Sunday, January 28, 2007

The ragged trousered philanthropist

What keeps me in teaching? Apart from the generous holidays, there is still the love and sheer joy of working with young children (honestly!). Aside from that what’s kept me interested have been the different sabbaticals, grants, fellowships, bursaries and awards that are still on offer, if you can but find them. To save you all time here’s my top ten.

But firstly in the spirit of ‘How Not to Teach’ experience has persuaded me to steer clear and avoid anything with ‘Kite’, ‘Quality’, ‘Mark’ or ‘Charter’ on it. This is usually a recipe for endless form filling and then you have to pay them for a tiny logo on your school letterhead that you would need an electron microscope to detect. Some stressed-out heads obsessively collect them as some kind of magical hex to ward off Ofsted.

Regrettably some of the best schemes have finished

· Best Practice Research Scholarships allowed teachers time out of the classroom to study an aspect of the curriculum
· DfES Challenging Schools Sabbaticals gave teachers six weeks paid leave to do something creative

It’s routine for university lecturers to take time out for paid sabbaticals to study, think, read widely and write. Most head teachers seem completely averse to any of their staff leaving school for as much as a nanosecond – shoulder to the wheel, nose to the whiteboard. The times when staff could go out for ten days of training to be a coordinator have long gone.

If you are going to apply for any awards or grants, aside from your own professional development as a teacher and pedagogue, my bottom line is always – what’s in it for the children? So see previous comments about ‘Kite’, ‘Quality’, ‘Mark’ or ‘Charter’.

Farmington Fellowships

The Farmington really is the blue ribbon of sabbaticals, teachers of RE can get up to a term of paid leave to research an aspect of religion, a lecturer from a local university gives you support and guidance.

An eccentric wealthy benefactor called Bobby Wills established the trust. He liked to tell the story of a formidable headmistress who sat next to him at their annual meeting, “What's your connection with the Trust?” she asked him, her eyes running over his old pullover and corduroys. “Oh, I do a bit of this and that,” came the rather diffident reply. “Can't you be a bit more specific?” she pressed, a hint of disparagement in her tone. “Well, if you must know,” he rejoined, “I'm the Trust's founder and chairman.” She didn’t believe him.

At LEA training courses the default mode from the providers is – ‘Here’s a useless bunch of miscreants and loafers we need to bore into submission with planning sheets, Schemes of Work and targets. Here’s the tablets of stone, Woodhouse has spoken’. It takes a while to get used to the Farmington method, which is to trust teachers. It’s a bit like the scene in Jimmy Boyle’s ‘A Sense of Freedom’, he’s a notorious gangster and has been through all of Scotland’s toughest prisons and they send him to the new experimental unit at Barlinnie. Boyle is trying to open a parcel and one of the warders gives him a pair of scissors, he looks in disbelief, is this another planet? They managed to cultivate an interest in art and he became a world famous sculptor.

Bizarre as it may seem because you don’t have anyone peering over your shoulder, you actually end up going above and beyond the call of duty. The highlight is the annual meeting at Oxford where you get 15 minutes to present your report to your peers. There are all the archaic Oxford University conventions where every college has their own set of rules and regulations from library use to breakfast (the Cambridge based novel ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is good background reading).

The Farmington is unique, but it just shows that there aren’t that many ragged trousered philanthropists out there.

2. It Could Be You!

The Lottery funds projects like the
Local Heritage Initiative, Heritage Lottery Fund and Awards for All. We managed to hit the jackpot and got £20,000 to make a film about local history. The application process is quite bureaucratic and time consuming and some areas of the country seem to be preferred over others. Also the word on the street is to get your bids in now before money is diverted to fund monosyllabic drug cheats to sprint round a reclaimed rubbish trip waving the Union Jack – a.k.a. ‘The London Olympics 2012’.

The British Council

When I wanted to make a link with a school in another country, in my naivety I phoned the LEA. After being put through to about five different extensions where people denied all responsibility, I was eventually put through to someone who admitted that it might be something to do with him. He said he’d, “Get back to me”, he never did (our LEA has this tunnel vision where if it’s not something to do with climbing up the league tables they ain’t interested), so once again it was a case of Sinn Fein – ‘Ourselves Alone’.

The British Council run some excellent sessions on how to twin with other countries, but you have to be pro-active and find a partner yourself. Some partnerships break down because teachers move or change jobs, there’s a large element of luck involved in finding the right partner. The forms are quite complicated and supply cover isn’t fully funded. If you can take a group of children overseas it’s a fantastic experience for them, we took ours to Ireland.

