Wednesday, February 28, 2007


After just six weeks of blogging, “Wife in the North” ex-Sunday Times journalist, Judith 0’Reilly's account of ‘Just how grim can it get up north? Very. One woman's lonely journey into the Northern heartlands’ has won a £70,000 book deal from Viking publishers.

Moving to Northumberland from London was not my idea. My husband was in fact the only one terribly keen on the move. When I asked my younger son what he thought, he confided: “Bears might eat me”. “There are no bears,” I told him as I looked into the darkness and the growling started.

Here’s some extracts…

Tuesday December 12 2006
Inside my particular country cottage though, it is hell. Five of us squished together (six if you count the nanny) in what is effectively a two-bedroomed, toy-strewn hovel in which three adults are working full-time. It is like something from 18th century pre-revolution England - all cottage industry and screaming children with a little less smallpox.

December 15 2006
I had to leave behind not just the friends I had acquired and cherished over years but my hairdresser, my beauty consultant, my nutritionist, my masseur, my homeopath, my osteopath and my therapist.

January 27 2007

If you ever wondered what happens at a hunt, I can assure you that the riders come along in muddy land rovers pulling horseboxes; they do not just leap out of the 19th century print your favorite uncle hung in the hallway in the shadow of the grandfather clock. I am not knocking hunting. The outfits are great.

January 28 2007
In two weeks time we are due to move into an unfurnished, rented house in the village to allow the builders to start work on knocking through the cottages to create that dream home I was promised. I suspect our stone-built rented house is cold. When I asked the estate agent whether it was a cold house, he looked at me in that blank way people up here do when I talk about the cold. "It has radiators," he pointed to two very small radiators hung on an immense magnolia wall.

I know, I know… Much gnashing of teeth in the blogsphere

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Groucho and Me

I thought it might be humble pie time because ‘Teacher’s TV’ e-mailed back to say they’d be putting my article on ‘Stress’ on their web site, they promised to “get back to me”, those fatal words, a week on and I’ve heard nothing. I don’t know anyone that actually watches ‘Teacher’s TV’ certainly not the programmes on stress, the main five programmes attracted 12 votes and 0 comments.

One thing writing my book and this blog has taught me is just how difficult it is to get your voice heard – by anyone.

I approached the Teacher Support Network, the charity that helps and advises teachers with problems at work. Back came a gushing e-mail and a promise to offer my book as a prize in one of their on-line surveys… a few days later another e-mail, 'Er, I’ve consulted with the bosses, they don’t want to upset the sponsors, we’ll get back to you.' They never did. Strange that, I thought TSN got most of their money from teachers not sponsorship. In a fit of pique I cancelled my subscription.

It probably just confirmed my views on charities, not that I’m trying to attack the motives of people who donate. It’s just that charities are very good at presenting individuals as grateful supplicants or helpless victims, but as soon as they speak out or worse still organise together, the charities are nowhere to be seen, they don’t want to upset the sponsors.

I tried that fearless ‘voice of the teachers’ the General Teaching Council, but no they didn’t want to carry any articles by teachers in their boring, colourless magazine because they wouldn’t be ‘objective’. The GTC does have a discussion forum on its web site, since its inception in 2000 it has attracted 853 comments (current forums non existent), the TES forums had 3,773 comments in 24 hours.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance is the main left grouping in the NUT. I sent a piece in to them, heard nothing, tried again, heard nothing. After moaning and complaining they put a piece up. When my book was published I sent in a second piece, heard nothing, tried again, heard nothing, this time I just cancelled my direct debit.

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m a bit of a contrarian, a fully paid up member of the awkward squad, I probably subscribe to Groucho Marx’s theory that he would refuse to belong to any organisation that would have him as a member.

It’s quite scary the way that discussion, debate and certainly dissent has been closed down. In response you either get sullen acquiescence from teachers, denial or displacement activities – teachers rattle on for ages about dirty cups in the staff room but just ignore the larger issues.

There’s always plenty of “consultation” whenever councils want to trash education. They hold meetings, pretend to listen, look interested and write down everything that people say. But you know that even if 99% of opinion is against they will bin everything, do it, and if anyone asks them, they did “consult”. Their favourite phrase is, “I hear what you say”.

Most of my early blogs were just my articles from the TES (the one organisation that is willing to print “controversial” comments). I’ve tried to write about life at school but also the wider issues. There are some great “resources” blogs out there, but surely when Unicef says our children are miserable you’ve got to go beyond the cheapest laminating paper and day glow stickers. Or maybe resources are another displacement activity.

