Archive for October, 2010

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Snuffy

October 25, 2010

Some time back I recommended my favourite British education blogs. (This seems to have been the kiss of death and only two of them continued to post regularly after I mentioned them.)

One of them was “To Miss With Love”, a blog by an assistant headteacher (with the pen-name “Snuffy”) which mainly through anecdotes, described the lunacy of what goes on in schools. Clever, touching and funny, it was probably the best of all the blogs written by teachers. The only issue I ever had with it (and I’m sure I didn’t make that big a deal about it, although Snuffy did once write a post about me claiming I had “driven her mad”) was over some of the politics, although even then it was more often with many of the people writing comments than with Snuffy herself.

A while ago regular blog posts ceased and then, after a long hiatus, Snuffy returned briefly to say she had become a deputy headteacher at a new school before disappearing again leaving a cryptic comment suggesting people should look out for her opinions somewhere else.

For this reason I wasn’t completely surprised when a few days later I heard about this:

I was rather impressed, which is not something I often say about speeches at Conservative Party conference. Snuffy, or rather Katharine Birbalsingh, is absolutely accurate in describing :

  • a broken system which “keeps poor children poor”;
  • ridiculous excuses for poor behaviour and low standards;
  • dumbing down so blatant that even children can spot it;
  • grade chasing, bureaucracy and a lack of structure and discipline;

But I still have issues with the politics. Katharine’s account, and it is not an uncommon one among Tories, is that the madness of the system is the result of an amorphous entity known as “The Left”. This seems to encompass Marxists, liberals, all wings of the Labour Party (particularly Labour ministers between 1997 and 2010) and almost all teachers.

My objection is not to the idea that Labour ministers bear responsibility for what’s happened during the last 13 years, or to the idea that much of the problems we face in schools are a result of ideology and often ideology of a left-wing hue. My objection is that it is a ridiculous simplification. Even if we ignore aspects of the mess (OFSTED, dumbing down, league tables, bureaucratic funding mechanisms) that blatantly date back to the 18 years of Conservative government before 1997, or the role of more recent Conservative politicians in local government (most of my career has been in schools in Tory run local authorities) we’d still struggle to identify a unified “Left” on which to blame everything else. It is only on the most extreme right-wing fringes of politics where Tony Blair is a noted left-winger promoting a Marxist agenda. The bile much of “the Left” has for Blair is legendary, and in the days before Iraq most of that hatred seemed to be mainly over education. It is pretty hard to find much ideological unity between Blunkett and Balls, the Labour government’s first and last education ministers, let alone consensus across a much wider left-wing constituency.

However, the idea that a speech at Conservative Party conference might not accurately reflect the shades of opinion within the Labour Party, or within the wider left, is not really shocking or anything to worry about. What concerns me is not that Labour politicians get the blame (what happened in schools from 1997-2010 was their responsibility even if it wasn’t necessarily the result of a deep-seated ideological agenda) but the way in which teachers get the blame. According to the speech the problem is that teachers are “blinded by leftist ideology” with a “loyalty to the left”.

This is not my experience. My experience is of teachers who will not take industrial action that their own union has voted for. My experience is of teachers who send their children to private schools and grammar schools. My experience is of managers who are utterly unconcerned about racism and homophobia in their schools. My experience is of a wide range of views among teachers and managers, with complete political apathy and a general disinterest in politics being the most common attitudes.

But even if my experience is not a common one, I would still worry about the picture being painted. In this picture we don’t have to worry that managers are incompetent, dishonest or unable to lead if they aren’t left-wing. In this picture we don’t have to worry about pseudo-scientific teaching methods that don’t work, or paperwork that overwhelms us, if the initiatives they stem from don’t seem particularly ideological. In this picture we don’t have to hold people to account for their actions, only their beliefs. It is a McCarthyist picture where the problem is Reds rather then heads. In reality it is not the case that everyone who has screwed up education is on the political left and everyone who has ever stood up for the kids is a card-carrying Tory. Efforts to distort debate in this way are an obstacle to genuine change. We need a coalition of the sane, not political polarisation.

One additional point: reports indicate Katharine has left her job. Details are sketchy but it is hard to imagine her school haven’t forced her out. If so, they should be condemned (although efforts in some corners of the blogosphere to paint this as the actions of a Blairite conspiracy have been frankly insane). I hope she gets back into teaching as soon as possible. Her passion and commitment to teaching shone through her every blog post. The blogosphere is a much poorer place without Snuffy, but I suspect that this pales into comparison with the extent to which classrooms are a much poorer place without Ms Birbalsingh.

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More from the Battleground Bookshelf

October 15, 2010

Since the last appearance of the Battleground Bookshelf I have discovered another ten books worth recommending to anyone interested in the themes covered by this blog:

Wasted – Why Education isn’t Educating” by Frank Furedi. The best critique of the English education system I have ever read. It spells out quite clearly the extent to which a collapse in faith in adult authority has left us with an education system dedicated to social engineering and therapy rather than to educating.

Goodbye Mr Chips” by James Hilton. A classic, short novel that illustrates the emotional pull of being a teacher, without ever suggesting that teaching is about anything other than causing children to learn. The scene where Chips refuses to comply with the latest trends in Latin teaching is a joy.