Walter Hines Scholarship

Every teacher union can send a ‘scholar’ on a two-week trip to the USA with supply costs covered. The scheme is administered by the English Speaking Union. You have to attend an interview at their imposing headquarters in London, don’t worry very few people apply for this award so there’s a high chance of success. The HQ is like some relic from a bygone colonial era, there’s lots of PAs and secretaries floating around called Cynthia, Fiona or Daphne with cut-glass English accents, then there’s the wooden boards with all the past officials embossed in gold plate writing, all with impressive double-barrelled names and heaps of letters after them.

I had to smile because at the top was ‘Patron – the Duke of Edinburgh’. This is the man who is banned from saying anything in public, there were the notorious comment to English students in Beijing that if they stayed any longer they’d get ‘slitty eyed’, his ‘joke’ in New Guinea about cannibalism and just to prove that he’s Mr Sensitive after the Dunblane massacre there were calls for gun controls dismissed by the Duke because ‘they’d try to ban cricket bats next’.

English speaking – Duke of Edinburgh, surely a contradiction in terms? The original oxymoron? Not that I’ve got anything against people from another country who want to come over here and marry beneath themselves. As Celebrity Big Brother has proved some of the natives who boast English as a first language can’t speak ‘proper’ and don’t have a clue where ‘East Angular’ is.

Holocaust Education

This is run by the Imperial War Museum and you will be expected to develop your own education programme. You have to commit a chunk of your holidays, initial training is at the end of July, and in return you get to spend a week in Jerusalem in February and then a week in Auschwitz during October half term.

BT School Awards

This is that rare thing in our society a business that actually gives money to schools – no strings attached. Most schemes involve ‘cause-related marketing’ where if you save thousands of vouchers you’ll get a computer mouse. A serious blow to these schemes came with Cadbury’s ‘Free Sports Equipment’ campaign It was scrapped after it was revealed that pupils would have to eat 5,440 chocolate bars, containing 33kg of fat and nearly 1.25 million calories, to qualify for a set of volleyball posts.

Every year BT spends millions on the project and hundreds of schools are involved, three are chosen for an extra £10,000 award. The only problem is that I don’t want to end up like America where the education system is seriously under-funded and schools and local authorities have to go round with the begging bowl to big business. Also I wouldn’t be happy taking money from British Nuclear Fuels, tobacco companies or the armaments industry, not that this would apply to BAE, they’re far to busy bribing the Saudi royal family.

TES Newsday

If you want to spend time with your children trying to produce a newspaper in one day and finish it as a gibbering wreck then this is the one for you. The highlight is the awards ceremony at the House of Commons, for more details on this read ‘How Not to Teach’.

8. MA

The MA or MEd used to be a sort of gold standard for research and was almost required by some schools for a headship. That requirement has been officially replaced by the
NPQH, which prepares its students for the modern job description of a head teacher – administrator, accountant, general factotum and LEA whipping boy.

Naturally Woodhead managed to set the tone again when he described most educational research as “useless”. Studying for an MA you don’t get any time off and you have to pay hundreds of pounds for the privilege. Don’t harbour the illusion that it will help you gain promotion or another job. Most of my interviews have featured the following exchange-

Me: I’ve completed an MA in the creative use of ICT and in developing children’s thinking skills

Panel: Very interesting. Can you tell us how you have used target setting, testing and assessment to boost children’s National Curriculum levels?

Me: Er… waffle, waffle, waffle.

Panel: We’ll be in touch.

9. Local Awards

As the LEAs have faded into oblivion the courses and training events they used to offer are no more, if you want to develop as a teacher and pedagogue basically it’s up to you. The
City Learning Centres do offer some ‘creative sabbaticals’ but as with the rest of the education world it’s usually a case of feast or famine. One minute they’re spending money like there’s no tomorrow the next moment half their staff are being made redundant, so choose your moment carefully.

Another avenue for funding is through your local
Community Service Volunteers, it’s well worth giving them a ring to see if they can help.

10. The rest

If you’re absolutely knackered and can’t face another ten or twenty years of teaching then
Goldsmiths’ Mid-Career Break is just the tonic you need. They award grants of up to £3,000 to enable teachers to enjoy a complete break from the classroom for a period of four to six weeks. In addition they will meet the cost of the first four weeks' supply cover.

