Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Bill Gates Fan Club

It’s amazing how council’s ‘media relations department’ never seem starved of cash. They may be cutting back on courses for teachers, repairs for computers or support for schools, but there is always money there for spin. Knowsley is no different, it spends thousands on a full colour monthly tabloid, ‘Knowsley Challenge’, that tells everyone what a fantastic job the council and councillors are doing. Strange though, the turnout in local elections struggles to reach 20%.

Knowsley teachers have got inured to the roller coaster ride that is education. In 1998 Knowsley GCSE results were amongst the worst in the country, only 23% of students got 5 A – C passes. Steve Munby was parachuted in as Chief Education Officer and by 2005 the pass rate (through judicious use of GNVQs) had shot up to 43%, the Knowsley ‘miracle’ was hailed and some grudging praise filtered down to teachers.

That same year Munby departed to become the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). A few months after he left the government reconfigured the GCSE tables to include passes at English and Maths, Knowsley plummeted to the bottom of the local authority table, behind even the DfES’s favourite whipping-boy Kingston upon Hull.

In their bid for Building Schools for the Future (BSF) finance the council complained about teachers’ ‘low expectations’ of their pupils. Knowsley have now become the poster boys for the BSF experiment. At the recent Labour Conference Education Minister Jim Knight said,

“It is an example of best practice which is a shining example to others. It is about transforming education and Knowsley is leading the way.”

New schools and brand new equipment who could complain about that? The problem is that the building programme has gone ahead without involving teachers, true ‘consultation’ meetings have been held, but they are more in the form of a propaganda rally where any questioners are shot down in flames. Microsoft are also involved and may be supplying new equipment, although interestingly even ‘The Bill Gates Fan Club’ a.k.a. Becta, have belatedly acknowledged that schools could save thousands of pounds by using cheaper alternatives like Open Source.

So the brand new schools are ready stuffed with their state of the art equipment, the pupils are there in their new school uniforms raring to go, what is missing? Mmm, ah yes, the teachers. Knowsley have used those old clichés ‘zero tolerance of failure’ and ‘poverty is no excuse’ to encourage teachers, they believe ‘the kids might be difficult, but basically, the teachers are crap’. Two Knowsley head teachers who applied for jobs as ‘Learning Centre Leaders’ have been rejected. So what hope have teachers when they apply to become ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches’?

When the Liverpool North Academy was created by merging two schools, that was the excuse to cull all the old lags who were over 40. So most of the teachers who knew the children were cleared out, NQTs came in and discipline has been a problem ever since.

Similar experiment have been tried in San Francisco, in the 1980s they ‘Reconstituted’ some schools, this involved sacking all staff – teachers, janitors, cooks, cleaners and replacing them with new staff. In the long run results didn’t improve, there was a large turnover of staff and some schools either closed or were ‘Reconstituted’ a second time. It became known as the ‘My Lai Approach’ – you destroy the village in order to ‘save it’.

Recently the ‘Blue Skies’ consultants came up with another wheeze – ‘Dream Schools’. Ten schools were chosen, but they weren’t the worst based on test results. To this day no one knows why they were chosen. Nine of the principals left and teachers had to be re-interviewd for their jobs with the prospect of increased hours. Again results haven’t improved and there has been a large turnover of staff.

So the ‘Knowsley Experiment’ is ready for take-off, the schools will be built under the auspices of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), that has been such a success elsewhere, that venerable charity Microsoft is on board and a platoon of NQTs are waiting for the call, it can’t fail. Can it?

Resistance is Futile


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Message Boards

What is it about Internet message boards? Don’t expect intelligent debate or reasoned argument, somehow the anonymity of cyberspace seems to induce petty point scoring, smart-alec one-liners or just downright abuse.

My posting on ‘Jolly Grammar’ elicited some of these responses in the TES Staffroom. I’m not criticising the TES, it’s the only forum where teachers can let off steam; the unions don’t do it, not does that ‘voice of the teachers’ the General Teaching Council. But it’s a shame that the usual suspects dominate the discourse – don’t they have anything better to do with their lives?

‘Network Norwich’ is a web site devoted to the activities of the local churches. I’ve posted several times about Graham Dacre’s plans to takeover Heartsease School and run it as an academy. I’ve continually asked the same three questions of the millionaire second hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher –

1) Does he believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago?

2) Does he think that abortion is ‘evil’?

3) Does he think that homosexuality can be ‘cured’?

One typo in a posting (I spelt hear as hearq) gave a certain Mr Long the chance to question my ability to spell, although he did spoil it all by calling me a “whimp” and asking if I needed to change my “proffesion”. Naturally I instantly went into teacher mode and corrected his spellings.

Therefore, I’m grateful to Mr Lind who wrote a thoughtful piece,

In your posting of the 22nd Oct, you asked Mr Dacre to reply to three questions.
Could you please tell me why these three particular questions are so important? Surely Mr Dacre's answers to these questions, what ever they may be, should in no way influence the outcome of the Academy. What you are inferring is that if he answers "yes" to any or all of these questions then he is not fit to fund, or be involved with, a school which will adhere to the standards already set down nationally by the education authorities.

Or are you inferring that if Mr Dacre says "No" to your three questions, he'll be a fit a proper person to run the Academy, and that you'll publicly withdraw your opposition?

But wait a minute! Wouldn't that be just what you're campaigning against; a bigoted viewpoint that only has one answer, with no debate?

I’ll come clean straight away, I’m opposed to all academies, whether their backers are creationists or not. I just don’t support handing over state schools to private organisations or individuals. Of course the government claim they are ‘popular’ with parents and are over subscribed. So there is Gasworks Comprehensive with its peeling paint, rotten window frames and leaking roof; next door a brand spanking new academy opens. Yes, a bit of a no-brainer, it will be ‘popular’ with parents.

I’m also opposed in principle to faith schools. There’s no evidence that they improve children’s academic performance. In effect the state gives churches massive subsidies to run schools, they pay all the wages and 95% of maintenance costs. Interestingly when this system was introduced with the 1902 Education Act it was the Baptists and Methodists that led the campaign of civil disobedience, thousands refused to pay rates and scores of ministers were jailed. Only the Anglicans and Catholics had the resources to run ‘faith schools’.

Numerous academic surveys and investigations have shown that ‘faith schools’ reinforce social divisions. This is particularly the case in inner-London where both Catholic and Church of England schools select pupils from wealthier backgrounds compared to the social composition of the area where the schools are sited. The most notorious example, exposed by the ‘Guardian’, was Canon Slade School in Bolton.

The other argument is why are school being handed over to Christian organisations when their own congregations are in free-fall? According to the Church of England’s own figures, if you extrapolate the attendance graph, by 2050 it will cease to exist.

The Heartsease bid is the most troubling one thus far. In general there is the secrecy and duplicity surrounding academies. Schools have to publish exam results under the Freedom of Information Act; because academies are ‘independent’ this stipulation does not apply to them. There is the lie that academies are replacing ‘failing’ schools, Heartsease has had its problems but is now an ‘improving school’. Of the original 25 academies none of them were in special measures or under ‘notice to improve’ orders.

You could also ask, ‘what experience does Graham Dacre have of education?’ On the one hand I don’t believe that you should leave everything to the ‘experts’ but on the other side I wouldn’t want open-heart surgery delivered by a team from St John’s Ambulance.

Then we come onto the issue of Graham Dacre and ‘traditional Christian values’. I’ve got friends who are Catholic and Church of England but they wouldn’t touch creationism with a barge pole, they want tolerance towards people with different sexual orientations and for their children to receive balanced information about abortion.

How would the new Heartsease academy be run? Let’s be honest, the Pentecostalists don’t exactly hide their light under a bushel. An academy governing body would have one parent and one local authority rep; the rest would come from the foundation that has funded the academy (they will run the school in perpetuity). Where is the proposed funding for Heartsease coming from? Graham Dacre’s Lind Trust is putting in £1.95 million and the Church of England Diocese of Norwich £50,000, some mis-match there. Although a sceptic might argue that the C of E are good cover for a Pentecostalist take-over.

