One of our regular bloggers, Aimee Collins, on her hopes and fears for the year ahead.
No one really knows how this year should have been handled. It began with few tragedies and a light of hope for those who needed a fresh start. However, this quickly turned into a worldwide tragedy with the human race needing to work together by staying apart, in order to fight the virus we were faced with.
Most people have written off this year without a second thought. They are just plowing on with their lives to make it through to the next year. But for some, it wasn’t that easy. Those still in education are faced with an exam situation that no one has ever experienced and a results day more feared than ever before. Students are worried about what their futures hold, while also having to worry about staying apart from those friends they love dearly.
On the 20th of August, the GCSE students of 2020 were able to hold in their hands the results they got for their GCSEs, that they didn’t even take. They will look at the sheet of paper that tells them whether they made it where they want to go, or not, and think that they really had very little power in writing those numbers.
The same feelings apply for those who got their A-level results just a few days before. A lot of those who received their A-level results were not happy with what they saw. A friend of mine told me that her brother was gutted when he found out that he wasn’t able to go to the university he had been dreaming of attending. The results he was given were not the results he needed and as a consequence he has had to accept a place somewhere he did not want to go. He believed that if he had been able to take the exams as normal then he would have been able to get the results he needed.
Because of this, I did not like the way the government initially decided to source this year’s exam results. Many were left disappointed, upset and annoyed. Lots of those hopeful for good results were left in the dust and stranded with an option they didn’t want to take. A lot of those in this situation took that option and accepted their loss.
However, recently the government changed their minds. They allowed the results that teachers wanted to give their students, but, for most, it was already too late. So, the opportunity was lost and they were still stuck.
This whole situation has made me fear my next year of school. When I return to school in September I will be year 11 with exams awaiting me. Currently, there are no permanent ideas for how the year will look and that thought worries not only me but many students across the country; from year 11’s to sixth form to university students.
As well as there being no certain exams, the world we will return to will be nothing like the one we knew before. The people we have been missing most and the side of school students crave will be extremely difficult to access. Those in lower years will most likely be stuck with seeing the same people in school for a long time.
On the other hand, I completely understand that the government is doing their best to keep the country and all of those we love safe. Keeping away from one another as much as possible is extremely important, but we cannot forget to see those we love and to keep our hearts light with our heads held high. Make sure to keep your body and your mind safe from the virus.
Rescue Our Schools’ David Taylor on why we need to value vocational education again
There is something very symbolic in the BTEC results being left to the end of this quite exceptional educational summer. Despite the fact they have the advantage of coursework and modular exams to draw on to justify the awarding of grades, their announcement trails their A-Level and GCSE cousins, disadvantaging the candidates as they chase courses at universities and sixth form colleges. It is a travesty that they and other vocational qualifications remain very much second in the pecking order.
I recall attending an event in London a few years ago when I was a secondary school headteacher. I don’t remember the specific purpose or the location, but it was a very plush propaganda-type affair. Both Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, and Michael Gove, unaware of his impending reshuffle from Education Secretary after been deemed a toxic liability by David Cameron, were present. They both spoke. Nothing Johnson said remains in my memory; however, I can resurrect the gist of a couple of sentences at the start of Gove’s utterances. In them he highlighted the opulent surroundings (ornate staircase, gold leaf on the ceiling, classical art masterpieces on the wall – you get the picture), the fine wine we were drinking and the haute cuisine canapes waiting staff were offering as they circulated with silver trays.
Under his breath, but perfectly audible to us situated at the back of the proceedings, one wag amongst the invitees stated wryly: “And I bet none of the people who created them studied your bloody EBacc”. Whilst it is quite possible that they did, the point was well-crafted.
Gove and his advisor, Dominic Cummings, were of course the architects of the EBacc, which has coerced schools into funneling all students, irrespective of their talents or interests, into subjects that they consider to be more ‘academic’. This has restricted choice and led to a significantly reduced number of students undertaking other subjects, particularly those deemed ‘creative’, such as art and music. They also demanded more rigorous assessment, and a move away from coursework, modular exams, speaking and listening and practical work to almost total reliance on terminal exams.
BTECs and many other ‘vocational’ qualifications were caught in the crossfire. Many were binned because they were considered to be of little value. Some, like BTEC Horticulture, lost their equivalence with GCSEs and/or A Levels, whilst others such as BTEC Construction and the Built Environment, retained it. However, both these and many others suffered a considerable shift from practical work to theory in the name of rigour. In practice, it became more important to write about building a brick wall than building the flaming thing, one of the very skills Gove had lavished with praise in his speech.
This year’s examination results were a fiasco waiting to happen. It cannot happen again. We must not return to forcing all students into a narrow range of predetermined subjects, solely assessed by terminal exams at set times on set days in May and June. To do so will be to deny many from showing their ability and true sense of worth.
Rescue Our Schools’s David Taylor, a former secondary headteacher, suggests the whole exam system needs rethinking.
