Archive for the ‘Anecdote’ Category


A School Governor Writes…

May 12, 2014

The following is from a school governor and illustrates elegantly how, in education, those who are meant to be neutral experts can be the most partisan. For reasons of anonymity, the local authority involved has not been named. I have assumed the images used are in the public domain, if anybody knows differently please let me know urgently and  I will remove or edit this post. 


Well, teachers, you can’t have all the fun to yourselves. We school governors have to undergo training too, you know, especially so that we know what ‘critically friendly’ questions to ask you once a term. My latest experience was a local authority-run, two-hour evening session outlining the new national primary curriculum. There was a lot to pack in, so it was a fairly intense, PowerPoint-heavy evening.

Let me just say up-front that the trainer was a very nice chap. In fact I spent over an hour after the training very pleasantly discussing with him some of what had been said, and it was exactly the sort of intelligent, amiable, open conversation one always hopes to have, but is all too rare.  However, it would also be fair to characterise much of the training session as very negative and derisory about much of the new curriculum, and we were very much told what we should think about it; its proponent(s), and what ought to be the objectives of education in general.

I took detailed notes and while some things may be paraphrased I have been careful not to distort the meaning or intended message.


The aim of the session was stated as:

  • To enable governors to understand the background to the new national curriculum and why there are changes from the old.
  • To discuss what your school wants to put into place, and how you intend to approach your planning into the forthcoming year.
  • To understand how your school has already made a start on planning for the new curriculum.


The trainer had E.D.Hirsch and “knowledge” in his sights from the start.  We were told about Hirsch’s Core Knowledge, and that the first draft of the new national history curriculum based on a British version of Hirsch’s model had been “laughable”.

The following slide highlighted the new curriculum’s focus on knowledge:



Could we, the trainer asked, remember any lessons from our own primary education? He answered the question himself with a resounding “no” (spurred on by a particularly earnest, vehemently ‘anti-Gove’ teacher/Governor among us). No, we couldn’t remember any of the ‘knowledge’  we had learned in primary school because items of knowledge were completely transient, something that we learn temporarily and then forget.

The following slide, the trainer said, was the single most important message we were to take back to our fellow governors.



We were to explain to our colleagues that the tree could lose all its leaves in autumn but the next spring would grow new leaves, and he explained how new knowledge was needed for each new job we might have. Should we want to be a doctor, we would acquire all the knowledge we needed for that role. Should we then wish to change career to become a lawyer, or whatever new ‘21st Century’ job came along, we would shed all the old knowledge and acquire the new set we needed. The great irony he said, was that the roots are what are important but that it is the leaves that are testable.

I obtained a copy of an old version of the presentation which came with notes where it was at least superficially acknowledged that both the skills and knowledge are important, but it seems that knowledge is only valued because it provides the context for the acquisition of skills:

It is unnecessary to debate whether the curriculum should only be about subjects, or whether skills are more important than subjects. The tree needs both.  The roots cannot develop without the photosynthesis in the leaves, and the leaves cannot grow without the moisture from the roots. They need each other.  Each of the skills, competencies and attitudes at the root of learning, needs the context of leaf to develop.  Children cannot learn to solve problems unless they have some problems to solve – and these problems occur within the contexts of history, geography, science, technology or any other leaves.  Skills cannot be learnt within a vacuum.

Leaves will die if the tree / plant is pot bound

But if the roots are strong, new leaves grow

Lifelong learning is sustained by strong roots not leaves

A further slide illustrates the point:



In conversation later, I pointed out that while I might only remember a handful of my primary school ‘lessons’, I was confident that I still had much of the knowledge I had learned at that time, and that that knowledge had enabled me to build on and learn more. I also cited the Recht and Leslie, 1988 baseball reading comprehension study, where it was found that prior knowledge had a significant positive impact on reading comprehension.  The children who knew more about baseball understood the baseball-related text better than those who knew less, regardless of their actual reading ability.  “Aah!” He said “that must have been of because they were more “engaged” (i.e. because they must have been more interested in baseball, they ‘related to’ and were more engaged with the task). No, I asserted, it was about prior knowledge, in fact prior knowledge facilitated ‘engagement’ because you can’t engage with a task if you don’t have sufficient prior knowledge to understand what is going on.

I recommended that he read Dan Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?”


“Levels are going and not being replaced” and if this session was all about assessment “I’d scare the pants off you”.



The photo selected above, while certainly amusing to many,  was deliberately chosen to make a statement, and it reflected the general tone. You would have thought from the discussion that all educators everywhere had regarded the Levels system as perfect and had never had a bad word to say about it.

There was some good advice, for example not rushing into replacement systems too quickly, to wait and see whether there was any further guidance, and also to see how other schools were managing.  And there was also some potentially valuable discussion about what schools could do, but it was conducted in the light of ridiculing the decision, rather than seriously considering the pros and cons of ways forward. “I haven’t made this up” he laughed.

Curriculum Specifics


Fig. 5

(I bit my tongue and didn’t ask if he’d printed out all of the exam board specifications for each secondary subject to include in his page-count.)

We looked at specific areas of the curriculum, and the strong impression of the changes was very negative. Many things were now to be taught earlier. To an “education outsider” it might make sense, he said, but educators who knew their Piaget knew that the brain developed in stages and that one couldn’t teach certain things too young. He then highlighted all the things in the English and Maths curriculum that were being moved younger – “too young for children’s developmental stages.”


With Science came the contradiction.  Rather than moving younger, some topics were being left until later.  Amusingly, this was also a bad idea. This time because ‘young children had really enjoyed studying those particular topics at that age’.

There was also a concern that conducting “formal” experiments was being left until later in the new curriculum.  It was explained that younger children would only be required to conduct ‘explorations’ not ‘experiments’.  I couldn’t help but think that had it been the other way round i.e.  if the current curriculum had exploration, and the new curriculum was demanding more formal experimentation, we would have heard that the children were too young for ‘formal’ work.


Fig. 6

What were the problems here, asked the trainer, drawing our attention to ‘evolution’. “It’s teaching RE!” exclaimed our earnest ant-Goveite, “Yes!” he agreed heartily. He explained we can’t teach evolution in case it is against the religious beliefs of some of the children. He gave ‘Muslim children’ as an example of those who couldn’t be taught such things in Y6. And ‘inheritance’? Well that couldn’t be taught because an adopted child might realise they were adopted because of their and their parents’ eye colour.

My Thoughts

My impression from governor training sessions is that many trainers are very keen to tell us what to think. The previous course I attended was very similar, the trainer laid out her ‘philosophy’ from the beginning and provided us with unsupported, unreferenced ‘facts’ and diagrams to prove her point of view. This isn’t an approach I take to terribly well. I do think we are old enough by now to be presented with “the facts” as objectively as possible and be left to draw our own conclusions.