At times you feel like a lone voice ranting away in the wilderness of cyber space then someone stretches out the hand of friendship, so thanks to David Osler the writer of the award winning blog Dave’s Part for mentioning ‘How Not To Teach’.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

What Alondra Learned

In ‘Final Test – the Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools’ (published by The New Press) Peter Schrag outlines the legislative battles fought during the 1990s to calculate just exactly what ‘adequate’ meant when it came to children’s education.

Alondra Jones was a student at a crumbling Los Angles school there was a succession of substitute teachers, the toilets had ‘scene of crime’ tape plastered everywhere, the gyms were covered with mice and bird droppings and the laboratories were never used. Alondra sued the state of California to win a better deal.

In 1978 California passed ‘Proposition 13’ which cut state taxes and led to what was euphemistically called ‘deferred maintenance’ in schools. By the late 1990s California was spending an average of $6,000 per pupil compared to $9,000 in New Jersey.

This situation was mirrored in other parts of the country, during the Reagan era, as the federal government cut money allocated to states. The situation became so serious that coalitions of councillors, teachers and parents began to take out court cases to demand an ‘adequate’ education. In Kentucky the driving force was the local business community who were appalled at the competence of their prospective employees.

In many states there was a further complication because taxation for school districts was based on local property values, so in 1999-2000 Illinois spent on average $7,460 on pupils in districts with the lowest child poverty rates and $5,400 where child poverty was the highest; in New York the comparable figures were $8,598 and $6,445; Pennsylvania $7,285 and $6,037 – in its wealthiest areas Pennsylvania was spending $10,000 per pupil.

Some of the legal battles lasted for years and California spent $20 million trying to fend off an ‘adequacy’ case. The book does get too involved with the minutiae of the courtroom but it is a stunning indictment of America’s education system. This isn’t a dry academic book the first chapter ‘What Alondra Learned’ relates the human side of the story very effectively.

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Keeping a secret

There was an interesting letter today in The Guardian about academy schools.

The judgments of the National Audit Office (Watchdog criticises academies over costs and exam results, February 23) are likely to have been made without access to key secret information about the curriculum provided by academies. The published exam results mean little without knowing the subjects taken. By entering large numbers of pupils for easy subjects with ludicrously generous equivalences to GCSE it is relatively simple to inflate results. The poor results when English and maths are included (22%) suggest that this is taking place. Unlike all other state schools, academies are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

On December 13 I made an FOI request to the Department for Education and Skills requesting the full 2006 examination results subject by subject for each academy. This was refused without giving a reason. In a telephone conversation with the DfES on February 22 I was told that it intended to use a statutory FOI exemption to bar release of these results. These exemptions range from "prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs" to "commercial interests". I await with interest the excuse the government will use to keep secret the subjects taken and pass rates in these publicly funded schools.

Roger Titcombe Ulverston, Cumbria

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Health Fascism

I’ve got to admit, I’m a bit of a wind-up merchant. We were having a little farewell party for our excellent student teacher. I told the class we were having a “healthy” party – water, nuts, celery, spinach, and broccoli. Their little faces fell.

Lest you get the wrong impression, long before the obesity panic set in I’ve hated junk food. I don’t think I’ve gone near a McDonald’s for years and as a matter of principle I made by own swimming certificates when the Amateur Swimming Association plastered Frosties
‘Tony the Tiger’ all over theirs (the second most sugar-laden children’s cereal next to Sugar Puffs).

The Healthy Schools Scheme is something that should have been done years ago, before the food advertising sprites got their claws into children and brain washed them. In school we’ve changed our tuck shop so that children are given an alternative to fat-soaked, salt-rich crisps (Gary Lineker hang your head in shame). The 5-a-day posters are prominently displayed all round school. Canteen staff, Jamie Oliver is definitely not their favourite person, have been sent on training about healthy diets.

Our party went really well, apart from Brian who got sent out for nicking sweets before we’d started the party, there was musical statues, Jean the student started crying, Sheila who hates anyone leaving burst into floods of tears, some of the sugar-free lemonade got spilt on the new carpet, and the cheese puffs and sweets went down a treat.

After school relaxing in the classroom, someone came in to “have a little word” apparently to qualify for a
‘Healthy School Award’ all sweets are banned apart from partial exceptions at Christmas and Easter. That’s it no sweets, all time, any time.

In my view healthy eating should be about healthy
choices not health dictatorship. There’s an interesting parallel here with the temperance movement of the nineteenth century, they did some excellent work rescuing people from the perils of drink, of that there is no doubt. The problem was that the movement got taken over by the zealots of teetotalism, ‘no drink shall pass your lips’. Temperance adopted a high-handed moralistic attitude and some of the propaganda was laughable – you only needed one drink to descend into the hell of alcoholism.

