Monday, February 23, 2009

OCD Head

I was on a course the other week. What did we do during the break? We swapped horror stories of course. The worst example was the OCD Head.

Detailed planning had to be in every Monday morning, with notes for all the groups on guided reading. The Head was constantly patrolling the corridors and ‘popping in’ to watch/observe and criticise teachers.

When she got a new computer she gave the old one to a teacher. All the old files had been deleted… however, when the teacher looked in the Recycling Bin, there were all the Head’s old files.

Every Friday afternoon the Head organised a tea party in her office for that week’s star pupils. On the computer was a folder – ‘Minutes of the Friday Tea Party’. It contained the following gems –

· Nora Delaney told me that Year 5 hadn’t had home readers all week
· Peter Smith said homework in Year 3 was far too easy
· Jane Jones seemed confused about the Literacy Hour, must follow this up

Yes, the ‘Tea Party’ was an opportunity to get unsuspecting pupils to snitch on their teachers.

All the experienced staff had left the school and there was a constant turnover of Newly Qualified Teachers, after a year they left as well.

Surprising how many OCD Heads there are. Just wish there were more Mike Kent’s.


Sunday, February 08, 2009


The worst of times and… the worst of times.

The Venue

You’re not expecting a pamper session in a five star hotel with free massage and reflexology thrown in, but does the interview need to take place in a garishly lit, bare, hot, stuffy, windowless box? I wasn’t expecting them to extract my fingernails (slowly) or to play ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’ at full eardrum shattering volume, but the interior design of one venue was inspired by Abu Ghraib. For some reason the interviewer wore a thick woollen jumper, I was transfixed as the beads of sweat trickled down his face. How to concentrate?

The Panel

The best number on an interviewing panel? A few years ago I was interviewed for a part time teaching assistant post, the venue was in a gloomy darkened room. All ten governors were on the panel, one tip is to maintain eye contact but on this occasion they sat there furiously scribbling down every answer. So which hunched troglodyte should I look at?


They will usually be the proverbial ‘loose cannons’ during any interview-

a) Somnambulant Sid – he’s had a long ‘liquid lunch’, it’s four o’clock, you’re last on the interview list, he needs to rest his eyes, but, please, does he have to snore so loudly?
b) Crazy Eddie/Edwina – they’ve been on the governors for the last twenty years. Why hasn’t the council replaced them? Because they can’t get anyone else to be a school governor, there is a huge national shortage. During the interview they are most likely to bowl a beamer. They will ask a totally weird question, normally related to a personal obsession. Examples might include – Have you been to Reykjavik? Do you eat wholemeal bread? Can you juggle? Don’t worry they’ve been doing this for years, the panel will hurriedly move on to the next question.
c) The Prof – a retired lecturer. His question will be a long, convoluted and theoretical. There is only one person in the room that knows the answer…

The School

Always, always, visit before the interview. One school had award certificates plastered on every available wall space, they weren’t just Bronze, Silver or Gold but invariably Platinum. They were also awarded for ‘outstanding’ achievements like ‘Best Kept School Car Park – North West’, ‘Tidiest School Corridors’ and ‘Most Colourful School Fences – Northern Region’. Every display was triple backed. In the cloakrooms every coat was on the right peg, the classrooms didn’t have so much as a paper clip out of place. There was a team of OCD teaching assistants constantly tidying and cleaning every available work place. The teachers were all ‘Leading this’ or ‘Leading that’, they were all wore those old-fashioned dresses from the ‘Stepford Wives’ and they had that look…

The Headteacher

This is another sure-fire reason to visit. You might just get the impression that the staff are on the cusp of full-scale mutiny. Go in the staff room and everyone stops talking, you get the kind of withering look of sympathy that a rabbit in a laboratory might expect, just before they inject his eyes with shampoo. In one school the head’s office was a kind of personal shrine – to himself. The walls were covered with pictures of him with assorted local dignitaries; naturally the children didn’t feature anywhere. As we proceeded on a tour it dawned on me that the Deputy Head at been trained in the Uriah Heap School of unctuousness. He bowed and opened every door for the Headteacher. No, the grass is not always greener, it may be contaminated by noxious heavy metals or polluted by life threatening nuclear waste.

