Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Headteacher becomes lollipop lady

I despair...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Blackpool - England's Worst Resort?

We always took our children to Blackpool for the illuminations. There are those sepia-tinted memories – donkeys on the beach; families on deckchairs, dad with a knotted handkerchief on his head; the Tower standing sentry; clanking trams and the three piers.

It was a long time since we'd visited, for this journey we started just down the coast at Lytham, home of the Open Golf tournament. It isn't an 'in your face' tourist resort, far more genteel and refined, you can tell, up market charity shops, expensive jewellers, chic clothing shops, classy restaurants and renovated Georgian houses. People are dressed casual but smart and the tans aren't fake but the result of holidays in exotic locations.

We got the bus to Blackpool and in the process crossed a metaphysical boundary or border. In some parts of the world this transition is one of stark and brutal contrasts. Drive out of Cape Town Airport and you encounter the outskirts of Khayelitsha township, half a million people living in desperate conditions, a few miles down the road there are the manicured lawns and electrified security fences of the white suburbs. From the third world to the first world.

Lytham to Blackpool wasn't a similar experience not a different planet but still a different country. The shops that were open had giant signs that screamed in red and black letters, 'Sale!' or 'Bargain!'. Entrepreneurs with an eye for opportunity had established temporary covered markets in front of abandoned shops. Closer to the sea front the boarded up guest houses with incongruent or ironic names – 'Majestic', 'Rest a While' and 'Number One'.

Whatever happened to the happy, wholesome holidaymakers? However it's written this will sound snobbish, condescending and patronising but obesity has replaced gaunt, thin and emaciated as the new poor. Not only that there was the old working class tradition; family photograph, wedding, funeral or holiday – you wore your best clothes. People in Blackpool seem to be on a permanent 'dress down day' – grubby trainers, stretchy track suits, lank hair, pasty faces.

Blackpool was the favourite resort of the mill hands and miners, as late as the 1950s there were 70 trains a day off loading thousands of punters. The fall in visitor numbers has been dramatic from 20 million in the 1970s to 10 million in 2008. Between 2008 and 2009 the numbers of overnight stays plummeted by 26%. Over the last twenty years half of the guest houses have closed.

The bus took us past the 'Golden Mile', a complete and utter misnomer, a terminological inexactitude and a contradiction in fact. It's a collection of junk food emporiums – fish 'n' chips, pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers, doughnuts – interspersed with sleazy sex shops. Blackpool isn't alone in its misery you'd find the same in all the other fading sea side resorts – Rhyl, Hastings, Morecambe, Southend, Margate

Blackpool in its heyday was the quintessentially working class resort. It also represented the best of that old world – collectivism, solidarity, hedonism, an opportunity to let off steam, the coarse end-of-the-pier humour. Sadly in a desperate bid for business it has gone down market and become the stag and hen party capital. The excessive drinking culture has turned most town centres on a Saturday night into a Bacchanalian version of the Wild West, but in Blackpool it's ramped up ten fold. There's also the loosening of certain social conventions – what is it about urinating in the street? If I owned a shop I wouldn't want to spend the first hour on a Monday morning removing the smell of piss from the doorway.

Middle class people have never really gone on holiday to Blackpool and for the current metropolitan elite it's off the radar, invisible. If you've moved through that charmed circle of public school, Oxbridge, the City and Parliament, the chances are you won't have encountered, visited or stayed in places like Blackpool. Both the Labour and Conservative Parties have abandoned the resort as a conference venue. The convenient excuse was that there weren't enough five star hotels, in reality it was an embarrassment, they didn't want foreign journalists to experience such a stark alternative to Cool Britannica.

Blackpool is another country. As the economic geographer Danny Dorling has described we are a nation that is drifting apart, where each section of the population, the rich, the middle class, the poor, live apart – they don't live in the same villages or parts of town, their children attend different schools. Their life experiences are separate, a form of social apartheid unseen since the 1930s.

Only in the most extreme circumstances do the chattering classes or the media discover the hidden underbelly of society. When Shannon Matthews disappeared the press pack descended on her Dewsbury council estate and found three generations of families who hadn't worked and so many people never moving off the estate – even to visit Blackpool.