Where do people drink responsibly today? In countries like Italy where young people are introduced to alcohol in a family setting and taught by example to drink in moderation. The Netherlands has a liberal approach to smoking cannabis and less young people smoke it than in Britain where it is still slightly illegal. Children who are denied any sweets by their parents are usually the worst at stuffing their faces with sweets when they get the opportunity.

One of the reasons for the decline of Methodism is that the popular perception was that rather than preach about the joy of salvation they were morose killjoys who wanted to suppress all forms of fun or frivolity – at different times the branches railed against drinking, reading novels, football and dancing (banned in Methodist halls until 1964).

What I hate about the current obesity scare is the incipient “health fascism”, this is most notably displayed on Channel 4 by “Doctor” Gillian McKeith (brilliantly exposed by
Ben Goldacre in ‘The Guardian’) where overweight people are humiliated and berated if they stray one millimetre from her prescribed diet. On the other hand I hate the phrase “Nanny State” because it’s used by right wing libertarians to argue that the state should do nothing. Faced with the multi-billion pound junk food advertising industry the state has a duty to its children to promote healthy food.

However, you have to keep a sense of proportion, trust teachers about how often they let children have sweets. Interestingly our staff room is always awash with biscuits, cakes and chocolates. Now we wouldn’t want to appear as hypocrites... so next staff meeting I’m going to move that they’re banned as well. Should be an interesting meeting.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eternal Sunshine

A few years a council was given a damning report by the Audit Commission, virtually every service or department was savaged, social services was “poor”, education was “under-performing”, the housing department was “chaotic”, refuse collection didn’t happen and care for the elderly was “non-existent”. However, they singled out one service for praise.

When the council spinmeisters crafted their reply it was along the following lines, “We welcome the fact that our excellent traffic cone replacement service has been acknowledged and given national recognition. Some deficiencies have been highlighted, we have a new management team who are aware of them and are implementing changes to rectify the faults.” Accentuate the positive, blame the previous managers and claim it’s all in hand now.

The National Audit Office and Ofsted reports on academies weren’t as damning they concluded that they gave “value for money” and had improved overall results but they also highlighted - cost over runs; poor ‘A’ level results; problems with recruitment, retention and inexperienced staff. It made for sombre reading. Academies were based on American “Charter Schools” where private companies like Edison were allowed to run state schools (although the contracts were only for 3-5 years). However, even their most zealous supporters have had to admit that their results are “patchy”.

The academy test figures (GCSE results well below the national average) are even more unflattering given that most of them are joyless exam factories where the curriculum consists of three things - ‘testing, testing, testing’. Schools in deprived areas that had extra money under Excellence in Cities achieved comparable results with academies, so why sell off state assets to dubious religious organisations?

Alan Johnson’s response was, “I am delighted it is such a positive report.” He reminds me of one of the characters in the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, where all bad memories have been erased from their consciousness. The problem with spin is that if you live in a state of delusion and self-denial no one will believe a word that you say.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Joke of the Week

Knock, knock

Who's there?

The interrupting dog.

The interrup...



Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stress Week

On discovering that Teachers’ TV are running ‘Stress Week’ I didn’t know whether to squeeze a touchy-feely stress ball or run round the playground laughing manically. Instead as a piece of therapy I decided to write this article.

In a recent Teachers’ TV survey two thirds of the 823 teachers polled felt stressed by teaching, half of them during lesson – the biggest cause being disrespectful pupils.

· Three quarters felt inadequately supported by their head teacher or senior management
· Four out of ten blamed stress on poor resources in the classroom
· 44% said they were stressed due to large class sizes

‘I’m stressed out’ is used so often that it can cheapen or diminish the real meaning of the word. What is stress? Kornhauser (1965) defined it as,

“…everything that deprives the person of purpose and zest, that leaves him with negative feelings about himself, with anxieties, tensions, a sense of lostness, emptiness, and futility.”

Stress can be positive or negative, everyone needs a certain amount of stress in his or her job to improve or advance. Different individuals react in dissimilar ways to stress. A Type A personality may have excellent coping mechanisms and may be able to talk to other work mates (one of the best ways to diffuse stress). A Type B personality may bottle everything up and be unable to express their feelings.

Stress occurs at the point when the magnitude of the stress exceeds the individual’s capacity to resist. Crucially stress is a result of pressure, strain or anxiety over an extended period of time. The symptoms may include – job dissatisfaction, mental ill health, accidents, intentions to leave, absenteeism, excessive drinking and family problems.

Work is probably the most important part of our lives; in his book Working (1972) Studs Terkel commented that,

“It (work) is about a search, too, for daily meaning, as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather then torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

In Britain one of the main causes of stress is the long hours culture a Labour Force Survey in 2005 found that Britons put in 36 million hours of free overtime each year with one in three refusing to take their full holiday entitlement, fearing a backlog of work when they returned. Other key findings were –

· Four million work more than 48 hours a week on average, 700,000 more than in 1992
· Full time employees in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. The average for full timers in the UK is 43.5. In France it’s 38.2 and in Germany 39.9, yet both are more productive than the UK
· Only senior managers did more unpaid overtime than teachers

In June 2005 the UK government led a minority of other countries to block moves to end the ‘opt-out’ from the European Working Time Directive’s 48 hour ceiling on the working week.

