Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why is CPD so useless?

There’s a mania in education for renaming things, as though that act alone will change everything. To encapsulate the idea of ‘the cutting edge of new technology’, Computing morphed into Information and Communication Technologies. There’s probably many a recidivist Luddite that has smiled cynically at the notion as the network breaks down or the Internet crashes, just at that vital point during the lesson. In the same vane training has been replaced by ‘Continuing Professional Development’.

Was there ever a ‘golden age’ for training? Probably not, but one thing is for sure, training today resembles an arid desert, a yawning vacuum, an absolute zero, the dead zone. In years gone by the Local Education Authorities (LEAs) did have the staff and the funding to make some attempt at training teachers. Now all most of them can offer are the dire Literacy and Numeracy training that comes straight out of manuals from the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF). The training is aimed at schools in ‘intensive support’ so the default mode is, ‘Welcome crap teachers we will show you how to jack up your results and save you from impending doom’.

The rest of ‘CPD’ is delivered by private companies, usually one man and a dog operations run by teachers desperate to get out of the firing line. They usually range from the dire to the absolutely dire.

There’s a heavy concentration on ‘Behaviour Management’. Now any teacher needs to control their class, although I’ve known some fairly scary teachers who were able to ‘control’ their class, whether they could ‘teach’ anything is another matter. This training is dominated by the behaviour ‘gurus’. Usually it varies from the banal to the bleeding obvious.

‘Behaviour Management’ does suit those senior managers who live in the bunker of denial about bad behaviour in their school. It is of course all down to the individual teacher being able to cope with their class. This despite the fact that some of them may contain 4 or 5 pupils that belong in a penal correction institution.

It does make me wonder what people will make of educational literature in 100 years time. Any survey will show that the most popular books began with ‘Getting the Buggers To…’. Books that are based on the ability to survive the trench war between children and teachers.

Another favourite staple are the ‘Mr Motivator’ sessions with ‘inspirational’ speakers featuring talks where hundreds of teachers are herded together in hot, sweaty, cramped hotel rooms and lectured for hours about how children need… lots of room, plenty of water to drink and should be encouraged to ask questions.

I don’t know what it is like in secondary with all those subject specialists, do they meet together frequently to exchange ideas and model best practice? Possibly not because other schools are now ‘competitors’ you don’t want to trade any secrets with them. Most courses will be ‘How to jack up your GCSE results’.

As for NQTs with only a something like a half staying more than five years you would have thought they would be targeted for intensive training. That isn’t always the case, in my local authority most training is ‘twilight’, so only a tiny minority of NQTs attend.

Early on in my career I could see that training would be negligible or so dire I would need a strong course amphetamines just to stay awake. I completed an MA in Education Studies. However, in interviews there hasn’t been a flicker of interest, it has been about as relevant as an NVQ Level One in Basket Weaving, yes I do spend my spare time on useful hobbies.

There’s an element of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ about CPD, because it isn’t ‘Continuing’, it isn’t ‘Professional’ and the only thing it develops is that reflex action – looking at your watch ‘when the hell is this session going to end?’


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Stuck for a Christmas present? Try ‘How Not To Teach’ by ‘Mr Read’

I can heartily recommend this book…

‘If you thought reading Gervaise Phinn was like drinking a warm cup of tea, this book will knock you over with the force of a vodka slammer. Mr Read survives the nightmare of planning, Ofsted and an incompetent head...He also takes the class to Ireland, the House of Commons and wins a film award. We guarantee "Christmas Lights", "The School Trip" and "Stressbusters" will make you laugh out loud. A searing indictment of our joyless, exam ridden primary curriculum...'it will take a bareknuckle fight to save its soul.' Down-to-earth and outrageously funny, this guide will prove essential reading for all teachers everywhere.’

Book Outline



Monday, November 26, 2007

Teacher or Teaching Assistant?

My post – Teaching Assistants = Teaching on the cheap? – attracted a few comments, mainly from… outraged teaching assistants. Regrettably they seemed to divide into either, we don’t do it like that in my school (well I was writing about the general not the particular) or they descended into personal insult, ‘you must think your teaching assistants are useless’. Welcome to the Internet the home of reasoned and cogent debate. I just wish some of the people posting would work on their comprehension skills, just to recap… ‘in my personal experience most teaching assistants would make excellent teachers - if they had the time and the finances to train.’

None of the posts really commented on or tried to analyse the massive rise in the numbers of teaching assistants and support staff over the last ten years. There was the ‘having fully qualified teachers in schools is just a pipe dream, we’ll never be like other European countries’. Yeah, we’re just the fourth wealthiest country in the world. It’s the same kind of logic in America, ‘we’ll never be able to fund a free and comprehensive health service’, - meanwhile 40 million working people go uninsured (see Michael Moore's ‘Sicko’ for more details).

