was alarming to hear from a fourteen-year-old boy. He should be on that bus, travelling home from school, sharing grievances and speaking irritatingly loudly, as all good teenagers do.
His cultural capital is low. When discussing the Power and Conflict poetry cluster for GCSE English poetry, he couldn’t distinguish between the two World Wars. When I told him I had visited Auschwitz in Poland, he asked if the people were mean to me. I suggested that his mum took him to the Imperial War Museum over the half-term break and visited the exhibition on the First World War to support his understanding of the poetry we had read so far. They did. Mum was absolutely fascinated by what she saw and when I asked him about the experience, he responded with a suitably fourteen-year-old, ‘Yeah, it was okay.’ It was great to see her acting on advice, but I am so frustrated and angry as I witness this. Home-schooling is usually a choice made to offer something different from the mainstream; a desire to deliver a learning experience which is free from the limiting criteria of government-led measures. In this case, mum wants him to continue receiving mainstream provision but without the resources or the know-how. This boy needs to be surrounded by educators who exude passion and excitement for their subject and the act of learning, and of course know how to get their students to the finishing line. There is not a child in this world who does not want to feel excited about the world. But if you are made to feel like a burden or you have to fight a battle to earn your place within the school walls, I guess learning loses its magic and its appeal. Mum hasn’t chosen home-schooling. No, in this situation, it’s a choice based on a need to escape.
Amanda Spielman expressed her concerns last year about the astounding number of students who between year 10 and year 11 disappear from school data. For example, 13,000 year 10 students in 2016 had disappeared from any state funded school league table results by the end of their year 11 in 2017. Spielman commented on the need to bring this conversation into the framework so Ofsted inspectors can discuss the role of ‘pressures that unquestionably act on schools’ and result in the poor management of our more vulnerable students.
Now, Oliver appears to be a statistic in need of urgent discussion. He is in a London school and this increased pattern of off-rolling has been felt most noticeably in the capital. He also attends a school which was taken over by a Multi-Academy Trust, and the data suggests that students are being removed from more academies within these trusts than in Local Authority Schools. In fact, it is the latter which often opens their doors to those removed from these academies. But in more and more cases, we are seeing students being home-schooled as parents can no longer take the stress of defending their child’s needs and don’t want to feel like a ‘burden’. In some cases, there have been reports of coercing parents into removing their child by suggesting home-schooling may be a more appropriate option, but in Oliver’s case, the school has remained passive and simply allowed the parent to remove their child from the school roll. What has become the last resort by the parent to rescue their child from feared mental health breakdown and themselves from the inevitable feeling of being the parent who failed, has, for the school, become an easy means of shifting students with more challenging behaviour away from their league table results.
Who are the winners and the losers then? The school for one is a winner, as their Progress 8 data will be all the better for losing a student who might not succeed within their walls. The tutoring company is making a nice little profit from a woman who cannot really afford to pay this weekly bill. I suppose I get a little insight into the boy Oliver really is, which is a pleasure for me but, ultimately, I would rather a team of school teachers were experiencing this. I am encouraging mum to write to her MP and demand her support. I have made it very clear that I will tutor him for now, but this is not the long-term solution. An alternative must be found which will see him thrive academically and socially.
The losers? Well, this is obvious. Mum is stressed. She now has the teacher role and I worry about conflict building between the two of them as they sit and study together within the confines of their small living room. Will this impact negatively on the one relationship he has always had absolutely faith in? And of course, Oliver. By the age of 14 years, he believes he is a problem. He has been told by teachers that he is intimidating because he is a ‘big, black man.’ He’s a boy. A boy who has now been told, ‘Your race is going to be your issue, watch yourself’. Mum is scared to let him out now as this concern is at the forefront of her mind. So, he studies online and spends the rest of his day gaming. His world is a small flat and the virtual world he escapes to. But, ironically, he is not alone in his seclusion. There are many children across the country isolated within their homes, growing up feeling to blame for their behaviour, their special educational needs, their anxieties, their inability to fit in to an ever-decreasing set of criteria.
Every educator knows that every child who enters your space brings their mood, their concerns, their baggage so to speak. But we are told when trained that within those walls we have a duty of care, we are in loco parentis for those few hours. Policy makers must think carefully about the wider social impact of educational practice resulting from reforms; they must question priorities and consider the long-term social implications of their decisions. And let’s consider what we must prioritise here: performance measurements and league tables or our obligation under international law to guarantee a good quality education for all?
Halfon calls for the scrapping of GCSEs. Parents, is it time we push for bold yet beneficial reform?
For many years now I have been telling my long-suffering partner that if I was the Head of Education for the world – or at least England – I would scrap GCSEs. My reasoning has always been the stark difference in attitude towards their studies between a 15 or 16-year-old and an 18-year-old. For those secondary school teachers amongst us, I have three questions: firstly, how many phone calls have you made home regarding under-performing year 11 students since September? And how many times have you had to rampage across the playground during lunchtimes and after school to find year 11 students who need to catch up on missed work? And how many nights sleep have you lost worrying about year 11 students not being ready for those all-important dates in May and June when they must demonstrate everything they have ever learnt in your subject?
