The departure of Mr Gove – what did he get right?

It was quite a surprise. In fact, it was a shock.

Michael Gove has certainly been one of the most instantly recognisable public figures in education for years. He has also been one of the most controversial.

When his departure was announced I wondered what the reasoning behind it was – dislike of his policies, or his personality? Ollie Orange (@OllieOrange2) made the point that Gove is unpopular at the moment, and the conservatives are beginning to focus on their aim of getting re-elected. This, of course, makes perfect sense. No political party would want to have such an unpopular figure in such a prominent position. And Michael Gove has been in the unique position of angering two opposing sides of the educational divide – teachers and parents. His departure has been greeted by much crowing from both the teaching unions and many educational professionals, but parents are also said to be celebrating, illustrated by the following Tweet by Fiona Millar:

Which rather overlooks the point that it is the job of the Secretary of State for Education to ‘meddle’ in educational policies!

Looking, in retrospect, at some of his ‘meddling’, I wonder if the changes can be regarded as such a universally bad thing.

QTS skills test reform

In order to gain QTS, a prospective teacher had to show proficiency in English, maths and ICT (the latter now no longer required). This involved passing three short computer-based tests before the end of the PGCE. Each one lasted 20-30 minutes and was (I believe, I could be remembering this wrongly – please correct me if so) aimed at showing that the trainee teacher was able to demonstrate a minimum ability in each test, around the level a 14 or 16 year old is expected to achieve.

If a teacher failed any of the tests they could resit them an unlimited number of times. On my PGCE course there was a girl who, by the time we all said our goodbyes at the end of the Summer term, had sat the maths skills test 5 times. And failed it five times. She intended to receive private tutoring in order to have a better chance of passing the test on her 6th attempt.

As a supply teacher I’m often left notes by the class teacher, some of which are barely coherent. I’m also provided with worksheets peppered with spelling errors. How many times should a teacher be allowed to attempt to pass a basic skills test in English? In 2010 a teacher at Gleed Girls’ Technology College was ridiculed after they emailed a summary of a child’s progress to a parent who had missed a meeting. The Daily Mail summed up its reporting thus:

Yesterday, the school’s head, Liz Shawhulme, said she was ‘shocked by the number of mistakes, many of which appear to be typos’.
‘It was obviously written in haste and not checked but this is no excuse and I will be contacting the parent to apologise.’
Marie Clair, of the Plain English Campaign, said: ‘Teachers who do this should wear their own dunces’ hats.’

And in May this year, the East Grinstead Courier reported that Ofsted had criticised teachers’ spelling when marking work at Dormansland Primary School:

A letter addressed to new head teacher Sarah Stokes, who was appointed in January, states: “Marking remains inconsistent. It does not give clear advice to pupils about how they can improve, nor does it address all the mistakes made, for example in spelling or punctuation. Sometimes the teacher’s own spelling is not correct.”

 

Northgate High School in Ipswich was so worried about poorly written reports going out, that it advertised for a proof-reader. Yes, teachers are busy; yes, we all make typing mistakes; but no, we have no excuses for not checking our work. There may be one or two errors that may go unnoticed by the writer, but not so many that a proof-reader is necessary. Some primary schools insist on staff reading each others’ reports to ‘help those who find it difficult’ to write correctly.

It might, therefore, be assumed that the changes to the skills tests (maximum of two re-sits within two years for each subject, higher pass mark at 63%, more challenging content) would be welcomed. Far fewer instances of the press seeing badly composed or miscalculated work, far less admin for teachers to carry out checking other reports.

But no, in this article by Melissa Benn for the Guardian, on the possibility of some of Gove’s reforms being overturned, there is this comment by Shipyardwelder:

“On a personnel level , his rushed introduction of Pre-teacher training Skills tests, prevented a promising student from even starting her Teacher Training.”

 

Phonics

I’m stepping into shark-infested waters with this one, but I’m a firm supporter of phonics. Giving children the ability to attempt new words based on the letters on the page is far more effective than looking at the beginning and end of the word and trying to guess what’s in the middle based on the pictures. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this done more than once.

And yet there are plenty of teachers who claim that it is too prescriptive, that it turns children away from reading books. Michael Rosen gets quite worked up about this, and when the phonics screening tests were introduced he penned a rather peevish missive.