I’m sure that in many schools teachers prepare detailed lessons for well qualified teaching assistants (1 in 8 have degrees or the equivalent) who work on integrating children back into the classes. However, on the other side of the equation no sooner was the ink dry on the 2003 ‘Remodelling Agreement’ and unscrupulous heads began to hire ‘cover supervisors’, the example in this article by ‘Colin Edwards’ doesn’t exist in isolation. In my friend’s school they appointed a cover supervisor with no English or Maths qualifications but the head felt he could ‘control’ the classes.

As for the Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) 15,000 have been trained, but their pay and status hasn’t exactly improved. Many head teachers have only paid them the higher rate when they have taken classes. I stand by what I wrote in the first article children should be taught by a fully qualified teacher.

There are some interesting comparisons, there has been a wide scale survey on care for vulnerable children (The Children’s Workforce Strategy), and it examined other European countries. In relation to homes for looked after children in England they commended the staff for their care and attention towards the children. They also noted that 80% of staff are unqualified, only 1% of the children go into higher education and that many children have complex needs. Their recommendation is that all staff should be trained to degree level.

Teaching assistants do fantastic work with special education needs children, however they also have complex learning difficulties. Some of them have very poor writing skills but highly developed speaking and listening skills. Do most teaching assistants have the training to develop this? I’ll put my hand up now I don’t; I haven’t had the required specialist training.

When it comes to special needs teaching there is a class divide, it’s partly based on anecdote and personal observation (where is the research on the use of teaching assistants?) but in the leafy suburbs where classes are full and therefore under Local Management of Schools (LMS) the school has the money to pay for it, they employ qualified SEN teachers to take out groups of children. They also typically have fewer SEN children and parents who insist on their children being taught by a teacher.

In more ‘challenging’ schools they tend to have falling rolls and therefore less money, there’s more pressure on SATs results (farm the SEN children out, let’s concentrate on the borderline ones) and some of the parents aren’t the most forthright in advocating for their children’s education. To put it crudely a middle class child is ‘dyslexic’ and needs professional help whereas a working class child is just ‘thick’.

In this country spending money on teachers just isn’t thought to be of value. In the last ten years, instead of employing thousands more teaching assistants would it not have been better to have recruited more teachers? For me it was summed up in 1993 by Conservative Education Minister John Patten’s comments about replacing nursery teachers with a ‘Mum’s Army’ of unqualified staff. Maybe it happened anyway?

Teacher or teaching assistant? Let’s put it this way, if you were rewiring your house, would you choose Fred from the down the road who ‘knows a bit about electrics’ or a fully qualified electrician who could issue you with a safety certificate, once the work is completed? Why should we expect less for education?


Sunday, November 25, 2007

NUT Elections

The results of the NUT election for vice-president have been announced. Whilst you’re waiting with bated breath – a brief guide to the political groupings. The ‘moderates’ in the union are organised in the secretive ‘Broadly Speaking’ group, although confusingly many of the leaders are ex-members of the Communist Party. On the left the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance (STA) and the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) usually cooperate together in elections.

In the vice-presidential elections Martin Powell-Davis stood on an independent platform - for national strike action over pay. During the transition from Management Allowances to Teaching and Learning Responsibilities (TLRs) there were strikes in over 100 schools where union members were set to lose pay. However, according to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), on a national scale, over 30,000 teachers will suffer pay reductions as they lose allowances over the next few years.

The voting figures (top two elected) were-

Goodswen 6,792 (CDFU)

Reed 5,603 (Broadly Speaking)

Harrop 4,084 (Broadly Speaking)

King 3,973 (STA)

Powell Davis 2,473 (For National Action)

Roberts 2,167 (One Union for Teachers)

The main feature of the election was the abysmal turnout, only 10% of union members voted. In part this is due to the general apathy in the teaching profession – will it make any difference if we vote in elections? There are also the years of inactivity where the teacher unions have become ineffectual insurance societies, they deal with members individual grievances, treating the symptoms but not the cause. Unions if they mean anything, should be there to take collective action in order to defend their members – you can break one stick but not when they are tied together.

The NUT have called some meetings this week over pay, however a Special NUT Executive Meeting was cancelled because the School Teachers’ Review Body were not due to report, this despite the fact that the government have given fairly clear indications that public sector pay rises will be restricted to low amounts. Unison members in the public sector ballotted but there was a low turnout and with only a narrow majority for strike action, the Unison national committee voted to accept the 2.475% offer.

Voting in elections doesn’t actually change anything but it is important to have people who will speak out on issues. Above all we need unions that are worthy of the name and not weak, feeble, inept insurance societies.

Previous post - Friendly Society or Trade Union?

Martin Powell-Davis Blog


Friday, November 23, 2007

Joke of the Week

How do you know when you've had elephants in the fridge?

Footprints in the butter!


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Graded Lesson Observations

We’ve had another instance in a nearby school of a maverick, control freak head. This time she wanted to ‘grade’ lesson observations as either ‘emerging, evident or embedded’. With some help from the union, the staff all stood firm and she was forced to back down.