A feature of news management is to always accentuate the positive. A town or city is 'on the up', the background music is 'Things Can Only Get Better'. In fairness you can't accuse Blackpool Council of that, in their bid for the Super Casino in 2002 they spelt it out in simple terms and described a town of 'intense deprivation' with a tourist industry 'moving inexorably towards terminal decline... Blackpool is on the critically ill list and will be on its death bed unless radical action is taken soon.'

Catharsis and confession is always preferable to complete denial but the last throw of the dice, the bid for the Super Casino, ended in failure. Not that Atlantic City is any kind of poster boy for urban renewal. Gambling resorts create more addicts.

Walking around the town centre and its noticeable how many teenage girls there are with babies (one in twelve are pregnant before the age of 18). If aspiration is the best contraceptive there's little chance of that, weekly wages are £100 below the national average. Like other seaside resorts Blackpool has a transient population, combined with endemic poverty that leads to other problems – the numbers on the child protection register are double the national average and the suicide rate for 15-19 year olds is eight times higher.

We didn't stay long, the Tower (recently acquired by the council) is well worth a visit and for children the Pleasure Beach has got some fantastic rides, apart from that there just isn't much to do, there's a few tired shops, Blackpool has never really done culture so pass on museums or galleries, the bracing wind puts the beach out of limits and I don't want to get smashed out my skull on bargain booze.

Going back to Blackpool was like visiting a friend in a precipitous spiral of decline – they're buying clothes from the charity shops, the red bills are piled up behind the mantle piece and the fridge is empty. The next step is the Sally Army Hostel. It's with overbearing sadness, but it has to be said, Blackpool is cheap, tacky, tawdry and depressing. Even the powerful smell of fish and chips cannot mask the overwhelming aroma of mould and decay. The brutal truth is that Blackpool is slowly, inexorably sinking into the Irish Sea and I can't see the current government throwing them a life belt.


Monday, November 01, 2010


The Brain Dead Chimps Guide to Better GCSE Results

Kenny Frederick, the headteacher of George Green's School in Tower Hamlets, writes a column in the Times Educational Supplement, once upon a time she was the kind of headteacher I would have wanted to work for – lots of innovative projects, a school at the heart of the local community and imaginative methods to engage children in learning.

Last year the hammer blow came, the school failed its Ofsted inspection. Social deprivation? Imaginative teaching? Community involvement? Ofsted aren't interested in any of that, they worship only one God – test results. Like any bully they prey on the weak and vulnerable, the great majority of schools that fail inspections are in areas of extreme poverty.

In the film 'Plague of the Zombies' cheerful, outgoing people suddenly acquire a glazed, distant stare; with an Ofsted failure headteachers lock themselves away in a dark room and are transformed into spreadsheet obsessives, they start spouting words like 'targets', 'assessment' and they don't have children any more, they are renamed with labels like 'borderline C/D'.

In Kenny Frederick's latest article she relates how trips, visits, any 'unexpected learning opportunities' and staff training has been cancelled due to pressure from controlled assessments for GCSEs. Near the end is a stunning paragraph -

'Our school has set itself a target of a 10 per cent increase next year in the proportion of getting five A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. We need to achieve such high targets because we must reach national averages – other wise we can never be judged by Ofsted as anything other than satisfactory'.

So Ofsted have now become the supreme arbiter of the value and worth of the school. Where did the mania about being more than 'satisfactory' come from? America, where else? In a recent survey 48 out of the 50 states claimed that their test results were 'above average'.

So how exactly do you 'boost' GCSE results?

Career advancement note: I really must resign as a teacher and become one of those PowerPoint enabled, inspirational 'consultants' who can charge thousands of pounds for spouting the trite and obvious to hostages packed into stuffy hotel rooms.

Sadly the education press is full of demon headteachers who have 'turned their school around' by 'boosting results'. It isn't education, it isn't learning, it isn't teaching, it isn't inspiring, it isn't difficult – even a brain dead chimp could 'boost results'.


Saturday, October 30, 2010


The Strange Death of Secondary History

'BEST EVER!' 'OUTSTANDING!', 'BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT!' As soon as the GCSE results are published the spin doctors employed by local councils put a positive gloss on them. Due to high stakes testing and league tables some schools have dropped more 'difficult' subjects like History in favour of 'easier' subjects like Leisure and Tourism. Nationally numbers of pupils taking GCSE History fell from 35.7% in 1997 to 29.9% in 2009.