Exams and controversy are not uncommon bedfellows in England. Every year brings a degree of cohabitation, most notable in recent times being 2012 when Ofqual’s decision to significantly increase GCSE grade boundaries in English Language caused results to plummet in a large number of schools, particularly those with a high number of students on the old C/D borderline. A judicial review followed.
This year is almost certain to surpass 2012. The recent fall-out from examination results north of the border, and the Scottish government’s belated acceptance of teacher assessments, has rattled Westminster to such an extent that they have created a “triple lock” for students so as to give them the opportunity, through their schools, to utilise mock results in the hope of bolstering their grades. This quite absurd knee-jerk reaction will exacerbate questions about the fairness of the system and accusations of discrimination against students in disadvantaged communities.
As a start, let us be clear. Examinations, whether they be SATs, GCSEs or A Levels, are not fair even at the best of times. They are fundamentally biased and riddled with inbuilt class and cultural advantages and disadvantages, a fact that is likely to be largely ignored during the inevitable musings about the upcoming debacle.
Ofqual’s response to Covid-19 has exacerbated this unfairness. Asking schools to give a CAG (Centre Assessed Grade) for every student in every GCSE and A Level subject they have studied based on their judgement as to the grades each student would have achieved if they had sat the exams is entirely sensible, particularly as the evidence for these judgements could come from a variety of sources, including classwork and the results in any practice examinations. However, it seems likely that many of these CAGs will be totally ignored by Ofqual.
Some argue that Ofqual’s approach is making the best of a bad job because teachers are not capable of accurately giving grades as they naturally give students the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing wrong with teachers having this attitude, but their optimism is not only born of doing the best for their kids, it is also being driven by a system that – despite the restrictions of comparable outcomes – demands year-on-year improvement to satisfy teacher targets, headteacher targets and school targets, all of which are intrinsically linked with school league tables and Ofsted judgements. Tackle these scourges in the name of “raising standards” and teachers might be more inclined to give an accurate grade.
So, best of a bad job is still a bad job. To remedy it for this year, students could select the best of their grades awarded by their schools or the exam boards. To that you could also now presumably add the results of any mock examinations. Is there really any harm done if this were to happen? Schools could then immediately focus on 2021 and beyond rather than on investing an exorbitant amount of time and money on appeals and possible litigation, when they have significant other pressures associated with planning for a potential full return of students and staff in just over a fortnight.
At a time of coronavirus and associated lockdowns, some are calling for a Plan B in 2021, highlighting the sheer lunacy of nationally assessing students at set times on set days in exam halls throughout May and June. They are right, but will Plan B go far enough? To do so it must eradicate the inbuilt unfairness and social injustice in our examination system, reduce its reliance on terminal examinations and allow all to have the opportunity to show their talents.
This will inevitably mean a shift to an acceptance of a broader definition of what it is to be successful. It will mean greater choice for students regarding the subjects they wish to follow, rather than coercion into those that comprise the EBacc or Progress 8, which remain solely school measures. Crucially, it will also mean a move to more authentic forms of assessment, with portfoilos, presentations and exhibitions sitting alongside practicals and some written examinations.
For this to happen, the government will need to trust teachers and schools. Unfortunately, this seems an increasingly distant prospect. Consequently, it is beyond time that schools, led by their headteachers, say enough is enough. We no longer want to make the best of a bad job.
There is Another Way
Words almost fail at the news that mock exams scores for A-Level and GCSEs in England can be used instead of the Ofqual standardised results. Some immediate thoughts come to mind:
The mocks option shows a total disregard for the judgement of teachers. Ministers clearly couldn’t stomach the Scottish decision to rely on their professional verdicts alone. This is part of the thirty-year narrative of teacher bashing, which we have seen rear its ugly head regularly in the last few months, as the teaching unions fought to ensure the safety of their members during the pandemic.
Second, it shows the on-going obsession with grade inflation. This has been a crusading cause for the current edu-political regime, and now looks – how shall we put it? – pretty mean-minded given all the stress that the current crop of A-Level and GCSE students have been through.
Third, it shows total ignorance of the decisions schools had to take in the weeks leading up to lockdown. For some schools this included cancelling the mocks scheduled for March 2020. This means that students will now have to be judged presumably on an even earlier set of mocks (such is the endless cycle of exam preparation that most English state school students now have to endure). Only the most conscientious students will do well out of the government’s new grading option. At the risk of oversimplifying, middle-class girls will do OK. Boys of all backgrounds are less likely to do well, and could see their scores being several grades below what they would have achieved in conventional exam conditions. Private school students are, of course, likely to do better than state school students.
But that doesn’t mean that the annual exam hall ritual is some kind of guarantee of impartiality. Far from it. You have the same issues of norm referencing, meaning that around 30 per cent of students will automatically fail. There are claims of erratic marking at both GCSE and A-level. And let’s not forget the students who freak out in exams, and don’t do their best. There’s plenty of them.