Even Ofsted don’t require lesson observations by line managers to be graded, after all they are the experts (?). Also line mangers have not been trained to the same ‘high’ level of Ofsted inspectors.

If lessons in schools are graded there is no appeal mechanism it is purely the subjective viewpoint of one manager. In many schools it would be used as a crude way of attacking any staff that disagreed with the head or senior management.

One teacher in another school had a lesson marked down because there was no differentiation, this was based on a twenty-minute observation. She appealed to the head because her lesson plan showed clear differentiation.

An enlightening book on primary education was David Winkley’s ‘Handsworth Revolution’, which chronicles how he developed an excellent school in inner city Birmingham using music, art and literature. He had some fairly trenchant comments about the drive to standardise and grade schools, teachers and lessons. He noted,

‘We can pile children into classrooms, but they are never as predictable as tins of baked beans on supermarket shelves. If one child in a class of thirty decides to throw a pencil during an Ofsted-inspected lesson, this will lower the lesson grade. Baked-bean tins, when weighed and counted, will not move, of have moods or cry.’

There was an interesting article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) by London head Mike Kent, he explained how he didn’t go into classes with a clipboard but dropped into classes and talked to children and teachers.

‘It seems to me, therefore, that I'm very aware of what's going on in my school. But what I refuse to do is sit in the corner of a classroom with a clipboard, ticking boxes on the teacher's performance in an "Ofsted-approved" manner. What for? To produce automatons with identical approaches to everything? It's patronising, invasive and unnecessary. And who says Ofsted has got it right anyway?’

During an Ofsted inspection he was criticised for not observing lessons…

‘Naturally, the lead inspector didn't agree with me, and one of the recommendations was that I should get into the classrooms and assess formally. So for half a term I did just that. I became an inspector rather than a resource, and I learned nothing about my teachers and classrooms that I didn't know already. Then I went back to doing what I knew worked best. There is, I think, something lacking in schools today. It's called "trusting the teachers".’


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teaching Assistants = Teaching on the cheap?

Teaching assistants do a fantastic job. I haven’t got any time for the kind of elitism that was prevalent in schools, teachers couldn’t be questioned and parents were kept at the school gate. The creation of a ‘walled garden’ left teachers open to attack by the forces of conservatism.

On the other side we do need well paid, well trained, teachers. It should be a job that people aspire to. What concerns me is the way that schools have used teaching assistants to casualise and de-skill the job. In one sense their role has changed from filling the glue pots, sharpening the pencils and washing the paintbrushes. The 2003 ‘Remodelling Agreement’, which allowed classes to be taught by teaching assistants or cover supervisors, exemplified this change.

The rise in numbers has been startling, over the ten years of the Labour Government teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools rose from 61,260 to 165,380 and other support staff from 75,200 to 147,000. In primary schools the number of teachers increased from 183,930 to 188,860.

There is no doubt that many teaching assistants have a wealth of experience to call on. However, when you look at the care of the elderly, the young, the sick, or the disabled then the profile of the workforce is always the same – female, part time, casual, untrained and low paid. 98% of teaching assistants are female, they work on average 26 hours, one in five have no permanent contract, they only need NVQ Level 1 (below GCSE standard) to work in schools and average pay in primary schools is £7.90 an hour.

In many primary and secondary schools children (particularly those with special needs) may spend most of their school day being taught by teaching assistants. Contrast that with other European countries, in most of them the job of ‘teaching assistant’ simply doesn’t exist. Apart from the caretaker and the admin staff the only adults in the schools are teachers. If they have extra money they employ teachers.

The presence of a highly educated workforce isn’t only a standard in education, take children in care, in Britain 80% of staff are unqualified and only 1% of looked after children make it to higher education. Contrast that with Germany and Denmark where a high proportion of staff have degrees and most children in their care go on to university. There is a similar position with nursery care, in Denmark every childcare worker has a three year degree, whereas in England 40% of staff don’t even have GCSEs.

Teaching assistants make it easier for teachers to manage the class, particularly if they take out some of the more troublesome pupils. On the other side many special education needs children have complex requirements that call for highly skilled staff. Where has been the research about the impact of teaching assistants in schools?

This isn’t an attack on teaching assistants; in my personal experience most of them would make excellent teachers - if they had the time and the finances to train. The bottom line is, if you had an accident who would you want to attend to you a St John’s Ambulance volunteer or a trained paramedic? If you were assaulted in the street would you want a special constable to deal with the situation or a police officer? In the event of a fire would it be a part time retained or professional fire fighter?

So who would you want teaching your child? A teaching assistant or a teacher?


Friday, November 16, 2007

Joke of the Week

Horse goes into a bar and orders a drink.

The barman said, "Why the long face?"


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Joint Area Reviews

It’s incredible how Ofsted have spread their grisly tentacles into so many organisations. Their very presence pollutes, corrupts and creates a climate of fear.

From inspecting schools they have branched out into teacher training colleges, Local Education Authorities, further education colleges and childminders (numbers there have fallen from 90,000 to 60,000).