Creative Partnerships probably deserves a place right up my league table but as I haven’t any direct experience I’ll have to leave them here. Hundreds of millions have been spent on schools in a wide variety of locations, however their future after 2008 looks uncertain.

I have read on the TES web site that the Oxford and Cambridge colleges offer sabbaticals for teachers, but for the life of me I can’t find it on the Internet. The guidelines are probably written in gold lettering in an archaic Latin script on calf vellum and locked away in a dark musty vault at the Bodleian Library.

If you do win any of the above don’t expect to be flavour of the month in the staff room. When I came back from two weeks in Germany most of the staff greeted me with a curt ‘Morning!’ Nothing like ‘How was the trip?’ Schools are vast storehouses for gossip, intrigue, jealousy and vicious backbiting. Not to worry I’m not interested in promotion or sucking up to the senior management team or attending any of the mind numbingly boring LEA coordinators’ meetings, I’m just happy being a sabbatical and awards junky.

My benchmark is what will the children remember from being in my class? Will it be the A3 laminated sheets with targets for every part of the curriculum that I’m forced to plaster the walls with, will they recall that moment when they moved from a 3B to a 3A, will they have fond memories of the half termly tests I’m required to force down their throats? Or will they remember the film project they acted in, or the trip to Ireland, or the visit to the House of Commons? Strange to say and whisper it very quietly, but when I came into teaching I actually wanted to… inspire them.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Extracting the Bodily Fluids

After school activities? Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I’m not someone who’ll readily volunteer these days. Aside from being dumped on from a great height by the media and by assorted governments, our school was deemed to need “intensive support” for years. The LEA operated the neat syllogism: poor results- equals useless school - equals crap teachers. Consequently we had teams of ‘consultants’ poring over our planning and appearing like spectres in our lessons scribbling furiously on copious sheets of paper. This wasn’t a great inducement to stay after school and teach children – without pay.

After school events take time – organising lifts, sending letters home and sorting out replies. Then there’s the parents… most of them weren’t a problem, there was the odd moaner but you get that everywhere. However, if I’m honest what finally ground me down was that no one ever used that simple word “thanks”.

The latest “initiative” is ‘Gifted and Talented’, so LEAs are pressurising schools to arrange events and other organisations are getting in on the act. At our staff meeting we were informed that a Premiership football club were hosting a series of media training events at their study centre – I won’t ‘name and shame’ them, but let’s just say that last season they were one of the top twenty wealthiest football clubs in the world.

Six evening sessions were being prepared from 4 pm until 6 pm, so by the time we got the children back to school and saw them off home, it would be a 7 pm finish, all this without pay, free, gratis, on the house. I’m sure it didn’t cross the minds of the organisers, failed to register anywhere in their consciousness that teachers would get any remuneration.

So here’s this Premiership club that spends £37 million on wages (the bulk of which doesn’t go to the programme sellers or catering staff) but can’t afford a bean for teachers. Yes, it’s the Premiership folks! Extortionate prices for season tickets, it costs nine times more to watch Real Madrid than Wigan; dodgy owners, West Ham’s new proprietor Icelander Bjorgolfur Gudmondsson was convicted in 1991 of embezzlement and accounting offences and given a suspended prison sentence and then there’s the pampered, privileged, mercenaries a.k.a. ‘the players’ – the sexual mores of an alley cat, the intellectual prowess of a Big Brother contestant and the same standards of loyalty as Vidkun Quisling. Is there any Evertonian that can forget that moment when Wayne ‘Once a Blue Always a Blue’ Rooney scuttled down the M62 and accepted Alex Ferguson’s thirty pieces of silver? Mind you with Colleen’s horrendous shopping bills who can blame the poor lad? Then there’s Ashley Cole who threw a hissy fit and accused Arsenal of “taking the piss” when they offered him a new contract on the paltry wage of £50,000 a week.

In teaching there’s always the emotional blackmail that we should do it “for the children”. I’ve got a different take on it, the best thing we could do “for the children”, is to have teachers who aren’t stressed out by long hours, feel valued by society, don’t have to jump to the latest “initiative” and won’t be expected by all and sundry to work for nothing. Lest we forget, up to half of NQTs leave teaching within the first five years.

At the staff meeting there was muted agreement about covering the event, talk about a rota, no one asked me, maybe it was the body language – arms folded, jaw set, teeth gritted, eyes wide open staring into the distance in disbelief. Teachers really are fools to themselves, their own worst enemies.

