Saturday, June 30, 2007


I’d organised a great trip, ten of our best children, a day out in London. Our local M.P. had managed to get free train tickets courtesy of Virgin (I’ll take back what I said about Richard Branson being a media-hungry, ageing, fake-hippy capitalist; who pays his staff poverty wages and is completely self-obsessed with phoney mega-expensive balloon world records where he is continually rescued at exorbitant cost and environmentally unfriendly space trips, well… apart from the balloon trips).

We were all set, dinner in Trafalgar Square, time for the children to climb on the lions and chase the pigeons (I wasn’t sure which Learning Objective or National Curriculum Target this would meet, but what the hell), a tour round the House of Commons with our M.P. and then riding on the London Eye.

Most of the children had never been to London before and were really looking forward to it, all of them great children, a pleasure to teach, ten reasons to stay in the job.

Then on Friday we got news of the bombs in Central London, we were debating whether to call off the trip when an e-mail arrived from the local authority (no criticism intended) cancelling all trips to London UFN.

What do we say to the children? That there are bad people who want to kill innocent bystanders? On another level four years on from the invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terrorism’. Is England a safer place? That’s trips to London cancelled for the foreseeable future.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Joke of the Week

What do you call a mushroom with an i-Pod?

A cool fungi (cool fun guy)!


Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Lack of Debate

‘Some Random Thoughts’ posted,

‘It’s a real shame this site doesn't get the comments that Frank Chalk does. It would be good to see some interesting debate, from educated people, instead of the mixture of religious nut jobs, and BNP members that seem to be making up the readership over there!’

After I mentioned Frank Chalk the man himself was in touch, apparently the link didn’t work, it should have gone to the review of ‘It’s Your Time Your Wasting’. I found his book a ‘breath of fresh air’ in one way. As I wrote,

‘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.’

However, his solutions really are the ‘Daily Mail’ rant. One thing I do admire him for though, he got out of teaching and some of his ‘supporters’ who think all children on council estates are scummy chavs should do the same thing.

In my reply to ‘Some Random Thoughts’ I mused about the lack of debate,

‘What does this say about the teaching profession? Sometimes I wonder.’

Mrs D posted,

‘It says that we like to leave our work at work and chill out when at home. There is plenty of debate when we are actually at school. However, debate rarely means action which is what people actually want.’

No problem there, most days and certainly at weekends I do just want to chill out, but there’s also days when I want to ‘rage against the dying of the light’. Ofsted, SATs, bureaucracy, consultants, targets, strategies, the list is pretty endless.

As for debates in schools I don’t really know, it varies. In my school the staff all sat there and accepted tests every six weeks, I was a lone voice of protest. I’ve boycotted the staff room ever since.

I agree about action being louder than words but where is there any prospect of action? Only in individual schools i.e., TLRs. But look at the NUT national ballot to boycott SATs only a 20% turnout, partly due to apathy, partly fear and a large factor that the NUT leadership has been asleep for twenty years.

The reason I started this blog was to stir debate and even though some of the main posts appear on the TES web site there is little discussion. The TES Staffroom (over 295,000 registered users) is the only site where teachers can participate, the unions don’t do it, nor, unsurprisingly that ‘voice of the teachers’ the General Teaching Council. The only problem is that it tends to be the trivial, trite and bizarre that attract comment, here’s a biased selection from the Opinion section -

Dogs on leads - 86 posts

Joke of the Day - 365 posts

Missing Toddler Thread – 5270 posts

Girl Power!? - 8 posts

The god delusion - 601 posts

Sports cars with old drivers! – 20 posts

Why do ordinary people look so weird? – 30 posts

Yeah’ ‘All Human Life is Here’ meanwhile our children are short changed by a sterile education system and half NQTs leave within five years.

Sorry to depress anyone who is reading this, but it is the end of term so, like most teachers, I’m a bit knackered, and it won't stop raining.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Liverpool’s Cunard Yanks

Some aspects of working class history are well documented – trade unions, strikes, housing, diet. Liverpool’s Cunard Yanks records something that was ‘hidden from history’. Employed as waiters on the Cunard Line in the 1950s and 1960s they were pioneers, bringing back to Britain a new musical culture.

During that era over 20,000 seamen sailed out of Liverpool. Working either in the merchant navy or the liners was almost a rite of passage for many young people. That industry combined with the docks helped to form the character of the Liverpool working class (an interesting contrast can be made with Manchester where employment tended to be in stable, skilled industries like textiles and engineering). Even up to the 1960s the dock industry was notorious for casualisation, men queuing up every day for work. Seamen would traditionally ‘jump ship’ if they found conditions on board too onerous. The film highlights a group of rebels, chancers and outsiders – the Cunard Yanks.

Fifty years on they haven’t lost their touch or fashion sense (they were working class dandies long before Jonathan Ross tried to purloin the title). John Gilmour talks about the months he spent in prison in Havana, routinely rejecting the food on offer. Their normal port of call was the Market Diner at Pier 92 in Manhattan, New York.

Tips from the wealthy clientele on the liners supplemented their meagre wages, (money was shared around the boat) enabling them to bring records, fashion and consumer goods back to Britain. David Kynaston’s book ‘Austerity Britain’ describes just how grim life was in the 1950s, as wartime rationing continued for years. One of the Cunard Yanks commented, ‘Britain was black and white, New York was techicolor.”

In America as a musical revolution unfolded, jazz, be-pop, rock and roll, the charts in Britain were still dominated by ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” Music from America had a huge influence in the revolution that transformed British pop culture. One of the Cunard Yanks Ivan Hayward even sold his guitar to George Harrison – he’s still waiting for the last £20!

Unofficial strikes, involving thousands of seafarers, were also a feature of the shipping industry during the 1950s. But they weren’t just fighting the employers they were battling against their own union the notoriously corrupt National Union of Seamen – ballot rigging was rife.