In local authorities, social services and education departments have been combined to form ‘Children’s Services’. They too come under Ofsted’s probing claws.

The inspections are known as Joint Area Reviews (JAR), when it comes to schools the inspectors trawl through the SATs and GCSE results. They then produce a list of ‘lowest performers’; I’m reliably informed that their first question to the local authority ‘suits’ is, ‘Why haven’t you sacked the head teacher?’

And they wonder why so few people want the job?


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Preaching to the unconverted

One of the main arguments used to support academies is that parental ‘choice’ will increase. Of the 84 academies that have opened 24 are sponsored by different Christian organisations.

In West Sussex the Woodard Schools organisation, which mainly runs fee-paying schools is considering academy bids for three schools. It is an Anglo-Catholic grouping with fairly ‘traditional’ views on most subjects. The most controversial academy bid is in Norwich where millionaire former used car-dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre is proposing to takeover Heartsease School.

The National Secular Society revealed that according to the 2001 census Norwich had the highest proportion of non-believers in the country – 37%. Not only that the standard Pentecostalist positions are that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, abortion is ‘evil’ and homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

So how did ‘faith schools’ appear in England? The 1870 Education Act created School Boards to fill in the gaps left by existing voluntary or religious schools. The denominational schools (overwhelmingly Anglican) then found it difficult to compete; they lost teachers to the Board Schools which paid better salaries.

The Non Conformists (Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists) had several grievances – some of their pupil-teachers were forced to convert to gain employment. Parents had no choice but to send their children to a Church of England school, in 1900 the Primitive Methodists (a group expelled from mainstream Methodism at the start of the nineteenth century) calculated that in 1,976 preaching places, 1,124 of them only had an Anglican school.

The 1902 Conservative Education Act replaced School Boards with Local Education Authorities, however, for the first time money from the rates was given to fund ‘voluntary aided’ schools – overwhelmingly Anglican with some Catholic and Wesleyan Methodist as well.

The Baptists, Congregationalists and Primitive Methodists organised meetings and demonstrations to oppose the Act. The Baptist minister Dr John Clifford raised the slogan ‘Rome on the Rates’. They established a Special Resistance Committee and called for ‘passive resistance’ – the refusal to pay rates for denominational schools.

By December 1904 35,000 summonses had been issued and the process of court action began. In 1905 50,000 summonses were sent out and 150 were jailed, including 61 ministers. The Liberals promised to repeal the act and the previously ‘non-political’ Free Churches called for a Liberal victory.

However, their hopes were dashed as Bills to repeal the 1902 Education Act foundered in 1906, 1907, and 1908. The campaign of ‘passive resistance’ began to subside but even as late as 1909 thirty Non-Conformists were jailed for non-payment.

This week the ‘Guardian’ reported on Park academy in Sheffield, sponsored by another Christian organisation, the United Learning Trust. Plans for the new building reveal that there's to be a prayer room, much bigger than any of the classrooms. Its provisional name will be the “reflection room” but there will be no mirrors on the wall. The rumour is that this will be the school chapel by another name.

There is a long tradition of religious tolerance in England; most existing faith schools don’t exactly push religion down children’s throats. It will be interesting to see if this survives the tender mercies of the Pentecostalists and Anglo-Catholics. How many 15-19 year olds attend church? The national figure is 5% and in West Sussex it is 3.9%.

As the Primitive Methodists said in 1902, ‘All schools which receive public money shall be under public control’.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Karen Reissman sacked!

On Monday November 5th Manchester psychiatric nurse Karen Reissman was sacked on 4 counts. Firstly that, when she was interviewed in December 2006 criticising the transfer of NHS work to the voluntary sector, she brought the Trust into disrepute. Secondly, for telling people that she was suspended and what for. Thirdly, for protesting her innocence. Fourthly, for allowing the press to print information, some misleading about her case. The fifth charge of misusing time was dropped. All the charges were gross misconduct and all sackable offences.

If this was Burma or Iran there would be an outcry from New Labour politicians. Not to worry, it's just happening here.

Reinstate Karen Reissman web site


Monday, November 12, 2007

17,000 ‘poor’ teachers?

Another day, another negative headline. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, pontificated that there were ‘about’ 17,000 ‘poor’ teachers. I don’t know where he got the figure from – the back of a cigarette packet? Possibly he extrapolated the number from those lessons that Ofsted deemed to be only ‘satisfactory’ – in some of the ‘light touch’ inspections observations have only lasted ten minutes.

The TES Staffroom featured a fairly sterile debate between those who blamed unruly children and their parents versus the ‘I know some crap teachers in my school’ postings.

Predictably Taylor ploughed straight into the ‘falling standards’ argument, ‘We’ve got 400,000 of our children attending low-attaining schools; 75,000 leave schools at 16 with hardly any qualifications at all…’ Well nothing about how the selective schools that he promotes help to produce ‘low-attaining’ schools. And what about that ‘golden age’ of selective education? Fifty years ago fifty per cent of children left school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Naturally in Taylor’s world the solution is clear, ‘…if you have weak heads of department you ask them to move on and you go out and recruit fantastic teachers.’ Easy in’ it? There ‘s a massive queue of teachers just waiting to fill those jobs.