The economist Andrew Oswald has conducted research on job satisfaction in the public sector. He found that in the early 1990s there were far higher levels of job satisfaction compared to the private sector, by the end of the decade this gap had been virtually eroded. Oswald cited pressures to meet targets and the introduction of working practices from the private sector.

In response to teacher stress the phone service ‘Teacher Support Line’ was established in September 1999, in the first 18 months fifty suicidal and clinically-depressed teachers sought counselling and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. In 2006, 6331 teachers called for advice; 36% complained about lack of support from management.

Different surveys have established that teaching is one of the most stressful jobs, in 1996 Travers and Cooper conducted one of the largest surveys into stress among teachers For graduates in general, the normative job satisfaction level was 74.6; for teachers it was only 59.6. A Health and Safety Executive report in 2001 claimed that 6.5 million days were lost every year due to stress. The most stressful job? Teaching.

The most extensive survey on morale was undertaken by the GTC in 2002 in which 70,011 teachers participated. One in three expected to leave teaching within five years in protest at the workload, government interference and poor pupil behaviour. More than half said their morale was lower than when they joined the profession and a third would not go into teaching if they had their time again.

Teachers don’t willingly admit to being under stress, in some schools it’s seen as a sign of weakness – ‘not being able to cope’ or of failure. Management stuck away in their bunkers are usually in denial about poor behaviour and NQTs often don’t receive the support and guidance they need or deserve.

The main danger with stress is that you can become emotionally detached from your job and excessive stress over extended periods of time can lead to burn-out and emotional exhaustion. The symptoms are high depersonalisation, low personal accomplishment and sickness or absenteeism.

Most LEAs have teams of officers that enforce teacher’s attendance they are very good at making anyone with a poor sickness record take early retirement. In one neighbouring school a teacher (who wasn’t a sick note) took time off after being assaulted by a pupil and faced disciplinary action on her return. It was the last straw for the staff and a threatened strike kept the LEA rottweilers at bay.

LEAs have had to take teacher stress much more seriously this came after a stunning legal victory when Alan Barber a former maths teacher from Somerset whose complaints about workload were dismissed by a, “brusque, autocratic and bullying” head was awarded £100,000 in March 2001. He had retired in 1997 on medical advice suffering from depression brought on by his “unremitting” workload of between 61 and 70 hours a week.

Lastly teachers lack of control over their job is another significant cause of stress, they have become deprofessionalised with no autonomy to think for themselves, the curriculum is prescribed by the DfES.

The Teachers’ TV Stress Week seems to be well meaning but ultimately patronising because whilst I can’t claim to have seen every programme there seemed to be a significant input from the ‘behavioural gurus’ (£500 a session nice work if you can get it). I’ve been on those courses and the not-so-subtle message is, ‘If only you weren’t such crap teachers you would be able to control your class’, this from people who have usually deserted the front line years ago.

There never seems to be any recognition that poor pupil behaviour is not the only cause of stress, there’s also the hours; workload; lack of management support; the denigration of the profession by government and media; low pay for a graduate trained career and lack of control over the curriculum. Also the very selective secondary school system doesn’t seem to be considered where we have grammar schools on one side (2% Free School Meals, 0% Special Education Needs) alongside Gasworks Comprehensive (70% FSM, 50% SEN).

I’ve e-mailed this article to Teachers’ TV and challenged them to put it on their web site, will they? Pigs might fly?


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Utter Futility of Human Existence

There are moments of bleak despair, times when you question the sheer utter futility of human existence and there are staff meetings. This week it was on ‘Subject Leadership’, when you are in a small primary school by the law of averages you will end up ‘Co-ordinating’ one or two subjects. The presentation was on the new thinking emanating from the DfES, it’s not just a change of name but a whole scale re-vamp, repositioning, revolution, we’re now going to be called ‘Subject Leaders’ and in this brave new world will be using ‘vision’ to drive our subjects forward.

Naturally ‘for OfSTED’ we would have to develop a comprehensive file. This was the list of possible contents for the subject leader’s file. We were assured it wasn’t an exhaustive list we could add to it if we wanted to….

