Saturday, 30 April 2011

Emma Watson isn't being bullied. Slow news: hot topics.

Hermione 'not bullied'.
The news is often strange. And rarely more so when it reports that something you probably weren't even aware of, didn't actually happen anyway, much like what goes on (or doesn't) on the dark side of the Moon, or inside your bread bin when you're asleep.

This was certainly the case in the news reports that Emma Watson, the elegant, elven superwaif best known for going through adolescence via her fictional avatar Hermione, denies the claim that she was being bullied at University. Did you know there was such a claim? You'd have to be a pretty devoted stalker to have noticed. Nevertheless, an enormous section of today's media has been set aside and made holy for the purpose of reassuring your worst fears before they can blossom, by instantly raising them up and then cutting them down, like unto a reaper. Such is the transformative, restorative power of the press. Yea, blessed be the red tops, for they shall forgiveth all iniquities, healeth all diseases, even the ones you didn't know you had.

The apparent non-charges relate to claims that, in her time at Browns University, Rhode Island, students would mock her, saying 'ten points to Gryffindor!' every time she got an answer right, which frankly I can't believe wouldn't happen, but I have a childish sense of humour- it would never get old. Apparently the speculation grew (read: 'was invented in the head of a bored hack') when she decided to take a break from her studies 'to concentrate on acting.' Perhaps some of our news outlets can follow suit and take a break from celebrity non-stories to 'concentrate on their journalism.'

But if she's claiming that she wasn't bullied (in other news: Charlie Sheen 'isn't joining the Space Program' and Lindsay Lohan 'didn't assassinate Archduke Ferdinand') then she appears to be one of the few. Over the last week we've seen a number of studies showing that teachers and Head Teachers all show significant levels of intimidation, harassment, and physical and verbal abuse, to a level that they would describe as bullying. The surveys (by the school leaders' union the NAHT, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) asked respondents to describe levels of intimidation faced, and what forms they took. Unfortunately they came to some ugly conclusions:

Out of 1300 respondents (from a membership of 28,000), around ten percent of Head Teachers said that they had experienced a physical assault by a parent or carer. Can you imagine? The Head of a school being subject to an attack by what I can only imagine to be a particular subsection of moron? I know that we live in a society where estate and title mean less and less, but there are whole circles, spheres of social barriers that have to be dismantled before an act of that type is to be considered.

Such is the life of the public servant; often villified, spat on, detested, in manner entirely at odds with the community role he or she occupies. Or, in the words of Richard Harris's masterful English Bob in Eastwood's opus Unforgiven, 'I mean, why not shoot the President?'    

It gets worse: roughly one in five claimed they had been the victim of cyber-bullying. Three quarters said they had been subject to verbal abuse or threats from a parent. And interestingly, 86% of respondents said that the situation was- in their experience- getting worse, which I'm sure that many Behaviour Crisis denialists will rush to discount as unrepresentative, anecdotal and untrue, because as we all know, things have only gotten better. Production is up even more, comrades!! God save us from people who love state education so much they can bear no criticism of it.

The ATL survey swung the spotlight on to another related issue: workplace bullying, revealing that a quarter of respondents reported that they had experienced bullying at the hands of another member of staff. Out of 900 members surveyed who said they had been bullied, 50% said it was at the hands of a senior member of staff, a quarter said it was students, and another quarter said it was parents.

All such surveys have to be taken in context: sampling methods, sample sizes, sample audiences, etc all have to be considered beofre drawing conclusions form this kind of data. For a start, bullied members are far more likely to report bullying than non-bullied members would report non-bullying, for the simple reason that people who want to fill out surveys usually do so because they have something they want to communicate, rather than those who, a bit like the journalists at the start of this blog, have nothing really to say. And without seeing the surveys, it will always be hard to discern if the wording is in any way persuasive ('How often have you been bullied? Always, regularly or just sometimes?'). And finally, the word bullied itself is a very thick concept, containing within itself the possibility of multiplicities of meaning.

The ATL defines bullying as:

'Bullying is the persistent (and normally deliberate) misuse of power or position to intimidate, humiliate or undermine.'