The lowest figure in the whole country was for Knowsley, only 16 per cent studied History at GCSE and only 4.3% at 'A' Level. No surprise there, everyone knew how under pressure Heads manipulated test results. This is also reflected in other subjects like Modern Foreign Languages.

Just 18% of those eligible for free school meals studied History compared to 32% who don't recieve that benefit.

The stark reality is that some secondary schools promote a wide range of subjects for their children to choose from. In other schools, due to pressure for test results, there is a restrictive, narrow curriculum mainly based on vocational subjects. Reminds me a bit of grammar and secondary modern schools.


Monday, October 25, 2010


The Strange Death of Primary History

I submitted an article to the Historical Association's 'Primary History' magazine. Thanks, but no thanks. It wasn't printed. They don't really want to articulate or organise outright opposition to the marginalisation of history. 'Let's wait. If we oppose everything they won't listen to us'.

I understand their logic, but I fundamentally disagree. What have years of 'compromise' and 'negotiations' achieved? According to a survey in 2006 history accounted for only 4% of teaching time in primary schools. That led to the shabby compromise in the Rose Review where history, geography and RE were subsumed into 'Humanities'

Now Michael Gove is proposing a return to 'our island story', the chanting of Kings and Queens and the mnemonic learning of dates.

There is a time to resist and speak out. Historical examples? Martin Luther King was opposed by the majority of black preachers who refused to join public protests against segregation. 'Deal with it through the courts, you'll only provoke the white backlash'. In his letter from Birmingham Prison in 1963 Martin Luther King noted that, 'This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never''.

The Article

Primary History? Before the General Election the Conservative Education Minister Michael Gove outlined his vision for primary history teaching, ‘most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England’. Eton Old Boy David Cameron commented, ‘It is a tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized disjointed approach to learning about historical events… [a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates.’

What is the current state of primary history teaching, is there a crisis, are the barbarians at the gates? In 2006 research by Manchester University revealed that only 4% of curriculum time was devoted to teaching history, whereas English consumed 26.7%, Maths 21.9% and Science 9.7% and with ICT now a core subject they will account for the majority of teaching time. Then you have to factor in that MFL will become compulsory in Key Stage 2 by 2014 and there is an expectation that children will receive at least two hours of ‘quality PE teaching’ every week.

The primary curriculum has been straining to squeeze the proverbial imperial quart into a pint pot. Over the past few years a consensus has emerged that change is necessary. The government’s response was to commission Jim Rose to review the primary curriculum. One golden rule for any official inquiry is to choose a pliable chairman or investigator (see the Hutton Inquiry for more details) and as the quintessential ‘safe pair of hands’ government trusty Jim Rose fitted the bill. Second golden rule is to frame the terms of reference so tightly that nothing controversial will emerge. The Rose Review of the curriculum didn’t consider the effect of the National Strategies on curriculum time, or pressure from testing or league tables. In other words the elephant wedged in the classroom blocking out every ray of sunlight was ignored, Wittgenstein would have been proud.

The Cambridge Primary Review team conducted a far more authoritative and thorough inquiry, they concluded after interviewing hundreds of teachers, parents and children that the primary curriculum was narrower than in Victorian times. Sadly the national debate was confined to one week, the government set the tone by immediately rubbishing the findings within hours of its publication, this from a government minister who admitted that he hadn’t even read the full report.

The Rose Review was forced to concede that topic based teaching would have to replace the subject discrete curriculum. Humanities would encompass history, geography and religious education. Despite the fact that curriculum reform was excluded from the Education Bill in the parliamentary ‘wash out’ (all contentious issues were withdrawn) some primary schools are already experimenting with a creative curriculum.

My fear is that if the domination of maths and English are not contested, if the testing regime remains then history will continue to be marginalized. Is there also a danger that Humanities will be taught inadequately, without any thoroughness or rigour? Will it be squeezed in at the end of an afternoon? What training, if any, will teachers receive on topic-based teaching? Is this destined to be another ‘initiative’ that fails because teachers are chained down by assessment, marking and target setting?