The trainer is absolutely entitled to think what he likes about Gove, education policy, pedagogy, the national curriculum etc.  However, as governors, we needed to have a run through of the main changes, including a heads-up of any contentious issues, but without the ideologically based opinion and derision; he didn’t once mention evidence. We needed guidance as to our role as governors ; what questions should we be asking of the Headteacher and SMT; what sort of answers should we get. Instead we were told to go back to our colleagues and tell them that knowledge was akin to the temporary leaves on a tree.


OFSTED Culture

April 12, 2014

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageI can’t resist passing on a few bits and pieces about the effect OFSTED has on schools. I have done a little editing, here and there for the sake of clarity and anonymity, but made no significant changes.

The first is from a teacher’s comment on my last blogpost.

We’ve had OFSTED in twice this year, and the DfE. Additionally, we have an adviser appointed by the academy chain who is also a lead inspector and receives a ludicrous amount of money in order to try to impose “what OFSTED want to see”. He’s quite open about it and also very insistent that listening to Wilshaw is tantamount to professional negligence in that it’s almost certain to land you in a category. I really don’t want to get into a debate about the existence of ‘a preferred teaching style’; there is no debate.

I just want to mention the following. Firstly, ‘didactic’ is no longer a description of a teaching style. It seems it’s now an egregious expletive which has the ability to induce a physical reaction in certain quarters.Secondly, apparently well planned, orderly, productive lessons in which there is demonstrable evidence of progress can and are routinely awarded a 3 on the grounds that they lack either: “glitter”, “sparkle” or “oomph”. Lastly, I’d like to point out the perils of success through means which fail to exhibit the necessary degree of glittery crypto-progressive orthodoxy. My school has one highly successful department; the only one which regularly gets within spitting distance of national progress targets. Staff, students, parents and SLT all regard it as outstanding within the school’s context. Although, for the latter, it’s always been a little bit of a black sheep given that its methods are somewhat ‘traditional’-I was going to say didactic but I didn’t want any unsuspecting OFSTED types choking on their lattes.

Anyway, come the feedback, this department was slated for its approach while the others more wedded to ‘preferred’ styles were deemed as having ‘effective strategies for improvement in place’. Little stall was placed in the inconvenient fact that these ‘strategies’ had patently failed to make any impression on results in the previous three years. Rather, it was suggested that SLT direct a ‘learning enquiry’ at the one successful department in order to ‘improve engagement and boost progress’.

Now I wasn’t especially surprised at this turn. What did take me aback was the embarrassed silence that greeted my assertion that possibly this finding was a tad inverted and perverse. I saw a see of concerned but indulgent faces who seemed to regard me as a precocious child lacking the intellectual sophistication to grasp the sheer naivety of my statement. I must stress – I really must stress – that these people weren’t simply suggesting that what I had said was inconvenient; that we all had to just ‘play the game’; that we could get back to the real world once the inspector had left the building. They actually agreed with the inspectors.

It was a clear sign to me of the tragic cognitive dissonance OFSTED induces. These were ostensibly professional competent educationalists who, faced with overwhelming unequivocal evidence tending toward conclusion X, instead, presumably due to a form of conditioned response mechanism, arrived confidently at conclusion not X.

Two things are clear:

  • I have to get out of teaching
  • OFSTED must die.


The second is from a chair of governors at a primary school who emailed me, about the effect of OFSTED on their school. They asked if I was aware of the recent guidance about grading lesson observations and explained how it contradicted everything they’d been told to do previously.

 In one of our regular chats recently our head was fairly incandescent about it the new guidance. It’s not so long since our school, despite being consistently in the top 5% – 10% in the authority in terms of attainment and progress measures, was graded “requires improvement” on the basis of the quality of teaching, due to individual lessons being judged as RI, for reasons such as “that high-achievers group could have been off doing independent research”.

In our post-OFSTED action plan, we have paid our dues in terms of doing all the things that seem to be expected of us, and trying to encourage a dispirited staff to push on towards the re-inspection. Now it seems the rules have changed again. It doesn’t seem so long since I was reading a rubric about what proportion of lessons had to be judged good for the overall judgement to be “good”.

I’m keen to get this sort of sentiment published. I feel one of my roles as a chair of governors is to provide a sympathetic ear and to some degree calm him down, but as I said explicitly to him recently, I recognise I don’t have as much “skin in the game” as he has. I think I hear some echoes of the things I hear at our school in your work: that feeling of being judged by people who don’t really have an appropriate level of accountability for judgements they are making.

As a governor, I do want the best from our staff, but I also feel quite protective towards them as well. They should have a reasonable degree of work/life balance, and I’m keen that they are treated in a way to ensure their longevity in the teaching profession. One thing that has disturbed me as a result of our poor outcome last time round is the seeming desire from OFSTED and HMI to see “blood on the carpet”. This arrived in the shape of one of our teachers deciding she had had enough and was moving on to other things. On the one hand, it does give us something it seems OFSTED/HMI want to hear  (“separating the wheat and the chaff”), but on the other, this didn’t seem to me to be a case of a bad teacher ; just one that couldn’t fit with the current regime.

Certainly, anecdotally, it seems to be getting more and more difficult to fill teaching posts. In particular, I shudder at the day our head moves on. One of our assistant heads would certainly be a good candidate, but I believe he really has no interest in applying. Can’t say I blame him – the stakes are just too high – even if you turn in the numbers an inspection team can walk in and after a fairly cursory examination decide you’re still not good enough.

The saving grace in our case seemed to be that the parents just didn’t really believe the outcome of the inspection, which does seem to be something that happens elsewhere.

Finally, and you may have already seen this, we have an example of a school complaining about OFSTED. Obviously, a school with a lowered grade has a vested interest in complaining, and their results are such that the judgement is not a huge surprise, but some of the comments about the behaviour of inspectors are worth reading. This is mainly because none of them sound particularly unlikely or at odds with the sort of story I hear about OFSTED all the time.

Lateness of inspectors disrupted timetabled lessons. KS3 students who were to meet with the inspectors waited in the designated classroom for the entire break time yet they did not all arrive to interview them. They were then asked to return at the start of lunch, however, the inspector was not ready to see them then either. The meeting for students  with inspectors, when it did take place, overran by approximately 10 minutes during which time the class due to go in were waiting in the corridor. The corridors are narrow and this caused some congestion. The member of staff whose classroom it was had knocked and politely asked when they would be finishing but was told she would ‘have to wait’… The inspection feedback criticised the congestion in this corridor with the inspector in question commenting that she actually felt ‘unsafe and intimidated’ by our students. The congestion and late entry to the lesson was of the inspectors own making.

…Following an observation of an ICT lesson the inspector demonstrated little understanding of the subject and criticised the topic despite the fact that the teacher had followed a lesson suggested by the exam board. The member of staff was also criticised for not demonstrating progress in the exercise books despite being told that the member of staff had returned from maternity leave just the previous day and this was the very first lesson with her new group.