I do find the concept of testing children on made-up words odd, and although I understand the reasoning behind it, I would rather see children tested on unfamiliar words containing those same letter patterns.

Phonics, though, is a very sound way to base the teaching of reading. There are too many children who still need ‘clues’ to help them read when in Year 6, those same children are completely lost in Year 7 when the ‘clues’ are no longer in their reading material.

Giving them the opportunity to access the same material as their classmates cannot be a bad thing. As for the assertion that it turns children away from reading, surely being unable to work out a text when there are no ‘clues’ present does that anyway? Or is it best to condemn some children to a lifetime of reading picture books – even as adults?

Term-time abscences

Very controversial, mainly because of the extra financial loading on holidays during the Summer months. However, this is aligned with a clamping down on the requirement for children to attend school regularly, and fining or imprisoning the parents of persistent truants.

I have taught in deprived areas where children regularly miss school because their parents couldn’t be bothered to get up in the morning. Some simply couldn’t care less whether their children attended school or not, just as long as they kept out of their way. Those children invariably ended up in trouble with the police, with no -one chasing them to be in school the devil made work for their idle hands. Fines though, have had some impact, mainly because those same parents don’t want to lose the fags and booze money.

This has mainly been overlooked in the backlash against the removal of access to cheaper holidays. I sympathise with the parents who are complaining, but a foreign holiday is still not a right, it is a luxury, and should be treated as such. There are other ways to enjoy the holidays with your children, flights are not an imperative part of this.

The main point here, though, is that it is difficult to teach a child if they’re not actually in school.

Primary Maths

Very often poorly taught, with the emphasis on ‘exploring’ ways to solve problems. Works a treat if you’re good with numbers, not so great if you don’t understand why things keep changing and end up using half of one way to solve something, and half of another, thereby constantly getting the answer wrong.

Pupils who find maths difficult need fewer options. They may never understand ‘how something works’ but they should be given a fail-safe way to tackle the problem. Not many people can explain exactly how a TV works, but they know that if it isn’t plugged in and switched on there’s no picture. It’s simple to execute, quick and you don’t need to take the set apart to apply this. The same goes for maths.

I taught in one school where the children who didn’t know their times tables were encouraged to use multi-link cubes in arrays to show them the answer. They were encouraged to say out loud how they had arranged the cubes (eg: six rows by seven columns) before counting them to get the answer. “Six times seven equals, one, two, three, four, five….”. Madness anyway, but this was in year 5, and no, the child was not on the SEN register. I used to wonder what would happen to him when he went into Year 6, let alone Year 7.

NC Levels

Originally intended as a measure of progress throughout a child’s school life, the expectation was that children at primary school would make two sub-levels of progress a year. Essentially the measure became a target in itself.

This brought with it the attendant problems of the target being used to measure the school, rather than the child. When this happened, it became imperative for a school to show that a child was making the expected progress, if they didn’t then the local authority would start asking questions. As would Ofsted. But it soon became apparent that it wouldn’t be the school that was accountable for the perceived ‘lack of progress’, that would fall to the class teacher, and possibly the headteacher.

If pressure was brought to bear on the head, that would definitely be passed down to the class teacher, so obviously, the two sub-levels of progress became a minimum that each teacher recorded in their end-of-year results.

Darren can’t write his own name yet? But he came into year 1 on a level 1B, so I’ll have to say he’s a 2C… Lucy never uses capital letters or full stops, but she came into year 4 on a 3A, so I’ll have to say she’s 4B… Anna doesn’t know her times tables and can’t tell you how to calculate area, but she came into Year 5 on a 4a, so I’ll have to say she’s a 5B…

All this does it put inordinate pressure on the Year 6 teacher to try to get the children to gain those grades in the SATs tests, they have to try to get the children to the claimed level they were when the entered Year 6, never mind with an additional two sub-levels of expected progress!

It’s all nonsense, and the reason why so many children have intensive SATs coaching lessons from January onwards, in a desperate attempt to make the results fit with the paper trail. And all for what? When the children go on to secondary they’re usually given another assessment as the schools don’t trust the SATs scores or the teacher assessment.