I remember watching a year 13 boy, Rami, presenting at a non-compulsory after-school media workshop in his tie and v-neck sweater. I remember watching him and thinking, “You used to run teachers ragged! The hours you have clocked up during your school career sitting outside offices for all the wrong reasons…and now look at you!’ You see, throughout Key Stage 4, teenagers, especially boys, start to shoot up in height: gangly limbs are knotted under desks, backs slumped as they can’t quite work out how to comfortably house this new lofty physique in a classroom for an hour-long lesson. Their adolescent brain is still battling with huge physical and chemical changes, but more importantly, they have got to remember, amongst numerous other content details, how Ted Hughes and Wilfred Owen use language, form and structure to present a soldier’s life in war.
But two years later, that spindly, awkward figure that stumbled over what felt like its own clown-like feet into your classroom, has now broadened and matured. They move with greater ease and confidence, and they are taking themselves seriously. They talk about their futures; they are keen to discuss UCAS applications and want your opinion on whether that choice most suits the person they think they probably want to become. Decision-making is more fascinating, relevant and more vital. So, this why I have always proposed (quietly) the culling of GCSEs.
It was therefore no surprise that I was happy to be a guest on Victoria Derbyshire’s show this week discussing Robert Halfon’s call for the scrapping of GCSEs. Of course, my above argument was not on his bullet point list justifying his stand for a holistic baccalaureate at the age of eighteen in place of cliff-edge assessments at sixteen, but I have to say I am very much on board with the bullet points he did present.
We have to recognise that a knowledge-rich curriculum is not really serving the needs of this generation as they look towards their futures. I attended a debate a few years ago on this new curriculum, and I remember a key and controversial figure in education saying in support of it, ‘Even if they fail, at least they can be in the job centre and say “I know these things”.’ How alarming. To even in your mind, be content with our children’s future unemployment. And to think listing the kings and queens of England and the ability to perform Macbeth’s speech from Act 1 scene 7 for the employees of your local job centre will wow them into fixing you up with that supervisor role at the local depot is deluded. They might, however – though possibly moved by your performance – be more interested in your ability to communicate effectively, or maybe in your problem-solving skills and ability to act on your initiative in the scenario of ‘systems down’ and the like.
But wouldn’t it also be exciting for our children to be able to explore a greater range of subjects for longer? To not be tied to a pathway at the age of thirteen, but to spend more time in a curriculum which allows access to the academic and the vocational, to experience the creativity in every subject. I remember hearing Alex Bellos decrying our current focus on the ‘academic’ subjects and the ‘creative’ subjects. For him, a mathematician, his subject is infinitely creative. When you study Maths at university, the right and the wrong, the ticks and the crosses are nowhere to be seen, as this subject is inherently one of exploration. If only I had been told this at five years of age, I might not have spent my Maths career trying to avoid lessons and ticking off days until that GCSE was done, and Maths was no longer part of my life. But, of course, it is. I was just never taught in a way which encouraged me to understand how I might apply my Maths skills daily. Instead, I spent my lessons trying to be invisible for fear of being wrong!
And I see my children experiencing the same fear and so I ask myself, ‘Shouldn’t we have moved forwards in our view of education and its purpose?’ The EBacc is out of date. Where are we going to stand in the world, in the era of the fourth industrial revolution with a generation who are ‘knowledge-rich’ yet stressed and lacking in the essential skills? How will our future surgeons cope when, as I was recently told, our medical students can’t sew? A leading surgeon at Imperial is bringing in seamstresses and magicians to teach sewing and the skill of reading body language. What is going on when Kenneth Baker, the man responsible for the introduction of GSCEs is openly saying scrap them? He calls for a ’knowledge-engaged’ curriculum. Knowledge is wonderful to have but it’s not enough on its own. The application of knowledge through a range of well-developed skills is surely much more ‘rigorous’ than simply being able to spout facts. And let’s face it, if you have Alexa or Google Home sitting on your sideboard, they will do that for you. But they definitely can’t read your body language.
I welcome this new debate. If we are going to have anything to offer the world, future generations need to be able to problem solve and negotiate and be more than a piece of AI. And surely we want to make education feel valuable as an experience. I fear, in this country, we see education as something we ‘get through’ before we start to live – I certainly did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students were excited to enter school because the language of success and failure had become obsolete in the pursuit of a journey towards the person you want to be. A holistic approach, removing the weight of assessment at the age of sixteen years, could actually refocus the purpose of learning: students will be asking ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I get myself there?’ rather than ‘how do I remember everything for June?’ and ‘What’s the point of this?’ Sounds better, doesn’t it?
This may sound uncharacteristically heartless, but I was so pleased, though the context is horrific, to read Brian Walton in the TES expressing the prevalence of fear in his working life these days. It’s horrifying to learn it is the emotion which keeps him ticking. He states, ‘fear will become a strength’, and you know I get incensed by the role of resilience in the survival of students, teachers and school leaders in our education system. But it is so important to hear the truth spoken candidly, and I do think we, as parents, need to start expressing our fear too.