But most of all, the narrow, academic exams so beloved of this government tell you so little about what young people are capable of. There is no correlation between your exam scores and how well you do in a particular job. More and more companies are ignoring qualifications and setting their own tests and requirements, geared more specifically to the skills and knowledge they need. Yet such is the manipulative nature of the education system these days – driven by an inspection system still largely about results – that students are constantly told that GCSEs and A-levels will determine their whole lives. As universities face fewer foreign students and many more places to fill, this is an even bigger lie than ever.
It’s time to look at the many alternatives out there: credentialing, for example, being rolled out by some private schools in the US through the ‘mastery transcript’ scheme; the broader qualification at 18 that Sir Mike Tomlinson came up with fifteen years ago, giving a richer picture of what students are capable of, and nurturing the skills and knowledge they will need for the huge challenges that lie ahead; and ditching high stakes exams at 16 because… well, what’s the point of them? No wonder so many countries don’t have exams at both 16 and 18.
As soon as Gavin Williamson starts talking about the ‘gold standard’ of GCSEs and A-levels, something may need to be thrown at the telly. Open-minded politicians, please actually open your minds to the alternatives to the mind-shrinking education system we are currently stuck with. It’s time to mothball exam factories for good.
As schools worry about the downgrading of exam results by Ofqual, Rescue Our School’s David Taylor questions the relentless drive to get good grades.
“Kids have given up their weekends, we’ve had holiday interventions, 7:30am revision sessions, teachers teaching until 7pm”, said one headteacher as he vented his utter frustration at government’s shallow promise that no student will be disadvantaged by the cancellation of this summer’s GCSE examinations.
After taking over as headteacher last February, the school was predicting that its Progress 8 would rise from -0.62 (well below average) to +0.93 (well above average). Such a turnaround in fortunes in a school would see it designated amongst the most improved schools nationally and it would rocket up the league tables. The Regional Schools Commissioner would be satisfied and together with the support of the associated headteachers’ board would deem that the school would not be subject to a loss of independence and a takeover by an academy sponsor. Ofsted would come along in the near relatively near future and, baring some extraordinary circumstances, would give it the customary “Outstanding”. Reputation enhanced; the school would be become more attractive to potential parents. The future would be secure as it could be in the crazy world of our education system.
The head’s frustration that this is unlikely to play out is because new rules this year will mean that the grades allocated to the students will be based on a standardisation model that will consider the expected national outcomes for this year’s cohort, the prior attainment of the students at each school – at cohort not, individual level – and the results of the school in recent years. The fact that the “the kids have really grafted” will potentially count for nothing.
I empathise with him. In 2005 I became headteacher of a struggling school. Results were low – 15% 5+ A-C grades including English and Maths. Improvements needed to be made. We changed the curriculum, making it more responsive, meaningful, and engaging. We improved learning and teaching, and slowly but surely, we got to the lofty heights of 60% in 2016. We became TES Secondary School of the Year. It had taken 11 long years of hard graft by all concerned.
From memory, it is during the early part of my headship that the use of the term ‘intervention’ became the ubiquitous method for quick fixes. What had historically been a few voluntary revision sessions after school, started, in an increasing number of schools, to morph into a data-driven cottage industry of interventions. It was to become like a scene in “The Untouchables” when Jim Malone (Sean Connery) asks Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner): “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Whilst it is rather extreme to use this metaphor in the context of schools, it does accurately portray the fact that schools are competing more than ever before because of league tables and academisation. This drives schools to increasing levels of interventions to better their peers. “They do before school, you do before school, lunch and after school. They do Saturdays, you do weekends. They do paid for additional tutoring twice a week, you do it three times”. When will it ever end?
Now sees an opportunity to rethink our very purpose. Covid has removed education league tables for 2020. They should not return. They drive competitive practises. They drive aggressive practises. Schools are about collaboration, cooperation, and a sense of community. In the words of Jim Malone: “What are you prepared to do?”
Rescue Our Schools has been asked to submit evidence to the cross-party education committee of MPs on the impact of covid-19. We would love to hear from as many of our followers as possible your answers to the following key questions on primary age children (we will be doing secondary in a few days):
What will be the effect of cancelling formal tests (primarily SATs at KS1 and KS2) on children, teachers and schools?
What alternative methods of assessment should be used? What advantages could other forms of assessment offer?
What are the key reasons Baseline should not be introduced this autumn term?
What do you think the impact of cancelling statutory assessment will be on pupils’ progress to secondary school/KS2?
Please email your comments to email@example.com
Thank you in advance!
The full impact of Suffolk County Council’s new home-school transport policy is becoming clear. As reported in this week’s East Anglian Daily Times, families in my village and many others are being punished by the council for no other reason than living on the wrong street. The new policy (which calculates distances to school to the nearest metre, using home postcodes), will divide primary school classmates by providing them with transport to different schools, against their parents’ wishes. Last week I attended Suffolk County Council meeting to ask a public question about the new policy. I asked whether the council was aware that their new policy was creating splits in some villages, where children are now being offered free transport to different schools. (This is a particular problem for children going to secondary school in September). The response of the councillor responsible (SCC Cabinet member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills) was that there might be some short-term increase in costs where it will result in two buses going to different schools instead of one bus going to one school, while the policy is phased in. But he also said that because some parents already choose to go to non-catchment schools, split villages weren’t considered an issue. He suggested that parents and schools might come up with ‘local solutions’ for the ‘two-school’ problem including parents doing lift-shares and schools offering their own transport.
