Archive for November, 2012

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A Reader Comments on their NQT Year

November 30, 2012

This recent comment from “Captain Easychord”  on my How to Destroy NQTs post was interesting enough for me to think it was worth repeating “above the line”. Apologies if you have already read it.

I left teaching after my NQT year in 2004, feeling like I’d never be any good as a teacher. I left feeling demoralised and a failure. I’ve since gone back into teaching and now feel pretty confident about what I do. When I look back I wonder how I ever survived the year – the odds were totally stacked up against me. A few things spring to mind….

1. Being told by my NQT mentor (whose opinion I really respected) at the start of September not to go through the rules with my new classes, because they would get bored as a lot of teachers would do it. Awful, awful advice. I realised that when I shouted at my nightmare year 7s in October “You know what the rules are!”, and a nice clever one said to me “actually sir, you never told us.”

2. Going to my head of dept. on more than one occasion to tell him that I was REALLY struggling with behaviour. Asking for help, practically on bended knee. He did basically nothing. Apart from sit in with my worst classes when Ofsted came in, so they were exemplary. I remember the Ofsted inspector saying to me “Does he normally sit in on this class?” “Quite a lot” I lied. Why should I have lied!?

3. Having very little behaviour guidance in my PGCE, which was at a top university. I had loads of wonderful ideas about the pedagogy of history teaching, but I think behaviour was basically one two hour session over the whole year.

4. A humanities system which meant I had to teach RE and geography of which I knew nothing. I started in September with RE, standing in front of bemused year 8s, one page ahead of them in the Hinduism textbook (sometimes only one sentence ahead). Totally out of my depth. Also, the humanities system meant I had to plan and deliver 20 separate lessons a week, many in subjects I knew little of. Crippling workload.

5. Being given a year 7 tutor group. They looked to me to be in charge. I was still learning how to be in charge. I really struggled with them, and was faced with the prospect of four more years of them as my tutor group, with the feeling that I was failing them.

6. When I handed in my notice, no-one actually took the time to talk to me about WHY I was leaving. No-one seemed to have noticed that I spent most of the year on my knees, and maybe could do with a little help. A potentially good teacher (at least a hard working one) walked out of the job and no-one seemed to care.

 

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Parallel Universes at the London Festival of Education

November 25, 2012

Dilbert.com

I went to the London Festival of Education last weekend. Or at least I think I did.

You can never be quite sure because I seem to have spent most of the weekend confronting a different version of reality, one way or another, to a lot of other people.

So for instance, I thought the question and answer session with Michael Gove was, apart from a few responses to questions from the audience, largely uncontentious. I know I’m likely to react favourably to hearing the secretary of state for education arguing for high academic standards for all and referencing the work of Dan Willingham, but I seem to have missed the triggers for some of the hostile audience reaction. I could have sworn the audience booed after he said that not everybody had high ambitions for children and that not all schools were good enough. I could have sworn the audience erupted when he said that you couldn’t have education without assessment, before he made a more controversial claim about the type of assessment he meant. But perhaps I have imagined this as it seems unthinkable that anybody could disagree with these claims.

I suppose some of this could be explained by political extremists in the audience. There were a few bearded types handing out leaflets and chanting slogans on the way in (and some kind of effigy was being waved about at one point), however, it doesn’t explain what happened in the behaviour discussion. Tom Bennett was there, and was reasonable and charming in circumstances where less even-tempered men might have turned to violence, but his two fellow panellists were apparently not of this earth. One, Paul Dix, had apparently arrived from a world where schools were constantly inflicting punishment. In his world that seemed to be almost all they did, and to hear him tell it, the criminal justice system on Planet Dix was also great at punishing young offenders. What’s more, in his world, the punishment apparently never works. A far cry from this dimension’s version of England, where kids regularly go unpunished after even the most appalling behaviour in school and, if there’s anything which conspicuously doesn’t work, it’s letting them get away with it. Of course it’s not unusual for behaviour consultants to decry punishment – after all they make their money by telling incompetent SMT that behaviour problems are down to teachers rather than children or managers – but normally it seems to hinge on the definition of punishment. Normally having said they are against “punishment” they then say they are in favour of “sanctions” or “consequences” and advocate something that sounds pretty much like punishment anyway. Not this time. I listened carefully for the usual equivocation and incoherence. I waited for the inevitable nonsense phrase like “I don’t believe in punitive punishment” that indicates that it was all down to a confusion about the meaning of words. It never came. He really was suggesting that behaviour be dealt with exclusively by praise, rewards, thinking nice thoughts and having “a quiet word”. He made his universe sound like a lovely place; one where there simply was no need for anyone to stand up to injustice or protect the innocent from the guilty. A world so different from our own that it is scarcely imaginable. But even that was normal compared with the home planet of the other speaker.