Our children are growing up in frightening times. Let’s face it, the discourse on climate change has ramped up dramatically in recent months, let alone years. I was in California this summer and witnessed apocalyptic scenes. Obviously, access to areas of fire danger were closed, but the suffocating air and the ash landing on us as we walked home was nothing less than disturbing. And then we have Brexit and increasing social division; Britain on the brink of…no one actually knows what. I can safely say I fear for my children and what their future will look like. But it’s hard to find solace in ‘the system’. And that probably comes back to fear once more.
I think it is time for a parental revolution. I fear my children becoming quiet, compliant cogs in this fear-ridden system. I fear they will not know how to raise their voices, to protest and state their rights to a future which is safe, secure and full of possibility. This is why I call for a parental revolution. We have to model this behaviour and we have to demand better for our children before it is too late for their generation. Let’s start with their right to a rounded, valuable education which prepares them all appropriately for adulthood in the 21st century.
The first thing we need to stop doing is accusing the ministers at the Department for Education of having their heads in the sand or for ignorance of the realities, the crisis which is of course well and truly evident to anyone looking at the status quo objectively. Yes, we are run by the elite, who have always lived in their bubble, but they are fully aware that they are stripping schools of resources. They are fully aware that schools are struggling across England. They are fully aware teachers are either leaving or hanging on by one finger to that cliff edge. And that leaders, such as Brain Walton live their careers in a perpetual sweat elicited by fear.
Policy today is about minimising the state and pushing for the privatisation of all public services. Let’s face it, if Conservative MPs have the audacity to be pictured celebrating the good work of food banks, they will happily accept the struggle of anyone and accept that for many, their lives are in a state of absolute crisis. Of course, they will not use these words themselves! They are not fools! They are not going to commit political suicide. They will just wait. School leaders and teachers will battle until the very end, until they have to stumble out of their crumbling reception doors with their white flag of surrender leading the way. The government ministers will be ready, having twiddled their thumbs for months, anticipating this moment, and then they’ll make the call to one of their booming academy beasts and the corporatisation of the defeated institution will begin. Now, the teachers may well have gone on strike, for weeks, months. One secondary school in my borough experienced months of two-day school weeks as the teachers attempted to stave off their school’s imminent take over by one of these beasts. They failed.
Geoff Barton once wrote that it will not be until the ire of parents is felt that the policy makers will listen. I agree. Look at places where parents have fought. Newham for example. It’s when the parents activate and absolutely refuse to accept what they are being ‘sold’; when parents come back and remind the powers-that-be that they also are not fools, that they understand the agenda and stand their ground. It is then that it works. I call for more of this in 2019.
Let’s also consider the diet we are being offered. Remember this whole policy was sold on parental choice, on the empowerment of our voices in the system to create learning opportunities for our children, to be able to create a system which we determine rather than have imposed on us by the ‘evil state’. Today, parents are not involved in the creation of schools. This was always going to fail, but report findings this year tell us we have business leaders opening our schools. Our children are being led through a system which has been corporatized. Our children are becoming homogenised under a brand name, with a tag-line such as ‘Reaching beyond your grasp’. And it is within these homogenised, ‘one size fits all’ contexts that we see the increased application of zero-tolerance behaviour policies, the increased reliance on isolation rooms and increasing exclusion statistics amongst the most vulnerable members of our school communities. I was talking with a fellow ex-school teacher today and we were commenting on the reading of student’s behaviours; how we could see if things were slightly off-kilter as a student entered our classroom, and how we, as teachers, would adapt our behaviour and attitude, even our lessons to ensure those students avoided conflict and instead were offered space in which to settle and find focus. But schools aren’t so much about communities any more, they’re about the growth of corporations.
Our children enter a school and they have to wear the same outfit, carry the same bag and have the same haircut. This is always sold under the ‘equality’ banner. I don’t buy that. Uniform has never ever hidden poverty in my experience. And let’s question why we want to hide poverty, why we want to hide diversity, why we want to hide individuality. Is it to stop the debate on what real social justice looks like? Is it to stop giving voice to those who might realise they are the have nots? And is it to create a generation of ‘Yes Men’ who won’t question the status quo in times of terrifying flux? Are we creating a generation who can successfully manage the very uncertain future of our planet? Are they going to be able to stand up and raise their voice above the crowd to right a wrong? I fear not.
I urge all parents in 2019 to start campaigning, to start asking why things are happening in their children’s schools; to demand inclusion in the improvement of their local schools; to refuse to allow corporate voices to overrule those of the community; and most importantly, to not allow the government the excuse of ignorance. Let’s stop our schools being places within which our children are uninspired data columns, lost in a crowd of neat back and sides and tartan skirts, but, instead, places where they find their individual voices and learn how to be the change tomorrow will so desperately need. It’s over to us if we really want to get this ball rolling. If we all make the same resolution, could there be a revolution of ‘the system’ in 2019?