There is even a beautiful line further down, where it claims,

'You may be the last to realise that you are being bullied. You might attribute stress to the pressures of dealing with students rather than the behaviour of your headteacher/principal or line manager. It may only be when a colleague discusses the matter with you that you realise what's going on.'

So we have the very real (and potentially, statistically devastating admission) that bullying can be so nebulous, so tacit, that we don't even notice it, or at least define it as such. Conceptually, this is a real problem for any survey that attempts to track levels of bullying within the profession. After all, some people will just laugh off jokes about, for example, coming from Scotland; others would see it as verbal harassment.

Way back in the 18th century, the libertarian and utiltartian philosopher JS Mill was wrestling with the problem of whether 'offence' could be categorised as 'harm'. And I'm not sure if we've progressed philosophically any further from the answer of 'er...sometimes.' I used to have a University tutor who would casually put his hand on my knee and call me his 'special student', while I mentally marked the fire exits and bustled out the room to invented appointments elsewhere. At the time it just seemed awkward and impolite; looking back now, if I saw a teacher do that to a student I'd clobber them. If offence is characterised by someone being offended, then Gay Pride and Neo-Nazi rallies will face equal censure.

But even given these methodological constraints, even if we diminish the data to account for bias, there is still a significant statistical conclusion- bullying happens frequently, and often, to a significant number of teachers. There are no surveys, for example, claiming that bullying has improved, or that it's a tiny, minority problem, for head Teachers, rank and file, and support staff. Such is the modern context of education in the state sector, where significant numbers of people are treated not only with less respect and dignity than they deserve, but with less dignity and respect than the desert of a dog.

The reasons are as myriad as human motivation, but underlying them all, as I mentioned at the start, is a breakdown in the acknowledgement of the teacher's status as an authority, as an adult, and as a professional. For a parent to, as the survey reveals, 'hit, grab, punch, throw a chair....etc' at a member of staff indicates that they believe that physical or verbal intimidation is the best strategy to employ during...what? A conversation about the future of their child? A parents' evening? No wonder some of our pupils find it hard to restrain themselves, or express themselves in a dignified way, if their key role models provide such a template for behaviour.

But this isn't to launch a salvo at parents as a group: too often, the behaviour debate in this country is unbearably partisan- parents blaming teachers, teachers blaming parents, governments blaming whomever exists in their least significant voting demographic, and pupils blaming...well, everyone but themselves, usually. It's a mess, and it's stupid. There is no one group responsible for the problem. The problem lies in the way that adults and children now perceive themselves.

One of the things that I find significant as a teacher, is how much children want to hurry up and become adults. Perhaps this is a universal impulse- the adolescent sees the liberties of adulthood, and imagines it comes without cost. But what surprised me when I went into teaching is that there is a small, significant minority of adults who appear to be in an extended infancy- who reject responsibility, who don't want to give up the luxury and carelessness of childhood, and who carry its values into their twenties, thirties, forties and sometimes even beyond. Like the parent who once said to me at Parent's Evening, 'How long will this take? Eastenders is on in half an hour.'

I fuss you not. Or the parents who admit that they don't know what to do with their children. 'I mean, all he wants to do is go upstairs and play with his PS3,' they say wearily, as I wonder if the idea of not giving them a PS3 has ever crossed their minds.

I suspect we will never invent a method to banish people being cruel to one another; as long as  relations of hierarchy endure between people (and they will, they will) then people will abuse that power from time to time. But this is merely descriptive; for schools to adopt a prescriptive posture to these facts will require all adults involved in the process to acknowledge their responsibilities as well as their privileges, and to face up to the fact that children need us to guide them; that they need us to step up to the roles that we are placed in; that they need us to behave and communicate with each other in responsible and considerate ways, and that we share the common goal of raising children as best we can.

And if we don't? Then someone needs to take our Playstations away.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Royal Wedding Special: are there some in the Montessori movement who want to have their cake and eat it?

'Thank God for child-centred education.'
I wasn't going to write word one about the big do in Westminster today, but destiny conspires against me. During a spot of research into Montessori for my third book (watch this space), I kept running into His Royal Highness in a manner that suggested that he was actually stalking me, when he should have been memorising the route to take up a red carpet and practising ambi-waving.