 

***

 

None of these things can really be considered to be problematic, but they were all contentious. They were all brought in with the aim of raising standards and this can only be a positive move. The phonics and maths reforms both have research behind them, the skills test and attendance requirements are simply common sense. The National Curriculum levels one removes the need for the farcical circus that is grade inflation. And yet each was met with derision when announced. Why?

These were also relatively ‘small’ things, yet they resulted in a very vocal opposition, so loud that it began to take on a life of its own. Gove’s departure gave rise to numerous statements by the teaching unions, bloggers, journalists, heads and classroom teachers, all cheering his removal, as though this was something with universal support.

But there isn’t universal support.

There really are many teachers who felt that Michael Gove was beginning to make headway in terms of reforming state schools in this country. Not everything he did was great, and there are things that I disagree with profoundly, PRP being one of those, but in general I have no argument with his curriculum reforms.

For too long children have been short-changed by the education they receive, one that deifies progressive teaching methods and a policy of valuing everything equally, to the detriment of a content-rich curriculum. I had hoped that the reforms that were beginning to make inroads into this would continue, but I now have my doubts.

I wonder though, because Gove was seen as such a caricature of unpopularity, whether the areas in which he brought a common-sense reform will be quietly altered to appease voters – both those who teach and those who have children?

It would be a great pity if this were to be the case.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Prizes for all? That’s sooo yesterday…

Much has been written about the apparent ‘prizes for all’ culture prevalent in some schools. The need to constantly reward behaviour or achievement that meets the minimum standard at best.

It’s a culture which is largely ridiculed and examples are given of how this fails to uphold the values it purports to promote.

Presumably, at the school I was working in today, someone had taken note of this, and had extended this culture to its logical conclusion.

Although the clouds were threatening to disgorge a torrent upon the field, mercifully, bar a very small shower, the day stayed dry. The sun resolutely refused to shine, but as it was warm out, no-one complained. The children anxiously watched the sky all morning, keeping their fingers crossed, and failing utterly to concentrate on any task they were given, their minds only focused on the excitement to come – SPORTS DAY!

Well, there should have been excitement, but much of this seemed to have been wiped out by a very odd approach to ‘fair play’. At least, that’s what I was told it was.

The children were grouped in tiered teams, three teams of children ranging from Reception to Year 6, all in coloured t-shirts. They were all very excited, and proudly boasted of how they expected to fare in each of the events they were competing in. Due to the numbers of children taking part in sports day, they had each been assigned three events, based supposedly on their strengths.

So far, so good. The class I was with were enthusiastic and good-natured, smiles all round, and supportive of their team-mates, as well as their classsmates in rival teams. The ingredients were there for a really successful day.

Except, it wasn’t. Or rather, sports day went as intended by the Head and SLT, and probably as expected by the regular staff, but it rather baffled both me and the other supply teacher.

And a significant number of parents.

And quite a few of the children.

The events were traditional – egg & spoon, sack race, two different running races, and so on. The children lined up at the start, and on the blast from the klaxon charged as fast as they could towards the finish line. The first one to cross the line was given a sticker, as was the second, third, and all the other competitors. Identical stickers. Ones that read “I ran in a race”.

As the head explained to me, the children were to be told not to cheer on their friends, not to call out any names, just to cheer generally until the last person had crossed the line.

There was to be no awarding of first place, no winner recognised, all in the interests of ‘fair play’. Apparently giving credit to those who won, or even came third, would ‘disenfranchise those whose strengths lie elsewhere’. Promoting winners was ‘divisive’.

David (Year 6) refused to run in the egg and spoon race, he walked the length of the course instead. As he (admittedly logically) pointed out, “If I run hard I get the same as if I don’t bother. I can’t win, no-one can, so what’s the point?”

Some of the children cried “I want a sticker that says I won!”. Some of the parents complained that it seemed a bit odd, echoing David they wondered what the point of running a race was if there were no winners.

It’s inaccurate to say the children were competing, as a competition requires a winner, one who proves they are better, or more successful than the other entrants. The definition makes this quite clear: The activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.

The coloured teams didn’t seem to mean much, no-one seemed to be taking note of which team had been most successful in each race. But then, as there were ‘no winners’, I’m not sure how they would have decided which team won anyway.