How devastating it was to read the comments written by followers of Rescue Our Schools on an article about age being no barrier to good teaching. Teachers in their fifties vulnerable to redundancy, teachers in their fifties working on zero hours contracts for agencies, their teaching input now limited to covering for others. What a complete and utter waste of talent and experience! From whom do new teachers learn these days? Whose wealth of experience can they tap into? The Head with ten years teaching experience? Well, not really ten years as their teaching hours would have been cut down as they stepped into management in year two! This blog is dedicated to all those teachers over the age of fifty whom I was lucky enough to meet on my journey and have inspired and nourished my ability in the classroom and my love of teaching.
On a recent tour of my local secondary school which only opened three years ago, my friend who accompanied me commented, ‘The teachers are very young!’ Our year nine tour guides informed us that only three teachers remained from the first year of the school’s inauguration. So young teachers and a high staff turnover. Nothing wrong with young, enthusiastic teachers, of course, but oh for the teacher who can walk into a classroom, with no PowerPoint primed or lesson plan clutched in hand, but the ability to teach off the cuff; to walk in and bring knowledge and skill to the learning space!
When I was an NQT, the department I joined was a source of great wonder and entertainment. I received very little practical support but what a whirlwind of teaching characters I was thrown into! Meetings were fabulous. Tension always high and arguments allowed to run. There was an ex-couple in the department who used these moments to spit venom at each other. Mr Bennett (or Mr B to me) would always leave the meeting on the dot of 5.30pm in line with union rules, no matter what discussion was full flow.
I remember an Assistant Head Teacher coming to one meeting to do some training on the Accelerated Learning Cycle, which was to become the template for all our lesson plans that year. I had already had this training in my NQT induction and in the initial staff inset of my first year, but once again I had to hold one fist aloft and wrap my hand around it to initiate my kinaesthetic appreciation of the brain’s structure.
Now, Clive had no time for this. ‘I’m not doing it,’ he stated boldly, leaving the AHT dumbfounded. This was a school initiative which we were all to apply immediately in our planning. But Clive was Clive. He was a maverick. He had taught PE and was now a fabulous English teacher. I remember walking past his classroom once to find he had moved all the desks out of the classroom, because he had gone off plan suddenly and his students were building an escape route for the characters in their current text. He came in on my request to team teach my challenging year 10s for a lesson, as I wanted to tap into his behaviour management. A group of boys who were testing me to the end of any tether I could find, sat like obedient puppies in awe of his presence. When he was funny, they laughed, when he was unimpressed, they retreated. He reminded me of Mr Montgomery, my year 4 teacher when I was a child. I barely took my eyes off him and waited to hear his voice, as whatever he said was going to be worth my full commitment. The energy they both brought to their learning space was absolutely electric. Every word was heard and lapped up.
Then there was Mr B. He was in his early sixties and the school was getting twitchy about his inability to manage certain classes. He was struggling with challenging year 7 groups, but let’s face it, why should he have had to? He’d given the school years of his energy, commitment and incredible subject knowledge…why not use him in a way which would benefit him and the school? The sixth form had opened recently, and he was the most perfect recruit for teaching English Literature A’ level. He was the man to intervene and support the most able at GCSE to assure those top grades were hit. I shared a year 12 form group with him for a year and listening to him advise on UCAS applications and career choices was formidable. With examples and references, he would subtly support students to make sensible choices, not, for example, to apply for Medicine when their grades weren’t letting them near such a course but to consider who they really wanted to be. By the sixth form they listened. They wanted to hear more from Mr B. But the school appeared to want rid. They gave him more challenging year 7 classes. He struggled. And he retired before he could really afford to. I remember writing in my card to him; ‘You are a man who thinks so far outside the box, you cannot even see the box.’
In the past couple of weeks, I have been dealing with a student who is struggling with life. I teach adults now, but vulnerabilities are still alive and potentially lethal. He was withdrawn from his Maths class due to his recent haphazard attendance, but I argued against this action in English. He needs this GCSE. And to be honest, before this episode he’d been a wonderful asset to the group. Bright, interested and full of contributions. This could be the turning point for him in a chaotic life; a life he wants to understand and control. I had a meeting with him and one of the senior team to defend his continuation in my class. In the meeting, he declared that his commitment to my lesson was 100%. He likes my energy. For him his English lesson was a light in a dark place. And my energy mattered. For me, if I can get this student to the end of the year, despite possible hurdles he has to battle over and around on the way, that is proof I have done my job. He may send my attendance statistics into freefall but if he falls, I want to be there when he scrambles to his feet, with a nineteenth century text to annotate, ready to keep him moving towards that exam date. That’s what teaching is about, surely? And this is what I liked about Clive’s teaching. He brought himself into that space, commanded it, and welcomed the students to join him in this experience. Maybe I’m a bit Clive too.