Questions, questions

You should be able to gauge the type of school you might be working at by the questions. In one interview every single question was on classroom management. After the interview I walked through the playground, it was like Beirut during the civil war. Another clue is if there are always vacancies in a particular school. Ask a friend, a shadow of fear will pass over their eyes, their face will freeze with fear, you haven’t got an interview in ‘that school’?

Keep me hanging on the telephone

If you haven’t had ‘the call’ within a few hours you know you haven’t got the job, but why keep you hanging in suspense? My record was three days.

It won’t be you

In most cases the Headteacher has already decided on who they want to appoint. You answer the questions during the interview, the panel look bored to tears. That’s why most interviews are pointless. The Headteacher has already chosen a close relative, the nubile NQT he has an unrequited crush on, or, in most instances, they have selected the preferred workaholic who will slavishly obey every instruction. Creative, critical and questioning? Please don’t apply.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Testing, testing… is the government listening?

The National Association of Head Teachers’ surveyed over 10,000 parents on the issue of national tests, 85% thought that the current system should be abolished and 71% wanted to see an end to league tables of schools. A recent report by the Children’s Society noted that schools contributed to problems of low self-esteem by introducing too much testing. “There is a clear danger that education becomes less stimulating when the main incentive is to learn things because they will be tested, and when the fear of failure is a major consideration.”

The continual mantra from the government is ‘standards’. However, almost every academic report or survey has shown the the rise in ‘standards’ is a result of ‘teaching to test’ and the high stakes nature of the tests (principally the link to Ofsted inspections).

There is another way. In the 1970s and 1980s sample cohort testing was used to monitor standards. 1.5% of children were tested and as questions could be repeated, a clear pattern of attainment and children’s understanding could be marked out.

Not that testing is ever fool proof, it mainly measures the lowest academic functions, GCSE exams are an exercise in mnemonics (memory) not intelligence. If you have a photographic memory you may be an excellent quiz player, it doesn’t mean you are creative or intelligent.

With the news that Carol Vorderman is leading the Conservative think-tank on maths teaching, we get the newspaper headlines about ‘success’ amongst pupils in Japan and Korea. That’s fine if you want young children to work for hours after school in exam cramming factories. On some occasions they can’t leave until they have passed a test. So in Japan there is the phenomenon of the hikikomori, where adolescents (mainly boys) lock themselves in their bedrooms for years on end.

Will the government listen to Head Teachers? I wouldn’t bet on it.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Of pedants, moaners and insults

I’ve been away from the Times Educational Supplement Forum for a while, so it’s great to see that the standard of debate is still high…

Tedious pedants – Make a typo, misplace a comma, fail to use a colon, any tiny grammatical error and these people will instantly seize on it, you’re obviously a complete illiterate. Not that they ever write anything themselves, they just carp and criticise. They remind me of English teachers from the days of yore, those crusty old curmudgeons who managed to turn writing into a dry, arid exercise. Less or fewer? Write it out a hundred times!

Moaners – These people have always infested staff rooms from the days of the Ancient Greeks, Aristotle mentioned them too. They’re the child-hating Old Farts that NQTs always laugh about. Elbow patches on their corduroy jackets, neatly cut sandwiches in their Tupperware boxes, space reserved in the car park, a corner of the staff room that is forever theirs. They just continually moan, moan, moan. ‘Nothing will ever change’. Naturally when it does come to doing anything, like going on strike, or confronting management, you won’t see them for dust.

Insult merchants – It gets a bit like the Monty Python sketch, you’re looking for an argument, but you’ve found contradiction and then abuse (third door on the left). Sadly most of the posts degenerate into an exchange between two or three people who slag each other off, for weeks.

I’m not expecting every post to engage in worthy intellectual debate. OK, it’s Friday, the end of the week, the children are doing your head in, let off steam, but the Forum just seems to be full of the same material that you can find anywhere else on the Internet - puerile, celebrity obsessed, a joke taken seriously, the serious as a joke.

There’s the wild ‘n’ wacky, the bizarre, information on aliens and UFOs, gossip on Paris Hilton, but SATs testing (low grade child cruelty to me) ‘we’re never going to change it’, so no point in discussing that. Sixth formers as cover supervisors? Zzzzzzzzzzz, BORING! Let’s talk about Big Brother.
Maybe it’s just plain naive to believe that there will be a higher standard of debate on the TES Forum. Or have most intelligent people deserted it due to the pedants, moaners and insult merchants?