Primary history teaching is not on the endangered species list – yet. You can’t say the same about history in secondary schools. There was the sobering and altogether alarming research by the Historical Association –

* Last year only 30% of students took GCSE history, down from 40% in 1995

* In 2006 1,479 out of 3,500 state secondary schools didn’t enter a single candidate for GCSE history

*97% of independent and 94% of grammar schools taught history as a discrete subject compared to 72% of comprehensives and only 59% of academies.

How will this lack of basic knowledge, of historical ignorance and cultural relativism manifest itself? This may be purely anecdotal and unscientific, but I believe it is part of a worrying trend, I’ve observed it at first hand, because over the past year I’ve taught history to trainee primary teachers. One exercise with the first years is to ask them to put different eras in chronological order, so who invaded first – the Romans or the Vikings? Only a gap of eight centuries. The Celts, who were they? Dates or key events, Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War? Blank faces all round.

I’m not suggesting a return to Michael Gove’s rote learning of dates and kings and queens (although an overall sense of chronology does need to be taught). That method of teaching was dull, stodgy and boring, the patrician view of history, elitist and patriarchal. Where there is time teachers use evidence as a teaching tool, contrasts between rich and poor are studied, students question different interpretations and investigate cause and effect.

So how to address trainee teachers’ lack of subject knowledge? Where I teach subjects are split into two hour sessions, in Year 1 there are three for history, the second year two and three in Year 3. It ticks the box in the Teaching Development Agency’s huge list of competencies but little else. Does it really prepare them in any way shape or form to teach the subject? Or is it a case for being grateful for small mercies? On some PGCE courses training consists of one afternoon on Humanities. I’m also aware, however, that Initial Teacher Training has also been standardised, monitored, scrutinised, homogenised and has to conform to the National Strategies, Ofsted inspections and death by targets.

Does my university have a History Department? There is a cupboard with some outdated resources, but the lecturers don’t meet, revise material, make links with schools and conduct research and I’d be interested to compare with other institutions, are they also dependent on part time, casual, untrained staff?

So once our students make it into schools and metamorphose into teachers what fate awaits them? In the days of the old Local Education Authorities (LEAs) there were subject advisers who arranged courses, visited schools and organised resources in teachers’ centres. History teachers from schools actually met together and produced resources, reports and there are yellowing copies of books with collections of essays on the shelves of university libraries. About fifteen years ago as the pressure from league tables intensified the post of subject adviser became redundant. School Improvement Officers replaced them with their monotheism – there is but one God, test results.

If local authorities became a scorched earth zone in some schools the last of the true believers maintained the faith and pockets of good practise and inspiring teaching remained. They were the old history co-ordinators who encouraged new teachers, fought for their subject and tried to protect it from the ravages of testing, targets and levelling. Under the terms of the ‘Workforce Remodelling Agreement’ the post of co-ordinator was scrapped in its place the ‘Subject Leader’, where the aim was ‘driving up standards’, a managerial role involving observations of other teachers and target setting. Theoretically this new post carries with it a Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payment. In the real world of primary teaching most schools don’t have the money for TLRs, therefore in many schools teachers refuse to shoulder the burden of ‘Subject Leader’ and senior managers are forced to oversee the entire curriculum.

Is this just superficial, anecdotal? Undoubtedly there are still outstanding examples of history teaching, but is it in any way consistent, widespread or extensive? Maybe a dose of realism is better than starry-eyed Panglossian optimism. I don’t want to diminish or traduce the role that ‘Primary History’ has played; it has kept the eternal flame burning. But to what extent is the Editorial Committee talking to the Editorial Committee? The last four issues contained sixty-six articles – only twelve were by primary teachers.

Crisis is an overused word, but if you examine history teaching and its status in teacher training institutions, local authorities and schools it is apposite. History leads this underground existence in education, tolerated but not celebrated, frequently ignored and marginalized. Are the barbarians at the gates? No, they’ve broken in and sacked the library.


Thursday, October 14, 2010


The Baked Bean Factory

I do the odd bit of lecturing at a Teacher Training College and the Assistant Lecturers were summoned to the annual briefing. O... M... G...

Naturally the event was in an airless lecture hall where nary any beams of light from outside were able to penetrate, welcome to the bunker.