The link between Da Dook and the world of mixed-age education probably seems slight; and so it probably is. But every time I read a website that supported or endorsed the Montessori method, I invariably came across comments like, 'Famous alumni of Montessori schools include George Clooney, P Diddy [I'm not making this up]...and Princes William and Harry.' There it was; time and time again; the second and third in line to the throne were seeded in the pot of the famous Italian pedagogue. Best of all were the comments that invariably revolved around the sentiment of, 'The Princes owe much of their success to their beginnings in Montessori schools.' Now forgive my somewhat abject cynicism, but I suspect that the level of fame and success that both Princes enjoy owes somewhat more to the genetic roulette wheel that, like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter, saves or damns us from birth. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, the whole celebrity educational testimonial racket is a sleight of hand. While the lists of alumni are proud to include such worthies as Larry Page (one of the founders of Google) and Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), I imagine that the real list of graduates includes just as many drop outs and flunkies as any other schooling method, other than, say, the 'locking them in a cupboard' movement (and you should see their website). I reckon I could pick a dozen successful people who watch Charlie and Lola and claim that it was responsible for their prosperity. In that way, it;s a bit like the self-fulfilling prophetic claims of Celebrity Scientology, where every step towards becoming L Ron Hubbard, or JK Rowling or something guarantees good fortune- I've also seen a few Charismatic Christian TV channels that promise similar goods.

These Montessori testimonials remind me of the legions of desperate home genealogists who meticulously pick their way back through centuries of lineage in the vain and unlovely hope of describing a route of descent from William the Conqueror, ignoring the premise that, given the exponential nature of interrelation, if you look a few centuries back we're probably all just a branch or a twig away from each other. Look! they say, see our graduates and how well they've done! My mind boggles when I consider that the charmless, thuggish Sean Combs learned everything he needed to know about personal relationships and emotional intelligence at the hands of Progressive Education.

Well, quite. This isn't a Montessori bash- not yet- but a rather neurotic nosey around the license some of its practitioners show in claiming that William or Harry's fabulous and unexpected success was in any way derived from child-centred education. I love a good nosey around the internet, especially when I've spent the morning in the grimy and conspiratorial world of Regicidal hate groups (don't ask- but I wonder how Johnny Anarchist thinks that Plod won't rumble their cunning plots when they plaster them all over t'web).

The Archbishop in THAT dress.
Our well-spoken groom has enjoyed an unsurprising education entirely spent in the private sector. Presumably his parents didn't have much confidence in our world class school system? When he was three, he spent about a year in the charmingly named Mrs Mynor's Nursery School in Notting Hill. I can't find more than a spoor or two about this place on the net. I did find a place callede the Minor School, in  a different Notting Hill location. Perhaps it moved and changed names. But there's no mention of any Montessori element in either. And in either case you'd have to be the most generous, optimistic, uncritical commentator to claim that twelve months of playing with interesting shaped blocks would somehow inspire tomorrow's Caesars.  Next he went to Wetherby School in West London (where he 'excelled in English and Spelling') until he was eight. Are you asleep yet? Sorry. Then it was five years at Ludgrove School; followed by a stint at Eton, an inevitable gap year ('I'm totally in South America'), and St Andrews for an MA(Hons) in Geography (2:1, I might add).

None of these schools advertise any elements of Montessori (you'll no doubt be tremendously relieved to hear that all of their prospectuses make similar, deafeningly inoffensive offers of 'supportive tailored education where children can flourish'. Well, for the price of a Range Rover every academic year, I should bloody hope so). And besides, the whole pedagogy of Montessori kind of runs out of steam when they start getting tall; I'm guessing that St Andrews doesn't waste too much time on the Four Planes of Development.

Of course, I could be wrong; all of the schools listed above could be the Hogwarts of respecting children's 'natural psychological development'. And they could explain why William is, as I write mamboing with the King of Tonga and re-thanking every one of his lucky stars every time he sees Mrs Wales shyly biting her bottom lip as she tucks into a swan cornetto. And we're not.

