Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Silence of the Lambs

I’ll do anything to get out of the staff ‘do’, last summer it was my son’s birthday (I took in the birth certificate to silence the doubters) we just had a quiet meal, then he went out with his mates to get legless. You can’t choose your workmates or your family but you can choose your friends. But not wanting to be seen as a grinch I paid up front for the Christmas night out.

One of the problems with primary teaching is the ‘goldfish bowl syndrome’. Staff spend most of their time in this cloistered environment. It’s also prey to intrigue, gossip and back biting. Coming late into teaching I know some of them need to get out more. There’s also the long hours, nose to the grindstone, where teachers spend countless hours planning, ticking boxes and assessing and lose sight of why they came into teaching in the first place – to inspire children and create a love for learning.

For the staff meeting I prepared a hand out against formal half termly testing, when it came to the agenda item I waited … and waited. It was the silence of the lambs. Then came the usual justification that, “we needed to do it for Ofsted.” Yeah, if you let gangsters take over your community you’re finished, what about doing what’s right for children?

Have some teachers lost the will to teach? I didn’t come into teaching to test children to destruction. What will it take for teachers to speak out? Thumbscrews to get better results? Yeah, I think some schools have tried that already. I’m sure in America when elementary schools banned morning and afternoon playtimes teachers sat there in silence and justified it by saying, “we’ve got to do something to improve our results.”

In primary teaching imagination, creativity, reasoning, critical thinking, spontaneity have become part of a dead language, teachers will gaze back in incomprehension, “how do we measure it, where are the tick boxes, can we level it?”

I know there is a streak of religious and political fundamentalism that works from the premise that, either you’re with us or against us, no shades of grey. Any deviation from the line or the way of truth and people are treated as apostates, heretics and traitors (read Garrison Keiller’s ‘Lake Wobegone Days’ about the Plymouth Bretheren for more details). I’ve lived through that as well and it doesn’t work. You can’t judge people entirely by your own standards, sometimes you have to trim and make alliances.

On the other hand there are certain standards or moral absolutes, sometimes you have to make hard choices. Do you cross a picket line, speak out against vile racism or stop someone getting beaten up in the street? I’m not setting myself up as a paragon of virtue or a moral arbiter, I’d fail on the last one, I’m a physical coward, my wife is much more courageous when it comes to that.

Every morning when I glance in the mirror I’m looking myself in the face, both literally and metaphorically but I can’t look people in the face who can impose or acquiesce in testing children to death. A futile gesture? Probably, but I’ve pulled out of the Christmas night out.

Aside from all the high falutin’ morals ‘n’ ethics I must be honest gentle reader, a crateful of cheap lager down my gullet and I know I’ll go OTT and tell some of the spine of a jellyfish staff what I think of them. I don’t relish coming back in the New Year after that - “Could I have a little word please?” Somehow I just don’t want to break bread with people inhabiting a moral charnel house. I may be the last of the True Believers, but so be it.

Sometimes I wonder if I am the only sane person left in the education asylum.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Line In The Sand

First staff meeting back and the reality check hits me straight in the mouth like a ‘Kirkby Kiss’. Most staff meetings are so dull and drear – planning, assessment, more planning, graphs, chartszzzzzzzz, that I mentally switch off, dream about holidays, sex, Everton’s next game, or silently hum Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ album. This one is different, this year we’re all having A3 laminated sheets in every classroom with targets for writing, reading, calculation and problem solving. Then the final straw, tests every half term with levels and results for every child all kept on a spreadsheet by the headteacher. ‘There is a certain time to rage’. This is my line in the sand, thus far and no further. Yes, there are moments of bleak despair and utter hopelessness and times when you are staring into the vortex of a black hole that is consuming light, matter and optimism. The only glimmer in the darkness is Everton’s victory in the derby game.

Amongst the staff I’m a lone voice, I’ll tell you why, staff come under the following categories-

NQTs – One factor not appreciated is the baleful influence of Ofsted in teacher training colleges, students disappear under an avalanche of planning, assessment and evaluations, no time to think, ponder or muse about alternatives. There’s one correct way to teach and for children to learn. In the beginning there was Woodhead. Anyway don’t rock the boat there’s the induction year to get through.

