Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ofsted and the psychosis of failure

An incurable optimist who harboured the illusion that the new head of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, would usher in a new era of peace, love and understanding would have been shattered by her presentation of Ofsted’s annual report. It inspired the grisly tabloid headlines that 40% of schools (including over half of secondary schools) are now deemed to be ‘inadequate’.

Previously those schools in special measures or serious weaknesses were judged to be failing. Now Ofsted in seeking to ‘raise the bar’ have combined them together with ‘satisfactory’ schools to create the new category of ‘inadequate’. So in Ofsted ‘newspeak’ satisfactory is the new rubbish.

What does this do for the morale of dedicated teachers who spend their careers in tough schools with difficult classes? After all that investment of time, emotional and intellectual energy they’re branded as ‘inadequate’.

The only way to escape this tag is to jump through the hoops, vault all the hurdles and negotiate the assault course of an Ofsted inspection and emerge as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

Ofsted’s main judgement is by utilising crude test results, yet I know some ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools that are dull, lifeless exam factories staffed by stressed-out automatons who could squeeze out any love of learning from the children who enter the school gates.

And just to prove that their relentless focus is on failure for ‘outstanding’ schools Ofsted has introduced a ‘light touch’ inspection. An early example of this was at William Allitt secondary school in Derbyshire where one inspector visited for one day and some of the lesson observations lasted for only ten minutes.

Ofsted rarely make any concessions to social context or deprivation. Research by the London School of Economics found that out of 180 schools deemed to be failing in 1999/2000, 90% were in disadvantaged communities. Schools in the leafy suburbs rarely, if ever, fail.

As the Local Education Authorities shrink into virtual invisibility and obscurity there is no outside agency to give continuing support to schools. We have the ‘falling off the cliffs’ scenario, where only spectacular failure will bring monetary investment or outside assistance.

Of course Ofsted claim that by giving some schools a good beating it helps to straighten them out – a similar argument was advanced for corporal punishment. However, the House of Commons Education Select Committee noted that failure could send schools into a spiral of decline. Some 43 schools judged to be in serious weakness in 2001/2 had declined further and were placed in special measures the following year. They noted that some schools were, “unable to attract high-achieving pupils or well-qualified staff, making improvement more difficult.” Of those schools placed in special measures between 1995 and 1997, 40% subsequently closed.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of schools have to re-advertise or struggle to find a head teacher. Is there a sane person or anyone with an instinct for self-preservation or survival that would want to be a head teacher of a school in “challenging” circumstances?

Ofsted justify their inspections by claiming that they are ‘thorough’ and ‘rigorous’. But they completely failed to spot Bromley’s Imelda Marcos – Colleen McCabe. She embezzled £500,000 from St John Rigby College between 1994 and 1999. She spent the money on shoes, exotic holidays, cosmetics and a Crystal Palace season ticket. Yet 18 months after she began to use the school funds as a personal bank account Ofsted reported that McCabe provided “strong, sensitive and skilful leadership”. Financial planning was “good” and the auditor’s report was “excellent”.

Just to prove that this wasn’t an isolated example in 2006 the General Teaching Council found head teacher Mark Braine of Avon Valley School, Warwickshire guilty of unacceptable professional conduct and of abusing, bullying and humiliating staff between 1992 and 2005. However, an Ofsted report in 2004 was extremely complimentary about his leadership skills.

It’s a legitimate question to ask – how have Ofsted got away with it for so long? The paradox is that teaching is one of the most highly unionised professions – over 90% of teachers are members. Yet there has been a collective failure to deal with this 800 lb gorilla rampaging through our education system, trashing schools and demoralising teachers. Apart from passing the customary vacuous conference resolutions what have the leaders of the teachers’ unions actually done to stop Ofsted in its tracks? Answers on a postcard to Chris Keates, Mary Bousted and Steve Sinnott.

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Friday, November 17, 2006


Like a plague of zombies spontaneously replicating themselves Halloween has experienced an exponential growth. Its irresistible rise is evident from expenditure; increasing in five years from £12million to £120 million, it lies third in the money league behind Christmas and Easter. Although in France money spent on Halloween has been falling since 2002 – what do you expect from a “cheese-eating surrender-monkey” type of a country? Our school held a disco as an alternative to Halloween, but such is its attraction that only a fifth of the children attended.