The film describes Liverpool as an ‘Edgy City’, never part of Lancashire, stuck down the end of the M62, a world apart. Like most port cities Liverpool was always ‘different’. A different accent and culture from its hinterland.

How long will that dissonance and rebelliousness last? The docks used to employ 20,000, now, after the defeat of the 1995-6 lockout and with the impact of containerisation, there are a few hundred non-union dockers left. Apart from a few British officers, seafarers come from Third World countries, shipbuilding and ship repair has all but vanished from the Mersey and the insurance industry is closing down and relocating their call centres to Bangalore.

The Cunard Yanks spoke about ‘The Pool’ the shipping employment agency by the Pier Head, “hundreds would congregate every day waiting for ships.” Those who sailed out of Liverpool brought back music, different cultures and an irascible, irreverent spirit of rebellion. On the premiere night at the Philharmonic there was an enthusiastic audience that bathed in nostalgia. It got me thinking will Liverpool remain an ‘Edgy City’?



Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Working towards…

It’s hard keeping up with the blog at the moment because I’m engaged in that Labour of Sisyphus writing the end of year reports.

Some children it’s easy to write the report – excellent, outstanding, brilliant, well done, etc.

For other children there is the extensive use of the euphemism and the impenetrable eduspeak…

Working towards… = hasn’t got a clue

Is beginning to… = still hasn’t got a clue

Has knowledge of… = that’s about it


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Complacent hack or not?

I’ve managed to upset, offend or incur the wrath of various organisations or individuals-

· The National Association of Head Teachers objected when I castigated them for allowing that healthy food alternative, McDonald’s to sponsor their conference – which part of ‘guilt by association’ didn’t they understand?

· ‘Frank Chalk’ and his claque of noisy politically incorrect supporters – council estate kids are all scummy chavs

· Knowsley education bosses who are closing schools and opening ‘Learning Centres’– see Building Schools for Finance

· Those wacky creationists in Norwich who want to take over Heartsease Secondary School and teach children how dinosaurs were running around with Homo Sapiens 6,000 years ago – have they been watching that Raquel Welch film? Follow the debate on Network Norwich.

Guardian journalist Leo Benedictus wasn’t happy with my criticism of ‘Guiding Principal’. Somehow I think the designation “complacent hack” propelled him into action.

Leo pointed out that as 40% of pupils at Bishop Challoner’s in Tower Hamlets receive Free School Meals they were still educating a high proportion of disadvantaged children. Yes, he had missed those little details that the average FSM in Tower Hamlets is 65.5% and that only 3% of pupils there are Bangladeshi against 80 – 90% in other schools. At this point I did have to question Leo’s powers of observation, as he drove through Tower Hamlets did he not notice the ethnic mix in the area, or is this something ‘Guardian’ journalists don’t receive training in?

Leo makes much of Bishop Challoner’s Contextual Value Added (CVA) scores, this is a measure of Byzantine complexity that is designed to show how a school ‘improves’ pupil performance. Heads will of course cherry pick the best figures to hand. Some schools have kept low performing pupils with behavioural problems and put them on modern apprenticeship courses and suffered much lower CVA scores. The TES also had an example of a grammar school in Cheshire with outstanding GCSE results that on CVA was one of the worst 300 schools in the country - OK, I did have a little chortle at this.

Another reason that Bishop Challoner’s CVA scores may be impressive is that they nearly 80% of children gained 5 GCSEs A-C, here again the devil is in the detail. Some schools boosted GCSE results by including GNVQs – one pass is equal to 4 GCSEs. The government aware of the GNVQ scam recently changed the league tables so that passes at English and Maths must be included in the 5 passes. Once these are included at Bishop Challoner the numbers achieving 5 GCSE passes plummets to a distinctly unimpressive 24%. Another example of Leo failing abysmally in undertaking basic research? Yep, the figures are on ‘The Guardian’ web site.

Leo seems to spend a lot of his time interviewing rich business people (the Masters of the Universe) as well as the odd porn actress. Maybe after interviewing so many of the former this has dulled his critical faculties. Does he really believe that working 16 hours a day represents a good role model? His ‘Guardian’ colleague Madeleine Bunting in her book ‘Willing Slaves’ writes that, “A job which demands a huge proportion of an individual’s energy, time, and emotional resources is a job which is unsustainable; it passes on the cost on to the worker in terms of their health and to his or her partner, children, friends and community.”

Leo claims he ‘wrote it as he found it’. Why choose Bishop Challoner? Is it in any way representative? How did he choose it? I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I can see the fingerprints of the DfES spin doctors all over it.

At least Leo did send a lengthy e-mail attempting to justify the article, given that, I would like to unreservedly withdraw the word “complacent”.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Class Divide

Two news reports this week encapsulate the class divide in English secondary schools.

A report by Professor David Jesson of York University claims that nationally 13% of grammar school pupils come from fee-paying preparatory schools. In one local authority the proportion was 33%. His research from the national pupil database showed that private school pupils were gaining entry despite scoring lower in key stage 2 tests than their primary counterparts. Pupils from private schools filled 3,000 of the 22,000 grammar school places.

Another planet away from the privileged grammar schools, The Ridings School in Halifax, where staff walked out on strike in 1996 over pupil violence and ended up being branded, ‘the worst school in England’, may be up for closure. In March of this year it was put into special measures for the second time. The Ridings competes against grammar and faith schools.

Once again the selective school system and the blunt club of Ofsted inspections and the ‘naming and shaming’ culture forces the closure of another school. So much for school ‘improvement’.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Joke of the Week

How do you get four elephants in a Mini?

Two in the front, two in the back!

How do you get four hippos in a Mini?

Two in the front, two in the back?

You can't, the elephants are still in there!


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Camden Strike

NUT members at Parliament Hill School in Camden are just starting a formal ballot. The indicative ballot, which closed last week, showed a 98% vote for strike action.

The first day of strike action is expected to be on July 12th.