Waiting for retirement – Been there done it, got the T-shirt, survived Ofsted, still paying the mortgage, waiting for the day when the kids finish university and they can disappear into the sunset, keep your head down.

Management conscripts – OK we do it in the class any potential troublemaker, make them the milk monitor and see if some responsibility will change their attitude. The difference is that they are children, why is it that all critical faculties seem to wither and atrophy once staff get that co-ordinator badge?

Headteachers – under pressure from the LEA consultants and Ofsted for results, results, results. No wonder in the latest GTC survey only 4% of teachers wanted to be a headteacher in 5 years time. Of course some of them disagree with the system they’re “only following orders” – interestingly the Nuremberg Trials didn’t buy that excuse.

I’m going to say my piece at the next staff meeting, with a little help from the articles in the TES. Half termly tests? Here are my arguments in brief.

· Teachers will teach to test
· It will narrow the curriculum, 50% of teaching is already consigned to Maths and English
· For our school and our children in particular testing reinforces failure
· High stakes testing is extremely stressful for children
· Time spent testing is time children are not learning anything new
· If a child leaves school at 18 it is estimated they will have taken over 100 exams and spent one year of their school life revising or sitting exams and we want to add to that
· The Key Stage 2 writing test does not develop children as writers, here’s a picture write a story about it… the Children’s Laureate Michael Morpugo blanched at this, writers need time to reflect, re-draft and revise
· Teacher assessment is most effective, high stakes formal testing leads to grade inflation
· Testing only assesses a narrow range of skills, Durham University showed a significant decline over 20 years in children’s conceptual thinking skills
· Eventually we’ll end up with the nonsense from America where 40% of education authorities have cancelled elementary school playtimes to boost results

I’m not saying our teachers are bad people, just that they have lost their way, lost sight of why they came into teaching in the first place. Trying to satisfy Ofsted, desperate to climb up the league tables, they’ve become slaves to the juggernaut that crushes children. I can’t begin to express the depth of my opposition if my child were in a school with this level of testing I would take them out. Sod worrying about the publication date for my book this is my line in the sand, I can’t stay silent over high stakes half termly tests. The only way for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

The New Term

I’ve inherited another classroom as all our teachers move about due to new building. My classroom has also received a new coat of paint – the first in over thirty years.

The process of changing classrooms can be quite traumatic, it’s a bit like moving house except this time the previous owners leave most of their junk behind. My worst experience was taking over a classroom that had had a succession of NQTs, supply and teachers on temporary contracts. It was a bit like an archaeological dig, except there was no ‘Howard Carter moment’ when the buried treasure was discovered. I found a packet of digestive biscuits that could be carbon dated to the time five years ago when there was a child with diabetes in the class. There were old textbooks that quoted the new popular music group ‘The Beatles’ and extolled the virtues of Lancashire’s coal industry. There were minutes of staff meetings from the dim and distant past and resources from long abandoned skills like sewing and knitting.

Teachers are dreadful hoarders, our former head wouldn’t allow us to throw anything out, so once she was out on one of her many ‘training days’ you’d surreptitiously lob stuff in the skip and cover it with mountains of paper.

In my classroom the painters have thrown all the computer wires together in a knot of Gordian complexity and there’s dust all over the files. The worst part are those draws that contain the following – three marbles; staples (loose); felt tip pen (dried out); coloured pencils (blunt); a sweet (wrapped); bits of Lego; a rubber (incredibly dirty); a protractor (dusty). Overcoming the temptation to bin everything you have to sort it into the correct place.

Tina the Nursery Manager comes into class and gives me a big hug, she tells me she’s getting divorced. She’s had a really hard time, her pet dog drowned in her pond, Ofsted came in during the building work, the hunky TV star she was drooling over moved in with his gay lover and after thirty years she’s bin-bagged her husband. [Bin bagging: A woman dumps her male partner’s clothes, artefacts and Nuts magazines in bin bags and places them outside the front door to signify the end of the relationship.]