So just what does Graham Dacre believe in? For some time he belonged to the Assembly of God influenced Proclaimers International. He split away in December 2004 to form his own church and then in March 2007 merged with Mount Zion Family Life Centre to form the Norwich Family Life Church. On their web site Mount Zion mention a number of ‘world-class speakers’ that they have had the ‘privilege’ of hosting – faith healer Henry Hinn, witch finder Rick Godwin and the late Ed Cole, who had some interesting advice about condoms,

“ [they] don’t protect people, they protect lifestyle. Condoms are porous with each pore approximately fifty micra. Human sperm is 400 micra and cannot pass through. But the HIV virus is 4 micra. Four dozen passing through is not a guarantee of protection from disease. Safe sex is done with your wife. No wife, no sex.”

Traditional Christian values? I’m sure that Graham Dacre and his supporters must read ‘Network Norwich’ but in all these months none of them have deigned to reply to my three questions. I’m sure many Heartsease parents would want answers to the questions. Is someone who believes in creationism a fit and proper person to run a school? Would there be informed choices about abortion and sexual health in the new academy? How would they deal with homophobic bullying? Some research points to half suicide attempts amongst teenagers coming from gays or lesbians.

The Canadian web site Religious Intolerance reported that the Pentecostalist Assemblies of God viewed

‘the issue of homosexuality as not a matter of discrimination but of morality. Thus, in order to preserve the moral and spiritual health of the nation, gays and lesbians must not be granted equality with heterosexuals. Homosexuality is regarded as a conscious choice; a lifestyle; the implication being that an adult can change their sexual orientation. They believe that all sexually active gays and lesbians are destined for hell. However, those who repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour will be converted to heterosexuality and attain heaven. A homosexual is not permitted to join the denomination as a member. Thus, ordination is out of the question.’

You can allow democratically elected councillors and officials to run schools (it isn’t always perfect) or you can allow narrow-minded, intolerant bigots, who just happen to have a few millions to spare, to launch a take over bid. I know which one I’d choose.

The point is Mr Lind, how can you have a debate with someone who won’t enter into dialogue and hides or disguises their views?

At the risk of repeating myself I’ll ask the same three questions to Graham Dacre

1) Does he believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago?

2) Does he think that abortion is ‘evil’?

3) Does he think that homosexuality can be ‘cured’?

Waiting to hear from you Graham.
Anti-Academies Alliance


Friday, September 28, 2007

Joke of the Week

Why did the hedgehog cross the road?

To see his flat mate.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Google Books

‘How Not To Teach’ is now on Google Books, so you can read some sections of it. There’s divided opinion amongst authors about the service, does it breach copyright and how much do authors earn? Based on royalties received so far I wont be retiring to that villa in the south of France just yet.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Tank Full of Piranhas

There are moments in teaching when you feel a complete and utter heel, usually because a careless or unintended remark upsets a child. Through experience you know where some of the potential land mines are sited, you have to carefully navigate around them. ‘Mothers’ Day’ can be problematic for children in care or those being brought up by their grandparents.

This year as cover teacher for PPA (that’s Planning, Preparation and… something beginning with ‘A’) I get to teach in different classes. You know that some children will always try it on with a supply teacher or any new face. That class you had under the thumb will chance their arm. The permanent primary class teacher has a whole arsenal of weapons at their disposal, in particular those all-important jobs to bestow or withdraw like pencil monitor and merits or house points.

Discipline should of course be a whole school issue; here the key is consistency and KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!). In our school we follow the three strikes on the board and detention rule (we also have the ‘smiley side’). It generally works firstly because the children hate losing a playtime and secondly it is instantaneous.

It wasn’t always so, our old headteacher Erica didn’t really ‘do’ discipline, along with most of the other parts of her job description. I discovered the ‘discipline issue’ early on when I sent a child to her; they returned after half an hour with stickers all over their shirt and within a few minutes were worse than they were before. ‘I’ll send you to the head,” is usually one of your trusted reserve weapons in primary schools. Sending children to Erica was about as effective as feather duster in a bare-knuckle fight.

One child, Marvin, was a trainee psychopath; he was constantly pinching, kicking and thumping other children. One day I found a child lying in a heap in the corridor. Marvin had repeatedly slammed his head against the door handle, he cheerfully admitted it all, the child had been, ‘winding him up’. Erica started to give him a stern lecture, I had to walk away, later she told me that he was ‘so sorry’. Marvin appeared back in class with an evil grin plastered all over his face. I was convinced that if he did succeed in killing anyone Erica would send a stiff letter home to his dysfunctional family.

Luckily we had a succession of capable deputy heads who took on the role of enforcing some semblance of order and disciplining the small minority of miscreants. Mrs Moore could have fun with the children but when push came to shove she had the kind of scary voice that could penetrate the deepest reinforced concrete bunker, and a stare that could turn children into stone, verily she could have frozen hell. Detention meant children sitting in silence doing work. Such was her fearsome reputation that even some of the most recalcitrant Year 6s still quail at the mention of her name.

Last week I was teaching partitioning with Year 3. It was one of those mornings when you became aware that the bright promise of the new school year has begun to fade. Maybe it was the dull weather, but a collective lethargy had set in. You begin to wonder, ‘Is it me?’ Have you not explained it clearly enough? I got the class back together and clarified it again… glazed expressions, children fiddling with shoes, staring out of the window.

Teachers should always be patient, but you can have bad mornings too – the memory of the holidays a distant blur, the long stretch until Christmas, another imposition from the government, a chance remark by a colleague that throws you off balance, that costly repair on the car, the darkening mornings. Eventually I snapped, ‘If I don’t see more effort some of you will stay in at break time with Mrs Jones’ – our new deputy head.

I carried on with the explanation but still the glazed look of utter incomprehension from half the class. Then I spotted Peter with tears rolling down his cheeks, as I carried on he was desperate to answer every question although it was hard to understand his replies.

After I’d sent the class back to their desks I called Peter over, he was accompanied by his friend Chris who had his arm around him trying to console him. I taught Peter’s sister last year and you could tell the parents wanted their children to succeed, homework was always excellent, reading folder completed, notes from school replied to.

I asked Peter what was wrong. Now he has a speech impediment and in his highly charged emotional state the words came out in flood, a relentless unstoppable torrent at high volume, ‘DEE, DUM, DAT, DOO, DAT, DEE, DAH…’ Every thirty seconds or so he would pause and his lungs would heave in more air. I sat and listened sympathetically, after a few minutes he dissolved into tears. ‘OK don’t worry’, I sent him back to his desk. Peter carried on with his maths work, tears welling from his eyes like an unquenchable spring. Tiny blots of salt stained tears marking his book.

Later I called his friend Chris over and asked him quietly what was wrong, ‘Sir, he’s terrified of having a detention with Mrs Jones’. I summoned Peter over and gravely examined his Maths book. ‘Peter, we only give detentions for very naughty children and that isn’t you, is it?’ He shook his head. ‘You’ve tried really hard this lesson and that’s all that counts.’

Thinking about it I’d been way too harsh, Year 3 for goodness sake. You forget those school landmarks, those rites of passage; the journey from Infant to Juniors is a big leap for some children. There’s that fear of the unknown.

Detentions in our school are usually confined to the usual suspects and for the old lags it holds no fears – in the same way that Norman Stanley Fletcher viewed prison as an acceptable risk in a criminal career. Peter just couldn’t bear the thought of explaining to his Mum that he’d been in detention.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, rewards have always featured strongly in our school, all stick and no carrot never works particularly for the vast majority of children who do want to learn. In nearly every case our ‘problem children’ come with a lot of baggage. I’ve taught in schools with perfect order and discipline but it was like being in a penal colony. Schools should be happy places. The other side is that children have a right to learn.

Luckily children have short memories, at playtime Peter and Chris were racing round the schoolyard. In the afternoon I moved on to gym with Year 2 and got them walking along the upturned benches. ‘Next week you’ll be balancing over a tank full of piranhas’. ‘Whatever!’

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

‘Jolly Grammar’

Whenever I hear those New Labour spin words like ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’ I think of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ and believe the opposite. For public services they usually lead to privatisation and the introduction of a low cost provider. In short, black means white.

Ever since the introduction of the ‘Literacy Hour’ English teaching in primary schools has been over laden with grammar and word or sentence tasks. Children need to be immersed in the spoken language and to gain a love of story telling. As Michael Rosen commented ‘The Gruffalo’ grips children’s imagination and they want to find out what happens at the end, they engage with the character.

Instead literacy has been reduced to a dull mechanical exercise replete with targets and levels. I’m not arguing against grammar it is of course the framework around which language is constructed; in the same way every building requires scaffolding. However, the same metal poles can produce a hideous carbuncle or a beautiful structure that lifts the human spirit.