The dispute is over the school governors making a decision to stop making recruitment and retention payments to new teachers at the school. For many years in Camden there have been widespread payment of recruitment and retention to all teachers - so this is a major attack.

A 98% vote to take action to secure payments for people not yet in the school is worthy of support. If new teachers don't get these payments, then in a few years existing staff could have the payments taken away from them too.

Please send messages of support to

Brian Cairns
Parliament Hill school
Highgate Road

fax 020 7485 9524



Tuesday, June 19, 2007

'Grow Your Own'

An allotment in Bootle, just outside of Liverpool and a group of asylum seekers are introduced to gardening by a sympathetic social worker, as a means of healing their psychological scars. There’s some sharp, witty dialogue and shafts of humour as the allotment committee (some real crusty characters) try to impose new rules as a means of thwarting the ‘invasion’. When they try to get all the sheds painted red they have to deal with irascible rebel Kenny.

The film does deal with the trauma that many asylum seekers suffer during their journey, Kang, mourns the loss of his wife who died en route and he has a phobia about the containers they were forced to travel in. Through interacting and receiving advice from characters like Ali, a trained doctor, the allotment growers begin to change their attitude.

However, having set the scene the second half of the film chugs along like a 1950s Ealing comedy, or one of those amiable 1970s sit-coms. Unfortunately the film is dealing more with the prejudices of the 1950s – ignorance and fear of the unknown. There’s no real attempt to ask any awkward questions and get the audience thinking.

Asylum seekers are usually isolated and marginalized, placed in fractured and fragmented working class communities. The majority of asylum seekers in Liverpool were placed in damp, condemned tower blocks in Everton and were on the receiving end of almost nightly attacks from local youngsters (with few prospects themselves) who wanted to protect ‘their patch’.

The realities of racism in Europe are the French banalieues where youngsters of African descent face discrimination and police harassment, or East Germany where skinheads routinely attack people with darker skins. The film ‘East is East’ was a humorous take on race relations in the 1960s, but where is the contemporary film that deals with the riots in Oldham and Burnley or the 7/7 bombings?

On the other hand there is a danger that films can portray every asylum seeker as a ‘deserving case’ (the mass majority are) but neglect the way they are more likely to be exploited by people from within their own community – people traffickers and gang masters (the worst example of this the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers).

The main problem with the film is that there is no contrast, most of the characters are in soft focus. I read a study on Charles Dickens it made the point that what really lifted ‘Oliver Twist’ and put it on a different level was the introduction of pure evil – Bill Sykes. The raid by the Immigration Police and the menace of the mobile phone company are external threats, not from the community. The gardeners with their mugs of tea and zip-up cardigans are fairly harmless old buffers, it makes for a comfy slippers kind of film. The only character with any depth is Kenny, the rest we experience in a superficial way.

The premise behind the film is that with a bit of TLC and sympathy racism can be overcome and we can all work together, if only it was so easy. In some communities racism and prejudice is deep rooted, fuelled by the press ‘myths’ about asylum seekers being given free mobile phones and driving lessons. In the furore about council houses for white families the Dagenham MP John Cruddas said he knew of no single case where asylum seekers had ‘jumped the queue’. In fact the main problem has been the complete lack of council house building for the last ten years.

A much bleaker, darker film about a Russian asylum seeker in Sweden is ‘Lilya 4-Ever’, it doesn’t pull any punches, it isn’t afraid to make the point that many lonely old men will pay young girls for abusive sex.

‘Grow Your Own’ just doesn’t have a cutting edge. It needed a writer like Jimmy McGovern to draw this out. I remember a scene from the scripting sessions of the film ‘Dockers’ about the Liverpool lockout in 1995, the dockers had written a script that outlined the way they and their families had changed through the course of the dispute. Jimmy McGovern insisted that making one of the central characters a scab (played by Ricky Tomlinson) allowed the film to question why someone, a real character, would betray their work mates and their community.

‘Grow Your Own’ - a film that tried to press all the right buttons but just lost the plot.

How the film was made

Tiscali review


Monday, June 18, 2007

Guiding Principal?

‘I feel it is wise to behave in her presence’. Unfortunately that set the tone for Leo Benedictus’ breathless profile of executive head teacher Catherine Myers in Saturday’s edition of Guardian Work.

Myers runs the Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School in Tower Hamlets, it is one of the first ‘federated’ schools comprising separate girls’ and boys’ schools and a co-educational sixth form. With 1,500 pupils it has 40% of children on Free School meals and 27% are on the special education needs register.

During her fifteen years as head Myers claims to have ‘turned the school around’, certainly the test results are testimony to that, in 1992 only 13% of boys gained 5 GCSEs A-C, last year it was 86%.

There is of course that stereotype that journalists are just complacent hacks who faithfully regurgitate everything that is told them by people in authority without even bothering to research basic facts. I don’t actually know Leo Benedictus, but after reading his article I’m veering towards that particular character profile. How do many faith schools improve results? By selecting their pupils. The overall figure for Free School Meals in Tower Hamlets is 65.5%, some way above Bishop Challoner’s 40%, also an article in ‘The Times’ points out that the four church schools in the borough take only 3% Bangladeshi children, in surrounding schools the figure is 90%, so much for integration.

Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area. It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area. They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest.

Leo Bendictus’ interview carried some interesting insights into the regime at Bishop Challoner, Myers admitted that the target was king, “I set very hard-edged targets, yes. And I’m uncomfortable if things are not going right.” Every year, class and child have individual targets.

Myers reckoned that she worked 15 – 16 hours a day. The list of duties was frightening – meetings with staff, parents, builders, governors, psychologists, social workers, assemblies to run every day in two different schools, budgets and targets to set and manage, furniture to choose, caterers to handle, staff to hire, fire and review. Think they missed the children out but what the hell.

The article really should have come with a health warning, if the bold Leo had conducted some basic research on head teachers what would he have found? Head teacher vacancies attract on average only 5.4 applicants and then 27% of schools have to readvertise so poor are the potential candidates. Where are there record shortages? Catholic secondary schools in London.