The quality of observation of a History lesson can also be questioned as the member of staff was informed that her lesson was a secure 2 and when asked how it could have been a 1 she was informed that she should have turned her classroom into Parliament House to set the scene. This comment has no relevance to a member of staff who teaches in over 11 classrooms due to inadequate space within the school building.

…During feedback to a member of the Maths department, the inspector stated that the lesson was a secure 2 but, when asked, could not provide any suggestion as to how to increase this to a 1 and was told ‘keep doing what you are doing’.  In the same lesson the staff member was praised on progress as it was evident that Level 4 students were understanding Level 7 work yet after being informed that the significant majority of the class were performing at least their expected levels and, in most cases, above these levels andhad been for the past two years, the inspector stated that he could not judge progress over time. He did not look into the students’ books so it is unclear how he arrived at this judgement.

As I mentioned last time, Civitas are interested in hearing about people’s recent OFSTED experiences. I genuinely believe that the attempts to reform OFSTED currently taking place are sincere, but I think it might take decades to undo the damage they have already done to teaching and learning in schools.


The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression

December 17, 2013

It’s been a bit of a tough term for me. Nothing new, pretty much the sort of thing I was writing about years ago (for instance here and here), although that in itself is a sign there has been no Govian revolution in schools. I’ve pretty much extracted myself from my difficulties now, but I noticed that some of the people I was discussing those difficulties with were in even worse situations and, where they were discussing them on Twitter, they were finding lots of people in similar situations. It seemed like many teachers I knew simply weren’t coping. This led to me make the following Tweet:

Screenshot 2013-12-16 at 19.18.37

As you can see, it immediately got a large number of retweets, causing me to reflect some more on the extent to which people end up being made ill by teaching in the system as it currently is. I asked for people to share their experiences and here are some of the comments I got about people’s own experiences and what they’ve seen happen to colleagues. (Minor changes have been made in some cases in order to ensure anonymity and for clarity). You probably won’t want to read this if you are somebody who is contemplating becoming a teacher.


To sum up, I have been teaching for 10 years now in mainstream and BESD. Last year has been awful. Wanted to quit; couldn’t cope; cried all the time at home; worked ridiculous hours to keep up; didn’t sleep. Also, I’ve put on nearly 3 stone through poor diet, eating on the run and comfort eating and look about 50 (I’m 31). I went to the doctors because I was ill a lot and, once I’d explained symptoms, he medicated me for work-related anxiety.

Months passed and there was no change really so I went back. Now I take mild antidepressants too on top of anxiety meds. Generally it’s helped and I can cope better but I definitely had to get out of my current school as it is going to the dogs. So short-staffed it is silly; no PPA; always on duty; no time to get anything done. 13 hour days most days.

So I’m starting a new job after Xmas; hoping to get some balance back…


A colleague of mine was employed at my school last year as a head of department. They struggled quite a bit under the boot of SLT, and didn’t do too well in observations. They got 3s and 4s in all of them last year. Their results weren’t great either, so in an attempt to get shot of this teacher, SLT put more and more and more pressure on them until they collapsed in school with stress and were signed off for a month. They came back to find out that someone had been employed in their place while they were absent (only on a ‘temporary’ contract, of course) meaning that they were left with no lessons to teach and fewer responsibilities. SLT tried to cover it up by saying that it was so they didn’t have to work too much too soon, but they also told the this teacher that one of the reasons they didn’t want them to teach was because there had been parental complaints about them during their absence. This teacher suffers from manic depression and has only just mustered the courage to come back in, but now feels as if they are being pushed out the back door. Our school doesn’t have any union reps so this teacher feels pretty helpless. I’ve told them to get in touch with their union and they are considering doing so, but lacks confidence for obvious reasons


I’ve been on anti-depressants for just over a year. Initial prescription was for depression and anxiety. The school based factors have been:

  1. Working in a Category 4 school is a intensely pressured. There are more negative than positive conversations with leaders and managers which is always making me think: “What have I done wrong this time?”;
  2. Getting a grade 3 lesson observation in Ofsted and Performance Management observation in the same year. I  eventually got a 2 but lesson observations now fill me with huge anxiety;
  3. Not being allowed onto the next point on the pay scale (despite my own yr 11 classes results being better than HoD and fulfilling all performance management targets and then some);
  4. Negative inter-departmental politics;
  5. Constant monitoring of work eg. book trawls, learning walks, planner reviews etc.;
  6. Bullying by a colleague;
  7. Verbal abuse from pupils becoming an everyday occurrence;
  8. A timetable and marking load I can’t actually manage;
  9. Pay freeze, making life more difficult financially.
  10. No work/life balance for entire time I’ve been teaching.

These are the ones I can think of off of the top of my head.


This involves colleagues and not me.

Within my department one member has relinquished their TLR after just 4 months due to stress, another member of staff has relinquished their pastoral role after nearly suffering a complete breakdown and our department has experienced record sickness this year.

These incidents involving stress have historic origins. There has been a relentless request to achieve an outstanding Ofsted. Over the past 2 years, in the build up to Ofsted, a number of senior members of staff were ‘eased out’ whilst a team of AST were brought in. This was done in a number of ways and not all were pleasant. In our department it was decided by SLT that we needed a new HoD despite years of continued improvement and leading the college in results. Three new members of staff were hired and within weeks were engaged in weekly meeting with SLT to feedback on the department and HoD. The HoD was placed on competency after a few weeks, and remained in this category for a further month until they were able to prove that the claims against them were spurious at best.

Shortly after this, an ‘Oftsed consultant’ was brought in and the entire school was rated a 4. They pointed to data and claimed that our department was a 3 and could only ever be a 3. My HoD was not permitted to see the data they were using. The consultant was brought in to review the department and rated the HoD a 3, no advice on how to improve was given. When Ofsted eventually arrived later in the year they selected our department as the best performing in the school and the reason why the school scored a 2 overall (our dept was a 1 according to data). By this time my HOD had agreed to leave. All new members of staff joining the department this year had been told in advance that we were a falling faculty (even after Ofsted had named us in their report as the best in the school and the reason for its success).

More than one member of the AST team left with no jobs lined up because of the stress of working in a college with very few systems and a culture of fear. This year the same culture of fear exists but this time the focus is on another department. The same consultant has been brought in to ‘help’ that department. Within the last two weeks the newly appointed HoD was found collapsed in their office on the day the ‘consultant’ was due in. Everyone in that department is well aware of what fate awaits the HoD, the previous HoD was eased out last year.

I would say the biggest cause of stress is pressure to chase results and a complete lack of systems from SLT. There is now the expectation that we should offer twilight intervention and eventually weekend intervention.