I had heard of Sue Hallam, an education lecturer, for the first time a day or so earlier. Another academic had suggested to me that she would be a good source of evidence that mixed ability teaching benefited the least able. The other sources of evidence suggested by that academic had all failed to indicate any such thing, so I was not predisposed to assume that Sue Hallam was the source of inaccurate information about our world. This was something that became apparent only as she spoke. Again we were told that punishment did not work, and again no indication was given that this wasn’t meant literally. But a more striking contrast between the Hallamverse and reality were apparent in her other claims. In her realm, school uniform causes truancy. As somebody who has repeatedly seen the effect of non-uniform day on attendance at schools in our universe, this seemed remarkably implausible. Also, research showed that a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement was most effective in her universe: something that has escaped all the researchers I have read in our world. Finally, and most strange of all – in fact this is so strange that, if Tom Bennett hadn’t confirmed it in his own blog, I would have put it down to some kind of hallucination – she revealed the drastically different mores of her world by suggesting female teachers could control badly behaved boys by flirting with them. She did explain that the same tactics would be unacceptable from male teachers, but seemed utterly oblivious to the extent to which this particular advice would not be welcomed by teachers on our planet.

My last event of the festival, one which was so crowded that I only just got a seat, was a discussion with Michael Wilshaw and Brian Lightman. I was a bit surprised to hear Brian Lightman saying nothing I disagreed with; he was after all one of the key figures in the GCSE English regrading lobby. He was sensible and constructive about the effects of overly prescriptive inspection on teaching, but this alone was not grounds for thinking I was still in a different universe. Michael Wilshaw was even less of a surprise. His message, which seemed to surprise some of the audience, was consistent with what he’d said here, i.e. OFSTED will not require a particular teaching style. Didactic teaching is fine as long as kids learn. He even said that boring lessons on quadratic equations were fine (maths teachers everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief). Some of the audience were not expecting this. They were apparently expecting him to complain about how teachers were terrible. However, this did not mean they were from a parallel universe. They had simply read the press coverage he usually gets, where papers from both left and right select individual out-of-context quotations and use them to suggest he is at war with teachers and does nothing but complain about them in speeches. He even explained some of those remarks, pointing out he didn’t seriously expect heads to model themselves on Clint Eastwood and hadn’t claimed that teaching was stress-free only that headteachers had such a rewarding job that, when they fail, they should not be allowed to blame their poor performance on stress. The consensus was clear on Twitter and in the hall. He was talking sense. He did seem like a reasonable human being. We’d all be happy to be inspected by him. We’d rather have heard more of him and less of Brian Lightman (a bit harsh actually, but never mind). The worst criticism I saw of his performance on Twitter was that he’d “played the audience”, which, as criticism, seems to amount to a complaint that he hadn’t managed to live up to his own demonisation.

Happily I was now in the same universe as everybody else. There was only one version of the Wilshaw event and it was the one where the head inquisitor of OFSTED was charming and generally demonstrated to be a good egg. No parallel version of events existed. We were all on the same plane of reality. This episode of the Twilight Zone was over.

Or at least that’s what I thought as I left the hall. On the way home, I was sent a link to the Telegraph account of the talk:

Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw tells head teachers to “stop moaning”

Head teachers should stop “moaning” and get on with the job, the chief inspector of schools has said.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said that being a head teacher was a brilliant, well paid job and that school leaders had no grounds to complain. His comments, at the London Festival of Education, come ten days before Ofsted’s annual report, published on Nov 27, which will focus heavily on the quality of leadership in England’s primary and secondary schools. The comments risk further infuriating the teaching profession which has recently been told by Sir Michael that there is no stress in teaching and that staff who are out the school gates at 3.30pm should be paid less….