A quarter of female head teachers live on their own and loneliness and isolation is a major factor in inhibiting women from applying and for early retirements. A survey by the General Teaching Council found that only 4% of teachers wanted to apply for a headship in five years time.

Former national president John Illingworth stunned the NUT Conference last year when he described how he had been forced to apply for early retirement as headteacher due to the effects of stress partly as a result of long hours. 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.”

Is Catherine Myers a good role model? For every Catherine Myers there are ten or twenty John Illingworths.

An interesting question is that now the hours that Myers works are well documented, if she suffers a mental illness, depression or alcoholism will she able to sue the governors? I’m sure any compensation lawyer would hold the article up in court and ask the governors why they failed to reduce her hours.

Unwittingly Leo Benedictus has written one of the definitive articles that explains why so few people want to be head teachers. As for the research – Could Do Better.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Halton School Closures

This piece is from Ronnie in Halton.

When in 1996 Tony Blair was asked what his three priorities were, he gave the now famous quote "Education, education, education!" After eighteen years of Tory education cuts, this must have been music to the ears of teachers who had seen their workload increase as they pay decreased.

In its 1997 Election Manifesto, the Labour Party announced "Labour will never force the abolition of good schools." Parents and teachers could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief that stability was about to be given to schools and that the education of children was about to be restored to its rightful place in society.

Enter Labour-controlled Halton Borough Council, covering the towns of Runcorn and Widnes on opposite sides of the River Mersey. In 1999, it was decided to close down and merge several schools in Runcorn including a secondary school. There followed a period of so-called consultation involving public meetings addressed by the Director of Education and the Chief of the Education Directorate. It soon became clear that this was a `done deal' and that any consultation was nothing more than window dressing. Demonstrations, including blocking the Mayors car with a huge sign and presenting him a petition came to nothing.

Two secondary schools, Norton Priory and Brookvale were merged, staff being presented with a blank envelope containing a note informing them they were to attend a job interview the following day. Almost the entire Maths department found other employment and several staff took early retirement. Despite the council mantra that the closures were about raising standards and not saving money, the new school, Halton High, was a disaster. It was too small and millions of pounds had to be spent extending existing buildings, the council appointed head had to be removed and the school was placed in Special Measures. Staff morale and parental confidence plummeted and the school was only saved by the dedication of staff and determination of pupils and parents. There is a new regime at the school, but the very active and large PTA has disbanded and it is almost impossible to recruit and retain parent governors. Parental involvement is treated with suspicion. It is Blair's Britain in microcosm where statistics are everything and content nothing.

Given this recent experience of an enforced amalgamation, it is easy to imagine the shock teachers, pupils and parents felt when they discovered from a local free newspaper website that further closures and amalgamations were in the pipeline.

The new proposals involve amalgamating The Grange and The Heath secondary schools (or `federating' them in council speak as `amalgamation' conjures up memories of the dismal Halton High School experience) in Runcorn, and amalgamating Wade Deacon and Fairfield secondary schools in Widnes. St Chad's Roman Catholic secondary school will become a joint Roman Catholic – Anglican School in Runcorn as the birth-rate is falling among Roman Catholics and those Anglican families who wish to have their children educated in a denominational environment send them to Chester.

The unfortunate Halton High School is to be razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Specialist Academy. There is some craftiness in this proposal as parents on the nearby well to do area of Sandymoor are reluctant to send their children to the working class area of Murdishaw where the school is currently situated. Instead, they send their children to Bridgewater School in Warrington. Building a specialist academy nearer to Sandymoor would encourage those pupils to be educated within Halton and at the same time local statistics for five A-C grades no harm at all.

All of this will involve hundreds of pupils travelling about both towns on what is an inadequate bus system. Runcorn has a pioneering busway which encircles the town in a huge figure-of-8. The original idea was that no one should be more than a few minutes walk from a bus stop and a frequent bus service would whisk commuters about the town free from the interference of private cars and commercial vehicles. Needless to say the planners did not foresee Tory bus deregulation and each evening the busway is virtually deserted. What parent wishes their child to have to wait in the gloom of a November evening for a bus which may or may not turn up?

At a recent consultation meeting it became clear that permission for the joint faith school had not been sought from the diocese and councillors were reluctant to say where the new academy would be sited. Staff felt LEA representatives were "evasive and ill-informed" and that these proposals were a "fait accompli" decided months ago by councillors mesmerised by the £80 – 100,000 million offered by the Government to push ahead with the plan. Most people believe the prime building land left vacant at The Grange and Fairfield also helped focus the minds of Labour councillors.

Not content with lumbering young people with a mountain of debt for having the temerity to attend university, Alan Johnson now wishes to cause as much disruption to their secondary education as possible. Blairite puppet Johnson is rapidly becoming as unpopular with teachers and students as he was with the postal workers he regularly sold out in his previous existence as right-wing General Secretary of the CWU.

The population of Widnes and Runcorn should unite to stop these closures and not fall into the same trap of 1999-2000 and think "thank goodness it's not our school which is affected!" They must put down a clear marker to Halton Borough Council on this issue not least because early in 2008 a review of primary schools within the borough is due to take place, the outcome of which will see more schools closed with more teachers looking for jobs outside of the borough and more anxiety for parents. They must pressurise Labour councillors (especially those who had their own children educated outside the borough while passing resolutions to close down local schools) and both Labour Members of Parliament, Derek Twigg, Halton and Mike Hall, Weaver Vale.


Heartsease Public Meeting

The sponsors of the proposed Heartsease Academy held a well-attended public meeting to ‘consult’ local people. Judging by the press reports the only individuals supporting the plan were… Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich.

They made three promises to parents: not to ever try to turn the proposed academy into a faith school, that it would continue to teach religious education according to the current Norfolk syllabus, and that the school's current admission policy would continue to apply.