An evening at a Premiership club’s study centre – without pay? To quote once again that wise old philosopher Ashley Cole, they really are, “taking the piss”.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Frank Chalk

What raises a cynical smile from staff room sceptics? Those ‘Come into Teaching’ adverts featuring well-scrubbed, keen, enthusiastic children hanging on every word uttered by fresh-faced inspiring teachers, or the patronising Teachers’ Awards where workaholic geeks from selective schools are slavered over by Z-list celebs.

Frank Chalk’s book ‘It’s Your Time You’re Wasting’ is the antidote to all that. It’s a no-holds barred, warts-and-all account of a year spent teaching dangerously at ‘St Jude’s’, a highly unselective school in a northern town. It doesn’t so much scrape a hole below the water line, it’s more a well-aimed Exocet missile that leaves a gaping hole in the good ship ‘education, education, education’.

Teachers will identify with one of the central themes, management in denial – the generals miles away from the front line whilst the Poor Bloody Infantry suffer in the mud-filled trenches dodging the bullets and incoming artillery shells. There’s no chink of light in this book, maybe it’s not so much a view from the trenches more peering from the stygian gloom at the bottom of an abyss.

Frank Chalk has moved from the maths department to supply teacher and there are some hilarious episodes as he tries to cope with Science, French and English. As he admits supply teachers are often fair game and concedes that Mr Blunt and Mr Green manage to keep control of their classes by engaging with their pupils and making the lessons interesting.

Why do we have schools like St Jude’s that condemn some of their brighter children to such academic misery? Well it’s all the fault of the comprehensive system. Frank Chalk’s solution? Send the brightest 20% to ‘Academic’ schools and the rest will be consigned to ‘Practical’ and ‘Mixed’ schools.

The truth is that in most of our towns and cities we don’t have a comprehensive system, once the faith and selective schools have winnowed out the wheat from Frank Chalk’s chavs we end up with schools like St Jude’s. Margaret Maden carried out research for Keele University and concluded: “When you get a concentration of children – disturbed or disadvantaged – there is a critical mass of children who will wreck any school. I will defy any teacher to teach when you have got more than 30% of kids like that in the school… Beyond a certain point, children will not succeed if they are concentrated in a school where the majority of children need to be persuaded that education matters.”

Ten years ago one of the most spectacular school failures was the Ridings in Halifax. It failed its Ofsted inspection with accounts of out of control pupils the media duly arrived and filmed the chaos. Peter Clarke was parachuted in as the headteacher to ‘turn the school around’. In his book ‘Back From the Brink’ he describes how the two faith schools and two grammar schools had succeeded in capturing most children with academic ability, 75% of pupils at Ridings had below average reading levels with 40% of Year 7 to 9 children three years behind their chronological age.

‘It’s Your Time You’re Wasting’ mines that seam of politically incorrect abuse that has replaced cogent analysis, the chavs, council estate scum and the great unwashed have got what they deserve (this is also reflected and made acceptable with characters like Vicky Pollard in ‘Little Britain’ – funny but vastly over-rated). In case you think I’m exaggerating here is Frank Chalk’s take on the dystopia that is St Jude’s and the Cherry Tree Estate; “I would say that at least 50 per cent of our parents are dreadful people for whom I have nothing but contempt.”

Apart from the toffs, society is divided in Frank Chalk’s view into the middle class who work and the underclass who don’t. Another way of looking at it is that we have a society where city financial traders earn £9 billion in annual bonuses and on the other side we consign 20% of the population to sink estates where people subsist on welfare benefits or low wages. As Richard Wilkinson pointed out in his book ‘The Impact of Inequality’ this type of wealth divide leads to a fractured, disjointed and crime-ridden society.

So far so bad, but when we come to Frank Chalk’s ‘solutions’ that’s when I really part company. How do we tackle bad behaviour in the class? Simple, pass a law in parliament and stick it up in every class. How would it be enforced? “…what we really need in charge of discipline is someone like Genghis Khan with powers to match…or a School Bouncer with the necessary legal backing.”

Predictably we get the ‘Daily Mail’ rant that, “Standards both written and spoken are unbelievably poor. Years ago people left school at the age of twelve able to read and write to a standard that would be about the average in a 16 year old today.” Ah yes, the Good Old Days… Is that why there are so many people over 50 who are illiterate and innumerate? The Good Old Days… when half children left school without any qualifications. The Good Old Days… when 1 in 8 children from grammar schools got to university but only 1 in 22,000 from secondary moderns.