Perspectives on Plowden” edited by R. S. Peters. For those of you who don’t know, the Plowden Report was the result of an inquiry into primary teaching in the sixties. Its conclusions consisted of the same sort of progressive educational ideas that have dominated education for the following decades: dumbing down, group work, socialisation and “relevant” work. This short book written in 1969 ruthlessly critiques this orthodoxy from perspectives from the world of educational philosophy, sociology and psychology.  These are the people who should have been listened to at the time.

Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt. A collection of philosophy essays by one of the greatest political thinkers of the twentieth century, rather than a book about education, this earns its place in the list because of two of those essays. In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt responds to the progressive education movement by analysing its philosophical origins and astutely predicts (this book was first published in 1961) that progressive education will reappear with new “scientific” justifications for years to come. Another essay, “What is Authority” establishes clearly the nature of authority, including authority in education.

Radical Education” by Robin Barrow is an excellent demolition of the arguments of those who have argued against the authoritarianism of traditional schooling. Dealing with thinkers including Rouseeau, A. S. Neill, Ivan Illich and Neil Postman, this book analyses the coherence of their arguments and identifies a series of recurring logical errors in the work of those who believe that authority can be removed from education.

Escalante – The Best Teacher in America” by Jay Matthews. Recommended for anybody trying to teach A-level to students from a deprived background. This biography of algebra teacher Jaime Escalante is an excellent guide to how a teacher, through a combination of ruthless stubbornness and relentless emotional pressure, can create expectations for academic excellence that shame the rest of the education system. The same story was also told in the film “Stand and Deliver” which is worth watching.

Left Back – A Century of Failed School Reforms” by Diane Ravitch. A historical survey of the educational debate in America during the twentieth century. It establishes that many of the bad ideas we have encountered in the last decade in England, have been around in America for a very long time as part of the tradition of progressive education. And guess what? They didn’t work any better the first few times. Nobody who hasn’t read this book should be allowed any power over education policy.  However…

…“The Death and Life Of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch explains what happened next in the US. Politicians and ideologically motivated philanthropists turned to vouchers, charter schools, testing, performance related pay, and prescription of teaching methods, in effect all the bad ideas that we have encountered that weren’t covered by “Left Back”. And guess what? These didn’t work either.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark. Next time you hear the suggestion that teachers are responsible for forming the emotional repertoire of their students then this is the antidote. Miss Jean Brodie is progressive teaching personified. She is more concerned with her students’ feelings rather than facts, and socialisation rather than subjects. So plausibly is she described that I have seen professional development literature quoting her approvingly, apparently oblivious to what the book is actually about. The book suggests that it is totalitarian for an authority figure to determine what you are meant to feel, and Jean Brodie is, literally, a fascist who manipulates and exploits her students.

The Behaviour Guru” by Tom Bennett. I’m biased about this one, because I am thanked (among other people) on the first page. However, it is easily the best book on behaviour management I have seen in years: realistic, clever and scathing about the usual nonsense passed off as advice for teachers.

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How Low Can Expectations Go?

October 1, 2010

Middle managers are often annoyed by the way I provoke my students by foolishly trying to ensure they work hard and learn a lot. Here are some of the things I have been told in order to persuade me to lower my expectations:

1)      They aren’t like us, they won’t learn.

2)      They aren’t going to get their target grades.

3)      They have different learning styles.

4)      They need to have fun activities.

5)      They can’t be expected to listen.

6)      They just need to do old exam papers.

7)      They can’t be expected to behave.

8)      You have to reward them by giving them free time.

9)      Even when you make them go quiet, it doesn’t mean they are listening.

10)  They need to know you’re on their side and they won’t if you keep making them work.

As I write this list I imagine a critical reader (and there are many) thinking:

“What an awful teacher. He has unrealistically high expectations and doesn’t understand what kids are like.”

Or possibly even:

“He doesn’t like the kids, he just wants them to work hard. All the bad behaviour he mentions must be in his classes and be his fault”.

But then I think of the last few PGCE students who have taken some of my classes, every one of them has been hit in the face by the sheer unwillingness to learn or cooperate they face from the students, even from classes that I had got on track and learning.

And I think of the sort of advice I’ve given to these PGCE students:

“You can’t expect them to listen for that long. You can’t expect them to follow instructions you’ve only given once. You can’t expect them to just listen the first time you speak. You can’t expect them to work without being threatened. You can’t expect them to understand an activity that involves following more than three instructions.  You can’t expect them to wait in silence when you aren’t talking to them.”

The fact is that while I am sickened by people telling me to lower my expectations to those that are normal in the schools I’ve worked in, my own expectations are probably still low compared with those of anybody who has never taught on the battleground. I can despair at how so many students in so many classrooms are expected to learn so little, but when it comes down to it, I have long since lowered my expectations below those that naïve  outsiders would have. I have long since lowered my expectations below those that any half-decent parent would have. I have long since lowered my expectations below those that anyone who still thought schools were about learning would have. I wonder, if I left the battleground, would it be too late for me? Would I even know how to teach kids who want to learn and want to work?

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