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Winners and losers: Off-rolled for the sake of Progress 8?

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?

 

Has your school shortened the school week?

A prominent national newspaper would like to speak as soon as possible to any teachers and parents who have been affected by a shorter school week due to cuts.

Please email us at info@rescueourschools.co.uk and we can pass on your details.

Has your school seen cuts to the Arts?

A mainstream current affairs programme is keen to hear stories of how a reduction in arts in schools has damaged children’s educational experience.

If you have experienced this, please email us your story and we will pass it on to the programme makers. This in no way obliges you to take part in any future programme: they are at the research stage at the moment. Please get in touch at info@rescueourschools.co.uk

We invite you to an event to celebrate the wonderful variety of pedagogies. Organised by the National Education Union and kindly hosted by the Institiute of Education, University College London, this one day event will include speakers and workshops that examine teaching and learning in all its splendour! Sessions include … Early Years and primary strand.
Where: 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL, United Kingdom
When: Sat, Mar 30, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Follow this link to Eventbrite and book your ticket.

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?

Rescue Our Schools writer, Charlotte Wolf was interviewed on the Victoria Derbyshire show this morning, opening up the debate on whether GCSEs should be scrapped and what education is actually for?

Watch here from 43:00

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0002jmt/victoria-derbyshire-11022019

ALLFIE is an alliance of parents, disabled students, teachers and professionals which campaigns for disabled pupils and students to access inclusive education in mainstream schools, training and apprenticeships, with all necessary supports’. You can find out more about ALLFIE’s news and activities at www.allfie.org.uk.

ALLFIE have asked us to share their request:

We are very keen to hear parents’ and education professionals’ views.  So far, we have had really interesting responses coming through.  We hope to receive as many viewpoints as possible, so that we can build a bigger picture of people’s diverse experiences of school Accessibility Plans and access issues generally.

Finding out about people’s real-life experiences will help us create compelling research findings.  We hope our research will increase Accessibility Plans’ potential to drive inclusive education practice – and, ultimately, support more opportunities for independent living and inclusion in mainstream society.

Please click here to complete the parents’ survey (or copy this link into your browser:  https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ALLFIEparentsquestionnaire).

Please click here to complete the educators’ and professionals’ survey (or copy this link into your browser:  https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ALLFIEeducatorsprofessionalsquestionnaire).

Questionnaires are open until the end of February.

Calling all parents who have been asked for voluntary donations

The Independent newspaper is keen to speak to parents who have been asked to plug the funding gap  for school essentials through voluntary donations. Please email us at info@rescueourschools.co.uk  as soon  as possible this afternoon if you would be willing to speak to them. Their deadline is 5pm today. Thank you!

The Department for Education: Our end of year report

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.

Overall Assessment

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.

Parents, Should our New Year Resolution be Revolution?

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?

 

Education Uncovered is a website, now just over a year old, which aims to do just that.

Set up, edited and largely written by me, Warwick Mansell, an experienced education journalist, it aims to scrutinise decision-making power at all levels of control over our schools.

I founded it because of the large number of tip-offs that were coming my way about issues that I felt needed public scrutiny, especially around developments in the government’s favoured academies sector, but which were not always finding a home in the national media.

I wanted to explore and feature as many as I could of the campaigns arising out of communities wanting a greater say in decisions about their schools, seeking to analyse each one’s significance to national policymaking, and to do my bit to bring about a greater sense of decision-makers having to account for those choices.

The site’s investigative strands have featured not just the academies and free schools policies, including sometimes sky-high leadership pay, but the detail of Ofsted’s operations, ministers and their often questionable relationship with reality, and bad education policy in general.

Education Uncovered is a subscription-only site, offered at a basic rate of £6.25 for three months (£25 a year), which works out at just 7p per day. For £12.50 for three months (£50 a year), you offer more support for the site and also get weekly emails from me. By backing it, you will be supporting independent, challenging journalism that I hope is making a unique contribution to the education news landscape.

As someone said recently after reading one of the site’s exclusives: “I am so happy: I had to read the piece three times, I was so glad to have seen it appeared.” Another said: “I cannot thank you enough for your interest and coverage.”

Go to www.educationuncovered.co.uk to take a look.

PS: The site is also having a first-birthday conference in central London on the afternoon of Friday, December 14th, open to subscribers only. It is shaping up to being an interesting event. If you subscribe, I will send details.

Rescue Our Schools kindly agreed to let me write this message on this page, to promote the website and conference.

Resilience: Building strong individuals or encouraging acceptance of the unacceptable?

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.