I have been a secondary teacher for 20 years.  Normally I get along with work, teach my lessons pretty well in my usual manner of avuncular-yet-purposeful, but in 2013 the continual pressures and the dictats handed down by Gove (eroding my pay; adding more to my workload and making me pay more for my pension) plus the general day-to-day led me to have doubts about my performance.

In February 2013 I suffered a bout of flu – not manflu, the full-blown feel crappy stuff. While I was feeling run-down I made the foolish move of thinking about things – and then I imploded.  I hated the thought of going back into the classroom, wanted to sit at home looking at four walls and didn’t interact much with anyone.  I never went back to my school.

I was lucky that my local authority occupational health department and my headteacher were supportive and knew that I needed time to get my head straight and decide what my next move was.  I was on antidepressants and sundry other medication for my blood pressure.  I came mighty close to leaving the profession, thinking that anything that earned any kind of money, even being a milkman (then I realised there are very few of those left) was better than being in the classroom.

And so in September I was unemployed, living on £73 per week as opposed to £36k pa – this has not helped my financial situation, but I came to the realisation that that was not important. What was important was my happiness, me being able to face the world again. In late October I got a supply gig – to be honest I was dreading it but it was wonderful to be back in the classroom, and luckily felt as if I had never left.  In a week’s time I will be unemployed again just before Christmas, but there are more important things in life than money.


I’ve been in teaching for nearly 10 years now. As a Maths teacher I’ve seen sweeping changes in curriculum, standards, accountability and scrutiny (i.e. increased forms of the latter two). Becoming a head of department should have been a proud step up, finally having chance to shape my department and make a real difference in the way the subject is taught in my school.

8 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, however one of the noticeable facets of my condition at the time that teaching was a release for me – I was good at it, I enjoyed it and I got great rewards from it. Basically, it held me together whilst the rest of my life was collapsing around me. It’s amazing that I look back at those times in my career with pride, because these days, all the love and life in my job has been sucked out.

I don’t shape my curriculum, it’s dictated by the government. I’m not allowed to be creative with my team or in lessons, because I have to deliver results – by teaching to the exam, in other words. I can’t continue with my policy of ‘happy people = great workers’ because one or two ‘requires improvement’ lessons from my staff are followed up by ‘support plans’ (informal capability) by SLT. My lessons – well planned, full of content and context – are destroyed because students demand entertainment rather than learning – a result of school policy that lessons should be ‘fun’. Oh and to top it off every other word spoken by SLT is OFSTED.

My integrity, authenticity and hope are questioned every day. It is no longer the world outside of my job that is the source of my depression, it IS my job that is the source. And after all of this, stress is a given. I’m fatter, balder and greyer than I’ve ever been.


There is a whole story behind my absence including, workplace bullying, disability discrimination, a line manager breaking union rules, unrealistic timescales and workloads and  lack of autonomy that has triggered a change in my mental health condition.

I’ve worked with mental health issues all my life and the workplace  can make or break it. This time it’s broken it. I’m trying to repair it, but I’ve been off for a significant amount of time with no end in sight.


I left the teaching profession in August 2011. I had been off sick with stress at first since the Easter holidays, which then very quickly became a crippling bout of depression. Ultimately, I decided not to go back in to teaching at all. The turn around in my mental health when I had eventually made the decision in August to never return to that particular school was remarkable. When I decided not to risk my health any further by not teaching at all, I made a full recovery within 3 months.

This all came about from a redundancy at a school that I loved in Aug 2010. I was head of department at a good school, delivering outstanding lessons and achieving 80% pass rates at KS4, and somehow the head had decided that it was to become a part time post. Mainly because everyone else in my department was a head of year and they couldn’t possibly do their jobs part time. I was devastated. And not even able to receive remuneration for it because I was offered the part time post. I was forced to find another full time job.

I interviewed for a post in the next local authority and got it. It wouldn’t have been my first choice and I knew the school wasn’t good (it was in my home town). The department was in disarray and all 5 teachers in it were judged to be delivering lessons of a grade 3 and 4. I knew I had my work cut out.

When I started in the September I was then told that I would have a consultant working ‘with me’. A man of considerable expertise who asked me to deliver on paperwork on a weekly basis to prove I was moving the department forward. Which is fine. But, I was also having to set up BTEC courses, train staff in delivery and set up the bureaucratic nightmare that is managing such a qualification. While also dealing with 6 timetabled groups for 3 teaching spaces; behaviour management difficulties of my staff – who seemed to have no idea of how to inspire children to learn and instead barked orders (a trait across the school that was largely ignored by SLT); assessing and improving T and L; and doing all the normal things that you expect as HoD – SEF, Action plans, monitoring data and working on strategies, implementing the new curriculum etc.

My work-life balance was non existent. I expected this though and was prepared to put in the man hours to get it right. But I wanted to take my team forward with me. I was directed by the head to tell 2 members of my staff that I thought they were incompetent. They weren’t, they just needed support. I was told by my consultant that he’d been asked by the head to get rid of deadwood from the department by grading them as a 4 in lesson observations. I approached the head and was told it was going to happen anyway. He then, 2 weeks later, announced a restructuring and that there would be redundancies in our department, as well as others. Whatever good will I had from my team quickly became every man for himself. But we carried on and did our best and managed to still congregate in the pub at 5 on a Friday for a while.

I was then told my line manager was changing because the previous VP had gone in the first wave of redundancies at Christmas. I wasn’t too dissatisfied as he was more of an old school visionary when it came to my subject. However, the first thing the new executive principal said to me in our first meeting was that she didn’t think that I knew what I was doing and didn’t like what I was doing. I asked her to explain. She didn’t. But told me to re-do my SEF and action plan over the weekend. I was extremely stressed by this particularly since my consultant hadn’t a problem with either. I, nevertheless. did it and emailed it over having barely slept or eaten all weekend. During our next meeting she said she hadn’t had time to read it but wanted to talk about levels at KS3. We had a discussion, I talked about progress being made or not made by certain groups with her being fully aware of standards of teaching or teaching space issues being a problem. I asked for guidance on this, what did she think would help to improve things faster than was happening now, as 3 of my staff were on support plans to improve their teaching. She told me I had to give up my free lessons to teach those groups and where possible, team teach (double up my groups). I said I didn’t think that would be manageable. I was instructed to do it. Another meeting came and went with more criticism, now of my own teaching which was now suffering as a result of the extra workload.

Easter arrived and I sat at home for the two weeks marking and verifying hundreds of BTEC folders (every child in KS4 did the course). For 4 days I went in to school to do revision sessions for the GCSE groups. And then did the usual planning. My soul very close to destroyed at this point. No energy and no enjoyment to be had. I had repeatedly had my professionalism questioned and in short, had been told I was useless. My job was no longer about standing in front of children and enjoying the experience of teaching and learning. And I was bloody good at it! I was outstanding! In two terms that had been annihilated.