Halloween has become an excuse for children to demand gifts with menace, the so-called ‘trick or treat’ is roughly translated as ‘we’ll pelt your house with eggs and flour if you don’t give us some sweets’. Even the Mafia are a bit subtler. For the old, the vulnerable, those living on their own, opening the door to a gang of children wearing ‘Scream’ masks isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. In America Halloween is often an excuse for a full-scale riot.

The church has finally come out against Halloween, but they seem powerless to stop it, their social standing and presence in many communities is negligible. A hundred years ago half of children attended Sunday Schools, the current figure is roughly 4%. The churches haven’t exactly done a brilliant job promoting their own festivals, most children associate Easter with chocolate and fluffy yellow chicks rather than the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Before I’m mistaken for a columnist from the ‘Daily Hell’ let’s get it in proportion. Most young children visit the streets around their own house with an adult in tow. Children love the freedom of dressing up and wearing a mask. Why should adults ban all their fun and try to outlaw any attempt at independence or insubordination? Even the Spartans gave the Helots one day of freedom a year.

But you can’t just view Halloween in isolation, there are those other commercially driven events that might convince you that we are a nation of obese, binge drinking, shopaholics. Our nation’s football team is surrounded by an orgy of nationalistic, bellicose, flag waving - mercifully constricted by their woeful performances on the pitch.

What alternatives do we provide for young people? Labour’s mantra was ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. To me it seems to be all stick and no carrot. Youth work is under-paid, under-resourced and therefore under-used. I read about one teacher who got a job in a small town where, ‘nothing ever happened’. He started a small music festival that grew into an internationally acclaimed event. It was his life’s work, his legacy, when he died his funeral was attended by hundreds of people and some of his former pupils travelled long distances to be there.

In Germany they celebrate the feast of St Martin that commemorates an ancient act of altruism when a Christian Roman general gave his cloak to a beggar. The school I was visiting held a march through the streets with hundreds coming out to applaud the children, it was a wonderful collective experience. But even that traditional festival was under pressure from the commercially driven competition of Halloween.

Surely we can offer our children something better? Halloween? It sucks!


Monday, November 13, 2006

Go Independent

'How Not To Teach' is available online from the usual suspects - Amazon, Abe Books, Waterstones and Tesco. It's also available in some branches of Waterstones. However, if you can try to buy it from an independent bookseller. Why? Because they help to influence diversity and choice. Waterstones have just gobbled up Ottakers - leaving some towns and cities with a choice of Waterstones, or... Waterstones. If you live in Merseyside, try News From Nowhere, they are an independent cooperative and stock some brilliant and unusual books.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Changing Rooms

The new content-lite Times Educational Supplement? For me it was akin to that moment in ‘Changing Rooms’ when that nice couple from Purley open their eyes and confront the scale of the horror – Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has converted their bijou living room into an imitation nineteenth-century French brothel. Or that familiar old boozer you used to frequent is re-branded and acquires some ludicrous name like the ‘Slug and Parrot’ and is full of uncomfortable chairs, garish lighting and the only drinks on sale are expensive lagers in weirdly-shaped bottles.

The TES has obviously been clobbered by the ‘curse of the consultants’ and the conclusion has been drawn that there are far too many old farts like me and younger trendy hip teachers need to be recruited as readers. Yep, they’re tired of reading about early retirement, teachers moaning about pensions and trawling through all those adverts for hearing aids, stair lifts and incontinence pads.

I’ll have to concede that I liked the new lifestyle magazine, sure attract new readers, but what the hell has happened to the news section? There’s dumbing down and there’s completely losing the plot. The TES used to be a serious journal of record, comment, debate and analysis. I read it because it covered issues in the kind of detail we couldn’t get from the daily newspapers, I’m not sure this is the case any more. How much was the word content slashed? One third? One half?

The re-vamped news section was an embarrassment, like watching an old treasured maiden aunt attempting to break dance or David Cameron trying to get down ‘wiv der yoof’. Worst of all was the letters page (now re-named ‘Inbox’) with only six letters on show.