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A Member of the Patriarchy Writes…

November 10, 2012

It is enough of a rarity to be a bit of a thrill every time this blog (or this blogger) gets mentioned in a national newspaper. I always buy the newspaper and put it in my scrapbook here. However, the latest mention actually had me somewhat taken aback by it’s bizarre argument. As part of a much bigger feature on women bloggers, the Times printed an article whose focus was on why education blogging was, apparently, held captive by a male elite:

…this world is also rather male-dominated. Many of the most recognised education bloggers (the head teacher Geoff Barton, and the teachers Frank Chalk, Old Andrew and Tom Bennett, for example) are men.

“I try not to think about it as an old boys’ network, but it’s hard to escape the fact that it’s quite hard to crack into the blogging establishment as a woman,“ says Bansi Kara, an English teacher who writes The New Stateswoman blog.

Now I have to confess I haven’t really paid much attention to that particular blog, the only time I noticed it was when she wrote a blogpost arguing for the use of mobile phones in lessons which used every poor argument imaginable, from condemning “polarisation” in opinions (as if her opinion was some kind of moderate, middle position) to throwing around words like “censorship” and “Victorian”. However, I wasn’t aware that the fact I hadn’t been hanging on her every word was because she was a woman. I thought it was because she was the sort of English teacher who would spend time in lessons getting kids to use mobile phones to make documentaries rather than, you know, teaching them English. Apparently not. In cahoots with my best buddy Geoff Barton, I’ve actually been excluding her for being a woman. And this in a medium where nobody needs approval to contribute, where the best writers will always get an audience, and where nobody even needs to state whether they are a man or woman (and many don’t and some may even lie).

Actually, this argument seems so absurd that I have probably spent far too much time on it already, but I will take the opportunity to survey the education blogger landscape. As well as the martyr mentioned above, the Times managed to find time to mention only one other woman education blogger, Laura McInerney, who is (now) a doctoral student in education based in the US who blogs at http://lauramcinerney.com/ To redress the balance I thought I’d point out some more female bloggers, past and present who really deserved a mention.

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that who is or is not blogging varies over time. If the “most recognised” education bloggers now are male then this would not have been the case just a few years ago. Katharine Birbalsingh and The Ranting Teacher may have given up blogging, but they were both, in their time, more widely recognised that I ever was.

Secondly, if they were willing to give space to a (admittedly British) blogger based in the US, then they should have also noticed who is dominant in the US education blogosphere. I doubt there’s any education blogger in the world who is more prolific or more widely read than Diane Ravitch who blogs about 47 times a day here. Other, non-UK based, education bloggers who I believe to be women can be found here, here, here and here.

Finally, and most importantly we have some really good British women education bloggers, who are still blogging, who the Times failed to mention.

The Wing To Heaven http://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/

This is an excellent, informative, if now sadly irregular, blog about teaching, education and policy by a former teacher who is now attempting to return the world to sanity as managing director of the curriculum centre. It is probably the blog I most look forward to reading.

The Edudicator http://theedudicator.blogspot.co.uk/

A powerful blog, clearly written by somebody who has seen the worst our dysfunctional educational system has to offer. Possibly the only blog that ever makes me think “come on, it can’t be that bad”; it is absolutely authoritative on the topic of how bad things can get and what you can do about it.

Rebecca Allen http://rebeccaallen.co.uk/

I admit this (from an education economist) is a fairly occasional blog, but it has included a lot of very interesting articles about education policy

Bishopblog http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/

A repeatedly fascinating blog from a Professor of Developmental Neuro-Psychology. At its best when pulling apart some neuro-nonsense in the media, but also an excellent source of information on SEN, education policy and academia.

The Musings of a Headteacher http://themusingsofaheadteacher.wordpress.com/

One of the few “slice of life” teacher blogs left out there. Written by the headteacher of a primary school in a deprived area, it is an extraordinarily detailed account of what goes on in such primary schools. (I have to admit I did have to check that this was written by a woman.)

If my past track record on blog recommendations is anything to go by, they will all stop blogging forever within a few days of receiving this recommendation. I should note that I have deliberately stuck to blogs that I personally follow, but there is no shortage of other education blogs by women out there. Please feel free to suggest any blogs I haven’t thought of, or don’t follow.

Hopefully, this will go some way towards seeking restitution for my past history of oppressing and excluding women education bloggers.

Or maybe not.

