Archive for August, 2009

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Cover

August 20, 2009

When we go back to school in September one aspect of teaching life should have changed for good. Due to an agreement made several years ago, qualified teachers, other than supply teachers, should no longer have to do cover, except for emergencies. (For those non-teachers reading this, cover is when, during “non-contact time” you have to take another teacher’s lessons because they are ill, on a trip or too important to actually have to teach their own classes.) There is no requirement that covers have to be for a teacher’s own subject, and in bad schools (i.e. most of them) classes will act up for teachers they don’t know. As a result, particularly when you are new to a school, covers tend to be a mix of baby-sitting and riot control, and only every so often is anything resembling a lesson allowed to take place.

Cover has always been a good way of telling how much a school cares about its teaching staff. This has been particularly in the last few years as many schools have significantly reduced the amount of covers, while the worst managed schools have continued as if workload agreements didn’t apply to them.

Here are some of the things schools can do to make covers as unpleasant as possible:

1) Make covers frequent. If a school really doesn’t care about teaching staff then dumping lots of cover on teachers is a cheap money saving option. It lowers morale, makes teachers more stressed and reduces time for marking and preparation, but unless you actually think that teachers should do their job well, there is no reason to avoid making their job unnecessarily difficult.

2)  Make covers unpredictable. If teachers do not know in advance which hours of the day covers will take place, and could lose their non-contact time at the drop of a hat then they are unable to plan their day properly. As a result they will end up rushing to do all their preparation before school, or after school the previous day, even on days when they should have non-contact time. Mornings will be spent playing “cover roulette” gambling on whether you will be taken for cover or not and coming up with alternative schedules for the day’s work depending on whether or not you get taken for cover.

3) Organise covers informally. Leave it to people who are already busy, or even to absent teachers, to prepare lessons for teachers doing cover. Inevitably, most lessons end up being worksheets and wordsearches. Often teachers turn up to find no work set; sometimes because nobody has remembered to set it; sometimes because it has been left in the wrong place; sometimes because it has been destroyed by a student. Or the work may require resources that simply aren’t available, or only be enough for twenty minutes of an hour long lesson. And let’s not forget the 11 words which make up the worst cover-work of all: “They are working on their coursework. They know what to do.”

4) Pay no attention to who is being given covers. So for instance if there is a year 10 boys PE cover and the choice is between Mr Brown, an MFL teacher who is new to the school and doesn’t teach year 10, and Mr White, a PE teacher, who has been at the school twenty years, and is head of year 10, then give the cover to Mr Brown. If you are well established in a school then cover lessons become a convenient place to do marking while children sit quietly copying from a textbook. If you are new to a school covers are likely to be some kind of riot. At one school I worked at this distinction was so well recognised that I found that if I took a pile of marking into cover lessons the children just assumed I was important and behaved accordingly.

On top of that, there are things schools can do to really get the message across that when it comes to covers they are treating teachers like shit:

1)  Make it clear to staff that you are deliberately trying to give them as many covers as possible. This one is hard to believe, why would bosses who treat their workforce badly publicise it? Yet I have frequently been in meetings where senior managers explained quite happily to staff that they were trying to find out what the maximum number of covers they could make staff do is, apparently under the impression that teachers would be so grateful that the school was trying to follow the rules, that they wouldn’t actually think “why are they trying to make things as unpleasant as possible for us?”

2) Don’t give SMT anywhere near as many covers as mainscale teachers, even though they have more non-contact periods.

3) Make excuses for making the cover situation so bad. For instance, claim that supply teachers can’t be trusted, or that non-teaching cover supervisors are incompetent, and that only people who already have a full time-table and backlog of work can be trusted to do the job properly.

So, goodbye, and good riddance, to covers. You will not be missed.

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Education as a Religion

August 14, 2009

This is another follow up to my blog entry about Optimism. In particular, I will be elaborating on the following comment:

“There is only one part of education that I am not optimistic about. I am not optimistic about attempts to perfect human nature. The moment I know that a scheme, or an aim, is based on the idea that students will be changed on the inside, then I know that we are wasting our time. The moment that education is meant to be a replacement for religion; when it is to tamper in the stuff of people’s souls; when it is meant to result in some secular form of salvation, then I do feel dread.”

I’m not sure whether it is because we live in a post religious society, or because there are some people out there who simply see the red mist whenever religion is mentioned, but there followed some discussion after this about what I meant, so I thought I’d talk about it here.

I am referring to a couple of ideas I associate with religion.  The first is the notion of the transformation of the self. This is very much tied up with the second idea, that of salvation, a belief that the individual, the community, or the entire human race can or will change and transcend our current, often difficult, existence. A good argument can be made that this belief reflects something fundamental about human beings. John Gray, in his book “Black Mass”, makes a very good case that this type of thinking has remained at the heart of secular philosophies. In communism and liberalism alike, there is a belief that human beings will progress, not just through technology, but morally as well. Transformation becomes an inevitable, historical process of development rather than something personal or divine. Instead of salvation happening throughout history, or outside of history, as it happens in religions, it is something that history proceeds towards.

Gray is not religious himself, and has often used parallels with religion as a reason for criticising ideologies. However, in recent years he has described himself as more sympathetic to religion, seeing religious salvation as far more benign than its secular equivalent. If salvation comes from God then the human race does not necessarily have to be led kicking and screaming to salvation. If salvation is a historical process, understood by enlightened minds, then the enlightened can push that process along. Humanity can be recreated in line with expectations. Inevitably, a lot of the greatest evils in recent human history have come attached to talk of “progress” and visions of where humanity should be forced to go. Worse, anything that appears to be “progressive”, anything that disregards authority, tradition or an existing way of life, is likely to be a step on the path towards salvation and should, therefore, be supported.