At the end of sports day the head took the megaphone and thanked everyone for all the support they had given to the children competing today. She was pleased to see that everyone had embraced her vision of a day for all to enjoy, one where although there were no winners, there were also no losers.

As the parents walked back towards the school I overheard one father saying “No f*****g winners? What did she do – pick the England team?”

Posted in Supply Cover | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Lado has a problem

“Hello Miss, sorry to bother you at lunchtime, only Lado came to see me after he left your lesson.”

“Yes?” Who are you? Where did Lado go after he stormed out of the classroom? “Sorry, you are…?”

“I’m Mrs Ali, from Student Support. Lado came to me when you sent him out of the classroom, he was very upset. He says he doesn’t know why you told him off. He says he wasn’t doing anything.” This much is true, in part. He wasn’t doing any work. “He wants to know why you told him off. Lado, come here, the teacher is going to explain herself.” Explain myself?????!!!!!

“Lado, I told you off because you were refusing to do any work. You also hit another pupil with a ruler and tore up someone else’s book. You then swore at me and stormed out of the classroom. I didn’t send you out.” Stop smirking, yes, you know exactly why you were told off, don’t you?

“Is that true, Lado? You told me you didn’t know why you were being told off. Did you swear at the teacher?” Now you’ve changed tack, and are standing there with your mouth open in feigned surprise. Do you really think this will work?

“Whaaaat? Nah, nah, I didn’t. I didn’t do nuffink to her. She just picked on me.” ‘Didn’t do nothing’? That’s certainly true – you did and said a great deal…! “I didn’t do it. I swear.” Hmmm….

“He said he didn’t do it. Are you sure he did?” What? I think I must have misheard you – surely you didn’t just ask that!

“Yes, I’m quite sure Lado hit someone and swore at me. I don’t consider that acceptable behaviour so I told him off. I have also filled out a lunchtime detention slip for this.” Don’t pull faces at me Lado, if you didn’t misbehave you wouldn’t face sanctions.

“Whaaaat? That’s not fair! Mrs Ali, tell her that’s not f*****g fair!” Swearing again? This is hardly going to do you any favours is it? No doubt Mrs Ali will have something to say about that.

“Lado, wait please, I’m trying to sort this out.” ‘Sort this out’? That doesn’t sound quite as promising as I’d hoped. Surely you mean you’re going to remind him of his responsibilities? “You see, Miss, Lado told me he found your lesson difficult.”

“Difficult? If Lado had trouble understanding anything he only had to ask and I’d have helped him.” I may be cynical, but this sounds like an excuse – I don’t believe he found the lesson difficult. The cover work was to design a poster, for goodness sake!

“No Miss, I mean Lado found it difficult to be in your lesson. You see Miss, Lado has a problem. He finds it difficult to be good if the teachers are strict with him.” Utterly lost for words… “Lado needs people to work with him to help him make good choices.” Still lost for words…

“Yeah. Yeah. See if you’re dissin’ me I don’t listen and then you tell me off and give me a detention and then I don’t give a s**t what you say coz you’re all rubbish. I need you to tell me what I’m doing right, see, then I won’t get rude and you won’t tell me off. But I’m not missing cricket and Faizal said I was a c**k so I hit him and now I’ve got sent out and you’re dissin’ me and I didn’t do nuffink like what the others did and you don’t tell them off.” Some of that made sense. But only some.

“Shhh, Lado, that isn’t helping.” True, very true. But I’m not sure you are either. “Lado doesn’t mean to cause problems. He has issues with authority and needs to be encouraged to make the right choices. We help him by giving him rewards. He’s allowed to play cricket at lunchtime, well practice with the Head of Year 9, this helps him see that good choices give him rewards.” I have a sneaking suspicion of where this is heading. “So it won’t really be helpful if he loses his lunchtime tomorrow, will it Lado?” You’re overruling my detention, aren’t you? Oh, how helpful!

“No Miss. I don’t wanna lose me lunchtime. I get in trouble if I lose me lunchtime.” Stop smiling, I thought you were supposed to be upset and contrite?