Contents of Subject Leaders File

1. Job Description
2. Vision Statement for your School/Subject
3. Subject Policy
4. Subject Development Plan/ Action Plan
5. Annual Maintenance Schedule
6. Subject Scheme of Work
7. Examples of Planning (medium or short term)
8. Assessments
9. Marking Policy
10. Tests
11. Some examples of assessed work
12. Examples/Reports of monitoring activities
13. Monitoring Schedule
14. Schedule for Staff meetings where Subject is on agenda
15. Relevant Minutes of above meetings
16. Schedules for SMT Subject Management Meetings
17. Reports to the Governors
18. Minutes of above meetings
19. Subject Evaluations and reviews including last OfSTED
20. Copies of monitoring feedback to teachers
21. Budget Information
22. List of resources and Purchases
23. CPD Log for Courses
24. Activity Log For Subject Leader

25. Pictures of La La and Twinky Winky

O.K. I made the last bit up just to see if you were still awake.

Bizarre as it may seem under the circumstances but I actually decided to become a teacher because I wanted to teach children, not fill in forms to place in a file. ‘I’m A Subject Leader Get Me Out Of Here!’


Sunday, February 18, 2007

A view from the pier...

We set out for the massive car boot sale on farm land just north of Burscough, but they were still on winter break so we headed across to Southport. There are lots of memorials in memory of different disasters where lifeboat crew lost their lives. The RNLI took the lifeboat away from the town in 1925 but in the 1980s local people raised money for an independent lifeboat station.

The pier was reopened in 2002 after extensive restoration work. It's nothing like its former glory but they've done a great job and rather than have sad shops and amusement arcades dotted all along there's just one cafe, arcade and visitor centre at the end. You could see out to Blackpool today.

What has really spoilt it though is when you look back from the start of the pier they've built ugly retail sheds. So rather than gaze at the splendour of the Victorian frontage all you can see is JJB, Premier Bowl, Matalan, McDonald's and Pizza Hut. What is it with town planners? An empty space and 'let's throw up a retail park.' The proverbial blot on the landscape.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Education Reader

‘Education Reader – Leading Educators Speak Out’ (published by The New Press) is a collection of articles by ‘progressive’ American writers.

The most interesting articles are about race in American education, with the historical background of segregation, new immigration and affirmative action it is far more complicated than Britain.

Michele Foster in ‘Black Teachers on Teaching’ outlines the history of segregated (“separate but equal”) education which was altered by the seminal 1954 court case Brown .v. The Board of Education.

However, the black writer and academic WEB du Bois warned with incredible prescience in 1935, “A mixed school with poor unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of the truth concerning black folk is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, and poor salaries is equally bad.” He went on to argue that on balance a mixed school would be better because it could give a broader education, allow wider contacts, give greater self-confidence and suppress the inferiority complex.

When desegregation was implemented many black schools closed and between 1954 and 1965, in the 17 southern states, 30,000 black teachers lost their jobs. The 1990 census revealed that only 8% of teachers were black.

Some black educators (albeit a minority) have called for resegregation. The Pennsylvania Association of Teachers of Coloured Children argued that black children were being harmed in mixed schools because they had lost their racial pride.

‘We Make Each Other Racial’ describes the complicated and shifting racial alliances within ‘Madison High School’ – the Latins, ESLers (English as a Second Language), Blacks, Asians and Whites and the dynamics between the sub-groups – white skaters, band kids, “normals” and “housers”.

My main complaint with the book is that most of the articles are ten years out of date, so it doesn’t really deal with Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind Act’, the testing regime or the impact of the cuts made by California in bilingual education.

It is a powerful insight into the complexities of race. David Mura recounts how his Japanese American father was interned in the Deep South during the Second World War, but when he was released for day trips was treated as an ‘honorary white’ and was allowed to sit at the front of the bus and in the best seats at the cinema.

TES Review


NAHT and McDonald’s

I’ve received the following comment from the National Association of Head Teacher’s (NAHT) Commercial Development Manager (no less) John Randall,

“On behalf of NAHT, I would like to make clear that McDonald's are not sponsoring the Association's 2007 annual conference. This followed a decision made at our 2005 conference.”

John, this is what you should have said and done,

“I’m sorry about this we’ve made a mistake, messed-up. We might be headteachers but we’re not infallible. We can only apologise for getting involved with an organisation like McDonald’s. I’ve watched ‘Super Size Me’ and I can tell all you children out there that eating lots of greasy burgers and chips is not good for your health. McDonald’s can have their money back and the people who signed this deal are going to work on an organic farm as punishment.”

If you would like to tell the NAHT what you think about their 'decision' the e-mail is -

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Thursday, February 15, 2007


The Unicef report on child poverty in the twenty-one wealthiest countries was disturbing reading. Britain came bottom in the overall table, which measured forty different indicators. British children were most likely to feel left out, awkward and lonely. They were less likely to eat the main meal of the day with their parents. Only 40% of over-11s found their peers “kind and helpful”.