He seemed to be either conflating or confusing different things, so I asked again, pointing out that parental choice and the county’s legal obligations to provide school transport are separate issues, and outlining the problem in Nayland. (After all, parents only choose to send their children to non-catchment schools when they can afford to do so.) It so happens that two of the county councillors live in this village. According to the Council’s nearest school checker, one lives in one of the streets now designated for Hadleigh High School (with which our primary has no links and to which there is no bus service). The other lives in the part of the village still designated for Thomas Gainsborough School in Sudbury (our historical catchment school, with good links to our primary school and on a public bus route). The split occurs at our primary school, which for historical reasons has two postcodes; one is now apparently ‘nearer’ to Hadleigh and one to Thomas Gainsborough. Yes really.
You’d think the sensible response to this kind of inefficient and unfair situation would be to say “we need to look at that unintended consequence”, yet the councillor responsible merely reiterated his view that because some parents choose to send their children to grammar schools over the county border, we are already a ‘split village’ and that by implication, the resulting chaos is not a concern.
The result of this policy is that in villages like Nayland, some parents will be forced to pay upwards of £750 per child per year in order for their child to do nothing more unusual than moving up to secondary school with their classmates. For these families, the policy amounts to an opportunistic extra tax. The alternative is that children in families for whom this is unaffordable will have to go a different school from their classmates – child and family effectively being discriminated against for having less money than others. It has to be noted that the council seems to have little understanding that £750 (minimum per child) is a significant sum of additional money for young families to find. Either way, the council’s new policy amounts to a postcode lottery. And all of this was both predictable, and predicted.
There’s a further complication for the schools concerned. If pupils end up going to schools they did not choose to go to instead of the school they already have secured a place in, those schools won’t get the budgets they are expecting this year. And relationships with feeder primaries are totally disrupted, making it much harder to plan smooth school transitions for children moving to secondary school in future years. (Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools are organising their provision around the numbers of pupils they are expecting to receive come September.)
I was astonished by the lack of interest – let alone sympathy to the affected families – shown by the council in response to my questions. The councillor responsible for schools should be aware that schools don’t have spare management time or budget to put on buses. And the council should surely be more interested in what happens IN schools – and therefore be wanting schools to use resources on education, not petrol. If the county council was actually planning to review school catchments and admissions, including for schools still in LEA control – it should do so based on some actual analysis of the need for school places relative to the locations and types of schools, not just redefine school relationships as an unintentional consequence of reducing access to school buses. And it ought to consult with schools themselves.
I don’t know whether the council is wilfully confusing parental choice with its legal responsibilities for school transport, or simply doesn’t understand the policy framework. Either way, it shows little regard for the wellbeing of children anxious they won’t now go to the same school as their classmates, for their parents, school budgets, or the environment. It couldn’t be clearer that councillors are hoping parents will just pick up the bill for a responsibility that sits with the council.
Several years ago, the county council set about the contentious and messy process of closing all the county’s middle schools with the goal of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school, because, they said, this would help them to achieve better educationally. It seems they no longer care about the pupils, given the indifference they are showing to parents and pupils caught up in a policy blunder brought about by the poor implementation of a bad policy. Please, Suffolk County Council, there is still time to pull your head out of the sand. Postpone the implementation of this policy and go back to the drawing board.
Our Manifesto sets out six key asks of education policy. As a busy year for RoS draws to a close, we take a look at how the Department for Education has fared against these over the last year.
Invest in all our futures
Requires improvement. The Department began the year with a new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. Unlike his predecessor, Justine Greening, he came as a supporter of grammar schools (presumably one of the reasons he was appointed). Other than occasional announcements like the recent ones that children should climb trees (there’s an idea we’d never have thought of!) and that schools should reduce single-use plastics (they have, after all, nothing else to do), little else has changed. Education policy continues to be dominated by three things: a refusal to acknowledge that schools and early years settings need more funding to do the job asked of them, the desire to push testing to extremes and in doing so prioritise the able over the less able, and the continued marketisation of schools achieved by the ongoing push of schools away from local authorities and into academy chains. The recruitment and retention of staffing in schools, meanwhile, remains at crisis point.
Our Christmas message in 2017 focused on funding and the rising pressures on schools seeking to accommodate the increase in cost pressures affecting our schools. How depressing, then, to still be leading on this a year later. And this despite the unprecedented sight, in September, of 2000 headteachers protesting ‘relentlessly reasonably’ on Whitehall, followed in October by a campaign organised by our sister campaign group Save our Schools in which pupils directly addressed MPs in parliament. After months of campaigning there was, in December, one important and welcome announcement: an increase in high needs funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities. This will help some children, but it isn’t enough. And it doesn’t begin to address the core funding problems facing schools across the country, many of which are having to ask parents to fund pencils and paper (the kind of thing Philip Hammond presumably had in mind when he talked about schools needing those ‘little extras’!).