She was a bit tearful when she went to see the lawyer, but instead of getting out the paper tissues he went for the jugular. “Ditch the bastard, it’s the best thing you’ve done, let’s do him for everything, this is the start of your new life.”

So if anyone WLTM blonde vivacious F for TLC GSOH photo essential GOOP get in contact below.

Meanwhile the launch date for the book is September… or possibly October, I’m getting past caring now.


Sunday, September 03, 2006


Flying back into Manchester Airport the sky is leaden, over cast. The company picking us up are half an hour late, there’s a horrendous traffic jam on the M6 and by the time we get home the rain is lashing down. There’s the prospect of a new school year and a change of classroom – displays to put up, cupboards to sort, books to label, IT equipment to fix and that’s before all the children arrive.

Not that I should be moaning we had a fabulous holiday in Turkey – once you get used to the heat - 55° centigrade. Remembering that old saying, ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun’, it’s a case of staying by the beach in the day and going out at night when it’s cooler.

It takes us a while to get used to the routine. The south coast is ‘westernised’ – our resort was like Southend with heat. Fish and chips, all day English breakfasts, the Rose and Crown pub, Robin Hood restaurant, Big Brother bar, then the shops, take your pick from Marc and Spencer, Azda, and Trotters Independant Retailers. Why is it that you only see ‘Little Britain’ abroad, the Germans, French and Swedes never seem to indulge in a tacky cultural takeover?

There’s also the ‘hassle’ factor, in Turkey they don’t allow browsing, the standard patter is, ‘Hello mate, you Geordies, wha hey? Come here cheaper than Asda’. After hearing the same message thirty times it begins to grate. It takes us a week to get used to it and blank it out.

One evening we visit a spooky abandoned Greek village. After the Greek-Turkish war in 1923 there was a huge population exchange, 1.3 million ethnic Greeks left Turkey and half a million Turks came the other way. The village was vacated but the Turks refused to live there claiming it was haunted. When you look at the ruined Orthodox Church you can imagine the children playing in the square, men returning from the fields and women praying in the church. As the sun sets it’s an eerie feeling the village is a monument to intolerance, bigotry and prejudice.

Our boat trip around the 12 islands in Fethiye Bay is the highlight of the holiday, if you ever get a chance look up Carole and Tayfun’s boat, the crew are fantastic. There’s plenty of swimming stops and I take up the captain’s challenge and dive off the high board and swim under the boat. I’m just returning in triumph onto the boat when a cutting English voice says, ‘Get off the boat, you’re bleeding everywhere!’ Unbeknown to me I’d scraped my heel on the barnacles on the hull of the boat. Yeah, bet she was a teacher.

When we stay in we play some games of ‘Risk – the game of world conquest’ and I finally realise why all competitive games are banned from space missions. Er… I did storm off in a huff when my son was left in control of Europe (that’s five extra armies) two rounds in succession.

I read some of Orhan Pamuk’s books; ‘Istanbul’ is part historical and part autobiographical, it recounts the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire; ‘My Name is Red’ is a fantastic detective story written in several voices about the seventeenth century Ottoman miniaturists; ‘Snow’ is a controversial book about the Kurds. In the last week the Kurdish separatist group the PKK detonate bombs in Marmaris and Anatalya. How does targeting tourist buses advance the cause of autonomy and language rights?

Our last meal out should have been an opportunity to chill, relax and reminisce about the holiday. Instead it’s a version of eating under a military dictatorship, the headwaiter stands at the back of the restaurant watching all the waiters and they’re nervous wrecks (sounds familiar?). Going through the menu the headwaiter races us through it – no time to change your mind or alter it. Everything is done by command, ‘ENJOY’. All the meals run on time, it’s efficient, clean and the food is passable, but even though it’s only half full everything is whisked away as soon as you finish. We come out feeling really stressed.

Coming back to school I’m psyching myself up to tell the headteacher that a ‘close friend’ of mine has written this book… I check on the Continuum web site and the publishing date has been changed to October 15. Great, as the author you’re always the last to know.


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