There were encouraging signs that the parents haven’t been taken in by the glossy publicity about the new £20 million school. As Heartsease is an improving not a failing school why not just give it the money? Concerns were also raised about the fact that on the new governing body there will be one parent, one local authority representative and one member of staff, the rest will be from the sponsors and who will appoint the lion’s share? Will it be Graham Dacre with his £1.95 million investment or the Bishop of Norwich with £50,000?

The proposed academy would have 950 pupils compared to the 400 that currently attend Heartsease, so with falling pupil numbers that will inevitably impact on other schools in the area. A brand new school with state of the art facilities against crumbling old schools with leaky roofs, now I wonder which one parents will choose? Through no fault of their own other local schools will close because parents have ‘chosen’ the new academy.

So the new academy is over-subscribed, particularly as other local schools close, what will be the selection criteria? Will the governors appointed by Graham Dacre introduce faith-based criteria? Academies are also able to select a certain percentage of pupils. The Heartsease children may end up with the situation where they will have to travel to other schools.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area. It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area. They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest. Meanwhile state foundation schools, many of which select a proportion of their pupils by ability and aptitude, were six times more likely to have a higher share of high-ability pupils than were in their local area.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon is Canon Slade Church of England School in Bolton. In 2005 it admitted 268 children from 87 different primary schools, the eight primary schools within easy travelling distance sent just 39 children. Canon Slade is almost completely white in an area with a large black and Asian population. Only 6% of its children were SEN against a Bolton average of 27%. Parents at the nearest primary school told a reporter that they didn’t even bother to apply, “It’s not for the likes of us.”

One parent raised doubts about the proposed “Christian ethos” and said there was a wide interpretation of this, for example right-wing American fundamentalists may take a different view to other Christians. They must be extremely polite people in Norwich. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the meeting but the three questions I would have asked Graham Dacre are,

1) Do you believe abortion is murder?

2) Do you think homosexuality is a sin?

3) Do you believe that the earth was created 6,000 years ago?

All of these are pretty much standard Pentecostalist positions. I’ll carry on asking the question in the hope that Graham Dacre will eventually reply. The main point is this, would you really want someone with these views running your school?
Anti-Academies Alliance


Friday, June 15, 2007

Joke of the Week

A ship with red paint on board collided with another ship carrying blue paint.

Some of the sailors were marooned...


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Keith Bartley and the Waffen SS

How to win the fans over? That dilemma faces every new player or manager. When Phil Neville arrived at Everton it wasn’t so much the fact that he’d played for Manchester United, it was more his brother Gary ‘I hate Scousers’ Neville. A bit like the new kid in Year 7 who has an obnoxious brother in Year 11.

Phil Neville just got on with it, winning over the fans by his performances on the pitch. One of his early games was at Old Trafford, Everton won a creditable draw and Phil Neville was Man of the Match, ‘whenever I put on the blue jersey I’m a 100% Evertonian’.

The General Teaching Council magazine ‘Teachers’ has a profile of the new Chief Executive Keith Bartley. It started well, on a teaching placement in a ‘tough’ Liverpool school he had a Damascene conversion and realised “this is a really important job”. This was followed by 13 years teaching in schools in Kent and Norwich. Just when it was looking promising there it was, 1999-2003, ASSISTANT DIVISIONAL MANAGER OFSTED.

You may well claim that you tried to ‘change it from within’. However, by 1999 most of the old teacher-friendly HMI inspectors had resigned or been sacked. Colin Richards left Ofsted and delivered a withering attack on the whole inspection process to a House of Commons committee in 1998.

Some people do conceal their past, the German writer Gunter Grass has only recently admitted that at the end of the war, as a 17 year old, he was a member of the Waffen SS. Naturally there is a difference of scale here, the Waffen SS laid waste to most of Europe whereas Ofsted merely confined themselves to the English education system. Similarities? The Waffen SS never did have a ‘Human Relations Department’ and Ofsted have never exactly done ‘touchy feely’.

Bartley is probably one of those grey ‘Vicar of Bray’ bureaucrats who moves effortlessly and seamlessly between organisations without ever challenging the ideology of the regime.

The GTC may have won some Brownie points by attacking the testing system but appointing a former ‘Assistant Divisional Manager of Ofsted’ as their Chief Executive won’t exactly ‘win the fans over’.

Labels: ,

‘Has anyone got an INTELLIGENT question?’

School visitors are usually welcomed with open arms, a break from the daily grind, a chance to chill, relax and watch other people perform, although you’re always thinking, ‘can they cut it?’

For some visitors this doesn’t necessarily apply, most of the so-called Literacy Consultants resolutely refuse to teach, but of course they’re quite happy to watch and then carp and criticise. They’ll spend hours showing you how to plan lessons in minute detail (9.38 a.m. turn page 125 with your right hand and ask the following question…). If the test results aren’t in line with the targets then you as teachers just aren’t up to the mark. After years of these intrusions LEAs finally realised that they were about as popular in some schools as the Black Death was in medieval villages.

Increasingly poets and authors are invited into schools, some of them teachers who have made it as writers and they actually try to inspire and enthuse teachers and children by communicating and transferring their love for writing. We had the poet Ian Bland in teaching the children limericks and how to use rhythm and rhyme. It was also cross-curricula because we got the atlases out to find exotic place names, or the mundane, ‘There was a young woman from Ealing…’ no on second thoughts he didn’t missed that one out.

The children’s writer Alan Gibbons has written some edgy books on controversial topics like bullying, racism and religious bigotry. He got our children writing in shorter ten-minute slots. He’s also pioneered ways to engage boys with literacy through sport, factual writing, gore, snot and other unspeakable bodily functions.

With Jamie’s School Dinners, the battle against obesity and the impending London Olympics millions of pounds is being poured into sport. The Schools Coordinators project has allowed schools to meet together to organise events, it’s also helped by freeing secondary specialists to teach in primary schools and whenever Mark from our local secondary comes in the female members of staff always seem to manage a stroll through the hall.