Once again we have that neat syllogism – low attaining results = bad school = rubbish teachers. In my experience in most ‘challenging’ schools teachers who can’t hack it get out. Poor teaching? It’s even more likely to occur in ‘coasting’ schools with ‘good’ results, that’s where you’ll find ‘Leather patches’ who has always sat in the same seat in the staffroom for the past twenty years.

Schools and teachers in some areas are just set up to fail, the middle classes in some cities have raised the drawbridge and retreated to the refuge of selective faith or grammar schools, leaving the comprehensives as the latter day secondary moderns.

The recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust showed what a divided society we have become, in many large cities almost half the population exist in ‘breadline poverty’ – it is the norm to be poor. There’s also poverty of hope, ambition and aspiration. It’s in the ‘challenging’ schools that you get a massive turnover of teachers. My MA was a case study on a school that had been in special measures for five years, one of the English teachers told me that he came in to work every day with the knowledge that he would have to teach five English lessons and every one would be hell. The head of department had gone there because he wanted a ‘challenge’, he quickly realised the enormity of the task. Every day he would drive in his car to the big roundabout by the school, some days he just turned back home and phoned in sick. Shortly afterwards the entire English department left.

The shame is that the debate on teaching is polarised between the ‘excellent’ inspirational teachers featured in the ‘Teaching Awards’ (the alternative take is that they are workaholic geeks with no social life) or failure - the teachers fast tracked under competency procedures. What about the mass of teachers who don’t want promotion, like to see their families, have a social life and don’t want to work 70 hour weeks?

To attract and retain the brightest and the best the government needs to ensure that teaching is an attractive job by making the pay comparable with other graduate professions. Training is negligible in many schools, most people don’t start out as ‘bad’ teachers. Give teachers back autonomy over the curriculum, on that note interesting to see that teachers at Unity Academy in Teeside are balloting for strike action over excessive demands for planning. Teaching should be about inspiring children, not a paper chase.

Teaching really should be the ‘best job in the world’. You just aren’t going to raise morale with the philosophy of – we’ll shoot a few ‘pour encourager les autres’. Nice one Cyril!

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007


I'm not a great fan of award ceremonies and I probably stand a cat-in-hells chance of winning the 'edublog awards', it'll go to the sort of '100 things to do with glue pots and string' blog- nothing remotely controversial. But if you've got a spare minute...

Nominations would be gratefully received for category 3 - Best new blog and category 8 - Best teacher blog.

Might be interesting if I won...



Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bishop’s Park

The Knowsley Building Schools for the Future (BSF) saga grinds remorselessly on. The national adverts for the ‘Learning Centre Leaders’ (a.k.a. ‘Headteachers’) posts produced a grand total of eight people for the five posts, two having already been filled internally. The recent interviews for the Prescot Whiston ‘Learning Centre Leader’ featured three candidates, two of whom had been rejected by the Halewood ‘Learning Centre’ and another who hadn’t even made the short list there.

Prior to the interview candidates were given material from the QCA about an inspirational new school in Clacton, opened in 2002, called Bishop’s Park. The glossy leaflet described its ‘curriculum like tartan’, the headteacher Mike Davis described how schoolwork was,

‘planned ‘from the perspective of a student engaged in inquiry across a swathe of ideas and competences, rather than a stranger visiting a series of disconnected subjects’. He describes it as a ‘tartan’, with the national curriculum subjects woven seamlessly together. Bishops Park uses the national curriculum to provide goals for its students, but subjects are not taught as discrete lessons. Instead teachers plan work around a particular theme for each half-term – 70 per cent of class time is spent on theme work. The themes meaningfully connect the learning content and skills, rather than separating knowledge into compartments. As this is the approach that many primary schools take, pupils tend to find the transition from year 6 to Bishops Park straightforward and stress-free.’

The Knowsley BSF proposals really are like the proverbial curate’s egg, there’s progressive educational ideas mixed up with ridiculous management speak and an over reliance on ICT. However, the major fault line running through it all is the attempt to blame teachers alone for the poor test results in Knowsley. Change imposed from above will just result in grudging acceptance.

Judging by the ‘consultation’ meetings most of the consultants have never been near a real classroom and certainly not in Knowsley. But, you might have expected that said consultants given the vast amounts of money they are paid would have done some basic research i.e., Googling ‘Bishop’s Park’.

They might have picked up the story from July of this year that Bishop’s Park is to close. The new school was built under the auspices of PFI and therefore took priority over other school building work. The basic problem was that there were already too many surplus places in Clacton. Bishop’s Park has only 500 pupils with a capacity of 900. The school serves a disadvantaged area but its results haven’t been spectacular, the pass rate at GCSEs was only 25% (A-C including maths and English). Essex Councillor Tracey Chapman told the BBC: “With parents displaying a lack of confidence and choosing to move away from the school it is necessary that we take action.”