Could anyone explain why we need whole lessons that instruct children about the small number of words in the English language that use silent ‘b’ or ‘w’ or ‘k’?

As teachers we are trying to get children to ‘buy into’ reading against the competing attractions of television and DVDs. Why bother to read when it just a decoding exercise?

A classic piece of marketing is the ‘Jolly Grammar’ series it conjures up pictures of bright-eyed enthusiastic children merrily filling in work sheets. Please don’t call it ‘Jolly Grammar’ kindly rename it, here are some suggestions- (with the help of the thesaurus)

· ‘Dull Grammar’

· ‘Uninspiring Grammar’

· ‘Tedious Grammar’

· ‘Monotonous Grammar’

· ‘Lacklustre Grammar’

· ‘Lifeless Grammar’

· ‘Mind-numbingly boring Grammar’


Monday, September 24, 2007

51 to 1

Any sane person might believe that if every organisation, quango or expert was giving the same advice the government would listen. Think again. Asked to give evidence on testing in schools to the House of Commons Education Select Committee, there were 51 submissions asking for change. Among them were-

· Scientific and maths organisations like the Royal Society

· The five teachers’ unions

· The General Teaching Council

· The OCR exam board

Even Ofsted called for change but also had the temerity this week to blame truancy on ‘boring lessons’, nothing to do with the testing culture of course, just useless teachers. Reminded me of Doctor Frankenstein refusing to take responsibility for the monster he had created.

Naturally the Select Committee are taking their time, the submissions were made in July but sometime in November they will get round to reviewing them. Now I know that teachers get a lot of stick for the amount of holidays we get, but when it comes to MPs you really are talking about most of the summer and autumn. Naturally they need time for their consultancies, directorships and appearances on Celebrity Big Brother. How is one to manage on the paltry wages?

Predictably, the one organisation to support testing was the Department for Children, Schools and Families, “The benefits of a national system of assessment have been immense.”

I don’t see the testing system changing any time soon. When does this government ever listen? The exceptions? The great ‘Fuel Tax Revolt’ – which was part popular uprising, Poujadist protest and reactionary insurrection (some of the leaders later stood as BNP candidates). Faced with this groundswell, the government swiftly made concessions, fearing that the contagion would spread. This week with queues growing exponentially outside branches of Northern Rock we had the bail out of the building societies, although the government was able to pose as the ‘friend’ of the small investor. Shame this wasn’t extended to the thousands of pensioners who lost everything when their bosses raided the company pension fund.

Who could scrap testing? Teachers. The NUT balloted primary school members in 2003 and 86% were prepared to take strike action, but the turnout was only 34% and ‘union rules’ stipulated that it had to be 50%. There was a very effective ‘Anti-SATs Campaign’ that went into hibernation after the result. Now is the time to re-ballot.

The DCSF have pointed to trials of new tests, which pupils will take twice a year as an alternative. Don’t be fooled they are worse than SATs, they are just SATs writ large for every year in Key Stage 2 and pupils are expected to move up two sub levels each year i.e., 3C to 3A. This would inevitably be used in Performance Management and to inform Payment by Results.

This sounds to me like another sham ‘consultation’. The one organisation that didn’t feature was ‘The Daily Mail’ and of course Rupert Murdoch – between them they inform every decision made by this government.

Read Warwick Mansell ‘Education by Numbers’


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Friendly Society or Trade Union?

If 95% of teachers belong to a trade union why do we have low pay (for a graduate career), Ofsted, performance management and long hours?

Trade Unions replaced Friendly Societies in the nineteenth century. Only the better-paid, skilled workers could afford the high fees. Friendly Societies were known as the ‘sick and burial clubs’, they provided some kind of safety net before the state began to assume that function. They didn’t negotiate directly with employers for increased pay to alleviate poverty; it took collective action by trade unions to achieve that.

During the 1990s the concept of the Friendly Society was re-invented with ‘credit-card trade unionism’ – strikes were outdated; all that members wanted was cheap finance deals. Out went shop stewards or union reps, branch meetings and conferences. The only relationship the member needed (as with their credit cards) was with the national HQ. There’s an interesting section in Naomi Klein’s book ‘No Logo’ where she describes how some charity and voluntary groups went along this route as well, the drawbacks were the loss of active members and a high turnover from the new recruits who didn’t necessarily have any loyalty or commitment to the organisation.

If you looked at the condition of the teacher trade unions you could describe them as fairly comatose. The NUT had a turnout of 22% in the last General Secretary elections and out of the 27 seats on the National Executive only 9 were contested. However, last year just to prove there was still life in the old dog yet, when Management Allowances were scrapped in favour of Teaching and Learning Responsibilities, where the union was strong, there were strikes in over 100 schools. Basically to get more money you had to prove you were jacking up results, no payments for pastoral care.

Management Allowances payments were protected for three years, but research by the School Teachers’ Review Body shows that 30,000 teachers will eventually lose pay and 22% of schools, mostly primaries, said they had no plans to make any TLR payments.

The National Association of Schoolteachers (NAS) have gone a step further and signed up to the government’s ‘remodelling of the workforce’ agenda and allowed payment by results, cover of classes by non-teachers and the scrapping of Management Allowances (under pressure from their members they had to support a limited number of strikes, just to show they really weren’t a tame pussy cat of a union).

Whilst the NUT has stood alone in opposing all of this, it has been fairly tame vocal opposition; they haven’t actually done much to shake the Government, who because of this can safely ignore them. At this year’s NUT Conference there were unsuccessful calls for national action to protect pay and conditions. At the recent National Executive meeting the two main left organisations, the Socialist Teachers’ Association (STA) and the Campaign for Democratic Trade Unions (CFDTU) combined with the moderate ‘Broadly Speaking’ group to support an anodyne motion on pay that didn’t mention national action. The only Executive members to back national action were Linda Taaffe and Julie Lyon-Taylor.

I’m not saying that teachers are straining at the leash, champing at the bit to come out on strike, they aren’t. There’s also the sort of knee-jerk reaction that you get from groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party who shout out in a very loud voice, ‘All Out Strike! NOW!’ over dirty cups in the staff room sink. However, if there is one lesson from TLRs it is that isolated strikes in a handful of schools will not protect pay, for that you need national action.

In support of this principle, Martin Powell-Davis is standing in the NUT Vice-Presidential elections, he also spoke out on this issue at the NUT National Conference. I’m not claiming that just supporting candidates for national positions will change anything. There is a long and inglorious tradition of radical oppositionists being elected as General Secretaries or Presidents and then becoming as bad, or worse, as the clique they replaced. What is more important is to get members active in the union, to have reps in every school, well attended branch meetings and a sovereign national conference that actually debates issues relevant to teachers.

The STA and CFDTU are also standing candidates (the Judean Popular Front have declined to nominate anyone) so there are accusations of ‘splitting the vote. However, the election is based on Single Transferable Voting (STV) so the ‘wasted’ votes of an unsuccessful candidate are re-allocated to other candidates.

Martin is, by all accounts, one of the most effective branch secretaries in the union (always good to have someone who can walk the walk and talk the talk). He is also a member of the Socialist Party (former Militant Tendency) the left’s version of the ‘Flat Earth Society’ – clinging on to outdated theories. I’m not trying to organise some kind of ‘red scare’ I’m sure his opponents are more than capable of that. On many issues I’d completely disagree with Martin, but on national action to defend pay I’m with him all the way.

I always try to vote on the issues and the wider background. For teachers the choice is clear, a pale imitation of a Victorian Friendly Society or an effective national union.

TES Staffroom Debate

Martin Powell-Davis Leaflet

Elect Martin


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Read this health warning first!

The glossy adverts for the headteacher posts (sorry ‘Secondary Learning Centre Leaders’ – what an old Luddite) are nestling there in the pages of the education press. The enticing appeal from Knowsley pupils is ‘Make us feel like VIPs’.

All ten Knowsley secondary schools are being closed and replaced by seven ‘learning centres’ built under the auspices of BSF. Two of the existing heads applied for jobs at the new ‘learning centres’ but were rejected. What hope is there for Knowsley teachers when they apply for their jobs?

I had an interesting post from ‘anonymous’ during the holidays. Maybe potential applicants would like to read it?

‘I read with interest your comment regarding the appointment of headteachers to the new learning centres in Knowsley, but was dismayed by your assumption that headteachers have complied with the BSF programme.