I'll have to admit that as soon as the PowerPoint flickered onto the screen the brain synpases were closing down, narcolepsy, catatonia.

What can I remember? Only certain words remain - 'Audit... review... performance... target... customer... tracking... assessment... feedback... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.'

This really was the 'input-output' model of management.

Two thoughts -

1) If you had substituted the word 'student' the lecture could have been delivered by the managing director of a baked bean factory.

2) Was it in Terminator 3 that the cyborgs took over?


Saturday, June 26, 2010


Another Day Another Dollar

These days I'm just a day labourer, hourly paid, cab for hire, supply teacher, waiting for that phone call, 'Can you go to...?' The default mode – Another Day , Another Dollar.

Once again I'm heading out on a journey of discovery to an unknown class in an unknown school. The sky over head is smothered by an impenetrable grey blanket, no break in the clouds, freezing cold wind, rain pissing down and I'm asking that eternal question – will there ever be a summer?

The trough of despond? Last night I watched the film version of Cormac McCarthy's book 'The Road'. A post-apocalyptic nightmare as a father and son battle to survive, the only humans left are crazed, cannibalistic psychos. Reminds me of Ofsted.

Switch Radio 4 on and there's an analysis of the government's plan to grant megalomaniac heads total control over their schools a.k.a. 'Academies'. As soon as the 'government spokesperson' is introduced I switch over to local radio. In lieu of hard news we've got 'infotainment', this includes whole swathes of inane chatter between the presenter and whoever is reading the weather or traffic reports.

Nothing about the queue on Queens Drive as the traffic inches forwards, the roads gridlocked, courtesy of whichever privatised utility has taken their turn to inflict misery on dazed commuters.

The gigantic cranes from the Liverpool docks loom over the horizon, the area took a fearful beating during 'The Blitz', houses demolished, people displaced. What the Luftwaffe began has been completed by Mrs Thatcher and private enterprise. There's acres of derelict land and boarded up houses. The only sign of private regeneration is a massive Tesco. Welcome to 'Clone Town'.

Thankfully most of the schools have been rebuilt, wonderful bright new palaces. The receptionist ushers me in and I make a mental note to ring the supply agency and change the photograph, I look like a lifer from San Quentin.

The class teacher has left sufficient notes to teach the lessons, you always fear the 'do what you like', or reams of indecipherable script detailing every minute of your day. The class are lively but want to learn and the teaching assistant knows how to keep them all in order.

Break time passes peacefully, no major incidents, there's a calm atmosphere in the school. Dinner, I race through the marking and venture out to find the staffroom. In most schools this hallowed dwelling has suffered from having a group of slatternly male students in permanent residency. My favourite is the the increasingly desperate notes pinned above the sink – 'Please wash your cups'; 'Don't leave your cup for someone else to wash!'; 'We don't live in a slum – wash up!'; 'IF YOU'VE USED IT – WASH IT'.

In staffrooms any sense of calm and serenity is pierced by the whirr of the photocopier and the noise of doors opening, closing, opening again and banging as the rollers are removed and tangled bits of paper are gingerly prized out. The carpet is threadbare the chairs reclaimed from a skip.

Here it's like a 5 star hotel, comfy chairs and couches, pot plants, dishwasher, cakes for the teachers and whole body massages for stressed teachers (OK. I made the last bit up).

The afternoon rolls along nicely, there's no cheeky back chat and we all troop off to assembly. Often there is the boot camp atmosphere as dominant silver-backed males and teachers who auditioned for the role of Rosa Kleb patrol the hall, that laser bean stare, the pointed finger and 'MOVE!'

Assemblies are a chance for headteachers to preach their corporate message. They've all been trained to National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) standards. This is a competency based course with a ticklist -

From the creators of Dolly The Sheep we present the headteacher. But remarkably this specimen seems to have failed the brainwashing competency, he smiles, tells jokes, knows the name of all the children. The assembly is a cross between a stand-up routine and a great family love-in, they've also got a great way of including children with disabilities. I think the head actually likes children – it helps.

So in this post-apocalyptic world, laid waste by Ofsted, School Improvement Officers, testing and league tables, humanity is still clinging on, in some outposts. At 3.30 I surreptitiously edge out of the door and sign the supply form. It's been a good day, it really was a pleasure to teach there.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?