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The new Bastardstone’s

I’ve got to admit that I’m shopaphobic, when it comes to national ‘No Shopping Day’ it doesn’t really affect me, on most days of the year I try to practise the creed anyway. ‘I shop therefore I am’? That just isn’t me.

Visiting the new ‘shopping experience’ Liverpool One I wasn’t arriving with any great expectations, so to find a concrete ‘n’ glass, bleak, austere, clone town, crammed full of the usual suspects that completely failed to lift the human soul, wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Whilst it’s true that nineteenth century Victorian cities were crammed with slums they also managed to create parks, art galleries, museums, libraries and neo-classical town halls. What do we build? Shopping malls. The defining buildings of the age are Bluewater, Meadowhall and the Trafford Centre.

Liverpool One also contains a brand new branch of Waterstone’s. Bookshops are struggling to compete with the Internet and supermarkets, so what has been the response of the chains? Dumb down and stock less books. The new Liverpool Waterstone’s has acres of floor space, but not many… books. There’s piles of ‘3 for 2’ offers, celebrity cook books, ghosted football memoirs and chick-lit.

One of the joys of going into a bookshop is the chance to browse, that journey of discovery, finding that nugget or rare jewel, that old forgotten novel, or obscure esoteric book by a wayward undiscovered author. So why bother going to a bookshop where the stock is so limited? I looked at the education section, it was thin, positively anorexic, there was the usual collection of ‘Getting the Buggers To…’ behavioural manuals and that was about it.

If you treat the customers as fools they will respond accordingly, almost as matter of principle I declined to buy anything. Waterstone’s has joined the race to the bottom by trying to compete with Asda and Tesco’s for the ‘Top 100’ titles, it’s a race they are destined to lose. Thankfully independent booksellers, who do stock a wide range of books, are still surviving. Meanwhile there is that cultural desert that is Waterstone’s.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Cheap, cheaper and cheapest

One of my previous posts was on the subject of teaching assistants and cover supervisors, (it also gave a link to an article in ‘The Guardian’) someone sent a comment in –

‘Just read the very interesting link written by Colin the Cover Supervisor. All I can say is - shame on the head for not sacking the incompetent twit. If he could not manage the behaviour of a group of kids then he should not have been working in the school. Shame on Colin for not realising that he was taking the job of a perfectly capable Cover Supervisor with Behaviour Management experience and the ability to control their own temper! Cover Supervisors are hardworking, vital members of staff in our school. They are well trained and very well respected.’

Let’s imagine the following scenario, you’re lying in the wreckage of your car after a serious traffic accident and due to ‘financial cutbacks’ the person tending to your injuries is a member of the St Johns Ambulance. Yes, they are very dedicated, do a fantastic job, but they cannot replace trained professional paramedics. So why do we entrust the education of our children to unqualified people? What message does that send?

Before the 2003 ‘Remodelling Agreement’, by law, a class of children had to be taught by a qualified teacher. No sooner was the ink dry than unscrupulous heads began to use unqualified ‘cover supervisors’ to take classes. The National Union of Teachers was the only union to oppose the agreement; there was some local action against the practise. It petered out, mainly because most teachers hate covering lessons that they aren’t qualified to teach.

Using cover supervisors? At least they know the children and the quality of supply staff is variable. Surely there isn’t any harm in giving teachers a break and using them for the odd lesson? Let’s be honest, using unqualified cover supervisors, the children don’t actually learn anything, the lesson will be death by worksheets. It is also the thin end of the wedge.

Just how thin is that wedge? In April 2008 ‘The Guardian’ reported on Chalfonts Community College in Buckinghamshire, they were using sixth formers (payment £5 an hour) as supply teachers. There is a better way; before the supply service was privatised some local authorities had teams of well-trained supply teachers (no it wasn’t always perfect) who worked with a small number of schools.

During the last ten years teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools have risen 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. Why not bring class sizes down and use experts to work with special education needs children?

Cover supervisors? It’s part of the process where teaching has become de-skilled, de-professionalised and de-valued.


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