The first day back came, I felt sick at the thought of going in. By this point I was barely sleeping at night and had become quite withdrawn around friends and family, but I didn’t notice it. As I checked my email, I had one from the head telling me he would be observing me second lesson that day. This was the final straw. The one that broke the camel’s back so to speak. It wasn’t that I thought that I couldn’t teach the group well. I just could not bare the thought of him telling me anything that would be any way critical afterwards. My fragile self-esteem just would not take it. I did what I never did usually. I burst in to tears. And I sobbed for an hour. I got myself together to teach and shakily made my way through the day. At 4pm, I loaded all of my personal belongings in to my car and walked away.

For months, I was a wreck. I cried. I slept odd hours. I drowned in self-pity. Desperate to try and figure out where it all went wrong. I doubted myself in every aspect of my life. I could no longer even face being around some of my closest friends. Because all I was in life, in my head, was a teacher. And I was no longer that, not one I could be proud of anyway. So I was nothing. And I had been made to feel like that by someone else.

It took some serious counselling and self-reflection to have the guts to walk away from it all. But it is undoubtedly the best decision I ever made. I have a life back, a great job and I’m back to being me.


It started with an assault. It was quite a bad one, bruising and feeling rather shaken. The pupil had a history of aggressive behaviour and the rest. I reported it, as well as to the police. That was the start. The whole SMT machinery turned on me. I was given a dressing down and from that point on it all started to go wrong. I had been teaching for over 7 years, I think. No NQT, I was an ex-serviceman, confident and assertive. From the day the SMT betrayed my trust all of that evaporated. I became withdrawn and apathetic. I removed all the personal touches in my room.

More assaults followed. Once pupils sense you have been “breached” they home in. A pupil grabbed my wrist to prevent me from closing down a PC in an IT lesson. I raised my voice and the response was instant: “You shouldn’t have touched me!” she screamed. I knew I would get no back up from SMT. I was right. I reported it and had to fight to get the pupil removed. The poor behaviour which was the usual in the school became utterly unmanageable. The Headteacher had stated in no uncertain terms that I should seek employment elsewhere. There was no backup, the ambitious year 11 Head of Year eager to avoid exclusions to feather his own nest. I fell further, becoming more and more stressed. More issues followed, culminating in a hostile observation which triggered my visit to the doctors (on the advice of an assistant head teacher). From the start of the new September year I felt like I was living in a glass box. I was unable to interact with my young children. I would just sit on the sofa, usually covered in a blanket. I was so cold. In the mornings I was sick, I used to cycle into school, or run. That stopped. I drove to work and as soon as I could I left. Ironically I still had an excellent attendance record. My results were still very high (over 90%). I was dead on the inside.

A few days after the hostile observation, after the headteacher personally giving me feedback but just before the follow up observation I arranged to clear my reputation, I went to doctors. I broke down and cried. I cried, I sobbed, I felt ashamed and weak. I felt defeated, used and betrayed. It felt like the end.

I wasn’t. The Local Authority went through the motions. Their occupational therapist found that I was not depressed; my doctor disagreed. I was diagnosed with workplace stress. I never returned to secondary teaching. Over a year on I am now retraining into a better career – the law. I feel much better, more relaxed, happier, freer.

I still harbour immense resentment for those that call themselves “SMT”. They ignored all the warning signs that were evident as to my condition. They chose to punish than support. I am sure I am not alone in finding this.

My advice to those thinking of teaching – don’t. It’s not worth your sanity. If you thought I was alone in the school I was not. I was the third staff member in less than 3 years to leave through stress. A head of department for one of the core subjects was even keeping a log of workload, instructions from SMT and such to cover themselves if they were “strung out”. Not a nice career, not nice people. I fear for my children’s future with such unfeeling careerist monsters in charge for schools.


If anyone reading this is experiencing stress and depression themselves, you should be aware of the Teacher Support Network which runs a hotline and offers practical advice. If it is your working conditions that are making you ill, or if you want help with ensuring that you are supported at work having being diagnosed with stress or depression, I would recommend contacting your union.


What I did during my half-term holiday

November 2, 2013

I seem to have spent much of my holiday doing things related to my online life, so I thought I’d mention some of it here. Apologies if it seems like a prolonged excuse for name-dropping, but it does allow me time to reflect on education beyond my own classroom.


I met up with a friend who works in an independent school (also, Michael Fordham the writer of this blog) and went to see Tom Bennett do a talk on education research. Tom’s theory is that teachers don’t read research; that a lot of the research isn’t very good, and that research is often used as a weapon against teachers rather than as something constructive. I found myself explaining to my friend from the independent school why this was an important message (even if it is not the most positive one). In her experience, the only time where she had found bad ideas (backed by the misuse of research) to be a significant issue was when she (having started as an unqualified teacher) trained to get QTS. The rest of the time it had been an irrelevance because of the autonomy she has in the classroom. Make of that what you will, but it certainly leaves me, while still defending QTS in principle, acutely aware of how little it can mean in practice.


I had lunch with Mark McCourt. He is a former head and since then seems to have done a vast array of different activities in education and in maths education in particular. As you might expect from a man who wrote a blogpost entitled “The Education World is full of Dicks” he had no shortage of opinions about all sorts of people and institutions.  What I learnt the most from was hearing about the existence of a world of businesses, partnerships and third sector organisations playing such an active part in education and which of these, in his view, do the most good and which seem able to get the most money (both private and public). We often talk about the education system as if it consists of government (national and local), OFSTED, teacher training institutions, exam boards and schools. I hadn’t appreciated the scale of what else exists out there, nor how much money or influence some of the organisations not on my list have. No wonder it is hard to bring about change. Particularly worth bearing in mind how many of the activities we think of as carried out by government are actually carried out by private companies or intermediaries.


I spent far too much of the day watching the debate about QTS on BBC Parliament. It really is worth a look (if it’s still available on BBC iplayer or if you have a computer that can cope with the software requirements of the parliamentary website) and, while I’m obviously biased on both the issues and the parties, it did seem as if a drastic change had occurred in the balance of the education argument. To say that Tristram Hunt is far more effective than his immediate predecessor is simply to say he didn’t embarrass himself, but he certainly seemed to be coping comfortably with the toughest brief Labour has.

In the evening, I went to a panel discussion involving Tom Bennett (again) and a number of people more directly involved in (and less critical of) academia. The biggest eye-opener was just how out of touch some of the panellists were. One panellist declared that the students should be in charge of education and that Estelle Morris was the best of the recent education secretaries. Another warned that teachers were scared of expressing their views on Twitter because of the @toryeducation Twitter account (which is presumably why you never see anybody criticising Michael Gove on Twitter). More than one seemed positively outraged that elected politicians had more control over education than they did, although after giving examples of countries where unelected experts ran education one of them did realise they were talking about one-party states. I cannot think how anyone, politician or practitioner, could hope to engage with some of the panellists. Where does one start from with people who are classed as experts but are so removed from the chalkface as to have no idea where power lies over teachers? Perhaps what we need to see is the rise of the part-time professor of education, who teaches in the local comprehensive for at least 2 days a week.