John Hattie, a leading Australian academic who has been researching the impact of key factors on learning outcomes for many years, found that Collective Teacher Efficacy is at the top of the list. As Jenni Donohoo comments in her blog post on the topic, ‘Educators with high efficacy show greater effort and persistence, a willingness to try new teaching approaches, set more challenging goals, and attend more closely to the needs of students who require extra assistance’ (The Learning Exchange, 2017). If a school’s teaching community shares this approach, behaviour improves and students’ own expectations of their performance rise. This is why you need an age diverse workforce. The new teachers are fresh, enthusiastic and put the hours in, and those with twenty or thirty years of classroom experience still bring enthusiasm but also a wealth of tried and tested practice; they have stories to tell; case studies to share. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today, one who stands my ground and questions the benefit of a tick box culture, the culture Mr B couldn’t navigate, if I hadn’t worked alongside Clive and Mr B in my early years of teaching. They may be more expensive, but they are worth their weight in gold.
You know the closing scene of the 1970 film, Scrooge, where the people of London are kicking their legs out in front, behind and to the side, as they follow the reformed Ebenezar? Their thumbs looped around their waistcoat lapels or apron straps, elbows lifted jauntily? Well, I’m imagining that’s what was happening around the streets of Westminster this week, following Philip Hammond’s budget. Mr Hammond obviously leaping and skipping out front with delighted, grateful teachers at his heel in awe of his generosity. They can now afford those ‘little extras’ they’ve been whingeing on about forever! ‘Thank you very much, thank you very much, that’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me…’
Whiteboards and computers apparently are now going to adorn every classroom of every school nationally. ‘Technology, sir, we can ‘ave some technology?’ My concern, however, is that over the past years I have been reading about schools sending letters asking for contributions to enable them to buy toilet paper, schools where children are unable to play in the playground as it the surface is deemed too lethal to do so, and of course teachers increasing use of their own money to provide resources and even food for their students, struggling in this era of austerity. Before the Building Schools for the Future policy was scrapped by the Coalition, my school had been due to receive funding to revamp their dilapidated main building. It was later awarded enough money to clad the school and hide its crumbling interior. As a colleague commented on this announcement, “Nothing like rolling a turd in glitter!’
And once again, we see our current government give a cynical nod to the grievances shared by our dwindling teacher workforce. ‘Go buy yourselves something nice, and wipe those grumpy faces away with a little retail therapy, princesses!’ might well have been how he presented this on Monday. Let’s be very clear here, when you’re trying to wash your hands of something, you don’t go out of your way to rescue it. And we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into their trap; the one which furtively transfers financial responsibility for education into our little individual hands, leading to the further social division encountered by our students across the nation, and providing only something very rudimentary for the poor at the bottom of that trickle I’ve mentioned before.
An example. My children attend a very middle class primary school, with lots of parents investing fully in their children’s education and development. No problem with that obviously. But what has happened in this era of cuts is that we, as a parent community, are willingly making up the financial shortfall experienced by the school. Over the summer, a learning pod was built, added on to the music and art block…yes, the arts and sports are flourishing at our school. The money for this building came solely from fundraising by the PTFA. I believe one fundraising event last year, a comedy night, garnered wealth into the thousands. Tickets cost £15 each, raffle tickets were bought by the page, and drinks flowed. And this was only one event! Now parents will, quite rightly argue, ‘But we care!’ And they absolutely do.
But I felt so guilty sitting there that night. I know for a fact that primary schools in parts of the borough where I’ve taught would have no means of achieving this. They do not have PTFAs; they couldn’t throw money at such events; they don’t have parents with the connections, the social capital, to actually put on a comedy night. They can’t rescue their school from the Conservative’s distaste for state education. The school therefore cannot build a learning pod! But they do also care. They are trying daily to maintain the basics for their students, students who really could do with accessing such glorious resources as a learning pod, rather than watching their teacher gather pens and pencils with the demeanour of someone discovering gold.
Philip Hammond and his colleagues in the cabinet are sending a very clear message: if you want better, you pay for it. If we do start throwing money at only our children’s education, then Mr Hammond, Mr Hinds and Mr Gibb can sit back, put their neoliberal feet up and watch the social groups divide even more into the haves and have-nots. What we see now is individuals being encouraged to pay their way to success whilst whole communities are allowed to flail.
The Labour Party introduces its manifesto for a National Education Service with the statement, ‘When it fails, it isn’t just the individual that is held back but all of us.’ Absolutely. We must see ourselves as a national parent body, not only as the parent responsible for those children in our households, or for those in our kids’ school communities benefitting from our raffle ticket purchases, but for every single child who walks through a school gate five days (hopefully not soon to be four) a week.
Scrooge is asked if ‘it is more desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute’. His answer? “Are there no prisons?….And the union workhouses – are they still in operation?’ Will it be long before these words are echoing within the walls of the House of Commons?
Parents, our children are in the hands of careless money-makers and political agendas. Isn’t it time we demand change?
This week you’ll find my blog takes quite a personally political journey. My politics are very left leaning but I am also very angry with this current government as I witness the impact of their policies furthering the hardship suffered by those already battling on the invisible periphery of our society. These are my opinions based on my observations and I invite all to comment, to engage, to discuss where we find ourselves today, how we feel about it and most importantly, what we want done about it.