The old TES may have been a bit staid and establishment orientated with a plethora of articles from government ministers and too many pieces directed at heads and senior managers instead of the troops in the trenches, but this was a bit like waiting for your caffeine fix and getting a cup composed of vast amounts of froth instead of coffee. Or to put it another way, as the Americans say, ‘Where’s the beef?’ Will you attract a new younger audience or just lose the older dedicated readers?

This must be the most disastrous ‘makeover’ since Coca-Cola changed their recipe. If ever you wanted an example of ‘death by focus group’ this was it.

P.S. Please could you manage to find the space to review my book?


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Jeffrey and Me

I’m looking at the Amazon web site and ‘How Not To Teach’ has reached the dizzy heights of 184,326 on the sales table. The testing hasn’t been a roaring success either some of the children have been in tears, I didn’t want to say I told you so but… With all this I need to get away and clear my head.

We’re driving on roads flanked by the grey stone walls of West Yorkshire, the villages and towns show evidence of the influence of Non Conformism and their splits and schisms; Baptists – Independents, Particular and Strict and Particular; Methodists – Primitives, New Connexion and Reform.

Haworth is part shrine to the Brontes and part tourist honey pot although there are mercifully few of ‘Ye Olde Bronte Shoppe’. There are some really different shops, a gloriously untidy film memorabilia one run by a lovely Scottish lady and some Roald Dahl inspired shops selling old fashioned sweets like sherbet fountains, rhubarb and custard bombs and aniseed balls, from an era before ‘Snickers’ took over the world.

At the top of the cobbled street it brings back memories of that clip from the film ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1982) where they’re on the mandatory school trip, ‘She called me a slag!’, ‘Get back on the coach the lot of you!’

A rock solid QPR fan runs the café and we reminisce about stars from the 80’s like Stan Bowles. He was so addicted to gambling that when the players were at his house playing cards before a game (he lived just round the corner from Loftus Road) the bailiffs arrived and took the tables and chairs. In the entrance there’s a shrine to QPR with pride of place a 1903 team picture rescued at an exorbitant price from a pub in Huddersfield. OK, it’s a boy thing.

The Bronte Parsonage has been restored to resemble the early nineteenth century, there are plenty of Branwell’s paintings exhibited and it’s easy to see why he didn’t make it as an artist. Remarkably, given their achievements, all of them except Charlotte died before they were into their thirties. The two eldest sisters died in controversial circumstances after attending Cowan Bridge School for Clergymen’s Daughters. Lowood in ‘Jane Eyre’ was based on Charlotte’s experiences there.

‘Jane Eyre’ was a revolution in literature because the central character a “poor, obscure, plain and little” governess viewed herself as an equal to her employer. The book comments on the indeterminate social status of the governess, a theme also explored later in the century for rural teachers by Flora Thompson in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’.

We walk to the isolated Bronte Falls and this being Yorkshire on a bleak windswept hillside a group of old men are lovingly tending to and spreading grass seed on a cricket pitch. The dry stonewalling has been white washed at either end to make a rudimentary sightscreen.

In the evening we try out a Youth Hostel, it’s a bit like going back to the 1950s – the gloom of 40-watt light bulbs, musty smells, bad plumbing and grubby, threadbare carpets. The meal is billed as ‘Thai Curry’ but it’s mushy vegetables floating in a luke-warm grey liquid. I’m tempted to do a Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen but they’re only youngsters earning some spending money.

The hostel has been booked by a company for an ‘away weekend’ to practise team bonding skills. We watch through the window as they encounter the icebreaker, furtively and sheepishly holding hands with that ‘omigod’ look. The dark Gothic building is like a set from the ‘Hammer House of Horrors’, we pass on watching ‘The Shining’ and make for our minimally furnished bedroom.

Next day it’s off to Bradford to the Photographic Museum and we watch the incomparable Johnny Cash ‘Live at San Quentin’ (1969). It’s faithfully recreated in the film ‘Walk the Line’ (2005) but it’s impossible to copy the gritty realism of the original.

Back home I start marking the tests and it’s obvious we’ve wasted a week when the children could have been learning. Without getting OCD ‘How Not To Teach’ has gone down to 192,460 on the Amazon sales chart, but I’m reassured when I see that Jeffrey Archer’s latest thriller is at number 46, league tables – you never can trust ‘em.


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