There were some fairly predictable knee-jerk reactions from the press; the ‘Daily Mail’ blamed one parent families and the breakdown of the family; ‘The Times’ used that time honoured tactic – shoot the messenger (Unicef). The best piece was by Steve Richards in ‘The Independent’, yes there were problems with the survey and it is possible to pick holes in it, but the Unicef report follows other critical investigations into the welfare of children in Britain.

Why are America (the world’s wealthiest country) and Britain (fourth wealthiest) at the bottom of the league table for child welfare? What do we have in common? In both countries the state has been absolved from responsibility for poverty, state providers have been replaced by cheaper voluntary organisations or charities, under pinning this was Thatcher’s infamous 1987 quote, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Lastly there’s the enormous wealth gap - company executives earned five times the wage of a shop floor worker in the 1970s, now it’s eighty times or more.

The Labour Government’s response was that the figures were ‘out of date’ and that 700,000 children have been taken out of poverty. As welcome as those figures are they must share the blame for the way that young people have been marginalised and demonised. The New Labour reaction is to reach for the Asbo and the CCTV, yet where is the investment in the youth service?

Another interesting fact was the poor self-image of children in Britain. Maybe that’s something to do with the ‘celebrity culture’ where the only role models on offer for young girls are intellectually challenged, surgically enhanced, stick-thin models. The whole modus operandi of the advertising industry is to peddle the myth that money = happiness. This point is developed by Oliver James in his book ‘Affluenza’, why are there such high levels of depression in the wealthiest countries?

In schools we have the testing culture that children find extremely stressful. As the TES pointed out in some classes friendships are made or broken according to ‘the Level’ pupils are allocated in tests.

We don’t teach in hermitically sealed classrooms, the influence of society is apparent all the time, children are the products of their environment. All we can do is promote the values of friendship, community and solidarity. As the hippies used to say, “It’s not what’s in your pocket, it’s what’s in your head that counts.”

Other articles

Year 6 Teacher

Daily Telegraph

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Woolston Eyes

Went for a walk yesterday round Woolston Eyes which is between the M6 Thelwall viaduct and the Manchester Ship Canal. It's now a nature reserve, place you wouldn't really know is there, with all the traffic thundering away in the distance. Well worth a visit.


The Ridings

Teachers at the Ridings in Halifax have voted to take action over problems with school discipine and the head’s failure to deal with disruptive pupils, this will almost certainly propel the school into special measures.

In 1996 the school, fell into ‘near-anarchy’ with the media camped outside the school amid allegations of pupils running amok, smoking in class, and fighting in front of inspectors. Teachers threatened to go on strike and Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, sent in a “hit squad” to rescue the school.

The Ridings’ fate was seen as a critical test of the incoming Labour government’s ability to rescue failed schools. The government put in place a rescue plan led by two “super-heads”, which eventually cost some £6m. In 2001, Tony Blair visited it during the general election campaign and praised its achievements as “truly uplifting”. He cited it as an example of how failed schools could be turned around.

But since then, results and discipline have collapsed. The state of the comprehensive, which has 740 pupils, was highlighted last month by league tables which ranked it fourth worst in the country on its GCSE results and third worst for truancy.

Of course Ofsted claim that by giving some schools a good beating it helps to straighten them out – a similar argument is 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.

In 1997 Peter Clark was parachuted in as temporary Head to try and ‘turn round’ the Ridings, as now they were competing against two faith schools and a grammar school. The intake of children was unbalanced, 75% had below-average reading levels and 40% of Years 7 to 9 had reading ages three years below their chronological age.

This year's league tables show that seven out of the 10 worst performing schools on the new index - which records GCSE maths and English passes - are in authorities with selective schooling. Less than 10 per cent of their pupils achieve five top-grade A*-C passes including maths and English. The figures are all the more stark when set against the fact that only 15 councils in England still have fully selective education systems. The authorities with the largest number of schools in the bottom 100 in the country are Kent and Lincolnshire - both of which have a fully selective education system. Kent and the Medway Towns - which were part of the Kent authority until the 1990s - have 10 schools in the worst 100.

There were some ‘wonderful’ grammar schools but many awful secondary modern schools - in the 1950s 1 in 8 of children from grammar schools went to university but only 1 in 22,000 from secondary moderns.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

NAHT and McDonald’s

I’m stunned and raging in disbelief at that Faustian deal where the National Association of Headteachers has allowed the fast food giant McDonald’s to sponsor its national conference. No weasel words from any self-appointed spokes-person can justify this appalling decision.

Sponsorship is not a neutral action, for this reason most organisations have given a wide berth to tobacco companies, the armaments industry and BNFL. Exactly which part of guilt by association does the NAHT fail to understand or comprehend?