‘From the beginning of the project headteachers have challenged many of the proposals in the BSF programme but have encountered the same vague responses to questions that you allude to. Heads have found themselves in an untenable situation, dealing with half-truths and unclear responses when trying to get information about working conditions, curriculum plans, hours of opening and career prospects for staff in secondary schools. Add to that the issues around loyalty to the communities of parents and young people that we serve and you should appreciate the lack of power and influence that has caused so much frustration.

‘ Heads who applied for jobs in the new schools did so in the belief that they might be able to salvage something from this disaster - by retaining quality staff in schools they could at least provide some stability and continuity for the young people who are the subject of this ill conceived experiment.

‘The appointments process for the leadership posts has ensured that critics of the BSF programme have been weeded out and the letter to all staff from the Chair of the Staffing Commission is also sending out a clear message. There is an LA mantra that the headteachers and teachers in Knowsley are not up to the job, despite the massive improvements in achievement and attainment over the last 5 years. Sadly the new “palaces of learning” will open with exactly the scenario you describe - I wonder how many of the BSF architects from the LA will be around to see this revolution happen?’

Resistance is Futile

Labels: ,

Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel?

It’s hasn’t been the best of times for the Heartsease Academy– this is the takeover bid by millionaire former second-hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre.

Far be it from me to accuse their supporters of ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ but support for the Heartsease Academy has come from Jim Hawkins the head of Norwich School, a fee paying ‘independent’ school.

Looking at their web site you might be forgiven for asking ‘what does a head from a socially selective school know about the state sector?’ But who I am I to question my superiors? Fees at Norwich school are almost £10,000 a year, but there is of course help in the form of ‘scholarships’ that account for 20% of fees and means-tested ‘bursaries’ that can cover 100%. Strange though, the ‘independent’ schools never publish the numbers of pupils on Free School Meals.

Like many other ‘independent’ schools it owes its existence to a charitable organisation, in this case the Worshipful Company of Dyers. Schools were established in the 16th and 17th century to assist the impecunious sons of the guild members. Pardon the cynicism, but could they provide an exact account of the numbers of distressed dyer’s offspring currently receiving schooling at this hallowed establishment?

Jim Hawkins informs us that, “The traditional Christian values that its founders wish to be at its centre will, in my view, be crucial to its success.”

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on current Christian theology but ‘traditional Christian values’? Even the Catholic Church gave up on creationism in the nineteenth century.

I’ll repeat my questions to Graham Dacre-

· Does he believe that the earth was created 6,000 years ago?

· Does he believe abortion is ‘evil’?

· Does he believe homosexuality can be ‘cured’?

Still waiting for an answer Graham.

Anti-Academies Alliance

Labels: ,

Friday, September 21, 2007

What has changed?

Some devastating research by the Sutton Trust on Oxbridge and top university admissions, over a five year period they investigated the progress of 1 million teenagers.

The report documents the extent to which a few highly socially and academically selective schools dominate admissions to the country’s leading universities. 200 schools accounted for approximately half Oxbridge admissions whereas the other 3,500 schools supplied the rest.

The study also suggests that the differences in the admissions rates to elite universities cannot be attributed solely to the schools’ average A level results, and that other factors are at work – particularly at the most successful schools.

Key findings

Oxbridge admissions

· 100 elite schools – making up under 3% of 3,700 schools with sixth forms and sixth form colleges in the UK – accounted for a third of admissions to Oxbridge during the last five years.

· At the 30 schools with the highest admissions rates to Oxbridge, one quarter of university entrants from the schools went to Cambridge and Oxford universities during the five years.

· The schools with the highest admissions rates are highly socially selective. The 30 schools are composed of 28 independent schools, one grammar, and one comprehensive. The 100 schools with the highest admissions rates to Oxbridge are composed of 80 independent schools, 18 grammar schools, and two comprehensives.

· Overall, the top 200 schools and colleges made up 48% of admissions to Oxbridge during the five years, with 10 per cent of their university entrants going to the two universities. The other 3,500 schools and colleges accounted for the remaining 52% of admissions, with one per cent of their university entrants going to Oxbridge during the period.

Admissions to the 13 universities ranked the highest in an average of published university league tables. The list comprises: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial College, London School of Economics, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, University College London, Warwick and York.

· 100 elite schools – making up just under 3% of 3,700 schools with sixth forms and sixth form colleges and centres in the UK – accounted for a sixth of admissions to the 13 top universities during the last five years.

· At the 30 schools with the highest admissions rates to the universities, seven in ten of university entrants from the schools went to this group of leading universities.

· Again these schools with the highest admissions rates are highly socially selective.

The 30 schools are composed of 28 independent schools, one grammar, and one comprehensive. The 100 schools with the highest admissions rates are composed of 82 independent schools, 16 grammar schools, and two comprehensives.

· Overall, the top 200 schools and colleges made up 29% of admissions to the universities during the five years, with 49 per cent of their university entrants going to these universities. The other 3,500 schools and colleges accounted for the remaining 71% of admissions, with ten per cent of their university entrants going to one of these universities during the period.

Admissions and A-levels

· The proportion of university entrants going to Oxbridge from the top performing 30 independent schools was nearly twice that of the top performing 30 grammar schools -- despite having very similar average A-level scores.

· At the 30 top performing comprehensive schools, only half the expected number of pupils are admitted to the 13 top universities, given the overall relationship between schools’ average A-level results and university admissions.

· At the 30 top performing independent schools, a third more pupils are admitted to the 13 top universities than would be expected given the schools’ average A level results.

What has changed in the last 100 years? Everything and nothing.


Joke of the Week

How many infant teachers does it take to change a light bulb?


One to change the light bulb and six to 'share' the experience.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

“Healthy” chips?

Those wonderful people at ‘McCain’s’ sent me the following e-mail -

Hello there,

I came across your blog “Mr Read: How not to teach” and having seen that you like writing about various issues relating to literacy in schools, I thought you might also like to take a look at a new educational website called “The Potato Story” (

The Potato Story has been launched by McCain Foods in support of the nationwide “Year of Food and Farming” campaign. Aimed at primary school children, the website incorporates interactive learning tools and information on food provenance, plant growth and nutrition to help engage school children in ICT, literacy and numeracy. Everything is aligned with the National Curriculum at Key Stage 2.

I’d really like to send you some more information so please let me know if you find the website interesting and think it would be useful.



This raises some interesting points; McCain’s obviously employ people to monitor the blogosphere. As TV advertising becomes increasingly ineffective - multi-channels, people not watching adverts, the ‘hidden persuaders’ have had to resort to more subtle means. Product placement has begun to feature prominently in films, the worst example being ‘Run Fat Boy Run’ – one enormous advert for Nike.

Naomi Klein in ‘No Logo’ detailed some of the ‘creative’ methods advertisers use. Drinks companies employ students to hang around union bars and engage people in conversation about their ‘favourite’ drinks. The most devious one I read about was a text service that won a contract from a football club to supply fans with updates. Despite extensive advertising in the club programme the response was poor. A PR company hired some casually dressed young people to go into some of the pubs on match day. They had a ‘petition’ with them, one of their mates had been disciplined in work for receiving text updates, they got out a mobile and showed the fans the updates and just happened to have a screwed up advertising leaflet in their back pocket…

With the obesity panic multinational firms are battling to change public perceptions. McDonald’s conceded the biggest PR own goal with the McLibel trial and then the humiliation from ‘Super Size Me’. It’s true that McCain’s new ‘healthy’ chips contain low amounts of fat and score highly in comparison with other chips. However, the concept of ‘healthy’ chips is a bit like ‘healthy’ sausages, it’s a misnomer, a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. The message we should be giving to children is eat fruit and vegetables, but that doesn’t include mounds of potatoes, however they are dressed up.

As for the ‘free’ curriculum materials I certainly wont be using them. It’s a bit like ‘cause-related’ marketing i.e., computers for schools. It’s just one step away from the dubious ‘sponsorship’ deals that blight American schools. Advertising can be found on book covers, half of their students received free exercise books with covers advertising Frosted Flakes and Lays Potato Chips. There are also branded menus in school canteens; coupons from fast food companies as rewards for reading; sponsor’s logos on schools buses, websites, sports fields, gyms, libraries and playgrounds, also school events can be paid for by corporations.

Thanks for your e-mail kind people at ‘McCain’s’ but my reply is based on two words, the second of which is ‘Off’.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reinstate Karen Reissman!