Promote inclusive education for all
Fail. Changes to funding for local authorities, combined with funding pressures on school budgets, have made it extremely difficult for schools to meet the needs of children with special education needs – a situation which not only discriminates against children with additional needs and their families; it potentially harms all children. Yet the level of need is clear; as of this year, 14.6% of pupils are on the SEN register. They are failed not only by inadequate levels of support (cost pressures reducing access to teaching assistants, for example), but also by the increased focus on exams and testing. Our own survey about the new GCSEs highlighted the punitive and emotionally devastating impact of the new exam regime for pupils with special educational needs such as autism. Meanwhile some parents are having to crowd-fund legal action in order to secure the required specialist support for their children from local authorities. The playing field is now so far from level that it is ceasing to offer many children an opportunity to play at all.
Promote education over exam factories
Hard to know where to start, in the year that pupils sat the new GCSEs and A levels which are based almost exclusively on exams designed to favour those with good memories and high literacy skills, and in which primary schools started piloting baseline testing in reception. RoS had a busy summer surveying parents and teachers about the impact of the new GCSEs, and in ongoing campaigning with fellow organisations as part of More than a Score, seeking to reform SATs and end the link between test results and school accountability. (Have a look at this video about the #BigSATsSitIn – you can also sample the tests for yourself!) The impact of testing on pupil wellbeing has been questioned over and over again, in a year which also saw independent evidence of the rise of mental ill-health and poor emotional wellbeing in children and young people. RoS’ petition to address this was endorsed by Natasha Devon, former government mental health champion, amongst others. As the year drew to a close, the former head of the civil service added his voice to those concerned about the long-term impact on our children’s wellbeing. We will continue to campaign loudly and vigorously on this in 2019.
Develop Creativity in all its forms
Another fail. Not surprisingly, given the pressure on resources and the perpetual drive from ministers to prioritise testing in traditional academic subjects (in SATs and by use of the Ebacc) over giving pupils a broad educational experience. Over the year, we have been able to highlight on social media work done in some of the most creative – and successful – schools bucking the trend, both in terms of access to arts subjects and activities, and creative approaches to teaching and learning overall.
The UK has traditionally excelled in the creative industries. Yet 2018 saw another year-on-year reduction in access to arts subjects throughout the curriculum, in GCSE entries for subjects such as music, drama, art, design technology and more, and consequently in employment of teachers in these subjects. In 2019 we need your help to promote this message all the more, before the situation becomes irreversible.
Let expert evidence inform policy
No progress. There are many experts. There are many policy makers. But the one rarely seems to inform the other, except occasionally when referring to evidence that supports ideas currently in fashion in the DfE (those that support the use of synthetic phonics, for example).
One of the areas in which the evidence is overwhelming clear is that grammar schools do not improve attainment overall. Yet this year we have seen funding prioritised to expand grammar schools on the grounds that these schools will justify the increase in funding by widening access to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Education Policy Institute have published more evidence on the attainment gap for pupils on free school meals, and NHS research documented an increase in mental ill-health in young people While the government prioritises resources on pursuing a grammar school agenda not backed up by evidence, some schools are having to team up with local charities to provide breakfast clubs for children in poverty.
Ensure local accountability for all schools
Again, there have been no shortage of concerns and failures in Multi Academy Chains, and both the Parliamentary Accounts Committee and the Education Select Committee have been increasingly critical of the problems with the Academies model. Stories range from the failure of a whole MAT, the rise of fixed-term exclusions, prescriptive teaching, high levels of executive pay, and significant concerns about misuse of funds. Thanks to BBC’s Panorama programme, the pitfalls of the Multi Academy Trust model and its associated lack of oversight are now much better understood. We will continue to provide a platform on social media for local campaigns fighting forced academisation. But we also must acknowledge that local authorities are now considerably under-resourced to support schools, even where those schools remain in LEA control.
As the new year approaches, so does a new Ofsted accountability framework The headlines suggest they want to change the current focus on data, involve teachers and assess the breadth and substance of the curriculum in schools. We at RoS are parents – we understand the value of meaningful, robust and consistent assessment of how schools are meeting our children’s needs, and want to be sure our teachers and school leaders are appropriately supported. But changing the framework alone doesn’t give schools the resources, creative freedom and evidence they need to develop the education Ofsted claims to want to evaluate. Moreover there are worrying signs that the inspectorate may be moving towards directing schools ‘how‘ to teach – with an emphasis on memorising rather than acquisition of skills. Such a narrow view of education would only let children down and, if introduced, must be emphatically resisted. As we have done with previous consultations, RoS will be asking for your thoughts to inform our response when the consultation on the new framework is published in early 2019.