It’s a fairly devastating comment on the way that innovation is viewed – if you can’t jack up the test scores - forget it! I don’t know what kind of school Bishop’s Park is; it sounds pretty inspirational to me. But I just wonder how long the new ‘creative curriculum’ will last in Knowsley if the results don’t improve? Yup, it’ll be back to testing, testing, testing.

Resistance is Futile


Monday, November 05, 2007

A Fresh Start?

If you had any illusions that Gordon Brown would be any different from Tony Blair hopes were completely dashed with his, ‘we’ll close failing schools’ speech. Annual targets for improvement will be given to 670 schools where pupils currently get less than 30% passes A-C at GCSE (including maths and English).

This approach harks back to New Labour’s early days in office in 1997 when arch-Blairite loyalist and education minister Stephen Byers ‘named and shamed’ the ‘worst eighteen schools’ in England.

The model for closing down schools and reopening them as brand new schools came from San Francisco. Reconstitution – “improving” low performing schools by replacing (“vacating”) all of the adults in the building was described as the “My Lai approach to school reform - you destroy the village in order to save it.”

The plans drawn up by the San Francisco Unified School District included the phrase, “If individuals do not learn, then those assigned to be their teachers will accept responsibility for this failure and will take appropriate action to ensure success.”

The primary focus of reconstitution was an impoverished area known as Bayview Hunter's Point. Six schools were chosen to be developed as 'magnets' to attract parents and children, two schools were new and four existing ones were selected for 'reconstitution'. This meant, “Removing faculty and staff [including cooks, teaching assistants and cleaners] and hiring new faculty and staff committed to the consent decree vision, philosophy tenents and program.” To help implement reforms the six Bayview Hunter's Point schools received a massive infusion of state funds and extensive technical assistance.

In 1987 two more schools in San Francisco, John Muir Elementary School and James Lick Middle School were chosen for 'reconstitution', staff were removed at both schools but this time no additional resources were provided.

However, by 1989 it was clear that achievement levels in the district were still uneven, the court appointed a panel of experts led by Harvard professor Gary Orfield to review progress. In 1993 a further nine schools were declared 'reconstitution eligible' and given one year to improve. As a result three schools were selected during 1994-5 and five more the following year. Once again teachers were singled out for blame and long-standing, experienced teachers were advised that ‘just good enough’ was ‘not good enough’.

Reconstitution made it difficult for schools to attract qualified and experienced teachers, in one school 24% were unlicensed and in another 70% were long-term supply teachers. The reconstituted schools still failed to show any signs of measurable improvement.

Gary Orfield, who chaired the committee of experts that launched the San Francisco experiment, was forced to recognise the limits of reconstitution, “My basic conclusion is that this is like open heart surgery. It is necessary in some cases, but very costly and needs a very strong supporting team to give it a reasonable chance at success. It should not be done on a massive basis because it requires a great deal of investment in leadership in creating a brand new school in a situation which is inherently difficult.”

The English version of ‘Reconstitution’ was ‘Fresh Start’ – close the school and make teachers reapply for their jobs. The scheme never really did recover from that car crash moment in 2000 when four ‘super-heads’ resigned in one week, including Carole McAlpine who was featured in a high profile Channel 4 documentary about Firfield School in Newcastle.

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) surveyed Brown’s ‘worst performing’ schools based on test results and found that from the Ofsted inspections a third were graded ‘good’, 54% were satisfactory and only 16% were ‘inadequate’. Now I’m not saying Ofsted are infallible they certainly aren’t, but if anyone is going to fail a school it’ll be them. Schools in ‘challenging’ circumstances have to jump through hoops just to get a grudging ‘satisfactory’.

How the hell does the government think they will attract heads or teachers to schools that will ‘fail’ due to an arbitrary pass rate? Some schools have been caught in a cycle of failure. The most notorious case was Bradford Academy-

· 1963 opens as Fairfax community school

· 1992 ‘named and shamed’ in the first official league tables

· 1994 placed in special measures with the threat of closure

· 1996 re-launched as Bowling community college

· 1997 out of special measures

· 2000 reopened as a Church of England school - Bradford Cathedral community college

· 2002 placed in special measures

· 2004 out of special measures

· 2007 Bradford Academy opens in September

What is interesting is that Brown’s macho ‘name and shame’ doesn’t seem to extend to big business. Despite a falling share price and sales the chief executive of B&Q still walked away with a £150 million pay off, did Brown comment on that? Then of course there’s Northern Rock, bailed out to the tune of £18 billion and only one board member, Matt Ridley, has resigned. Silent on that one too Mr Brown.