By all accounts the recent TUC Conference was one of the biggest yawnathons in living memory – grey men in grey suits boring each other to death. In 2006 28.4% of the workforce were trade union members, the largest fall since 1998. Only one in six private sector workers belonged to a union.

Millions of people believe in the principle of union organisation. Why don’t they join? They think that unions are ineffective and secondly they are worried about victimisation.

The ‘Reinstate Karen Reissman!’ website makes interesting reading-

On Friday 19th June, Karen Reissmann, a psychiatric nurse of 25 years, was taken out of an important meeting with a vulnerable client on the direct orders of managers of Manchester Mental Health & Social Care Trust. She was suspended due to her long history of UNISON involvement and vociferous opposition to cuts in services - formally, this was described as "engaging in activities which have seriously affected the reputation of the Trust" and " longer having confidence in her as an employee". The third allegation relates to a possible misuse of her time. Karen is still in the dark as to what this relates to, but like most nurses working for MMHSCT, continually works longer than her contracted 37.5 hours per week!

It is worth noting that Karen was promoted to the post of Senior Practitioner on the very same day she was suspended - So much for the Trust having no confidence in her as an employee!

Karen has a long history of making comments to the press, opposing cuts in service, opposing the marketisation of the NHS which is increasingly being fragmented and privatised and speaking out about the consequences of this.

The same happened in teaching, Birmingham NUT school rep Eileen Hunter was sacked when she spoke out against the repressive behaviour policies her school was implementing. She was summarily sacked, the national leadership of the NUT responded in the time-honoured fashion by – sending a stiff letter to ‘The Times’. Bet that left the head quaking in his boots!

87% of Karen’s Unison members voted to take strike action. To date the TUC haven’t exactly busted a gut to support the campaign.

Free speech? That’s why this blog is anonymous!


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

30,000 teachers lose pay!

Some interesting statistics from the School Teachers’ Review Body-

· 220 secondary heads now earn over £100,000 a year, including 70 out of 82 academy heads

· A third of secondary heads are in the top section of the pay scale and earn over £78,000 a year

· Average hours for secondary heads fell from 65.1 hours in 2000 to 57.6 hours – but still a job for insomniacs and workaholics

· In inner London 45% of teachers are in the first five years of their teaching career

· Half of teachers who were eligible to progress to the upper pay scale (UPS) didn’t apply

· 30,000 fewer teachers received teacher and learning responsibility payments (TLRs) than held management allowances

So congratulations are in order for that government poodle of a union the NAS that signed the agreement scrapping management allowances. Doubtless this will now appear in their next recruitment leaflet.


Labels: ,

Monday, September 17, 2007

Winifred Robinson and Norris Green

You can take it as a given that tabloid journalists are useless, drink-sodden, foot-in-the-door, cheque-book-journalism hacks. They don’t even take themselves seriously and just compete for the Lunchtime O’Booze Award. If you expected better from the ‘quality’ newspapers think again, most articles are poorly researched and they faithfully regurgitate everything that is fed to them by company PR departments. The press barons never interfere with editorial freedom and the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns 174 papers worldwide, all of which supported the Iraq war, is entirely coincidental.

There are of course exceptions, some journalists are prepared to ask awkward questions and offer their readers original insights. In my naivety I used to think that Radio 4 had higher standards. Winifred Robinson grew up in Norris Green ‘a decent hard-working place’ in the 1960s, after the murder of Rhys Jones she returned to find ‘a community in thrall to teen gangs, drugs and guns…’

Norris Green was built in the 1920s as one of Liverpool’s first ‘over-spill’ estates. It also provided homes for workers at new electronics factories like GEC on the East Lancashire Road. The estate had three and four bedroom houses, bathrooms, hot running water and gardens front and back. As late as the 1960s when the main alternative was the Rachmanite private rented sector there was a queue of families waiting to get into Norris Green.

So what changed? Take a walk down the East Lancashire Road and all the factories have gone, land is being sold for ‘redevelopment’ – retail parks, used car lots and warehouses. There was the great council house sell off during the 1980s that left the poorer stock for social housing. Council rents rose and with mortgage tax relief it was cheaper for young couples to buy. With councils squeezed for cash housing repairs were the last priority. All that left some council estates as ghettoes composed mainly of the retired and unemployed.

What stands out in Robinson’s article is the lack of any basic research, if she’d taken the trouble to look at Neighbourhood Statistics or Liverpool Council’s ward profiles she might have gleaned some information. Out of 32,428 Super Output Areas (SOAs) half of Norris Green is in the most deprived 1%, the rest is in the bottom 5% and one small area (the ‘posh end’) is in the bottom 10%. 0.29% of housing is in Council Tax Band ‘C’ or above against a Liverpool average of 20%. 40% of the working age population are unemployed. The average income in 2004 was £17,115 for Norris Green, £22,511 for Liverpool and the national average was £23,244.

Robinson reminisces about the past ‘standards of good behaviour’ and the need for ‘authority to be restored’. However, as one of her interviewees notes a big police operation a year ago led to many being jailed but “a younger group has come up to take their place.” I wonder why? Of course people in Norris Green want security but they also want jobs, better housing and leisure facilities.

Presumably Robinson was given the job to add some ‘local colour’. Who does she interview? Bob Croxton a 43 year-old ex-convict who runs an agency to rehabilitate young offenders, Allan Devon who was a professional musician during the 1960s, Linda Beiri a middle-aged tenant, Councillor Colin Eldridge, 82 year-old Margaret Hignet, Angela Williams the retired Infant School Head and finally she talks to some mums waiting outside the school. So here is this article on the youth drug gangs of Norris Green and whom does she fail to interview? Got it in one – young people. Of course given the circumstances people might not want to speak on record to a Radio 4 reporter. I wouldn’t have expected interviews from the front line of the drugs war, but to go there and not report any comments from young people? Not to include any facts about deprivation?

Words fail me.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Heartsease Academy Goes Pete Tong!

The proposed takeover of Heartsease School in Norwich appears to be going all Pete Tong. Millionaire second hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre (standard Pentecostalist positions are that the world was created 6,000 years ago, abortion is ‘evil’ and homosexuality can be ‘cured’) wants to run the school as an Academy.

The Norwich Council Scrutiny Committee have already voted against the proposal, now the governors at Heartsease have registered their opposition. Maybe the prospect of creationists having a majority on the new governing body didn’t appeal.

The public consultation closes on September 21, then on October 8 the Norwich Council Cabinet will discuss the proposal. Even then Education minister Ed Balls could override any local decision.

Fred Corbett, the council's deputy director of education, said “This is a great opportunity for the community around Heartsease High. If the decision goes against the academy this time round, I think that will be Heartsease's chance gone.”

I thought these people were meant to follow directions from the Council? They haven’t given up, Building Schools for the Future (BSF) will give them other opportunities to hand schools over to wacky religious groups.

Anti-Academies Alliance


Saturday, September 15, 2007


It was the Iraq war that convinced me that the Rolling News Programmes (Sky, BBC) demonstrated that old law – more means less. Less analysis, less comment and less in-depth reporting.

The disappearance of Madeleine McCann has confirmed that ten-fold. Like jackals circling their prey the media haven’t been able to leave it alone. Breaking news, in a red box constantly appears at the bottom of the TV screen as another titbit is fed to the waiting hordes.

This ‘human interest’ story was perfect for the Rolling News Programmes, constant ‘updates’ the grieving parents, the suspect Murat and then that twist as the McCanns were named as ‘aguidos’.

The journey of the McCanns back to England was followed in excruciating detail. The TV commenting on all the media present… That ghoulish interest by the on lookers waiting to catch a glimpse.

There’s that old quote about the press, ‘Power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ How the hell do you describe the coverage on the McCanns? Words fail me; the best thing is to switch off.

Read the ‘Guardian’s’ incomparable Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Joke of the Week

I took the wife on a cruise last month and as we were gazing out over the ocean she said, “You remind me of the sea.”

“You mean I’m wild, untamed and romantic?”

“No, you make me sick!”


Thursday, September 13, 2007


Supply teacher left the following comment on public schools.

You plead guilty to agreeing with the call for the abolition of public schools. I have often heard this from fellow teachers but I don't think that you can really have thought it through.

If they were abolished then there would be another 660,000 students for the state sector to deal with. So you not only take the fees paid by those parents out of the education system but you also impose massive additional costs on the state system. Are you expecting those fees to somehow be transferred into the state system? Obviously they are lost to education.