I have a new job in adult education. On my way to work I pass the Grenfell Tower. Today a tall white tarpaulin structure supports the weakened skeleton beneath and hides the devastation of that night. The green heart, chosen by school children local to the area, symbolising their love for those they lost, adorns the top section of this otherwise clinical memorial. It is hard not to be moved every time I trundle past on the daily commute. It’s hard not to be ashamed that this actually happened in London, in 2017, in a borough which hosts some of the world’s wealthiest people. But what is particularly unforgivable is how the residents had complained over and over again, fearing it would only be when a tragedy occurred that the powers-that-be would listen to their voices. Unforgivable but unsurprising.
Why am I writing about this, you may wonder? Because it is a physical representation of how broken the ‘system’ has become as the neoliberal project powers full steam ahead here in the UK. Money rules. If you can save a pound here or there, apparently it is okay to view human life as collateral. We have a government that endeavours to turn all aspects of social care and provision over to private providers. Whether it be the cladding of social housing or access to good education, ‘bidding’ and ‘tendering’ have become the language of our human rights. How about ‘Everybody’s right to life shall be protected by law’ (European Convention on Human Rights, Article 2)? Anyone? Who’ll start the bidding? Or how about: ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29)? Of course, the neoliberal line is all about freedom, but freedom for whom in this trickle-down economy? Certainly not those living in Grenfell Tower. Their freedom of voice was ignored at every turn in their battle for the legal right to life. Must they really wait for that trickle to enter their neighbourhood before they earn that freedom? Meanwhile, no money, no power.
The Grenfell fire came out of the same neoliberal agenda as our current education system. The shutting down of parents’ voices in education by the loud and affluent men at the heart of our children’s education, Lord Nash, Lord Agnew, Lord Fink (anyone spot a pattern?) and their millionaire buddies, is leading to the catastrophic failing of schools to provide the right to education for every single child. Not every child is guaranteed safety in their home, nor a chance to thrive under this government. But do our leaders care?
Not really. People really are an encumbrance to our government. Remember Theresa May’s apology for her poor response to the Grenfell community on the anniversary of the disaster? Stating she regretted not meeting them, she has gone on to not meet them. Her apology took place in the safety of an interview with Sky News. The carelessness and cynicism with which our government treats those it is supposed to serve is unconscionable. That apology is meaningless. It’s offensive. But maybe it’s meant to be. These people demanding action and support from the State really are trying their luck when they know they must wait their turn…you know, for that trickle to reach them.
If we needed more evidence of the cynical treatment of our children under this government, we can look to Damian Hinds every time. He views everyone he has responsibility for, students, parents and teachers, as liabilities. I’d like to draw your attention to a quotation from last week’s TES regarding the recent reports on the impact of the new GCSE assessment on students’ well-being. Findings from research carried out by NEU, ASCL and Rescue Our Schools have suggested categorically that this is an urgent matter of concern to be dealt with at the highest level. Mr Hinds responded:
“Having, for most subjects, the exams at the end of the period also enables you to think, to consider all the different aspects of the subject together and, in turn, then helps you if you are going on to A levels for those that are, to go on for that, and then for those going on to university, but of course GCSEs are there to help you prepare for whatever your next step is.”
It’s rather like when you pick dropped food up from the floor and you okay its consumption with ‘a bit of dirt never hurt.’ There is no substance to this answer. Some bits of dirt actually probably do hurt, as does the introduction of retrograde policies. The uproar and controversy this return to 100% examination has caused is widespread. The stress amongst students is leading to increased levels of anxiety and both parents and teachers are shouting out their concerns. But Mr Hinds brushes this off with the glibbest statement ever: bit of thinking, great for A levels and university, oh yeah and for those others.
Those others. Again, we see those who don’t fit the government’s agenda being brushed under the carpet. They’re not important. They don’t need thinking about. I am not happy as a member of the London community to see any child in my city be swept under the carpet. I will get my children through, one way or another, but I cannot stand the thought that it’s not the responsibility of the State to ensure every child actually lives to adulthood and is allowed to prosper. I have seen children arrive in year 7 full of aspiration and dreams and watched them realise by year 10 that they aren’t the ones that matter, and they start to slip from your hands.
I remember, with great frustration and sadness, one of my year 11 boys becoming homeless in the run up to his exams. He was so clever, undoubtedly a Russell Group university candidate, but his controlled assessment folder was incomplete, his attendance was poor and his behaviour volatile. Prison was also another possible destination. Living in a hostel with his two sisters and hardworking mum, his school work was not his priority. He became passive and withdrawn, both physically and psychologically. If challenged, he exploded. As his English teacher and one of his heads of year, I made it my aim to make him feel safe in my space. He finished his controlled assessments – and believe me, his creative writing was stunning in its craft but also its visceral emotion. I did cry. Unfortunately, he was placed on a fixed-term exclusion for swearing at another teacher. At his ‘return from exclusion’ interview, he apparently sat silently until he was asked to offer his opinion regarding his attitude going forwards. He simply responded with a number of the most hardcore expletives. He was permanently excluded so spent the exam period locked in a room in a hostel, revising. This broke my heart. For me, that was a shout out from a young person, to see if anyone was going to care, if anyone was going to grab his hand and get him through. The system instead just confirmed for him that he actually doesn’t belong within it. Where he is today, I don’t know, but I’m going to guess he’s not about to enter the doors of the university he is so academically suited to.