Throughout the year, the Department for Education has plunged deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, in a constant bid to find its own alternate reality universe in which school budgets really are at a record high and standards really have been raised equitably with a meaningful impact on pupils’ futures. Whilst it has being doing this, the UK Statistics Authority has found cause to write to the DfE no fewer than FOUR times in 2018 about misleading use of education statistics. With all government stagnating due to Brexit, the DfE appears to find its own version of the Mad Hatters tea party quite a comforting place to be. But schools, pupils and parents do not.
Our Rescue our Schools message for 2019 is clear: the children and young people in school now cannot afford to wait another year for the government to wake up to its own responsibilities. We must join together, and act.
In a recent article by Emma Kell, she mentioned a positive outcome gleaned by one teacher in this era of controversy, and let’s face it, anguish and pure anger, was how their resilience had developed. Lovely to hear, considering that resilience is a current buzzword in education. We must teach children to be resilient, so it’s great if teachers are equally not giving in.
But I do have serious issues with this discourse. What does the word mean? The definition I have here is ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. Is that really the focus of schooling? And can you teach resilience? Should we be creating difficulties from which children must ‘recover’? Or should we focus instead on setting exciting challenges to which our students want to apply focus, learning and skill to try and overcome. What I’m asking is whether the choice of the word ‘resilience’ rather than ‘determination’ for example, is actually a means of shifting the coping mechanism for stress onto the inflicted and away from the inflictor?
I have a wonderful memory of a whole school inset with a psychologist at my school. It was a Wednesday evening, three days down but two more to get through, plan for, mark the books for, but we were brought into the hall for an hour and a half to discuss our happiness. We were told that teachers were at the bottom of the list for happiness, just beaten to the very bottom by social care workers, whilst head teachers were (this was a few years ago) near the top. The reasons, she explained, were the levels of autonomy experienced in the different roles.
And how were we to manage this lack of voice and power in our roles? How were we to become happier in our working lives? Well, there was a bowl on the table, within which was a collection of strawberries and chocolates. These had been noted at the very start of the session but as fingers reached in their direction, we were instructed not to touch them. You could feel the happiness level plummet further down the scale. But they were a prop in this performance, and only at the end were we allowed to take them. We hungrily started to wrestle the wrappers off the chocolates (definitely the preferred choice at 5.30pm on a Wednesday evening), but again we were halted. This time we were instructed to slowly unwrap the ball of chocolate, hear the plastic, feel the untwisting, savour the moment of imminent pleasure, before being allowed to actually eat the chocolate!
So, what was this about? We were to slow down and savour moments. We were to make the time in our days to stop and not worry and ultimately strengthen ourselves for the next round of marking, planning, differentiating, teaching, data entering, detentions, phone calls home, parent meetings and so on and so on and so on. But I’m sure I wasn’t alone in questioning this: if we allow ourselves those five or ten minutes to savour that unwrapping, haven’t we just made our working days a little longer with an even later finish?
And it’s not just the teachers, of course. My children both returned home during the first week of term this year with amygdala bottles. This consists of a recycled plastic bottle filled with water and glitter. This was new to me. They enlightened me: ‘If we feel stressed, we shake it and watch the glitter.’ A mindful act. I’m not anti-mindfulness but I do wonder if we shouldn’t be questioning the need for a six and an eight old’s need for stress relief at school.
I don’t really believe this encourages resilience. I think it encourages acceptance of ‘difficulties’. More can be thrown at you; whether it’s a teacher being introduced to yet another initiative, or a student preparing for yet another test, you will tell yourself it’s your responsibility to be resilient. Surely this word suggests there is something inherently wrong with the system. Should teachers and students have to be prepared to ‘overcome difficulties’ on a regular basis?
Let’s face it, being resilient day in, day out is exhausting and damaging to our mental health. That was definitely my experience as I was signed off for stress for most of 2017, and couldn’t stop apologising for my failure and for letting everyone down. I had been classed in the ‘strong woman’ category due to my maternal status and managerial role. But as I slipped off this pedestal, I felt I was letting down students, colleagues and womanhood. It’s taken me time to accept that I am not a failure, although I’m fully aware I should have had a long and successful career. Unwrapping a chocolate slowly didn’t save me from this. What might have helped would have been the ability to go and pick my children up at 4.30pm sometimes, not 6pm, and run about in the local park with them. What might have helped would have been not to have experienced the guilt at bedtime when I would tell them to hurry up as I had so much work to do. What might have helped would have been the expectation that this is not a ‘vocation’, but a job that yes, I love and I am good at, and skilled at, and no one can chuck that word in my direction to make me feel I can be expected to work all hours with worsening pay and conditions.