We’ve had different sports that our children would probably never get the chance to try. The best was a judo taster, Terry the instructor was so gentle and patient, he got some of the real problem children bowing and using faultless Japanese, and there was never any hint of aggression but only Eastern calm. Only at the end of the six weeks did we discover that he is totally blind.

The only problem is that every agency, trust or charity is involved with sport; we seem to get a phone call every week. One day an ex-professional footballer arrived, he was setting up his own training company, he brought in a huge bag of full-sized footballs booted them all over the field and got the children running after them… and that was it, a load of balls. The worst was the cricket coach who was teamed up with one of the less sporty members of staff, he started belittling him in front of the children, “Can’t you catch? ‘ow can you teach them if you can’t do it?” Then he started insulting the children, “Hey dozy, come over here!” After a couple of weeks we rang up to say thanks, but no thanks.

Some visitors just disappoint, the other week we had the Safari Park in and I’ve got to admit I was winding the class up by saying there was a huge trailer outside with a hippo in, that the giraffes would only fit in the hall and the chimps had escaped, were there any volunteers to find them? I was still expecting though a hint of the exotic an African land snail, a giant stick insect or huge beetle perchance? Instead we had a long lecture on life cycles and just to confuse everyone she threw in parthenogenesis in aphids, no males appear in summer until the weather gets colder and eggs need to be laid to survive the winter (a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle). Finally we were promised some eggs to hatch out, an exotic butterfly or endangered species? No, it was the cabbage white! Could do better.

You always get the regulars and we have two lovely old boys who introduce classical stringed instruments from violins to double basses. It’s based on a comedy double act with rude jokes and innuendo the only problem is that after ten years they haven’t changed the jokes or the routine (I know this was the principle that music hall was based on, but look what happened to that). You can telegraph every joke and they must be saying them in their sleep.

There are the one-offs never to be repeated or invited back. Mr Cuddles dressed up in a clown uniform and mimed to songs, prancing up and down the rows of children, the music blasting out from an ancient cassette recorder. He started getting mobbed by the children and disappeared at one stage under a pile of Year 2s. It was all we could do to stop a full-scale riot, the children were so hyper we had to abandon lessons for the rest of the afternoon. Still at £130 an hour there was a queue to join Mr Cuddles.

The one we all remember was “Crabby” Crabtree, he acquired this title due to his attitude, demeanour and sociability. He’d announce his presence by opening the door of the staff room at dinnertime with the imperious command, “You need to move your cars I’ve got to get my equipment in!” No “Hello, how are you, would you mind…?” Bill the caretaker would always make himself scarce and “Crabby” would spend ages staggering in sideways through the doors with his projectors and slides. From his shows you could tell he had an affinity with barnacles, prawns and those vicious eels that hide in holes.

It was always a slide show of the animals he had encountered on his latest holiday. Now I know that in the era of chap books and blackboards the magic lantern shows were bound to be a hit, but when you’re competing against ‘The Blue Planet’ and ‘Natural World’ there just isn’t much of a contest. The whole school would file into the hall, there you were in a dark stuffy atmosphere with hundreds of sweaty children, “Crabby” droning on for ages. On one occasion, much to the amusement of Year 6, I did begin to drop-off, I had to walk about and get a strong coffee, match sticks on the eyes, anything to stay awake. After an hour or so he would see that children’s attention was flagging, glower at them and ask, “Has anyone got an INTELLIGENT question?”

The only thing I can remember was that there was one species of gull that would protect its nest by projectile vomiting the entire contents of its stomach all over its hapless victim, ensuring that you would smell of oily fish for days. Somehow I know where that gull was coming from.

Of course it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning theatre groups, we’ve had some excellent ones that have involved the children, by getting them to dress up, putting messages over through songs, allowing the children to laugh and shout at the tops of their voices. Oh, and embarrassing the teachers as well. The difficulty community theatre has is the skit by the League of Gentlemen with their ‘Legs A Kimbo’ group of primadonnas and thwarted thespians, who constantly argue bicker and squabble. There are also a limited number of actors attempting to portray a mass of bewildering and perplexing characters. One group we had into school attempted the whole of the Old Testament in one hour - with three actors. They raced through Daniel in the Lions Den in two minutes, a whistle stop tour of the Ten Commandments and rushed through Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours. There were numerous baffling costume changes, everything delivered at full volume, slapstick used at inappropriate moments and no attempt to involve the children until the end. “Sir, we’re getting bored.”

School visitors – from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Savaged by a Chihuahua

There’s been a tendency to write off the General Teaching Council as a useless, bureaucratic, toothless, irrelevant organisation that is intent on proving that there is death after life. Amazingly they have arisen from their coffin to attack the testing psychosis that afflicts education and have called for testing for under-16s to be abandoned in favour of sampling a small representative group to measure attainment and progress.

Even super-smoothy Education Secretary Alan Johnson was thrown when he was informed of the GTC’s proposal, he looked as though he’d been bitten on the ankle by a particularly vicious Chihuahua (the former postie had won the backing of the Union of Communication Workers in his bid to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, in an acrimonious debate at their recent conference the delegates voted overwhelmingly to censure the executive and to withdraw support, citing his position on Post Office closures and employment tribunals, one delegate said, ‘we’d get more support off a lamp post’ – intriguingly the details of the debate has been expunged from the UCW web site).

Johnson came out with the traditional robotic reply about needing testing to ‘raise standards’. How have standards risen? Teaching to test, making tests easier and tests always score higher than teacher assessment.

Such is the pressure that the government may consider revising SATs tests in Year 6, but beware! From September 484 schools in 10 local authorities will spend two years trialling “progression tests”. Children will take the tests twice in the year in an attempt to move up one curriculum level in English and Maths.