I, along with six other “influential tweeters” (and, no, I have no idea how we were selected), had been invited to a meeting at the DfE. Elizabeth Truss MP, one of the education ministers, was in attendance for the first part of the meeting. We were asked how teachers could be supported with the new national curriculum. The usual methods, CPD and support for intermediary bodies (like the NCETM), were discussed along with the problems of communication. I don’t know how fruitful the meeting was. Only David Weston had particular expertise in how teachers learn information and, as teachers, we all have our own hobby horses and interests to raise, some of which were probably entirely tangential to the point of the meeting. I don’t exempt myself from this. You can imagine where I think the big issues with changes in schools lie. As far as I’m concerned, the content of the curriculum, departmental communications and the advice given by intermediaries are not the first things schools will look at. Typical school leaders have a clear hierarchy of priorities when it comes for decision-making:

  1. OFSTED;
  2. Exam results;
  3. What other schools are doing.

Whatever the curriculum says, it is how (firstly) OFSTED and (secondly) the exam boards interpret it that will matter most with the DfE’s influence only felt indirectly. I gave examples of curriculum content being reinterpreted or ignored in my subject, by both inspectors and those writing exams. At the very least, what OFSTED and the exam boards indicate to schools will matter far more than anything communicated from the DfE. I don’t know if saying that was helpful or not, but I felt that those in the DfE should be aware of these structural reasons for their own powerlessness.

Afterwards some of us met in a nearby pub along with quite a gathering of other bloggers and tweeters including several I hadn’t met before.


I returned to the tedious business of real-life. However, an article of mine Three Things Which Really Matter to Teachers was published on the website of the Fabian Society, a membership-based think tank affiliated to the Labour Party. If you are a regular reader of this blog then you will have heard it all before, but it was my attempt to raise, in a left of centre forum, the issues that actually make my job far less rewarding than it should be rather than the usual issues that seem to preoccupy the chattering classes when it comes to education. It will be interesting to see if it has an impact with anybody who wouldn’t normally be aware of my blog or these issues.


A Maths Teacher writes…

June 15, 2013

This comment appeared below the line on my reblog of Joe Kirby’s review of Daisy Christodoulou’s book “Seven Myths about Education”. It refers to that book and the analogy of educational methods as a “cargo cult”. I liked it so much I thought it worth giving you a chance to see it above the line.

This looks like a very interesting book and one which I’m sure will confirm all my prejudices concerning the pedagogical model now being pushed by OFSTED. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and have encountered some fairly incoherent and damaging ideas from ‘experts’, yet it’s only over the last couple of years that I find myself literally stunned by some of the words coming from the mouths of inspectors and ‘consultants’; to the point where in the last week alone I’ve had to ask them three times to repeat what they’ve said just to make sure I heard them properly. I simply can’t accept that rational human beings can believe in a non-conflicted manner that good teacher explanation hinders learning and progress if it strays past ‘the 5 minute limit’, which was a phrase that was thrown at me six times while being given feedback.

I’d been observed introducing vectors to a year 10 class of relatively able students. It’s not an easy school by any objective measure. I was given a 3. Apparently it would have been a 2 with outstanding elements except that my introduction, all told, with modelling, questioning and mopping up a couple of misconceptions lasted 8 minutes and 34 seconds! (Seriously) This means I require improvement. Short of recording my introduction and playing it back at double speed, I fail to see what I do. The consultant, who was Maths specialist, told me how he’d have done it. His explanation lasted 25 minutes. In fact, he eventually conceded that he couldn’t actually have done it himself any faster, so suggested maybe I should have broken it up over two lessons, despite having commented that all the class had grasped the concepts and made good progress. When I pointed out that his idea would halve the rate of progress he sort of smiled apologetically and gave a little shrug.

This man was not unintelligent. I think the shrug was a tacit acknowledgement that he was giving me inconsistent and contradictory advice. It was by way of an apology, but, in the name of consistency, he had to come out with this bullshit. He’s helping implement our new teaching and learning strategy.

Now, other than the fact that all this stands in direct opposition to everything Wilshaw has said about no fixed teaching models and the acceptability of a didactic approach, it is the sheer lunacy that sticks in my craw. I could not believe what I was hearing. I nearly grabbed him and shook him just to see if he was actually real and that I was not temporarily delusional. It’s just not acceptable that I should be forced to suffer such blatant assaults to my intelligence. Wilshaw makes all the right noises, but he seems to be spending too much time composing sound bites and none at all in ensuring his message is reaching the ‘frontline’.

The book looks great, but I can’t see its message ever getting through. OFSTED is now precisely the problem in education. I’m not entirely sure the cargo cult analogy is apt. Certainly, it’s a cult now; a cult whose dogma and ideology is far from fixed. It shifts according to whims of fashion and the subjective interpretation of the local priesthood. But it seems that even when its catechisms demand the impossible, the self-defeating or the contradictory, it’s very much a case of extra Ecclesiam nulla sulus.


A Primary School Mutiny

January 13, 2013

This guest post has been written by a reader of this blog. If you have anything you think other readers would be interested to hear about, just send me an email.

In March, during my first year of teaching, a group of teachers met in a room above a pub. What was discussed changed the education of hundreds of children for the better. This is the story of how a headteacher was removed who thought they were untouchable.

A bit about me: I came into teaching late and obtained my Primary PGCE aged 32. Prior to this I had worked in academia, gaining my masters and PhD during my time at university. I had tried hard to get a job during my final year, but found the doors closed to men my age. I got the impression that the (mainly) women in charge did not want a man working for them who had all these academic qualifications (despite the fact that in my day to day teaching they are practically worthless). So I started working as a supply teacher and got a number of assignments which helped my teaching skills progress. It was a great experience and being a supply teacher is probably the best thing you can do at the start of your career, you learn so much. After a while I got a regular posting 4 days a week at a tough school working with Year 6. Through this job I got to know someone who knew someone else and I went to a interview for a job where I was the only candidate and got the post. Yes it was through nepotism, but having applied for circa 65 jobs and getting only 5 interviews, who was I to care?