On my Masters course I took a module on Education and Conflict, One visiting tutor was concerned about the use of the word ‘resilience’ in the context of refugee children in transit, living in camps, and suffering daily stress and insecurity. Giving them the ‘Resilient’ title means people in vulnerable spaces are expected to overcome these incredible difficulties. Over the years I have met children who have slept on roadsides on their quest to get to England; children who have seen the Taliban execute family members; as well as children dealing with the trauma of witnessing one parent murder the other; those who are homeless, living in hostels; those who find the classroom context so incredibly challenging because they have special educational needs. They are indeed resilient but they are also struggling and dealing with unhappiness, stress and trauma. I taught adults for a refugee charity recently, and, again, their level of resilience was formidable. One woman talked about living in Mosul. She has a university degree and worked in a good office job for twenty years. Then the Iraq War took place. Both she and her husband lost their jobs. He found work on the markets whilst she didn’t work. Life was difficult, unsafe and survival became the purpose of their existence. Then ISIS arrived and they ran. She now lives in London, aged 57 years and is training to be a baker, while her children prepare to start university here. Two things she said stick with me: ‘Life is here now, we have to look forward,’ and ‘If they wanted the oil, just take the oil, don’t kill the people.’ She personifies resilience but she also comes with her story of trauma, loss and devastation.
So true resilience comes from dealing with true difficulties. The above examples are really about the need for resilience. No staring at an amygdala bottle or slow reveal of a chocolate was going to have any impact in the reality of overcoming life-threatening difficulties. The need for resilience is all about terrible policy decisions made by people who are never going to experience the resulting difficulties. It is always for the inflicted to manage, to cope, to survive. This word really shouldn’t be at the heart of schooling in the UK, but it seems school at the moment has become a race to the top academically, but a race to the bottom when it comes to happiness. You have ticked the resilient box if your mental health hasn’t crumbled.
Teachers shouldn’t need to be resilient to do their jobs well. No more than in any other part of their lives anyway. They need to feel inspired. They need to feel they are academics with time to research, read and develop as professionals. They need to feel valued and capable. They should not feel guilty when they don’t work on a Sunday morning or one weekday evening. They should not be competing for who’s had the least sleep and the shortest lunch break. Oh, and students should not need to stare at floating glitter to get through their days.
Education, Control and the Individual: Do you want your child to be a faceless member of a school community?
You haven’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been thinking. A lot. So much has happened in the past weeks. There’s been the Labour Party Conference at which Angela Raynor introduced the National Education Service, and I’ve started teaching, as I mentioned in my last blog, but in the adult education service. I’ve also visited my favourite head teacher for a tour of his school and there’s been Damian Hinds too of course. As I said, a lot to think about. Here are a few of my musings to which I hope you may have some comments, questions, or even better, the answers.
It’s time we change our response from ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘We know this is happening and we want change!’ I’ve talked before about the cynical treatment of our education and other public services under this government and I will say it again. They know exactly what is happening in our schools. They know the curriculum is being streamlined; they know zero-tolerance behaviour policies are rife and they know their teaching community is becoming younger, less experienced and more malleable. This culture is their baby and it’s growing well in their eyes. We need to start fighting not questioning.
The Mercia Learning Trust has created great discussion and surprise, but from my experience as a parent where I live, their policies are nothing different to what is on offer for my children in a couple of years’ time. Admittedly, our local school doesn’t bully parents in or out of their choices through nasty rhetoric, but it certainly gives no leeway for us to respond to their offer on the table. These schools are free to do this, and in fact encouraged in this free for all which is our current education system. They’ve got results in mind, so everyone has to put up and shut up – or in the jargon of schooling today, be resilient. This zero tolerance approach to behaviour is leading to the extreme off-rolling statistics. It is creating a culture of fear across school communities; the sort of fear which shuts down the conscientious, keeping their heads down so as not to get into trouble for the lack of a pen and kicks out those who really don’t need to be kicked out.
I am going to be radical. What would happen if children were treated as the individuals they are? Something obviously abhorrent to the team at Mercia. This has really struck me in my new job. Teaching adults, I am faced by a group of people now able to bring their individuality to the learning space. As much as I can deliver lessons that I deem appropriate for their level and support needs, I can also respond, dare I say it, to their personalities. Instead of a sea of blazers and ties, dulling their individuality, I am looking at peroxide hair, tattooed arms and faces, tracksuit bottoms and a sea of pattern and colour. They walk in with their identities proudly on show and I am challenged to work with them as such. A wonderful, fruitful challenge, evidenced by the comment my peroxide blonde, tattooed, track-suited student made at the end of his fourth lesson with me, ‘I love how animated you are!’
And remember, many of these are the kids who have failed in the past few years. They still blame themselves for a poor relationship with schooling and attribute their failure to their poor attitude. They tell me they struggled at school; they didn’t get on with school. For me, their reasons suggest a lack of support and engagement at the systemic level. One tells me his attendance averaged 10% and that he lacked a traditional support structure; another that she moved between her parent’s homes but failed to connect at any of the schools she attended. Teachers can be inspirational and committed but if the child feels excluded from the system at any level, that battle to get them through becomes an uphill struggle, which sometimes leaves them and you rolling back down into the abyss.