Now, in education, it almost goes without saying that bad ideas have been justified by labelling them as “progressive” and contrasted with “traditional” (and, therefore, inferior) ideas. Similarly, other aspects of educational orthodoxy, such as the denial of human nature, can be related to the idea that human beings are set upon an inevitable path to salvation. Moreover, we can see education systems being designed with the purpose of bringing about a particular view of how society should be, not in terms of issues like economic well-being, equality, justice or efficiency, which are inevitable concerns of governments in the modern era, but in terms of a philosophy of humanity. It is here that educationalists end up sounding like religious leaders.

This is not an understatement. Compare these phrases:

“enable all young people to become … confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives”

“[give] inspiration and help  … to the young men and women of our time in their efforts to live productive and fulfilling lives”

One is an aim of the national curriculum, the other is something the Pope mentioned as an aim of scholarship.

How about these two?

“essential for building a good society and for true integral human development”

“at the heart of positive human development, effective social groups and societies”

One is used by the national strategies site to describe the skills learnt in SEAL lessons. One is used by the Pope to describe adherence to Christian values.

How about these two?

“… be able to make successful relationships, to be capable of being (and disposed to be) loving and kind”

“Be generous, be loving and kind, look out for your neighbour and look out for the poor.”

One is from Guy Claxton’s BLP book, describing what we want students to be like, the other is from an American archbishop describing the values which set saints apart.

Now, how many of you can tell which is which, without following the links?

Of course, I have described a situation, but I haven’t really explained why it is a bad thing. After all, if actual religions are in decline in the UK then perhaps schools should act as pseudo-religions. We do have faith schools in this country, so why can’t we have schools preaching a secular, humanist faith?

The key difference is that parents can choose to raise their child in a religious tradition and send them to a faith school which reflects the values of their faith community. Nobody gets a choice about the values of secular schools other than those in charge of education.

Now I do not object to the beneficial effects of being part of a community, and, as schools are communities, I am quite happy for schools to have a civilising effect on students. I do not object to teaching right and wrong where it consists of habits of good behaviour on a day-to-day basis. I don’t mind teaching habits of moral behaviour where they are the habits needed to function as a school. I do object to passing on values decided by politicians and educationalists acting as if they are the priesthood of a new religion. For instance, the recent suggestion to ensure that schools teach that domestic violence is wrong  suggests that right and wrong are something that can be laid down in the National Curriculum, as if ministers and curriculum designers are moral paragons and teachers are in need of their guidance on whether domestic violence is acceptable. This is an attitude in which the education system does not just attempt to reflect the values of the community but is conscripted into an attempt to dictate what those values should be. It suggests:

“… society will wait upon its self-appointed moral teachers, pursuing the extremes they recommend and at a loss when they are silent. The distinguished and inspiring visiting preacher, who nevertheless is a stranger to the way we live, will displace the priest, the father of his parish. In a moral life consisting or suffering the ravages of the armies of conflicting ideals or (when these for the time have passed) falling into the hands of censors and inspectors, the cultivation of a habit of moral behaviour will have as little opportunity as the cultivation of the land when the farmer is confused and distracted by academic critics and political directors.”

Oakeshott (1948)

It is not that a secular school can teach no values, but that there are values that are needed for the school to function effectively as a school: a belief in academic achievement; an accepted right to learn; a respect for authority, which are more important. The problem is that these values, which should be practised habitually if schools are to succeed, are dying out in our schools, while we are wasting time trying to identify and preach the values of an ill-considered, secular religion.

References:

Gray, John, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin, 2008

Oakeshott, Michael, The Tower of Babel, Cambridge Journal II, 1948

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Schools on Film

August 9, 2009

Apologies if you are outside the UK as you may not be able to view this.

I thought it made a few interesting points.

more about "BBC – Kermode Uncut Blog: The Culture…", posted with vodpod

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Some Feedback

August 3, 2009

In light of what I was saying earlier about Optimism, the following is some feedback I received recently about my blog by Private Message on the TES website . It is by no means atypical:

Dear oldandrew,

I’m reading a thread on the Bevaviour Forum at the moment, on which reference is made to your blog.

I just wanted to say (as someone who only did their PGCE year not that long ago, and have read your blog for a few years now) what an excellent site it is. I knew teaching wouldn’t be an easy job to do, but I was quite shocked at what actually goes on in many schools these days. During my PGCE I was verbally abused, had someone walk out of my lesson, and encountered racial abuse targeted at me. I was at least heartened (if that’s the correct term) when I started to understand that it wasn’t just me when it comes to the poor behaviour I have seen, and at least it is normal for it to happen in many lessons. That didn’t actually make the job easier in itself, but at least I have come to understand that it isn’t something I have done myself, or that I deserve it!

I enjoy the job in that I think it can be a very rewarding career, but I did somewhat become cynical during PGCE lectures with regard to some of the strategies and whether they would actually be effective. Some of the advice you have written on behaviour management I have found to be very good (and have put it into practice). I also decided to stop reading ‘getting the buggers to behave’ which, going back to the start of this, I found made me feel like everything I had encountered was my own fault.

Thanks

I thought I’d share this as it sets out exactly what this blog is for. It is not one long whinge, nor is it a place for people who have already had enough. It is for teachers (and others) who are interested in the truth about what is going on in our schools, and what can be done about it.

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