How did it all happen? “The rot set in many years ago, thanks to the hordes of politically-correct educationalists and right-on teachers whose trendy theories and finger-in-the-air experimentation with what was once the finest education system in the world have conspired to smash the hopes and dreams of millions of young Britons…”

Once you get beyond the funny stories, amusing anecdotes and mad teachers this is a thoroughly depressing book, it’s just Jeremy Clarkson –lite, the Sun’s ‘White Van Man’ the regressive, reactionary, simplistic solutions of the pub bore. Simple ‘innit? Bring back the cane, reintroduce grammar schools and throw all the chavs in special schools with Genghis Khan in charge.

Maybe someone will write a humorous warts-and-all account of life in secondary schools that celebrates those teachers who under the most difficult circumstances stay and try to enthuse children with a love for learning. Frank Chalk has left the building and maybe some of those teachers who view this as some kind of ‘manifesto’ ought to follow him out of the door. Frank Chalk’s one saving grace is that he had the honesty to admit that he just couldn’t hack it.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Inspector Read investigates

It was another nondescript, run of the mill, ordinary kind of morning – filling in the register, collecting homework (and excuses), filing notes about PE kit, handing out spellings, putting cough sweets in my drawer and trying to get the class reading quietly, shhhhhhhhhhh…

Glancing up from the register I noticed that Peter (he’s a sensitive lad lives with his Nan) was looking upset and tearful. I called him over and he told me the yellow football he’d got for Christmas was missing from class. True this was only minor league, not on a par with the kidnapping of the plastic baby Jesus from the nativity scene or the case of the missing Maltesers, but I couldn’t let this one go.

Peter told me that Eric had been seen running out of school with his ball. I called the suspect over, now in primary schools there are always tell-tales, informers and stool pigeons who are willing and able to assist with enquiries, this is in contrast with secondaries where the code of omerta reigns supreme. A sea of hands went up, “We saw him take it sir!”

At this point the suspect (Eric) vacated the classroom, at speed, proceeding in a westerly direction. I ushered the class out for assembly and called for back up. My old colleague DC Smith (famed for solving the Case of the Phantom Crisp Thief and investigating the Mystery of the Dirty Knickers Behind the Radiator) immediately arrived. Years of experience narrowed down the possible hiding places for the fugitive and he was duly apprehended hiding behind the door of the boys’ toilets.

A tearful Eric sobbed inconsolably and managed to heave out that it wasn’t him. Despite the suspect’s previous form and ignoring instinct and intuition it is always best to proceed on the basis of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. We questioned the suspect as to his whereabouts on the afternoon in question. Were there any witnesses he could call on to establish an alibi? Who did he walk out of school with? “Scott!”

I went into assembly and beckoned Scott over to me, I took him to the interview room away from the suspect and he informed me that he had gone home with his mother in the opposite direction from Eric. After confronting the suspect with this information the alibi was withdrawn, DC Smith escorted Scott back to assembly and assured him that he would be placed in the witness protection scheme during the next break.

The suspect then tried that well-known tactic “It wasn’t just me…it was someone else as well” and incriminated his friend Colin. Once again I took the witness or potential suspect out of assembly. No he hadn’t walked out of school with Eric, he’d caught up with him and yes, Eric had a yellow football with him.

Confronted with this evidence it was plain to see that the suspect’s case was as we say in the service, “falling apart at the seams”. I left Eric with DC Smith. Now long experience has taught me that you don’t need lengthy interrogations, thumbscrews or the tortures of a Torquemada you just leave them with DC Smith, head on one side, gazing into their eyes with a quizzical look.

Any old lag or Mafioso hit man would wilt and confess. In floods of tears Eric admitted, he’d taken the ball home, it was in his garden. We rang home and mum agreed to bring it in to school straight away and when she got her hands on him… So another case solved, the accused sentenced to detention, Peter delighted to get his ball back and I was spared the wrath of his Nan.

I always feel an affinity with those fictional sleuths Inspectors Rebus, Frost and Wexford they’re always battling against bureaucracy and they’ve never ascended the promotion ladder (I’ve managed to climb to the giddy heights of PE Co-ordinator) but give them a complex crime to solve and they’re in their element. For me it’s all part of the job description, teacher, social worker, nurse, counsellor, psychiatrist and…. detective.


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