“Right, so you’re saying that Lado can’t do a lunchtime detention because he’s allowed to practice cricket? In which case, what sanctions should be applied for his behaviour this morning?” Why do I have a bad feeling about this?

“In Student Support we try to work with the teachers to help the students. We don’t like to exclude them as then they don’t learn then. But as Lado hit someone we need to make sure he knows it was wrong.” You think this 15 year-old doesn’t already know that hitting someone is wrong? Really? “If you write down what you want me to speak to Lado about, I’ll make sure he stays in with me tomorrow breaktime.”Write down’? ‘Write down’???? How much detail do you require? He swore at me and hit someone – he even admitted this!

“Right, I’ll hand the details into reception at the end of the day. Lado has another lesson with me this afternoon…” You’re going to object to something, aren’t you? Now if I can only be allowed to finish my sentence…

“Ah, Miss, Lado has said that he can’t be in your lesson this afternoon in case he can’t cope again. So he’s going to spend the afternoon in Student Support.” I should have guessed.

“Ok, do you want me to give you a copy of the work that has been set?” Remember, this is lesson time, and he really should be taking part and completing the set work.

“No, no, we’ve got a program of things we do to help support students that are out of class. Lado will be working on that.” Really? Somehow I knew you would.

“Nah Miss, I ain’t doing that stupid program. I done that last week and it was s**t. I ain’t doin’ nuffin’ for divs.” Nice try, but I don’t think you’ll be getting him to do your Student Support program. Good luck!

“Now Lado, don’t be so negative! You did well last week. How about we finish the page you were on last week and then you can choose what to do? Come on, come with me now. Miss is sorry she upset you, but she doesn’t know you and doesn’t know how to help you.” I can’t believe I’m really hearing this. “She’ll know not to make you angry next time.” I’m rather hoping there won’t be a next time.

“I ain’t havin’ her again. I don’t want to see her again.” The feeling’s mutual.

“Oh sorry Miss! He doesn’t mean it.” I think you’ll find he probably does. “We just try to be one happy family here!”

Two and a half hours.

Two and a half hours until home time.

And then I can mix with the sensible world again.

 

banging-head-on-wall

 

 

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

My Teacher Wife Is a Lazy Liar

themodernmiss:

I think the profession has just been rumbled…

Originally posted on smithdeville:

It’s the last day of school for my lazy, lying wife. She says teachers still have to go to work, but that can’t be right. Teachers only work when the kids are at school. I wish she would come clean and admit she is not really a teacher.  School starts around 9:00 and dismisses at 3:45.  She leaves the house before seven each morning, and it’s only a fifteen or twenty minute drive to the “school” where she “teaches.” She comes home around six or six-thirty in the evening. Sometimes later. What is she doing with all the extra time?

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

6:57 a.m. and the bag lady leaves the house. Looking for an OTB parlor that opens early.

When she gets home, I make sure dinner awaits the slacker. It’s a wonder she doesn’t demand I spoon-feed her. After dinner, she works on “lesson plans” and “grades papers.”  The way she describes…

View original 796 more words

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The 23-point behaviour policy

It’s important for a school to have a behaviour policy, it’s important for both the children and the staff as well as the coherent running of the school.

It’s also important that it works.

I spent today in a primary school, with two classes of 28 (Year 6) and 23 (Year 4). It felt more like being pitted against the combined armies of Genghis Khan and Stalin.

At the start of the day I was told that the school was lucky, it had some troublesome pupils in the past, but that now there were no behavioural issues at all. Previously, there were three or four exclusions a month, both internal and fixed-term external ones. Now though, there were no exclusions at all, that the behaviour never escalated to that level and the school was hoping to lose the ‘Requires Improvement‘ label. The key to this, I was told, lies in the school’s behaviour policy.

The school implements a decreasing behavior policy, using coloured cards. Each child starts the day on Gold, then, if their behaviour is poor, they are put on Silver, then Bronze, then Ruby. At this point, the child’s parents are telephoned and informed of their child’s poor behaviour. The head assured me that this rarely happens, as the children do not want to be in trouble at home. In fact, since Easter only one child had got this far down the behaviour chart.

I started teaching in the Year 6 class, and it soon became apparent that this was not going to be as calm as the head had led me to believe. Darren started the calling out, which was then picked up by Perry and Sam. Once they had calmed down, Maisie and Ella started. After which, Darren, Perry and Sam resumed the offensive. This continued the whole morning.