Targets will be set for the number of pupils expected to move up two levels a Key Stage, with extra funding in the form of “progression premiums” for those schools that achieve this.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

This Land Is Our Land

Clapham in the Yorkshire Dales, is a picture postcard pretty village, pensioners kitted out in all the latest cycling gear congregated enjoying the sunshine, pride of place was a couple on a tandem. The village is also a centre for caving and potholing, the Cave Rescue Organisation does some sterling work rescuing people and animals. There has been a large increase in the number of sheep rescued, as well as the seven ducks. In their leaflet they list some of the rescues, one involved a woman with her young son, ‘stranded in dense fog on the edge of a cliff having left their compass and map in the car…’ They are very discreet just listing (M) or (F) and the age of the person rescued, no mention of the town or occupation.

We headed off up Clapdale Drive passing a huge lake with ornamental trees planted around it. There was a 50p charge but no real harassment to pay. The landscape changes to steep rocky sides with people practising rock climbing, hanging like limpets to the sheer face.

We broke out on the moor by Gaping Gill with its 110-metre drop. When we reached the summit of Ingleborough you can still see the outlines of the fort that the Celts built to try and escape from the Romans. It was a beautiful day and we could see across to the Ribblehead Viaduct, for hundreds of years the pack horses transported goods, with the coming of the railways the shops were full of old harnesses and the knacker’s yards with horses, a way of life gone in a moment.

At Ingleton the walk up the falls has been fenced off and there is a £4 charge supposedly “for maintenance” and “insurance”, I was reassured in the Tourist Information that it was a “local family” that owned it. No matter there, come on, £4 someone is making a killing. There were plenty of posters with ‘Private Land’ plastered on trees, I was waiting for someone with a green Barbour jacket and double bore shotgun to shout, ‘Keep Orf My Land’.

I was going to launch a ‘This Land Is Our Land” protest but I was low on numbers. The mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the 1930s opened up vast tracts of land. What has the Rambler’s Association done about this? Are they too busy selling Fair Isle Sweaters, expensive walking boots and those poles where people pretend they are skiing on dry land?

Next target is the Three Peaks – Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent and Whernside – but I’ll need some serious training for that.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Joke of the Week

Early this week, I'm off camping in the Yorkshire Dales.

What's brown and comes steaming out of cows (Cowes) backwards?

The Isle of Wight ferry.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Grammar Schools

Normally, I steer clear of personal anecdote because it isn’t a great guide to analysis. The great ‘grammar school debate’ is usually polarised into either, ‘my grammar school was the best thing since sliced bread, now it’s a ‘bog standard’ comp’ or ‘I failed my 11-plus and it ruined my life’.

To make an exception on this occasion, I went to school in a small town, there was the grammar school, my ‘alma mater’, and then the two secondary moderns. The children who didn’t pass the 11-plus viewed themselves as failures and the only prospect was leaving at 15 for a low-paid job.

Grammar schools picked the ‘brightest’ 20-25%, well, how could they fail? In truth many coasted along without having to try all that hard. The problem is that when you say ‘grammar school’ you also have to say ‘secondary modern’. There were some pretty awful secondary moderns, a large proportion of the teachers viewed their charges as ‘thick’ just waiting for the monthly pay cheque as compensation, yes, there were many dedicated teachers but the perception was that ‘the best’ teachers were in the grammar schools. Ah yes, the good old days when 50% of children left school without any qualifications whatsoever. There was a 1 in 8 chance of a pupil at a grammar school attending university for those at secondary moderns it was about 1 in 20,000.

Why comprehensive schools? In many rural areas it proved difficult to administer the selective system, children had to be bussed over long distances, easier to put all the children in one school. As the middle class grew larger there weren’t enough grammar school places to accommodate their children, councils came under pressure from irate parents who knew what an inferior education the secondary moderns offered. The Robbins Report in the early 1960s recommended ambitious targets for expanding higher education and as white collar jobs increased employers needed a more skilled workforce. An education system that divided children at 11 into academic or vocational routes wasn’t fit for purpose.

Some of the grammar schools were pale imitation, faux public schools (captured very well in ‘The History Boys’) with masters in tweed jackets, house systems and plenty of rugger. Working class boys in particular found it difficult to assimilate into this type of culture. Even swots like Alan Bennett were embarrassed at inviting children home for tea.

As Education Secretary in the 1970s Margaret Thatcher was the nemesis of countless grammar schools. In many rural areas there was a genuine comprehensive system where all children attended one school. However, in most large cities selection through the remaining grammar and faith schools lived on. Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty in their book ‘Thirty Years On’, published in 1996, estimated that only a quarter of comprehensives had a balanced ‘comprehensive’ intake.

Fifteen local authorities are still fully selective with around a fifth of their pupils in grammar schools. A further twenty-one have one or more grammar schools. An estimated 60,000 children sit the 11-plus every year. A report in the TES in April 2006 quoted a head teacher in Kent, “We’ve had children in Year 3 whose parents are paying tutors to make sure they pass… around Year 5 the pressure for children is, for some, unbearable. They really do crack.” Another secondary head commented how siblings were divided, “A student comes here and they may be perfectly right for the first couple of years. But then little brother or sister comes along, sits the 11-plus and passes. We then start getting all sorts of behaviour problems, because every morning they get up and come downstairs for breakfast, and they are in their uniform, and little brother or sister is in their grammar school uniform.”

Selective schools also impact on schools across local authority borders, children from Kent who have failed the 11-plus or whose parents want to opt-out of the selective system transport their children to the comprehensives in West Sussex, coming the other way are the parents who want to get their children into Kent’s grammar schools.

This year’s league tables showed that seven out of the 10 worst performing schools on the new index were in authorities with selective schooling. Less than 10 per cent of their pupils achieved five top-grade A*-C passes including maths and English. The authorities with the largest number of schools in the bottom 100 in the country were Kent and Lincolnshire. Kent and the Medway Towns - which were part of the Kent authority until the 1990s - had 10 schools in the worst 100.