How can you say that the private sector leeches on the state system when in fact it removes the cost of 660,000 students from the system and the government still collects their parents' taxes to pay for other children's schooling.
I believe that most private schools provide free places for deserving local children which must be charitable.

I am constantly amazed by how many people criticise those who choose to spend hard-earned income on education while seeing nothing wrong with those spending their money on bigger and better cars or other worldly goods.

I am a teacher in the state system.

Thanks for the post you’ve made some good points. It is true that the funding of public schools is a complex question. There is the argument that they ‘save’ the taxpayer money. On the other hand claiming £100 million in tax relief by posing as ‘charities’ really is taking the p***.

Abolishing public schools? It’s in the far horizon on the political radar. Even if the day came I don’t envisage a final cataclysmic end in the spirit of Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’ or bulldozing the buildings to the ground (although in certain cases this might appeal). Why not use the buildings and extensive sports facilities for all children?

Does the public school system ‘save’ money for the taxpayer? The exact same argument is put forward in relation to private hospitals and the NHS. The problem here is that a section of the population remove themselves from society, the logical extension of this is America’s ‘gated communities’ – in some states they comprise of 25% voters. Taxes are cut to the bone and public services wither on the vine. Nothing exemplified this better than the collapse of the levees in New Orleans or the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. When I was in Cleveland this year you could travel round the city on brand new freeways, as soon as you went into the poorer areas it was dodge the pothole. In other countries public spending is viewed as a social necessity, public sector workers are well rewarded financially and not constantly abused by the media.

It certainly may be the case that people opting to spend money on education are merely exercising choice and should be commended as opposed to those who waste money on fripperies like fast cars. In my view education is a human right, once you make it a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market those with the largest financial elbows will get to the front of the queue. Even if you believe in the free market surely the best way of organising society is through a meritocracy? Why is it that 50% of places at our most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, go to children from public schools?

Some middle class families do scrimp and save to get their children through public school. I would however, in some cases, have to question the motivation is it educational or social? Do they just want to keep Daphne or Edwin away from Gary and Beyonce at the local comp? We don’t want them mixing with the local oiks.

The top public schools charge at least £20,000 in fees, so they are accessible only to the wealthy elite. What sort of public schools do the middle classes attend? The minor public schools, where in many cases the education is no better than the state sector.

As for the ‘free places for deserving children’, exactly how many do the public schools offer? What percentage receive Free School Meals? Suddenly the public schools become all coy and mutter behind their manicured hands. In the 1980s the Conservatives established the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ to give ‘poor people’ the chance of a public school education. It became a charity scheme for the Distressed Gentlefolk, a good tax dodge for the self-employed. In some cases people declared themselves bankrupt just before their children were due to attend school and then emerged like Lazarus into a new business venture.

Part of the ‘Daily Mail’ agenda is to promote the interests of the ‘respectable majority’ against the ‘chavs’. I don’t see it that way. We are developing into a society where wealth and privilege is being entrenched for a minority of the population. Rupert Murdoch received £14 million last year in wages, shares and bonuses and top business executives are retiring with pensions of £1 million a year. Meanwhile social mobility has all but ground to a halt.

Public schools are bastions of class privilege - they make everyone poorer.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


One of my iron laws is– the film is never as good as the book. In two to three hours a film can never adequately examine a complex and involved plot, inevitably scenes, sub-plots and characters are completely excised.

Having said that, in many ways ‘Atonement’ is a great film; the cinematography is excellent, the shots linking different sections are stunning and the use of flashback to view stories from the viewpoint of different characters is highly effective.

Inevitably comparisons have been made with ‘The Go Between’ – a lazy summer in an upper class household just before war, a love affair across the class divide and a messenger accidentally drawn in and subsequently scarred for life by their unwitting involvement.

Robbie (played by James McAvoy) is the housekeeper’s son, as a Cambridge graduate he is bridging the gulf between the classes, yet somehow I didn’t get that sense of brooding tension that an actor from a previous generation like Alan Bates would have given to the role. His affair with Cecilia (Keira Knightley) ignites a tragic sequence of events.

One of the key scenes is when after a gap of four years Robbie, newly enlisted in the army and on his way to France, meets Cecilia in a crowded London café. Brief Encounter it wasn’t, the stiff-upper lip detachment that masked a smouldering passion? It just didn’t happen, the earth didn’t move for me.

The most effective scenes are in Dunkirk. The images engrained on most people’s memories are of the evacuation by the small ships, British soldiers patiently queuing in the sea and then the Pathe newsreel footage, pictures of unshaven Tommies drinking from mugs of tea served by jolly WI types. ‘Jerry hasn’t broken these chaps spirits!’

The reality was of course different, a chaotic retreat, the bacchanalian hell of the beaches, soldiers wandering around trying to find their regiment, horses shot, lorries destroyed, supplies burnt, constant strafing by the Luftwaffe. The BEF rescued more by luck than judgement.

Briony the messenger and architect of Robbie’s disgrace eschews a place at Cambridge and in an attempt at redemption nurses the troops that Pathe missed – the amputees, the burnt and the dying.

The film effectively conveys Ian McEwan’s concluding dramatic twist. Vanessa Redgrave as the older Briony, confronting her mortality, steals the scene with a brilliant under-stated cameo performance, it questions the role of the writer and that grey area between fact and fiction in literature.

A disappointment for me with both film and book is the failure to examine the social and political background to war. In the late 30s there was a strong pacifist mood (enhanced by the memory of the slaughter in the trenches during the ‘Great War’) this was also reflected in the upper classes i.e. the 1933 vote at the Oxford Union not to fight for ‘King or Country’. The ‘Cliveden Set’ went a step beyond; they wanted appeasement with Hitler and supported the ‘war against Bolshevism’.

‘Atonement’ a classy adaptation that didn’t quite make it.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Trial by media?

Images of Madeleine McCann have been ubiquitous throughout the summer. You couldn’t escape them, on holiday by Lake Annecy we walked onto a tiny wooden jetty by a small village and there was a photograph and an appeal for help.

During the press interviews Gerry McCann did most of the talking, but there was one point when Kate McCann interjected and appealed to the kidnapper, ‘Don’t harm her, she’s beautiful.’ No parent could fail to have been touched to the core by that emotional plea.

Within hours the Internet site coordinating the search had received millions of hits worldwide. People wanted to ‘do something’. Maybe in a world so vast some issues are too large or complex to comprehend, how can one person tackle global warming, poverty or the nightmare that is Darfur? As Primo Levi noted the Holocaust and the vast scale of the slaughter of six million people was beyond most people’s understanding, yet one child’s suffering, Anne Frank, and individuals could relate to that.

In an era when people are disengaging from civic involvement – voting, writing letters, attending meetings – here was something almost unprecedented, mass involvement. Possibly it was because this was a cause with no shades of grey; there weren’t people ‘for’ or ‘against’ finding Madeleine.

With that slight abnormality in her eye and living in the global village where every movement is recorded by a host of CCTV cameras finding her should have been a synch. Yet as the months rolled by the ‘sightings’ turned to nothing.

For the press it was a chance in the ‘silly season’ (normally dominated by whales in the Thames, UFOs and Big Brother) to get serious, the blanket coverage would get results. The press set the tone – paedophile abducts child, grieving parents and bumbling foreign police with their halting English. Naturally if a Portuguese child disappeared in England they would find a local police inspector with faultless Portuguese.

The first crack in the wall came at a press conference in Berlin when a foreign journalist asked, ‘Have you acted like normal parents?’ This act of lese-majeste was met with silence and incredulity by the British press pack.

For me there was always a question, were the childcare arrangements for the McCann children on that fateful night adequate? When my children were young we never left them unattended at night, it was one of the sacrifices you made, as children arrived your social life and most other parts of your life just disappeared (I was known as the Olympic flame – I never went out). I’m not saying the McCanns were bad parents, or that I was Superdad, I wasn’t.

Let’s just consider the following scenario; unemployed single parent Tracy Smith is enjoying a week’s holiday in Benidorm with her three children, on the last night she is enjoying a drink with some friends in the hotel bar, she is ‘within sight’ of her apartment, when she goes to make one of her regular checks the eldest has been abducted. The press eat her alive. Social services take the rest of her children into care. Cue moral panic. Gordon Brown wants parenting lessons for the unemployed and Davis Cameron goes one better by demanding compulsory membership of the Mothers’ Union.