I diligently implemented the school’s behavior system, and checked with the TA that I was doing so correctly as it didn’t seem to be having much of an impact. At break-time I retreated back to the staffroom in search of a coffee and a chat with the TA to restore my sanity. I asked again about the behavior policy and at what point the children were sent out of the classroom for disruption, either to the Head, or into another class. I was informed that this simply didn’t happen.

The head had entered the staffroom whilst I had been talking to the TA and had overheard some of the conversation. She reiterated that children were never sent out of the room unless it was for reasons of first-aid or because they had been excessively violent to another child. In truth, the children, although rude and disruptive, did not strike me as particularly likely to become “excessively violent”. This probably explains why no children were ever sent out of the room. Furthermore, I was told that behaviour management was entirely the responsibility of the class teacher, and that if I followed the behaviour chart policy to the letter, no child would ever reach the point of having a phone call made to their parents. Something which, incidentally, the class teacher was responsible for doing, not the head.

I can certainly believe that few children reach the point at which their parents are called. But this is due to the ridiculous behavior policy, and not the good behaviour of the class.

For each of the ‘lower’ behaviour grades (Silver, Bronze and Ruby), the children had to be issued with both first and second warnings. On the face of it, it seems almost reasonable. Until, that is, you see exactly how that relates to a consequence. The children did not miss break or lunchtime play as that would be ‘detrimental to their well-being‘. They would not be prevented form taking part in any school activities, such as art, PE or golden time, as that was ‘infringing their academic rights‘. The only consequence to poor behaviour was the phone-call home.

In addition to the ‘warnings’ the children had their name written on the board before they were moved down to the next level. This effectively acted as a third warning.

Misbehaviour incident Behaviour chart level Consequence
N/A Gold N/A
1 1st warning none
2 2nd warning none
3 name on board none
4 Silver none
5 1st warning none
6 2nd warning none
7 name on board none
8 Bronze none
9 1st warning none
10 2nd warning none
11 name on board none
12 Ruby Phonecall Home

As the morning progressed, the children slowly worked their way down the behaviour chart, ending up on the 9th or 10th level. I reminded them that although we were not yet at lunchtime, they were a long way past the half-way point on the chart.

The children laughed. And carried on.

At lunchtime I sat in despair in the staffroom, getting through far more coffee than is really healthy. Other members of staff assured me that my afternoon in Year 4 would be much better, and that Year 6 were notoriously difficult.

As I walked into the Year 4 class I noticed that two of the children were on stage 4 of the behaviour chart, only one of them had fallen as far as stage 8. The rest were all still on Gold. As the children entered I pointed out that some of them would have to be careful not to fall any further, otherwise I would have to call their parents.

This caused quite a commotion amongst the children, and as I attempted to make sense of their grumbling, the TA in that class informed me that the behaviour chart was always reset after lunch – all the children started again on Gold.

gold star

This means that, in effect, the children can each misbehave on 22 occasions each day before triggering a consequence on the 23rd occasion. Not surprisingly, they are fully aware of this.

In a class of 28, with each child potentially able to misbehave 22 times, that adds up to 616 incidences of misbehaviour every day. Admittedly, if the children are only engaging in low-level disruption, that’s probably no more serious* than 616 cases of talking out of turn. But is it acceptable? Or even reasonable?

Can anyone really be expected to maintain order in those circumstances? Even though there were only 5 children who were misbehaving, that equates to a maximum of 110 interruptions before the children face any consequence whatever.

This is the worst example of a behaviour policy that I have come across, but there are others which have also involved chance after chance after chance. How many chances do children require? How many warnings? What are we really teaching them by never letting them reach the ‘consequences’? What exactly does a child learn from this?

Incidentally, the teacher I was covering in Year 6 is off with long-term stress.

 

*Personally, I think more than one instance of talking out of turn is serious, but I’m beginning to suspect I may be alone in this.

Posted in Behaviour | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

Tradition or snobbery? Part 2

Yesterday I began to look at the reasons I believe there are two opposing camps in the traditional / progressive education debate. I cannot claim to have come up with a definitive answer, but I begin to suspect that it is more than just the personal educational experiences of the teachers.