Just to acquaint the NAHT with McDonald’s record it– has sold copious amounts of junk food by opening restaurants in close proximity to schools; pays just above the minimum wage in spite of generating huge profits; refuses to recognise trade unions; is intolerant of dissent – they spent millions pursuing two unemployed environmental activists (Helen Morris and Dave Steel) in the notorious McLibel trial.

We try to educate children to make the right choices in life, one of them is to choose a healthy diet – despite the competing pressures from the billion pound advertising industry. We also use as examples those individuals who stood for truth and justice against overwhelming odds – Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. Just what principle was the NAHT demonstrating – every organisation has its price?

Maybe the General Teaching Council could prove it does have its uses by arraigning the leadership of the NAHT before one of its disciplinary committees. The charges? -dereliction of its duty to children and gross moral turpitude.

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Our Country's Good

Went to see this play in Liverpool.

"Australia. 1788. A boatload of disease and disdain spews onto a foreign shore. As the soldiers struggle to impose order on the outcasts of the old society, a benevolent governor seizes on the notion of a play. In the shadow of the gallows and the gum tree the convicts gather and rehearsals begin for The Recruiting Officer. Based on real events Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award winning modern classic is an inspiring tale of the transforming power of theatre."

Catch it if you can!


Sunday, February 11, 2007


There’s always a tendency for people to look back through rose-tinted spectacles and mythologize, embellish or burnish the past, one thing is clear though, in retrospect, the embattled survivors will not view the dawn of the new millennium as a millenarian golden age. Heads of primary schools are rushing to retire early and there are precious few new recruits to replace them.

Teachers aren’t falling over themselves to get into management. On average there are only
5.4 applicants for a headship. Twenty seven per cent of schools reject all applicants and are forced to re-advertise. In the largest LEA, Kent, there are 473 primary schools, in 2005 there were 23 schools with temporary headteachers last year it has risen to 50.

My name is John, I have a mental illness.” Former national president John Illingworth stunned the NUT Conference last year when he described how he had been forced to apply for early retirement due to the effects of stress. In an interview with the TES he revealed, “There were a few weeks at the end where I was really unwell, mentally I couldn’t take decisions, couldn’t prioritise. On one occasion I was almost tempted to grab hold of a kid. I was quite emotional at sometimes, and you can’t be bursting into tears when you’re dealing with a stroppy child. At my worst last winter, I couldn’t cope… I had to wait in the car park. My character changed from being easygoing to being quite difficult. One of my sons reckons it has been 10 years since I have been myself.” After his speech at the Conference he had over 250 emails, letters and calls, but nothing from his LEA.

Why aren’t teachers becoming Heads? One reason is that the job has become more administrative, managerial and bureaucratic, Heads teach an average of 3 hours per week, but that covers small rural schools where they may teach half the week through to larger urban schools where they may never or very rarely teach. Heads spend hours trawling through accounts, buried beneath mountains of circulars, reports and correspondence; blinking into the daylight contact with staff or children is often limited.

Heads can become remote from their staff, but that is often the accepted and preferred model. However, isolation, not being able to confide in or trust other people is a significant contributor to stress. In 2000 the National Association of Headteachers conducted a survey of 300 members in
Warwickshire – 1 in 4 reported serious health problems including high blood pressure, chronic insomnia, eating disorders and excessive drinking; half claimed their families life had suffered.

With workload and hours a major issue it probably wasn’t brilliant timing to demand that prospective Heads have to pass the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers. Its supporters claim that it’s a rigorous course that will prepare candidates for the managerial qualities needed in a modern education system. An alternative view is that that the paper-laden NPQH is there to churn out a line of lobotomised robots who will uncritically implement every directive from the DfES rather than produce excellent pedagogues who can inspire and enthuse a new generation of teachers.

Training for Heads comes courtesy of the National College for School Leadership (opened in 2000) their programmes contain titles like ‘The Courage of Leaders’ and ‘Leading from the Front’. Inspirational talks are delivered by businessmen, sports people and those self-obsessed explorers who usually manage to get themselves lost and have to be rescued at enormous expense by their back-up team. Teamwork is out, instead we have the cult of the ‘super-head’, failing school – parachute in a super-head, problem solved.

The fear of failing an Ofsted inspection is another powerful factor inhibiting teachers from becoming heads. It’s seen as a personal failure, there’s the football manager syndrome – poor results sack the headteacher. Fail your Ofsted inspection and you become virtually unemployable, “and your last school was…?”

Maybe it’s something to do with an increasingly feminised workforce - 98% of infant and 83% of juniors teachers are women. Those with young families choose not to work the crippling long hours that goes with being a Head (one quarter of female Heads live on their own). The General Teaching Council carried out a survey and found that
only 4% of teachers were thinking about becoming heads in the next five years. Could it also be there’s a rejection of the macho cult of the leader that emanates from the NCSL? And are existing Heads a great role model? There’s that stressed-out, alcohol-dependent, divorcee – “Yes my child all this can be yours.”