From the start the McCanns had the kid glove treatment, after all they were articulate professionals. Now we have the unseemly sight of the press pack in full cry, they can almost literally smell blood and the vicious rumours that have circulated in Portugal about the McCanns are now being recycled by the tabloids. Ex-detectives are entertaining us with different ‘versions’ of how the blood appeared in the car. The character assassination of the McCanns has begun.

The tabloids always deal in moral absolutes, that also translates to individuals, you only need to read the sports pages, players are either ‘heroes’ or ‘zeroes’. As the press can promote, encourage or elevate people into the status of icons so they can also turn and devour them.

We now have the unedifying sight of ‘trial by media’. Will there be a happy ending for Madeleine or the McCanns? I don’t think so.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Heartsease Academy Under Scrutiny

Whilst I’ve been away the Heartsease Academy saga has moved on. The Norwich City Council Scrutiny Committee met on July 31st and came out in opposition to the plans.

Millionaire second hand car dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre wanted to turn Heartsease School into an Academy. Dacre was formerly involved with Proclaimers International but split away to form his own church, he then linked up with Mount Zion Family Life Centre to establish Norwich Family Life Church.

Pentecostalists are infamous for their ‘prosperity preaching’, the notion that it is harder for a rich man to get to heaven than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle somehow doesn’t apply here. Most Pentecostalist preachers openly flaunt their mansions, limousines and expensive life styles – God has chosen to reward them.

The standard Pentecostalist beliefs are that God created the world 6,000 years ago, abortion is ‘evil’ and homosexuality can be ‘cured’. Despite challenging Graham Dacre on the Network Norwich message boards he never did reply…

The bid to turn Heartsease School into an Academy also involved the Church of England Norwich Diocese, but let’s just say there was a certain imbalance in the funding arrangements. Graham Dacre’s Lind Trust was going to invest £1.95 million and the Norwich Diocese just £50,000.

At a well-attended consultation meeting at the school the only speakers in favour of the Academy were… Graham Dacre and the Bishop of Norwich. Parents were particularly concerned that Graham Dacre would have a majority on the new governing body with only one elected parent and local authority representative.

With the Liberals and Green Party opposing the scheme pressure was mounting on the Labour Party. One MP Ian Gibson campaigned against the Academy whereas former Education Secretary Charles Clarke was in favour of handing the school over to the creationists.

The resolution from the Norwich Scrutiny Committee is a fairly good summary of reasons to oppose Academies because

• of the lack of democratic accountability

• the inordinate amount of control that would be given to sponsors in relation to the level of investment.

• although the stated intention is to maintain existing policies and procedures in respect of admissions, curriculum, inclusiveness etc., there can be no guarantee that these will continue in the future.

• of the possible adverse impact on the neighbouring schools
[the new Academy would have had 1,000 pupils instead of 400].

• it was not appropriate to consider one school in isolation in the context of education provision for the whole city, particularly in view of its future as a Unitary Authority.

• Heartsease High School is an improving school and there is no reason why, with investment not necessarily at the level in the academy proposal, the school can’t continue that improvement journey.

The vote by the Scrutiny Committee is a significant blow, however, the proposals will now go to the new Children, Schools and Families minister Ed Balls. Central government riding roughshod over local opinion? Don’t worry we’ve seen it all before.

As for wacky religious groups trying to run state schools – there’s more! The Exclusive Brethren who refuse to use any electronic devices (the work of the devil) are preparing an academy bid. I’ll try to keep everyone posted.

Anti-Academies Alliance


Friday, September 07, 2007

Joke of the Week

I went to the doctor’s last week.

‘It’s really embarrassing, I can’t stop singing ‘The Green Green Grass of Home.’’

He looked at me, ‘You’ve got ‘Tom Jones Syndrome’’.

‘Is very common?’

‘It’s not unusual… to be loved by anyone and when I see you hanging around with anyone…’


Big Issue?

It’s all change this year, I’m the cover teacher for PPA (that’s planning, preparation and something else I can’t quite remember) so I get to travel round different classes. It saves on supply costs and the children are taught by a face they know, rather than a succession of different teachers. The position of ‘cover teacher’ is on the increase, most headteachers don’t want the stress of teaching alongside all the other pressures of the job.

The morning assembly and all the children are there resplendent in their new school uniforms; those tattered cuffs, holed trousers and scuffed shoes have been consigned to the bin. At break time the infants are staring at the bare wooden structure for the Japanese garden, I tell them it’s a base for my rocket to the moon, ‘Yeah, whatever’.

As the teachers are settling their new classes in I start the long delayed PE audit – sponge balls, small balls, plastic balls, large balls, hockey balls, cricket balls… the more discerning reader may have spotted a pattern here.

When Year 1 starts queuing for dinners I distract them with the puppet I’ve found in one of the boxes, ‘have you met my pet cow Ermintrude?’ ‘He’s a puppet, we can see your hand in the back!’ Children, no imagination today.

Some of my old class are worried that, ‘I’m not a proper teacher anymore’. Katie thinks I’m looking lost. There are swings and roundabouts with the job – no assessment, planning, reports, parents’ evenings, SEN reviews; on the other hand you lose that close connection with one class and the supply teacher is the one that children will ‘try it on with’.

It’s strange not having a base to work from and I’m threatening to sell ‘The Big Issue’.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 06, 2007

‘I can’t do maths’

The education press is usually composed of badly researched articles by journalists featuring hagiographies of ‘inspirational’ heads who have ‘driven up results’ – see previous post ‘Complacent Hack Or Not?’ for an excellent example of this genre. The rest is interviews with or pieces by the great and the good. Rarely does the voice of the teacher or support staff penetrate these hallowed cloisters – I know I’ve tried and failed.

In this week’s ‘Education Guardian’ there was a rare nugget, a real gem of an article by ‘Colin Edwards’, entitled ‘I can’t do maths.’ ‘You’ll be fine,’ said the head’.

In September 2004 under the Remodelling Agreement the National Association of Schoolteachers (NAS) and the government decreed that there would be a limit of 38 hours cover (taking lessons for absent colleagues) each year for every teacher. Despite lacking any qualifications ‘Colin Edwards’ was employed as a cover supervisor at his local comprehensive.

Within a few weeks he was teaching up to five lessons a day – science, geography, French, German, DT, business studies or cookery. During the year and a half he was at school he was never observed. As he admitted, ‘A lot of the cover lessons would degenerate into handing out word searches.’

There could be a better way… local authorities could train curriculum specialists to be employed by schools as and when needed. But like most other education services it has been privatised and is dominated by lowest cost providers.

A friend of mine is head of SEN at a large comprehensive, recently they interviewed for teaching assistant posts. One of the candidates had an excellent background in youth work but on a point of principle she didn’t appoint him because he didn’t have any maths or English qualifications.

To her surprise a few weeks later the head employed him as a cover supervisor. She took the issue to the rest of the teachers, would they employ an unqualified electrician to wire their house or would they allow an untrained medic to tend to their nearest and dearest? On that they all agreed.

However, they weren’t willing to ‘man the barricades’. Why? Well here’s the scenario – management in denial about bad behaviour and you’re asked to teach 10E (their normal teacher is on long term sick leave with stress) in that near riot situation that is Friday afternoon. Instead AOB Off The Street will take the class, on a fraction of your pay, and help stave off your imminent nervous breakdown.

Teachers picketing schools with placards ‘We demand the right to teach 10E on a Friday afternoon’? It isn’t going to happen, but as ‘Colin Edwards’ concluded ‘Children deserve better’.


A man arrives home…

The Conservatives really do have a problem with education. It’s not so much that New Labour has stolen their clothes – league tables, SATs, Ofsted, academies. I see it more as a kind of Kafkaesque drama.

A man arrives home and goes to put the key in the door, it won’t fit. He knocks on the door, his wife answers it but she stares blankly at him, she doesn’t recognise him. Hearing raised voices the children come to the door but see him only as a stranger. He rushes into the house, there is the old familiar furniture and ornaments. He picks up a photograph, who is that impostor with his wife and children? Running up to the bedroom all his clothes have been removed. In this weird parallel universe someone has completely stolen his identity.

The Conservatives have resorted to barmy ideas dreamed up on the back of a cigar packet, the latest - keep children back in Year 6 if they don’t achieve Level 4.