One of the main arguments for grammar schools was that they gave ‘bright working class children’ a step on the ladder of social mobility. Even the Conservatives have had to acknowledge that this is fantasy, only 2% of children at the 164 grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals against a national average of 14%.

Labour came into office in 1997 promising ‘no more selection’, although David Blunkett did qualify it later by claiming it was ‘a joke’. They introduced a system of local ballots to scrap grammar schools that was Byzantine in its complexity, the only ballot in Ripon produced a large majority in favour of retaining selection. Secondary schooling has become far more complicated as ‘choice’ has expanded, apart from ‘bog standard’ comprehensives there are foundation schools (the former grant maintained schools) which are free from local authority control, the ever expanding faith sector, academies and trust schools, which will also have more autonomy.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area. It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area. They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest. Meanwhile state foundation schools, many of which select a proportion of their pupils by ability and aptitude, were six times more likely to have a higher share of high-ability pupils than were in their local area.

In the small town where I was educated there are now three comprehensive schools all with fairly similar results, they do specialise in some subjects and sixth formers take ‘A’ levels at different schools. Children from all three schools go on to higher education. A triumph for the comprehensive system? Apart from the public schools there aren’t competing selective schools, also the town has become fairly prosperous. Some comprehensives have struggled, the most notorious failure The Ridings in Halifax competes against grammar and selective faith schools.

Every survey shows that the overwhelming majority of parents want to send their children to a good local school. The problem is that schools will reflect society. Who wants to send their children to the ‘sink school’ in the ‘sink estate’? You only have to visit America to see ‘how not to do it’, the white middle class have fled from the cities and send their children to private schools leaving under funded crumbling ghetto schools for the under class. One section of society has retreated to the security of their gated communities. That other ‘gated community’ is the two million people in the prison system.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007


Why ‘How Not To Teach’? I couldn’t find any books written by primary teachers about the realities of life in the average, ordinary urban school, so I decided to write it myself. In the front of bookshops there were piles of the ‘Village School’ series by ‘Miss Read’ (that gave me the idea for the nom de plume) but really they are just a kind of comfort read. They play on that nostalgia for some kind of lost utopia exemplified by John Major when he managed to misquote George Orwell by eulogising about the myth of, ‘warm beer, cricket grounds and old maids cycling to communion’. It would be interesting to re-visit Miss Read’s school, if it still exists, it’s probably been closed down the children bussed to a distant town and the playing fields sold for expensive housing that few of the locals can afford.

Contemporary books tend to either the list variety, ‘101 ways to …’ or the ‘Getting the Buggers To…’ true enough it’s a catchy title, but it’s a fairly bleak appraisal on how to communicate with children.

Getting your book published is of course only the start of the assault course, after that there’s the task of getting your book reviewed and selling the darned thing. The TES reviewed the book online and I can’t complain about Gerald Haigh’s piece, although I felt he over-emphasised the humorous aspects of the book.

After months of promises the National Union of Teachers finally carried a review in their magazine ‘Teacher’ (they too have been struck by the ‘dumbing down’ blight because the new editor seems to work on the premise that teachers have the attention span of a gnat, therefore no article is over 500 words). I should have kept it to quote the review in full but I just threw it away in disgust. The reviewer concluded that the book depressed her and made her want to leave teaching! My first reaction was to think of Oliver James conclusion in his book ‘Affluenza’ that depression is a perfectly logical reaction to a sick society. Then I had to question whether the reviewer had actually read the book or just skimmed through it.

I didn’t try to write a piece of ‘misery lit’, the book does question the general background with SATs, Ofsted and ‘strategies’ but there’s also material about my school, humour and lastly examples of where I’ve walked the walk and talked the talk – the TES Newsday, the film we made and the trip to Ireland. If in doubt view the book outline.

Apart from viewing the sales on Amazon it’s hard to track the sales. As for that other monster monopolist Waterstone’s, they don’t seem interested in stocking the book, it’s currently in 16 branches. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise because Robert Topping who ran their Manchester store for 16 years was unceremoniously sacked in 2000, he actually wanted to choose the books he stocked, he was under pressure to promote the ‘best seller’ list. There was also the infamous case of blogger, Joe Gordon, who was sacked for dubbing them ‘Bastardstones’.

Going into Waterstone’s branches is pretty depressing, all you see are the massive piles of ‘3 for 2’ offers by those great exponents of the literary form Jeremy Clarkson, Gordon Ramsey and Jeffrey Archer. Talk about ‘dumbing down’! Waterstone’s really have lost the plot, their ‘revamp’ of stores seems to have reduced the number of books by about 50%.

If you do want to buy the book online then please use ‘News from Nowhere’ they’re a cooperative and their shop in Bold Street, Liverpool is an absolute joy for the browser.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Flat Earth Society

The ‘consultation’ that will influence whether Heartsease High School in Norwich becomes an Academy is under way. What is startling is the refusal by its sponsors, Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich to appear at public meetings and answer questions.

Network Norwich is a Christian web site that reports on local news and advertises church activities. To be fair to them they’ve reported both sides of the debate about Heartsease. I’ve posted a few comments and questions for Graham Dacre.

There was one interesting reply from Sheila, fully supporting the Heartsease Academy,

‘This is an amazing project. Go for it Mr Dacre, unlike Mr Read we are 100% behind this project.The Bible clearly defines abortion as murder, homosexuality as a sin, and the world was created aprox 6 thousand years ago. Any true believer understands these basic principles. Chill Mr Read. Climb down off your soap box, use your energies to build instead of tear down, and life will be so much sweeter.’

I’m just wondering will Sheila be the sort of ‘supporter’ that Graham Dacre will co-opt onto the governors of Heartsease Academy?

Another post supports ‘free choice’. As I’ve said before I don’t have any problem with the Flat Earth Society, the Aurelians or the Bush Baptists for that matter propagating their views. I just don’t want them running our schools…


Friday, June 01, 2007

Joke of the Week

Teacher with a criminal record...

... had a Max Bygraves LP!


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