Let’s be very clear, this government seeks to wash its hands of education. It seeks to strengthen the market to create competition between ‘providers’ (in the old days these were known as ‘schools’) and ultimately privatise education. The responsibility for failure is no longer theirs. Any offer it therefore makes is not to nurture the system but make it vulnerable to those with pound signs in their eyes. Panorama’s report this week on the Bright Tribe Academy Trust could not have exposed more clearly how schooling has become vulnerable to profiteering at the risk of our children’s learning, but also their lives. Fire doors not fitted, ceilings not secured nor fire safe, despite grants worth thousands of pounds handed over unquestioningly by the Department for Education. Where is our money? Whose bank accounts is it now in? Why are our children allowed to enter these lethal buildings? If the CEO of a trust needs a lawyer present to talk about their provision, it’s time, surely, to put a stop to this policy and bring education, our human right, back into the hands of the democratically elected local government; accountable to the government, accountable to us.
Now, you may be lucky. Your child may be in a school with an ethos of care where children are placed at the heart of all they do. And this is of course happening across the nation. Despite the funding cuts, limited curriculum and increased stress, they are doing their utmost to protect your child’s education. But we know others are not having that experience. They are lost in a world of money-makers and agendas. Their education is suffering and their safety is not guaranteed. Parents are cut out and disempowered. If we believe in a good education for our child, we simply must ensure the same for other people’s children too.
Let’s start fighting for the prevention of horrific outcomes. Grenfell shocked our nation and the response was overwhelming with donations and sympathy. But we need to act sooner. We need to demand people are not unwittingly placed in danger; that everyone is heard. If you live in social housing, if you attend a state school, you should be safe in the knowledge that government, both local and national, has got your needs and your rights covered. At the moment, this is not the case. Local government is being steadily brought to its knees; the Prime Minister doesn’t want to see you and Damian Hinds will brush you off like dandruff from his shoulder. It is time to make it clear that we are not liabilities in the path of their agenda; their agenda is the liability in the path of our children’s progress. We want it cleared.
I didn’t go back to school this week. After twelve years of returning from the six-week summer break to inset days and Learning-to-Learn days, this lack of attendance marks the start of a new era for me. I am no longer a school teacher. And I grieve for my career.
I had a conversation yesterday with a woman in the park whose son was experiencing his first day of secondary school. We were quite well into our conversation about schools in the area before she ‘admitted’ apologetically that her son was now at a local independent school, and that she had also moved her daughter from my sons’ primary school to a local independent girls’ school. Her argument is one I’m hearing more and more where I live. They don’t want their children’s opportunities to be limited by their education. Wow, that’s a difficult to sentence to write as a member of the teaching community. It’s one reason I grieve. Because she’s not wrong, is she?
The cutting of the arts from the curriculum was her first concern. Now, we have to really question the motive behind this. We all know how the working world is changing and how the skills developed when studying the Arts will prepare our students perfectly for this future. We also know how expressive the Arts are. You need to free your ideas and question, be prepared to challenge and even transgress to succeed in this field. But our current government does not want this. Schools today are places where compliance and performance are encouraged. There is an agenda here to shut voices up, not free them. My own GCSE Art teacher told me my homework was better than my classwork. Her theory? Uniform restricted my creativity. This statement has stuck with me since. My identity was squashed by the enforced dominance of the school’s. As a university drama student, I had to wear all black for our practical sessions. Now, this might sound pretentious, but the idea was to strip you of your identity so you could become a canvas, so to speak, to leave you open and uninhibited to allow exploration and expression.
I was, however, told by my favourite local Executive Head that creativity needs to be controlled: ‘Get the shoes shiny and the tie straight, get control and then you can enable creativity.’ Now, I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to inspire learning and help children blossom into happy, productive adults. I never said, “I really want to control children.’ When the word ‘control’ is used so freely by senior members of our teaching community, we must look at the agenda leading reform. Education is being used as a tool to divide and rule. Most likely my opportunity to wear all black and become a vehicle for artistic expression, even transgression (I did get to perform the role of Simone in the Marat Sade) was a privilege I earned by getting a place in an elite university.
But those able and inclined to make the choice to take their children into the independent sector are rewarded with earlier access to a breadth of curriculum and opportunity. As for everyone else? We are told untruths. I know of a school in a challenging inner-city context that has shut down all its arts and vocational courses, making numerous teachers redundant, but it’s okay because they have introduced Latin. What’s the story here? On board with the Conservative agenda, they will bombard these children in this difficult context with the academic rigour of the EBacc, and this will enable them to compete with those at the independent schools surrounding them. This is dangerously misleading. I once attended a university open day with year 12 students from my school based in an equally deprived area. We piled off our coach straight into another recently arrived cohort. Just by looking at the two groups, it was obvious that my students were already a step behind in that competition. Apart from the fact those we’d met were literally double their height, the way the two groups dressed told a visual story of a social gulf. My girls were in little dresses and shiny shoes, our competitors in fashionably ripped denim and hair flicked dramatically from one side of the head to the other. We could get the academic results out of our students but their social naivety, their lack of access to a world inhabited by this other group would always keep their ceiling lower, the rungs of the ladder harder to reach. And stripping the Arts from those lower down the ladder will ensure their ideas remain latent, silence their voice in debate, and, let’s face it, halt the possible revolution which surely would follow if those currently held down by the system were exposed to the real agenda. As my conversation buddy said, you only get one shot at this. For some that shot will always fall short of the target. But maybe I’m just cynical, sitting here in the ashes of my career; no, I’m sure a weekly Latin lesson will level those ceilings perfectly.