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I Told You So

November 6, 2012

Inevitably, and after a slight delay due to technical difficulties, I am returning to the topic of the GCSE English farrago.

If you recall, I have spent a large amount of time responding to the conspiracy theories of the regrading lobby, a group of heads and sympathetic agitators objecting to the fact that, thanks to a move in the grade boundaries, the number of GCSE grade Cs in English didn’t go up this year despite the introduction of a new structure for the course. Most of my time was spent dealing with increasingly bizarre theories about how the results should have gone up and Michael Gove and OFQUAL were evil incarnate for not allowing it. Lots of problems with the course have emerged, but very few coherent arguments for a massive increase in grades have been given or for inditing any of the alleged villains of the piece.

You may recall that early on I realised that one of the major causes of the fuss was the extent to which schools were able to manipulate grades to get whatever mark they thought would give students the target grade. In a provocatively title blogpost  entitled “Actually, It Was About Cheating”, I observed that “English teachers would cheat, bend rules, or find technically permissible but ultimately unfair ways to get everyone up to what they thought was the required grade” and explained at length the reasons why this is likely to have happened, and why those teachers would have little choice to go along this. Nevertheless, the immediate reaction to the post from a number of people, noticeably not addressing the arguments, tended to be one of shock and denial.

It was a relief when last week, OFQUAL produced a thorough report on the topic concluding, as I did, that the course was poorly designed. In particular, the manipulation of results was featured heavily:

We have also found them to be especially susceptible to pressures, as teachers strive for the best possible outcomes for their students and school. With GCSE English currently so central to how schools are judged, this is a significant weakness. We have found that the qualifications are easy to bend out of shape: they can buckle under the pressures of accountability, and the evidence we have is that this did happen to some extent.

This is confirmed in the main text of the report, which shows strong statistical evidence that grades were manipulated (also confirmed by Chris Cook on the FT blog), alongside substantial accounts of manipulation from teachers and good explanation of the context which made it inevitable.

Those who deny that schools manipulated results in ways that would seem unfair to anyone who thought exam results should reflect the ability of students, now seem far removed from reality. The term “denialist” certainly seems to fit. The main tactics now adopted have been based on obscure or ignoring the contents of the report not challenging them.

The first tactic, unfortunately assisted by much of the media who happily reported that OFQUAL blamed cheating teachers rather than reporting the more nuanced and thorough explanations of the report, has simply been to lie about what was claimed. In this account teachers were blamed above and beyond everyone else. The clear passages in the report about context, regulator failure and exam board failure are completely ignored in this account; with nobody noticing the admission in the introduction that “monitoring by exam boards and regulation by us could have
been stronger and more intelligent”, the considerable criticism of the previous regulator QCA (whose poor decisions led to the growth of controlled assessment) or the description of problems caused by the accountability framework.

The second tactic, and this one has been absurd enough to shock me, has been to claim that moderation by exam boards would have dealt with the problem of manipulation, either by deterring it, or by dealing with it after the event. This is ridiculous on several counts:

  1. Moderation in such a subjective subject cannot be, and was not, terribly precise.
  2. The “tolerance” thresholds used by moderators would have allowed considerable overmarking.
  3. If moderation was ever that effective, why did we have 23 years of grade inflation?
  4. The exam boards, blatantly cannot be trusted. Not only are they paid by schools (i.e. we are expecting them to police their own customers), but their dishonesty was demonstrated as recently as last December when they were discovered conspiring with schools to game the system.

The OFQUAL report had discussed moderation in detail and made several of the above points and explained clearly how marks had risen should have been expected to rise.

If people had actually read the OFQUAL report they’d realise that there is very little to take issue with. Some of it is fascinating background to a colossal screw up. None of it can be easily dismissed, or give any comfort to the regrading lobby. In particular, the demand for a remarking based on January’s boundaries is revealed as completely unreasonable by the observation that: “If the June controlled assessment boundary was moved to match January for these students [those who sat the written exam in January], then the proportion receiving a GCSE grade C would be 85 per cent, compared to 64 per cent who actually achieved a grade C in the new qualifications and 65 per cent who achieved grade C in English last year.” If correct, and nobody has challenged it, then one of the key aims of the regrading lobby would, if achieved, make grade C at GCSE completely worthless by allowing it to stretch so far down the ability spectrum that it would cover the almost illiterate.

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