I started teaching at this primary school one September. From the start it was clear the school was full of staff who had lost the will to teach. The main reason for this was the headteacher. It took me two months to work them out, and when I did it was a massive shock for me. Prior to being a teacher you assume that those in charge of schools are professional, upstanding members of society. You think that schools are tightly controlled by the government (through the local council) and that bad practice and incompetence could not happen. How wrong can you be? After two months I had worked out that the reason the headteacher bullied everyone and threw their weight around was because they didn’t have the first idea what they were doing. In my first two months I had been shouted at in front of my class, made to feel like an idiot for daring to ask them a question and told I was unsatisfactory. The probable source of the issue was my complaining to them that I wasn’t getting my NQT time; only getting an hour and a half each week instead of three and a half. This bullying culminated in the head shouting in my face in front of parents and staff during a whole school assembly. I felt totally demoralised.

A week after this event I was pulling off the motorway on my trip to work and noticed there had been a crash on the roundabout it fed on to. As I got closer I noticed that the car involved looked suspiciously like the one my head drove. My heart jumped and I literally said out loud: “please be the head!” I glanced at the number plate and saw that it was indeed their car. I punched the air and hoped they were seriously injured.

What had I become? Here was a man who had two children and a third child on the way, and I was hoping that someone else was seriously injured? I was disgusted with myself and decided that rather than get more and more bitter, I would do what I could to make sure this person was no longer allowed to continue their behaviour. If you are interested, the head had one day off with whiplash, came back to school and insisted they could have died.

Just for a bit of background; prior to that March meeting I had witnessed the head doing the following since starting my post:

  • Screaming in the face of an Afghan child who had started school at the start of term and who had spoken no English prior to doing so: “8 weeks, you’ve been here 8 weeks! You should have learned English by now.”
  • Walking into my classroom and shouting at a child and reducing him to tears for no reason than he looked at the window when they were walking by.
  • Telling the staff that if they wanted more money for books they should “go and stand on ******* **** road.” (a local red light area)
  • Implementing changes to planning without guidance and shouting at those who did not understand
  • Shouting at staff that they could not keep food in the staffroom because “it is not your home.”
  • Calling the Year 6 cohort “thick” in conversation with a supply teacher
  • Bawling at the teaching staff about (impending) OFSTED visit and saying they were unsatisfactory (when opposite was the case)
  • Regularly emailing staff in the early hours then reprimanding them if they hadn’t read their email by the time they had got to work
  • Having regular days off to work from home
  • Leaving school to go and do the following: have car serviced, have a haircut, go shopping
  • Copying an advert for recruiting new staff from a local school, despite having the morning off to come up with one. Added to the advert were the following attachments: one about dinner money, a out of date staff list and a letter littered with grammatical mistakes

Other staff did not know what to do and, in conversation over a few weeks, it was decided to contact our union and get a meeting called. This took a long time for people to pluck up the courage to attend due to fear of losing their job. The catalyst for most staff was the fact that many of us had gone to doctors and been prescribed anti-depressants to stop panic attacks and some had gone off sick due to stress. I include myself on that list. As we poured out the litany of misdemeanours of the head to our union rep his eyebrows continued to rise. By the end of the meeting they must have been on the ceiling. We collectively breathed a sign of relief when the union rep told us something would happen soon.

It didn’t.

We decided to formalise our complaint into a proper grievance and lodged it with the council just before the Easter break. Co-incidentally I had been made to reapply for my post during the last two weeks of term and I was told I would not be appointed. So I was potentially unemployed with three children and a wife to support come the following September. It was the culmination of a long bullying process. At the same time one member of staff left to get another job and another handed his notice in, leaving the profession for good.

After submitting our grievance we expected immediate action from the authorities.

It didn’t come.

At the start of the summer term the head returned as normal. I was amazed. I was also appalled and decided to make the problem known more widely.

Here requires a bit of commentary. If you are experiencing the same thing at your school then I would recommend the following. Get the governors involved, get the local councillors involved and get parents involved. After the failure of the council to act I decided to email the local MP and councillors (helpfully both Labour) – detailing the complaint. I got an email back saying he would write to the head of Education asking why nothing had been done. On the back of this the council started to take the complaint seriously but they did not want to come and get any evidence from us. We had to write and complain to the investigator that we WANTED to give evidence, so they could do their job. Finally we were allowed to give our verbal evidence to the investigator face to face during the last week of summer half-term. During that evidence we made further allegations against the head, including racism, bullying of staff and children, dismissing people illegally, not having proper policies in place for anything and serious safeguarding issues. We expected something to happen over half-term. Nothing did. The council were attempting a cover-up. Luckily the chair of governors had been removed and a more pro-active one elected in their place. She wanted answers. We couldn’t provide them due to the nature of the complaint, as she may be called to arbitrate on the case.

More staff went on long-term sick. The head continued in post, oblivious to what was going on around them, but losing their grip on reality further. This dragged on until the last Monday of that term when they were finally suspended. An audit that week revealed serious financial mismanagement and a lack of basic provision for the children. The suspension only came after a further intervention from our MP and local councillors, as well as the chair of governors badgering the council for action.

I started in a new post in the September of the new academic year, but the saga dragged on further and was only ended before that Christmas when a newsletter went to parents saying the head had “retired.” Still we have had no formal response to our grievance, and no admission of culpability from anyone at the council, who had supposedly audited the school over the past few years. The head has been allowed to retire with a (probable) pay off and a (probable) large pension that all of us tax payers are paying. As far as I can make out, I have been the only one to have lost my job over their incompetence. The council subsequently approached the union and asked for the grievance to be dropped, on the basis that the head has retired. We rejected this as absolutely unacceptable. Why should the head get away with a large pay-off and a huge pension when they ran an otherwise successful school into the ground through incompetence? Clearly the council still did not understand our resolve in getting justice for the staff involved.

The moral of the story, I think, is this: If you are in a job where someone is abusing the power given to them it is your responsibility to act. Often, incompetence in post merely hides a mass of problems beneath the surface. Headteachers in the primary setting often think they are judge, jury and executioner. In a lot of cases they are right, as the system of governors running schools is wide open to abuse and nepotism. However, it is important to remember that everyone has a boss and, if you see incompetence affecting the education of children, it is your job to report it. If the governors do nothing go to the council. If the council do nothing go to the MPs. If the MPs do nothing go to the Secretary of State. If he does nothing give the story to the newspapers. If this doesn’t do anything leak to the parents. Eventually something will happen. We have come a long way in 10 months, but there is still work to be done. If you are in the same boat as we were, have the guts to make a stand. Good luck.


Parallel Universes at the London Festival of Education

November 25, 2012

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….


Further Education

September 16, 2011

I did some supply teaching in an FE college.

My timetable was split between A-level classes and classes of overseas students (mainly Chinese) doing a pre-degree course which was more advanced than A-level. (It was taught with A-level books from the early 1990s, something I’d like to see explained by those who claim dumbing-down is a myth.)

The overseas students were a bit of a shock. Most of them (particularly the Chinese ones), despite having to work in another language, already knew most of what they were being taught. They were just going through hoops in order to get into an English university.