You can just imagine the consequences of having some embittered 12 year olds constantly being reminded, ‘you’re ‘ere cos you’re thick’. The impact on class sizes of thousands being kept back? Er… we haven’t quite worked that one out yet.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

‘We’ll teach when the school is ready’

The builders faithfully promised us that everything would be ready for the start of the new school year…

Luckily we had a training day organised on the first day back, we arrived to be greeted by a car park full of rubble, the kitchen half-finished and the hall full of junk, everything covered in a thick layer of dust.

A few years ago my children’s school had building work over the summer holidays and was in a right mess on the day they were due to start back. The teachers all sat in the Staffroom and the attitude was ‘we’ll teach when the school is ready’.

I’ve no time for that then or now. My golden rule for education is – ‘the children come first’. So we spent ages humping furniture around, washing down surfaces, throwing rubbish in the skip, moving paint tins, hovering down every surface and object imaginable, blocking up mice holes, mopping up leaking water from pipes. OK, it’s ‘not in the contract’, but sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Miraculously the school was ready for the children to start the next day.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gruel and more gruel

There’s no doubt that Gordon Brown had a ‘good summer’, there he was battling against the floods, edging away from George Bush and scrapping the plans to build casinos. Possibly it was just being ABTB (Anyone But Tony Blair). He raced into an opinion poll lead and received glowing plaudits and eulogies from the press.

For me it was another example of spin over substance. Hadn’t Gordon Brown been at the heart of government for the last ten years? Was the spat with Tony Blair about policies or power? In reality the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, privatisation continues apace, pay in the public sector is restrained and there is full support for academy schools. More of the same with a different face?

Headteachers arrived back at their desks to find a letter from the new schools minister Ed Balls. It started with a patronising tone congratulating them on results, then came the section that… well… was treating them like naughty school children, they had to go ‘back to basics’ and strive might and main to reach government targets. The fingerprints of an ambitious young politician, eager to ‘sort education’, were all over the document.

The latest ‘panic’ is over writing results for 7-year olds, a fall of 1% since 2006. This is partly due to the fact that the tests had become low key – expect that to change. The task of distinguishing whether a child is 2C or 1A is Byzantine in its complexity. Also most European countries don’t start any formal education until children reach 7 years of age.

When I was training I read some of Piaget’s work, most of it was fairly incomprehensible but one thing I did learn was the concept of ‘readiness to learn’, for young children that can vary dramatically. Boys in particular are often late developers, they need to develop verbal skills, listen to stories and develop fine motor skills. Shoe horning them into formal learning with tests that tell them they are failures can actually set them back.

Ed Balls hectoring letter was a total disgrace. There wasn’t much of a reaction from headteachers maybe they are too demoralised to respond. There are of course historical parallels. That grim utilitarian Chadwick was the architect of the 1834 Poor Law that criminalized poverty and imprisoned the poor in the hated workhouses. The diet was at subsistence level just above starvation. The Overseers of the Poor were constantly directed by missives from the Poor Law Commissioners on how to further restrict the diet to ‘the basics’.

So here we have Ed Balls’ prescribed diet for education ‘gruel and more gruel’. Welcome back, the exam factories have reopened!


Sunday, September 02, 2007

All our sons deserve better

There are certain incidents or events that sicken you to the pit of your stomach; they defy rational explanation, acts of insanity or mindless barbarism. How can anyone comprehend Rhys Jones’ father’s situation as he sat in his son’s Everton bedroom looking at his schoolbooks, uniform and pencil case all laid out ready for him to start secondary school?

Rhys’ death gave the papers the perfect excuse to go into overdrive and write total garbage. One of them super-imposed his head in front of the council estate a mile away from Croxteth Park and carried the headline, “Brooding menace on the bleak streets Rhys called home.” Make it short, make it snappy and make it up.

According to some of the press we’re all going to hell in a handcart, every working-class estate is some kind of dystopian ghetto with feral children produced by single parents and hooded gangs controlling the streets. In fact violent crime is at its lowest for 25 years and the murder rate is five times less than New York. No consolation though if your 11 year old son has been shot through the back of the head with a gun.

So is it at all down to the ‘erosion of social values? Single parents, lack of school discipline? In the 1950s single parents were ‘persuaded’ by charities to give their children up for adoption and thousands were shipped out to Australia to be abused by paedophile priests. Discipline in some schools was enforced by beating young children to a pulp. Ah yes, the ‘good old days’.

So what happened to ‘stable working-class communities’? Interesting that the press don’t mention the 1980s decade of ‘Greed is Good’, where the numbers of millionaires doubled and child poverty tripled. Industries were decimated in that Thatcherite blitzkrieg; mining communities were destroyed and as jobs left, heroin moved in.

A few months ago the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported on poverty and wealth in Britain. They identified three groups in society, the breadline poor - 27%; the non-poor, non-wealthy - 50% and the asset wealthy - 23% The key findings were-· The breadline poor (those excluded from participating in the norms of society) had risen from 17% in 1980, to 22% in 1990 and 27% in 2000.· The personal wealth of the richest 1% of the population grew as a proportion of the national share from 17% in 1991 to 24% in 2002.One of the authors of the report Professor Danny Dorling noted that there was a ‘rise in the geographical separation of the poor from the rich – where the two groups live physically apart.’ The people in the most segregated social group were those wealthy people who could exclude themselves from schools, hospitals and recreation facilities. This was accentuated in some affluent areas like Mole Valley in Surrey and Chesham and Amershan in Buckinghamshire where in 1980 67% were neither rich nor poor, twenty years later only a quarter were in that category. A quarter were rich in 1980 but this had soared to 61% in 2000.

During the 1990s large parts of cities had over half the population living in poverty. As Dorling concluded, ‘In these places, it is, in effect, now normal to be poor.’

A divided society? Nothing exemplified that better than the school that teamed up with a local call centre to teach an NVQ in ‘communication skills’. Can you imagine the outcry if a public or grammar school did this? Nothing like lowering expectations at an early stage. They aren’t alone, some of Labour’s new fangled academies have pupils majoring in hairdressing and woodwork. Yes, decades after most secondary moderns were abolished they’re being re-invented as ‘vocational schools’.

Another feature of the 1980s was the way that social mobility declined, in many estates the idea that you would ‘do better’ than your parents was no longer the case. If all that’s on offer today are McJobs on £5 an hour then being a part of a drug gang can appear to be a glamorous alternative. Like America we’ve become a nation rigidly divided into the have everything’s, the comfortably off and the have nothings – factor in the drugs and it’s a perfect environment for ‘gang culture’.

The last census in 2001 for Norris Green showed the following-

· 28% had a limiting long term illness
· 20% had never worked or were long term unemployed
· 55% of households didn’t have a car
· 51% didn’t have any qualifications

Norris Green isn’t unique; the same conditions are there in Liverpool’s other ‘forgotten estates’ – Netherley, Dovecot, Fazakerley, Speke. As far as the City Council are concerned they might as well be invisible (there was the cock-up with the Boot Estate in Norris Green - residents left for months in temporary accommodation) so focused are they on tarting up the city centre. The City of Culture is fine (although they’ve even managed to mess that up as well) – trendy wine bars, cafes serving latte coffee, bring it on. But if you don’t raise all the boats you are left with an enclave in the centre for luvvies and culture vultures while the estates on the periphery are sinking into despair.

Let’s have more police on the streets, install thousands of CCTV cameras but at the same time why not provide decent sporting and youth facilities in Norris Green? Youth work is always the first service to get cut. The Norris Green estate stands as a grisly memorial to decades of ‘there is no such thing as society’ Conservative rule and ten years of New Labour Thatcher-lite policies. 1.2 million of 16-24 year olds are now classed as ‘NEETS’ – not in employment, education or training. They are the lost generation who are the foot soldiers in the drug wars.

I’m not totally absolving parents from blame, but I teach in a school in one of the most ‘disadvantaged’ parts of the country. In my experience the vast majority of parents do a great job under difficult conditions, a minority have problems usually because they are addicted to drink or drugs. Some of them have had a tough time as children themselves and don’t have the resources or experience to cope. So do we absolve ourselves, or in a civilised society do we look to the state to at least help the children? Of course sometimes you need to use the stick, but if there’s no carrot, as any teacher will tell you – you will fail. See the New Labour crime policy – Asbos, thousands more offences created and record numbers in prison.

Every other Everton game there is a minutes silences or applause for someone killed on a foreign battlefield, the other week it was for an 11 year old child slaughtered by a drug gang. All our sons (and daughters) deserve better.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?