When it comes to education there is of course another way, you can trust teachers and promote a comprehensive system where parents have a good local school to send their children to.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Scrap the GTC

More from the 'Scrap the GTC' blog-

‘Child porn sir gets school ban’, ‘Stressed Out Deputy Head Drank Vodka in the Boiler Room!’ ‘Willy row Miss fired’ and ‘PE Sir, 32 romped with pupil’ – are just a few of the tabloid headlines that the disciplinary cases heard by the General Teaching Council have generated. Set up in 2000 the GTC set itself the task of “Championing teachers and advocating change and improvements on their behalf.” Its primary function was to maintain a list of registered teachers and hear disciplinary cases.

The GTC didn’t exactly make an auspicious start billing itself as “the voice of teachers” it instantly ran into union hostility, was it trying to usurp their role? It hastily changed this to “the voice for teachers”.

The planners then erected an unwieldy, creaky edifice called the Council. This body was composed of four sections,

a) 13 people directly appointed by the Secretary of State.

b) 17 members from other quangoes, obviously working on that sound playground principle -'if we let you go on our quango, we can have a go on yours'

c) 25 teachers - elected in a turnout so low that the dullest parliamentary by-election would struggle to emulate it
d) 9 nominees from teacher unions

Even the elected members came from a national ballot and therefore had no identification with or responsibility to a particular area or constituency. This increased the impression of a remote, inaccessible and distant organisation.

After an attempt at “voluntary” contributions resulted in a derisory 14% return the government stepped in to bale them out. We had the surreal scenario of the government sending out a lump sum of money to teachers, and then telling them to send it to the GTC, who processed the cheques.

So the GTC has continued, disregarded by most teachers another unloved orphaned quango competing in the alphabet soup of education – TDA, QCA, OFSTED. The GTC has heard over 100 disciplinary cases at an average cost of £12,000. However, it hasn’t been able to expedite this core function, the average time for a first hearing after a case is referred is over a year.

Apart from the lurid tabloid headlines there have been ridiculous cases like the teacher arraigned before a GTC disciplinary panel for “making silly faces and derogatory remarks about other members of staff, mimicking silly walks and using foul language.” In October 2007 Keith Robinson, a teacher with an unblemished record of thirty three years, was cleared of ‘failing to return library books’ and calling a teenager who swore at him ‘a waste of space’. There but for the grace of God go most of the teaching profession…

Concern has also been expressed by serving members of the GTC about the new ‘suitability declaration’, will teachers have to declare any indiscretions, even those which happened in early adulthood, or personal matters on a GTC form? Would failure to reveal this information lead to sanctions from the GTC?

The statements that underpin the GTC code of conduct are also being reviewed, it currently reads, ‘Registered teachers may be found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct where they seriously demean [my emphasis] or undermine their pupils, their parents, carers or colleagues…’ Under a proposed review this would be changed to ‘cause upset or distress’, a statement so vague that almost any allegation would meet the test for a hearing.

Other concerns centre on the ‘suitability check’, which could be extended to any motoring offence, other than a 3 point fixed penalty, which would be considered as a relevant conviction in terms of ‘unprofessional conduct’.

If those proposals now ‘under review’ weren’t bad enough we have the plans to bring in ‘active registration’ whereby teachers would have to prove that they had undertaken continuing work-based learning. Despite reassurances that this would only apply to supply teachers or those who had taken a break from teaching, the GTC Wales are considering plans for all teachers to record the training they have undertaken on an online database.

Has the GTC won the trust of teachers? The elections for teacher representatives in 2004 saw a turn out of only 10%. The National Association of Schoolteachers carried out a survey, of the respondents 88% felt the GTC was ‘ineffective’, this later led to the GTC threatening them with legal action after they were accused of misusing funds.

To lift its profile the GTC has sent out a free magazine to teachers, now you might have expected a witty irreverent publication chock full of letters, comments and articles by … teachers. No such luck, look away now, another teacher-free zone. I wrote a piece for the GTC magazine only to be informed that they didn’t take material from teachers because,“objectivity isn’t achieved by a teacher who might be too close to his/her subject,” So the alternative is a bland, safe, ‘house style’ nothing that reflects teachers’ despair, cynicism, humour, hope and elation.

GTC representatives have warned that scrapping it would leave registration with the government. I really don’t ‘buy’ that argument. If you bought a second-hand car that leaked oil everywhere, the engine misfired and the gearbox jammed and you took it back to the dealer, only to be told, ‘our competitors are worse than us’, you wouldn’t be impressed.

Teachers deserve a fast, efficient, responsive regulatory body not this slow, bloated quango that has never won teachers’ trust or confidence. Scrapping the GTC isn’t the most important issue facing teachers; I don’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘We’ve got to scrap the GTC’. But in the spirit of ‘My Name is Earl’, let’s start with number 97 on the list. That’s why I want to stand in the GTC elections on a simple slogan – ‘Scrap the GTC’.

If you want to stand as a ‘Scrap the GTC’ candidate contact me on


Saturday, November 03, 2007

‘The adverb is not your friend’

The Primary Review researchers have indicated that reading standards have barely risen over the last fifty years and that children are bored with reading. Could this be anything to do with the dull, prescriptive and grammar-laden curriculum?