You see, going back to my point about their individuality and identity pervading the learning space, I don’t buy the ‘uniform creates an egalitarian belonging for all’ argument. It didn’t work for me. I wore a uniform for 11 years of my schooling and never felt I belonged. My children are at a state primary without uniform and skip into that place daily, clearly happy, even proud to be a member of their school community. Some days they are dressed in football kits, others my youngest is in his tiger trousers and my eldest is in a t-shirt he designed himself. Depends on their mood. And what a dynamic space an assembly is, with all those colours and patterns to stimulate your creativity! But also, my children’s teachers can again read their students’ personalities…their identities. Isn’t it important to be able to assert your individuality in order to find your place within a community? And be able to accept others’ within it too?
Schools present a mould into which all children are expected to fit. So many don’t. I spent much of my teaching time in the behaviour unit at my school with those students who had been removed from the classroom for persistent poor behaviour. It was there that you were able to engage with them, to talk about their realities, to get to know them. Mostly, they were bright, they were keen to belong to something but they did not fit the mould of these faceless school communities. They weren’t compliant, their lives were complicated, their support structures erratic. They wanted to be seen and heard and unfortunately this usually only happened for them when they caused trouble. Their time with me in the behaviour unit became quite precious. I gave them creative tasks, such as making a storyboard for a film about their lives, and while they did this, they talked and I listened and I responded. They asked me questions about my choices, my life and I answered. A dialogue formed which was healthy and honest. Their behaviour settled in my space. The thing is everyone likes to be recognised for who they are. If they aren’t getting it at home, due to difficult spaces and relationships, working patterns, and the stress of poverty, they seek it elsewhere. A school should provide this. Zero tolerance is at best a ridiculous policy; at worst it is harmful. As parents, we really shouldn’t accept it. Surely we want our children to be seen as individuals who do deserve some personalisation and differentiation.
Whenever I read posts on TES about compassionate behaviour management, there’s always a comment about ‘I’m a teacher, not a psychologist!’ Depressing that any teacher can see their profession like that. I taught a boy whose mother suffered a severe mental illness. She was no longer allowed near her children. It was not surprising that this boy struggled to form relationships with teachers, particularly female teachers. If one thing went against him, that was it, you lost him. Punishment meant little. He didn’t care about being put in isolation – that has been going on for years by the way. He was too damaged to be hurt by such things. There had to be another way. It had to be something compassionate; it had to be considered. A young man soon to be an adult, he needed to feel someone would give him the time. He was one of the biggest battles I ever faced: told me he hated me numerous times; sent lessons into chaos, but the joy was that he returned to the school with his younger sister for her options night four years after he’d left, and sought me out to tell me his future career plans. We’d got him through and he rated that. He’d become a man, apparently happy and positive.
I am so scared for my children’s next step into schools that present this ‘one size fits all’ model. On my tour of my nearest school, I was informed that my child will wear a cross on their blazer, they will start preparing for their GCSEs from day one in a culture of ‘an uncomfortable sense of increased competition’, they will sit in rows and be silent everywhere! Apparently, they can tell my sons not to have tram-lines in their hair, or a quiff as is fashionable now. The office manager very comfortably informed me of this. So despite the fact that we are not religious; that we talk about learning as a lifelong journey to enjoy; that we encourage their discussion and argument, that we desire their individuality to be at the heart of their development, we will lose all say in that! I love the fact that my children rifle through their wardrobes in the morning, deciding what to wear, and when we go to the barber, they tell him what they want; last time the youngest chose tram-lines and the eldest a lightning bolt. But soon, the school will dictate that as anti-learning and that they must sport the same haircuts as all the other boys in the building. And they will sport their conformist haircut at the weekend too because their school has to ‘assert their brand in the market-place’. His words, absolutely not mine!
I know I am in the minority with my anti-uniform spiel but for me teenagers are not people in need of control. They are exciting, complex people in need of direction, support and guidance. Every child enters the school space with their narrative, with their baggage, with their identity. It is not the place of the system to flatten that, to undermine or negate that, but to engage with it and allow their new school identity to fuse with all the other extrinsic influences as they continue that journey of self-discovery. If a school seeks to flatten, undermine and negate an individual’s identity, it is obviously part of an agenda of control to maintain a social construction that suits those at the helm. Mr Hinds popped his head out of his office to state there will be a cash injection to look at improving behaviour, and there’s been a call out to ex-army service people to join the education service. If they want to teach, great, but lets tell Mr Hinds we know where disruptive behaviour comes from. Lets tell him to fund support for those with special educational needs and for anyone vulnerable within the system. Lets tell him to look at the impact of the government’s austerity measures on children’s levels of home-life security. Lets tell him to consider why knife crime has gone up at a time when other resources have been stripped. Lets tell him not to just send ex-army officers in to shout. Lets tell him to train all teachers, whether they’re ex-army or not, to consider their sociological role and consider the psychological impact of life experiences on the young people in their classrooms. Let’s tell him we are not sending our children to private schools, as he would like, but we are staying right here to ensure the government does not strip the state sector back to its bare bones and undermine the chances of all children to succeed in their own right. We see the agenda and we will fight it.