The conversation moved on to another concern: Who will actually be teaching her children? She has seen there is a recruitment and retention crisis. The NEU reported that in 2016, one in every ten teachers left the profession. And of those who qualified in 2010, nearly a third had left five years later. And connected to this level of exodus, it was reported last week that children across the country are not being taught by subject specialists. I was told by the Head of my nearest secondary school that yes, they do teach formulaic lessons (all teaching the same lesson content at the same time, planned by a teacher who has some knowledge) because, and this is a direct quote: ‘Well, you can’t get the quality of teachers these days. You can’t trust them to do it themselves.’ Wow! That’s a bold statement to a parent touring your school.
The irony here is that I left teaching partly due to this peculiar ‘Schooling in a Box’ approach infiltrating our education system. I don’t believe I am the only member of my generation of teachers struggling with this lack of pedagogical freedom. I was told in my last school to start every lesson with a ‘Do it now!’ task. A teacher friend of mine told me learning walks in her school are used to check if you are on the right section of the lesson at the right time. Another told me at her school they had to ensure the ‘Eight Must Haves’ were in every lesson. They were so focused on meeting this they weren’t really focusing on the needs of the individuals in their classrooms, and were criticised for this in observations. Left drained and teary, they could only question what more they had to do? And put yourself in the shoes of a student: every lesson so predictable in structure, every lesson requiring the same performance. Inspirational stuff!
This flummoxed me in what turned out to be the final observation of my career. In previous years, I had used observations to test and develop myself. For example, I taught agenda in war poetry with half the class sitting in trenches constructed using our desks and chairs, whilst the other half of the class were army generals sitting around large board-room tables. They wrote stanzas for a poem about the soldier’s life in these contexts. And they got the importance of writer’s agenda. However, in my final observation I felt the pressure to tick the list of school requirements, and I failed to take ownership of the content. My husband’s feedback on my lesson plan summed it up: ‘It’s not your usual stuff.’ He was absolutely right. It was dictated and therefore impossible to deliver. I left teaching feeling a failure and a fraud.
But I am no fool. I understand the agenda here. I’m an experienced and effective teacher borne from an era when teacher training focused hugely on pedagogical research and experimentation. No question, many unnecessary gimmicks came out of this period, but what it instilled in this generation was the energy of inquiry and commitment to the art of teaching. I treasure memories from my PGCE days of university-based sessions designed to support my classroom practice: fantastic sessions on educational theory; interactive workshops on behaviour management with some of the most experienced practitioners in the field; work on how to use your voice effectively; being surrounded by academics who made you question and reflect all the time.
Today, in England, we have teachers with the least amount of training in a culture of ‘chuck ‘em in and see if they sink or swim’ schemes. They have come into teaching at a time when you are not being trained to question or reflect, as you only have time to get on and teach what you’ve been told to teach. If we want to compare this practice with the global high performers, we see that Singapore advocates a theory-practice teacher training; a four-year undergraduate degree or between 16 months to two years for a postgraduate course. Finland is five years university-based training resulting in a Masters level qualification. Their investment in teachers demands a commitment to the long-term as well as a high level of academic achievement. In return, teachers leave their training with the tools to step into the classroom and take ownership. Plus, they are trusted to do so.
So, I have sympathy with my friend in the park. Students are experiencing a high turnover of teachers, and may have a year or so with a number of supply teachers endeavouring to get them through. Sometimes they will have a PE teacher teaching them Geography because they did it at A’ level. With budgets tight, the experienced teachers are expensive, so take a glimpse at the TES job pages and see how many ask for NQTs, especially those beast-sized MATs. I have sympathy too for her argument about the creative subjects. I witnessed the shrinking of the Art department at my school as the Science department crept quietly down the corridor, transforming art studios into laboratories every few months. The Arts will become the preserve of those who can afford them, those who are allowed to have their say in this divided nation.
Despite my sympathy, I would ask my friend in the park, and others who are debating their options to consider how their choice to step into the independent sector may ensure their children’s future, but it only serves to further reduce the opportunities for those without such a choice. I would urge those parents to stay with us and fight for the best teachers with the most impressive training, and demand teaching is valued as much as in other countries. I would urge them to demand access to the Arts for all; to ensure spaces are open to all to express their emotions, talents, and ideas. Don’t let others get left behind.
Don’t let other children’s opportunities be shut down by their education.