Faced with this recruitment crisis you might have expected that hours would be cut, stress levels reduced and the testing regime side-lined. Instead of that New Labour’s ‘Blue Sky Thinkers’ have come up with the idea of Leadership Consultants who would be responsible for 5 or 6 primary schools. The only problem here is that someone has to be on hand when little Johnny or Jane runs out of school, an irate parent demands to be seen, or a mass brawl breaks out at break time and who will answer when Ofsted come calling? So responsibility will be devolved down to Deputy Heads – no prizes for guessing where the next recruitment crisis will manifest itself.

One little vignette from the TES sums up the crazy world of the primary Head. In
Hull (one of our worst performing LEAs) Heads have been under constant pressure to improve test results by whatever means necessary. Thirteen out of seventy have resigned or asked for early retirement. At a recent meeting one Head rose up out of his seat and said, “I have lost the will to live!” He left the hall doing the Morecambe and Wise final dance.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Nobody Drowned

Politically correct PE teachers who hate competitions are killing school sport. Rubbish! I’ve never met any of them, my own experience has been exactly the opposite, PE teachers who could have auditioned for Brian Glover’s role in ‘Kes’ nearly put me off sport for life. Our local swimming gala confirmed that this species, far from being extinct, is multiplying and thriving in a school near you.

In a bygone era sports stars were genuine role models. My all-time hero was Muhammad Ali, he gave up the world boxing title because he wouldn’t be drafted into the army, ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger’. In the excellent film ‘When We Were Kings’ after he beats George Foreman in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ he dedicates his victory to the homeless, the drug addicts and prostitutes. Sporting heroine? Billy Jean King risked her career by fighting for equal prize money for women and set up the breakaway Virginia Slims tournament, she thrashed MCP Bobby Riggs who had derided women tennis players and at a later stage she ‘came out’ as a lesbian.

Today narcissistic millionaire drug-cheats live isolated in their gated mansions miles away from every day reality. There’s also the way that the media present sport with their overblown hyperbole. I wince every time I read the words ‘heroic’ or ‘courageous’. A firefighter rescuing a child from a burning house? Maybe that fits the bill, not a player scoring a winning goal. A few years ago Boris Becker lost an important match at Wimbledon just to prove the hacks lack of any sense of proportion they were describing it as a ‘disaster’ and using that catch all question ‘How does it feel?’ Eventually in exasperation he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Nobody died out there!”

Our head was keen for the school to participate in the swimming gala so we had two weeks at the baths to practise. Assembling a team was fairly easy, we picked anyone that could swim a length. Every year our Year 3s start lessons with a large proportion of them never having so much as dipped a toe in a swimming pool.

I’ve got bad memories of the last gala we went to four years ago, our swimmers were struggling to finish and already the next race was being started. The large sports mad primary school came 1st, 2nd and 3rd in every race and scooped up all the trophies.

The Council’s Sports Development Team were ‘organising’ this gala and I use that word pejoratively and in the loosest possible sense. Despite a whole team of people with stop watches no one had thought to book a PA system, a large echoing swimming pool, hundreds of children screaming at the top of their voices – Hello! Chaos ensued we couldn’t hear a thing.

I gazed open-mouthed at the practise session a lithe young lad with swim cap, sleek goggles and one of those expensive swim suits, dived in, glided half the length of the pool and then cut through the water with the speed of a barracuda.

When the races began we had the emergence of ‘Competitive PE Teacher’ – running up and down the side of the pool screaming at his children and bawling out those who lost with the full Alex Ferguson hair dryer treatment. It was one of those rare occasions when I wanted to inflict physical damage on a member of the human race. Maybe I should have nudged him into the pool, I’d have a ready-made excuse, whenever our children hit anyone it is always “by accident”.

Our children dutifully clapped in the last swimmers. Shy Sidney from Year 3 tried his best, but Mouthy Melvin bottled out, it’s usually the quiet ones who don’t wilt under pressure. Sheila, bless her, reassured everyone that, “it’s taking part that counts”. Somehow our involvement was on a par with ‘Eric the Eel’ Moussambani the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who achieved worldwide fame after finishing in the slowest time ever recorded in the Men's 100m Freestyle finals at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Moussambani had never seen a 50m pool before the competition. Laura began to throw up because she wouldn’t drink the water provided. We had a snowball in hell’s chance of winning any trophies so I passed on the humiliation of the relay and we crept out to get changed.

Arriving back ot school the head came out of his office, ‘How did we do?’

‘Nobody drowned’.

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