Last Sunday, Harry Webb wrote about ‘obedience’ in schools (which garnered a fantastic response from Deputy John), in relation to the publication of the ‘educational vision‘ of Michaela Community School.

This is the school set up by Katherine Birbalsingh, the teacher who spoke at the Conservative conference in 2010. She has clearly stuck to her principles by including the line: We will expect our pupils to be polite and obedient. This caused quite a storm on Twitter, and I highly recommend reading Harry Webb’s post for a good insight into what this means in reality.

But what stood out for me the most on Michaela’s website, was the second paragraph on the Welcome page:

Michaela will bring the values and advantages of a private education to young people of all backgrounds by providing a highly academic curriculum and strong discipline.

And this, I think is the heart of the problem.

One blogger has even written a parody of Michaela’s website, substituting “Like a public school only for poor kids” for the statement above.

Michaela Community School has overstepped the mark – it has said the unsayable and there are many teachers who cannot accept this. Michaela wants to emulate a private school.

In the vast majority of independent schools, strong discipline and pupil obedience go hand-in-hand. In this way, the schools are able to concentrate on the education side of teaching, rather than on the crowd control side. Without this, the teachers couldn’t teach, and the learners couldn’t learn. In the state system, this is often the polar opposite.

In addition to discipline and high academic expectations, independent schools often favour a more traditional approach to teaching. This is not true in all cases, of course, but it is certainly a feature of the more academic institutions. Although children in these establishments will have the opportunity to do some independent learning and to participate in group work, it isn’t the backbone of the school in the same way that those approaches are in the state sector.

Additionally, it must be remembered that independent schools have never been required to follow the National Curriculum, and thus have not been subject to the shifting sands of educational policy. What they do, they do very well. And what they do, works.

In many cases, it also hasn’t changed in a long time. The school have discovered the best way to impart knowledge to their pupils, and they have continued with this without interruption for many years.

But private schools are elitist, divisive and promote social disparity.

So they must be wrong.

If the schools are wrong, then so is everything they do.

This, I seriously suspect, is at the root of much of the opposition to traditional teaching methods by many in the profession. They have an ideological opposition to anything which may be seen as supporting a two-tier educational system, even if that really isn’t the issue.

The headteacher I mentioned yesterday is a case in point. She detested the very idea of private schools, and would not entertain any activity or idea that seemed to be rooted in the private system. And she isn’t alone. I have heard a head berating an NQT for using the term ‘houses’ when he should have said ‘teams’, on the basis that the first term is ‘too posh’ for their school.

Thousands of parents part with millions of pounds every year, in order to send their offspring to a private school. Why? Certainly there is an element of ‘the old boys’ network’ for some of them, but this doesn’t account for all of it. The only rational explanation is that they know, that in the majority, their children will receive a good education there.

A good traditional education. One that has proven results over many years, that focuses on knowledge, that aims to equip all pupils with the ability to succeed in life. Is this really wrong?

There are clearly a number of teachers who don’t think like this, they’re the ones who advocate a more traditional approach to learning, irrespective of whether they themselves were educated in the independent or state sector. They believe that their approach works and they will pursue their course of action for the benefit of their pupils. I’m sure that a number of these teachers actively dislike the idea of private education, but they can see that there is a distinction between the methods and the system.

I’m not convinced this is true of all teachers though.

There are certainly some who truly believe in the ideals of a progressive curriculum, and I have a certain amount of respect for those teachers. I disagree with their outlook, but I applaud anyone who does something because they truly believe in it. However, again, I think those teachers are in the minority. From my experiences of discussions with teachers who advocate a progressive curriculum, their main reasoning seems to centre on the premise that it is the opposite of the traditional style that is used in the independent sector. This doesn’t seem very good reasoning to me. If teachers project their personal prejudices onto their educational outlook, they do the children they teach a great disservice.

Polite, obedient, well-rounded children who have a desire to learn are not the preserve of some elite establishment. Potentially, they are the children we see every day, the ones from the broken homes, the council estates, the refugees and the abused.

If we give them a good base from which to grow, if we teach them things they need to know, if we give them knowledge, encourage good manners and enquiring minds, they can make some headway in escaping their current positions.