The A-level classes were closer to what I was used to. However, they were a lot bigger than sixth form classes. My experience in school sixth forms was that you could up results by piling on the pressure:  lots of homework, letters home, a constant refrain of “this is not like GCSE, you will have to study hard in your own time in order to pass”. The classes in the FE college were too big for this approach. You had to leave them to their own devices and too often this simply wasn’t sufficient. Too many were there for their EMA (this was before it was abolished) and an easy life. Too many had jobs in their spare time which meant that homework could not be set overnight. Too many had the low expectations that were normal in the local schools and no idea that college would need to be different.

The biggest difference was in how courses were managed. The scale of the college meant that nobody was paying close attention to whether kids were on the right course. A complex system of referrals was used to deal (slowly) with issues that would be dealt with informally at schools. This left kids, who were obviously destined to fail, stuck in classrooms where they wouldn’t learn. Students who failed very basic tests were given endless chances to resit. Departments were managed by lecturers who didn’t teach the subject in question. There was less micro-management than in a school – nobody ever wanted to see me teach – but there was also indifference as to whether the schemes of work made sense or whether the resources available were appropriate.

The department itself was friendlier, the culture more informal, and the level of conversation more intelligent, than school staffrooms. There was far more respect for the students than in schools. When it was announced that a student was absent due to being stuck in his (or possibly her) room with “gender issues” it was taken a lot more seriously than I can imagine would happen in a school staffroom. However, a lot of time was spent complaining about contracts. It was a given that the college would take advantage of lecturers. I discovered that the person I replaced had quit after a year there in a promoted post, in order to go somewhere he would earn less money. Others were talking about leaving, again because of pay and conditions. Eventually, I experienced it firsthand. My hours were totalled up at the end of the month and I discovered I was being paid far less than promised. My complaints were ignored, and I was passed from one person to another as the blame was passed round. Eventually I concluded that the problem was with the person who offered me the job lying to me, rather than the agency or an administrative oversight, and I quit. A colleague told me as I packed my bag:

“It will be the college that is the problem. They are always ripping people off. They almost went bankrupt last year and, for a while, we were wondering if we were going to be paid.”

I decided to avoid FE colleges in future.


The Failing Department

September 1, 2011

I do occasionally ask if anybody has anything they’d like to contribute to this blog. About once a year something comes in, although invariably from someone I know in real-life. This was written by an old friend of mine who is now a senior teacher at a church school. I think you’ll be able to guess which department he works in.

The Blessed Snowball Academy had a failing dept. Everyone at the school knew it. The teachers knew it, the parents knew it and the kids knew it; they told everyone they hated it. It was the maths department.

The school also has an outstanding department. Everyone at the school knew it this as well. It was the English department. “English good, maths bad” was effectively the school motto. The start of each year consisted of a meeting where statistics were waved about to support the ritual chanting of “English good, maths bad.”  Everything in the school was geared around this motto, and belief. The teachers in the maths department were regularly lambasted, bullied and harassed by pupils and staff alike. Pupils didn’t expect to behave, or learn in the lesson, so the teachers were in a constant battle to make the children learn. Staff turn over was high, only a few remained year on year. The local authority liked them though, they tried all of the new initiatives, current fads, creative ideas to stop being the school’s failing department.

A few years back, the Head of the Blessed Snowball Academy decided to overstaff the maths department by employing some teachers from other successful departments around the country while also getting in and recruiting the top NQTs available. The first thing they did was undermine the relationship between the local authority and the school and introduced “back to basics” education, focused on exam success. In the last few years the department has felt transformed.

After the last set of results the maths department had exceeded the FFTD target by 8%;  in fact their performance put the department in the top 5% of maths departments in the country. The “outstanding” English department had only just hit their FFTD target, and had dropped a few points form last year. So first day back at the start of year meeting the members of the maths department walked in -shoulders back, chins up – feeling that the hard work had been worth it. The talk turned to the exam results, and it was announced:

“If the maths department could have got all the students who passed English to also pass maths then we’d be 20% better off. So maths, you need to do more work to be like our outstanding English department.”

Or in other words: “English good, maths bad.”

Apparently, by not hitting the aspirational targets the department had used to motivate and inspire students, the maths department had failed; they were still the failing department. I wonder how many of the teachers will bother to stay.


The Outstanding School

November 22, 2010

For a short while I worked at Mallon Park School. OFSTED had rated it as “outstanding”. Its exam results were a little better than average (i.e. a lot better than all the other schools I have worked in), but given its intake this was a significant achievement. This was a school which served a very deprived community but achieved far more than similar schools. It was better than the other schools I have worked in, but it was still a battleground school.

It differed from my other schools in the following ways:

  • SMT had real presence around the site. On every lesson change-over they would come out of their offices and go to the main thoroughfares of the school. During lessons they would pop into classes to keep an eye on students. They were known to, and feared by, the students.
  • SMT were reliable. Not once during the time I was at the school did I feel a member of SMT had lied to me. Not once did I feel that something I had referred to SMT had been ignored.
  • The conflict between the key departments and management did not exist. There were members of SMT and Heads of Year teaching in, and helping to lead, all the important departments.
  • There was much better targeting of resources at key students. The results owed a large amount to correctly identifying which students would affect results and using early entry to ensure that as many of them as possible were prepared for their exams by the most senior teachers. There was a lot of “gaming” of the exam system, with exam boards being carefully chosen for maximum advantage.
  • Those aspects of poor behaviour that senior management could confront around the school were far less of a problem. Uniforms were largely excellent. I never saw a mobile phone in a student’s hand while I was there.

Some bad features of the school system persisted even in an outstanding school:

  • A significant number of incompetent but ambitious middle managers, failing to do their job and blaming classroom teachers for their failings. This was particularly noticeable in the case of some of the year heads who simply couldn’t teach and had no idea how to support teachers.
  • An SEN department making excuses for bad behaviour. My description of INSET on SEN came from Mallon Park.
  • Low academic and behaviour expectations for pupils. Outside of the current crop of target students expectations were shockingly low, particularly for the least able. Some of the bottom sets contained students who simply were not used to learning in lessons, and were quite shocked when I expected them to start working without first being nagged by a teaching assistant. Behaviour was still a massive problem for new staff.
  • High levels of bullshit in teaching practice. The whole school were initiated into “Kagan Structures”. One department used WALT, WILF and TIBs. “Assesment For Learning” was widely interpreted as meaning “using mini-whiteboards” and “getting kids to tick boxes”.

The OFSTED designation “outstanding” has been used more and more in recent years. My experience of an outstanding school was that it was significantly better than the “good”, “satisfactory” and “notice to improve” schools I had worked in previously.  However, I don’t believe there was one teacher in the entire school who would have considered, even for a second, sending their own kids there. “Outstanding” probably does indicate that a school is not the usual disaster area. However,  often (but not always) it is still only good enough for other people’s children.

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