Last week, as PPA cover teacher, the script was a lesson on adverbs from ‘Jolly Grammar’. Yes, a whole lesson on adverbs. For the introduction I was instructed to,

‘Revise proper and common nouns, pronouns, adjectives, possessive adjectives and verbs.’

This for a Year 3 class. I’ll be honest and you can summon Ofsted and institute the fast-track capability procedure, but I’m a bit hazy on at least two of them.

There aren’t many books on the process of writing but one of the best is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. He has some fairly blunt advice on grammar, in one section he writes that,

‘The adverb is not your friend… Adverbs like the passive voice seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind… With adverbs, the writer usually tells us that he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.’

I drew the immediate conclusion, after scanning the lesson plan, that there is dry tedium, absolute boredom, the vast vacuum in space that lies beyond the reach of the most distant quasars at the edge of the known universe and then there is ‘Jolly Grammar’. I’ve got to admit that I did stray from the lesson objective a smidgeon. I read to the class ‘Grandfather’s Pencil and the Room of Stories’ by Michael Foreman.

He imagines a pencil writing about its time on the shelves in a shop, as part of a tall tree; there’s the story of the table and how it tumbled down a surging river; the floorboards were once part of a great ship ‘with cream sails and a black flag’. The boy in the story grows into an old man and his grandson discovers the pencil underneath the floorboards, his companions have been,

‘a bent pin, an old gold coin and a whale bone button. Oh, the tales they told! The whale button remembered when it was part of a great whale and…’

I got the children to write their own story about the pencil. I wrote one about a magic pencil that was held prisoner by an evil wizard. I don’t want to spoil the ending but he did escape with help from his friend the sharpener.

In Michael Forman’s story there’s whole sections of beautiful prose, ah, imagination, creativity, the joy of language and hardly an adverb in sight!

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Joke of the Week

Latest space mission, rocket blasts off into space with an Ofsted inspector and a monkey on board.

The monkey opens his instructions-

· Fire booster rockets
· Establish radio link with base
· Check orbiting position
· Move solar panels into place
· Institute science experiment
· Maintain vital life support systems

The Ofsted inspector opens his instructions


Thursday, November 01, 2007

All Shall Have Prizes?

The newspapers and television carried extensive material last week on the ‘Teaching Awards’. It wasn’t exactly the blanket coverage that ‘Big Brother’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity’ generates but at least it shone the spotlight on teaching in a positive way.

I’ll have to come clean though, I’m not a great fan of any award ceremonies not least the ‘Teaching Awards’. Here we have one of the most prescriptive curriculums in the world that has taken power and autonomy away from teachers, add in the daily discourse of derision from the press and Ofsted, the testing psychosis – it hasn’t created a happy or well-motivated workforce.

Even Ted Wragg, who helped to found the Teaching Awards in 1999, noted that there weren’t many winners from Gasworks Comprehensive. I decided to do a little bit of research on the Primary Teacher regional winners. Ofsted reports always carry some information on the socio-economic background of the school, although ‘poverty is not an excuse’.

The average Free School Meals (FSM) for English primaries is 15.9%. What sort of schools did the regional winners come from? FSM figures were-

East Midlands – ‘well below average’

East – ‘relatively low’

North East – ‘lower than the average’

North West – ‘low’

South – ‘half the national figure’

South West – ‘below average’

North – ‘average’

West – ‘average’

London – ‘very high’

South East – ‘above average’

West Midlands – ‘challenging economic and social circumstances’

I’m not claiming it’s any kind of scientific survey and you could probably claim that the mean average (guess what I’ve been teaching in maths this week?) is close to the national figure, but on the other hand 6 out of 11 below the average isn’t very representative either.

Why aren’t teachers from schools in ‘challenging’ circumstances nominated? One of the main reasons is that schools are solely judged and defined by exam results. I remember a few years ago one of our rare downwardly mobile parents said to me, ‘Justin’s grandmother has just seen the league tables in the Daily Telegraph and wants to know what he’s doing in such a terrible school’. Yeah, thanks for that.

The Teaching Awards doesn’t really make allowances for the special skills that many teachers in tough schools utilise. I remember a few years ago there was a television programme about an independent school head who went into a ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive to ‘show them how it’s done’. After a few days she taught a lesson, it was a disaster, she didn’t know how to differentiate for the different ability levels, her delivery was dull and pedantic, she had no empathy whatsoever with the children. Then their own teacher took a lesson, yes, he’d taught in the school for many years and knew all the children’s parents, but the lesson was spell-binding – well paced, laced with humour and he engaged all of the children in learning. He was incredibly modest afterwards (I’d have had a massive grin plastered all over my face), he admitted the class could be ‘difficult’. The independent head slunk away blaming the ‘unteachable’ pupils.

Maybe it’s just that teachers in ‘challenging’ schools don’t want to be patronised and ‘slavered over by D-list celebs’.

TES letter 2004

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