If we avoid anything ‘traditional’ in the misplaced belief that it smacks of public school, be it discipline or knowledge, we perpetuate the two-tier educational system, and by definition restrict them to a second-class life. We’re essentially saying ‘you can’t do what the posh kids are doing, you’re not good enough‘.

Is that really the message we want to give our pupils?

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Tradition or snobbery? Part 1

Going away for a while (both literally and in the blogging and Twitter sense) has given me the chance to consider an element in the educational debate that I hadn’t thought about before.

When I returned, I found that I had a lot of catching up to do, particularly in reading posts by bloggers for whom I have a great respect – even if I don’t completely agree with them. As I read, I was struck by the background information some of the bloggers had provided, and how, it appeared to me, this had influenced their opinions. It is, I have to stress, very much a personal interpretation, and perhaps I may be completely incorrect, having jumped to the wrong conclusions. Either way, I haven’t asked any bloggers if this is the case, but I do welcome any thoughts on the matter.

One of the strongest polarizing debates is that of ‘Traditional’ vs ‘Progressive’ education. There are many interpretations of those words, so for the purpose of this blog, by ‘Traditional’, I mean a formal, structured ‘chalk and talk’ approach, focusing on knowledge; by ‘Progressive’, I mean group work and independent learning, focusing on skills.

Catching up on my reading, I noticed that a few bloggers who favour the traditional approach to teaching had been educated privately. Their own experience of education had followed the traditional model, one that many private schools continue to use. It also included an expectation of good behaviour, coupled with the knowledge that refusal to adhere to this would result in sanctions being imposed – and expulsion was not beyond possibility. For some, the first time they had entered a state school may have been when they started their teacher training.

Although the blogs focus on the realities of poor behaviour and bizarre interpretations of educational theory, these privately educated bloggers are still working in the state system. They haven’t decided that they can’t stand the pressures of teaching in a state school, before quickly transferring back to the independent sector. Instead, they persevere in sometimes, some very challenging circumstances. There are many questions that could be asked about this, including just why they do it when there are far less stressful options available, but looking beyond the obvious questions, I began to wonder if their belief in a particular educational approach had anything to do with their own experiences as a pupil. In many ways this would make sense, familiarity with a system can often go hand-in-hand with fondness for it.

But then, I thought some more, and decided that this probably wasn’t the (whole) answer.

I was once overheard by my headteacher correcting a primary pupil’s use of the word ‘can’. I had been asked the usual question “Can I go to the toilet?”, and I pointed out that ‘can’ means ‘am I able to?’, whereas ‘may’ means ‘am I allowed to?’ and this should have been the word the pupil used. I was asked to see the head in her office, whereupon I was on the receiving end of a lecture which included the words ‘elitist’, ‘posh’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘boring’ and ‘public school’. It concluded with the statement “Our kids are normal ones, don’t try and make them do the same stuff or speak the same way as the posh kids – you won’t fit in here if you do.” This head had made it very clear in staff meetings that she thought private schooling was inherently bad and morally reprehensible. She dismissed any idea or proposed activity if it had even the slightest look of something that might occur in an independent school. The individual merits of anything were never considered; appearance was all.

Clearly, the majority of teachers working today must have attended a state school. The independent sector is far smaller than the state, it is therefore very unlikely that it has produced a large percentage of current teachers, and the number of those who were educated privately but now work in the state sector must be small indeed. And yet there are a considerable number of teachers who support a traditional teaching style – they can’t all have gone to private schools, can they? Even including Grammar Schools in the traditional camp, doesn’t account for this.

Unable to draw any real conclusions to satisfy myself, I started to look at the issue from the opposite direction. If supporters of traditional teaching models came from backgrounds where this had been the model for their own schooling, could those who advocate progressive teaching methods have experienced this at school? I am aware that this idea does not explain the rise in progressive teaching at the start of its popularity, but as it has been around for so long, the majority of teachers currently working would have been educated in this environment.

Of course, that doesn’t sit with my conclusion that a large number of teachers who support traditional methods would not have been educated in that style themselves. So clearly, there must be something else…

 

 

Part 2 tomorrow.

 

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