But I doubt it. God bless yer, Brenda.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The elephant in the classroom is behaviour- until we fix that, nothing else matters

'There is NO behaviour crisis in education.'
The focus of the Fourth Estate drifts from shore to shore; recently it seems to have dropped anchor on behaviour in schools, for a number of reasons; the Coalition has been talking up the problem since before it took office, and what it proposes to do about it; Jamie's Dream School has presented the casual, non specialist viewer with a smorgasbord of ghastly behaviour from a range of drop outs who display the full spectrum of poor 'behaviour for learning' (as it is hellishly described in educational robot-policy-wonk-speak) from the deserving poor to the undeserving spoilt brat; and today, this survey, from the NASUWT, Britain's second biggest teachers' trade union.


It's media Heaven, as I get to pick, like a Crow, on the carrion smoothie of opinion, fact, and fudge that passes for reason in matters pedagogic. I am constantly amazed by the number of people who would be embarrassed to pontificate on, say, technical matters relating to the re-entry angle of the Apollo series space missions, but feel that, when it comes to the best way to run schools, then they can pull on the sandals and comedy beard and make like Moses. Seriously, it's embarrassing. I wouldn't dream of telling them how to fry polenta or interview an au pair.


'Yess...give them more SEAL....'
If I had a penny for every time someone who has never taught in a school, nor been in any way responsible for the running or day-to-day management of classrooms, has written a passionate piece of educational advocacy for the newspapers, for education committees, for LEA 'best practise' documents...well, I'd have a lot of pennies. Of course, this isn't to deny the fundamental right of people to have an opinion, but merely being in possession of such as thing is no guarantee that it is significant, relevant or interesting, in the same way that possessing a duodenum doesn't make me a proctologist. (Say 'Ahh!')


There is a phrase that has gathered momentum to describe the situation in many schools these days: the Behaviour Crisis. I first heard it, years ago, from the pen of a venerable and rigorous pseudonymous writer called OldAndrew. And frankly, from my experiences of schools, from the minute I stepped into the classroom, I think it's as good a phrase as any. And from talking to the majority of teachers I have ever met, from countless schools throughout the nation. And from the experiences of all the queries I answer on the TES Behaviour Forum, where teachers old and new pour their troubles out in the hope of professional succour.


You've never had it so satisfactory


Of course there are critics of this position, who deny that there is anything like a behavioural crisis; that in the majority of schools, behaviour is exceptionally good, and that we mustn't judge the majority by a tiny crop of mouldy apples. Alan Steer, the previous government's 'Behaviour Czar' (cool title; lucky man. Although I thought a Czar was someone to whom other agencies reported, who possessed structural power, rank and position, rather than being a bearded, genial anti-Cassandra. Still, perhaps I'm wrong) reported in the last political term that all was well, and that anyone who thought otherwise was being a rotter. Ofsted agree: they report that in over 90% of schools, behaviour is good or better, ie exceptionally good. Satisfactory is no longer satisfactory; everything has to be good or better. Production is up, comrades.


Who else thinks this? Seemingly most people involved in running LEAs (quick, take a picture before they all go), who report that behaviour might be poor in other boroughs, but not in theirs, oh no, no, not at all. Well, they would, wouldn't they? Anyone involved in running the educational ship desperately wants to portray everything in the no-longer secret garden as rosy. Or, indeed, good or exceptional. How very surprising. And how very, depressingly counter-factual.


Do teachers need to be teachers to teach?


Says who? Says me, Buster. Says teachers, that's who. Remember them? Dreadful, awkward chaps.They're the ones that actually stand in the classrooms and deal with all that non-existent bad behaviour, and huff and puff and get cross and make up stories about naughty children to, presumably fill up the time they spend in between lessons drinking tea from fine china in the staffrooms, or idling away their many holidays on budget cruises around the Devon Coast on their ghastly chartered cruisers. Teachers are the community that knows best what goes on in the classroom, but rarely are their views heard in a meaningful context.


The new Ofsted advisor on flying.
Who the Hell cares what Ofsted thinks goes on in schools? Not I, Grand-mama. They arrive for two days,tops; look at the school data, spend a few hours in the classrooms, and write their reports. And before they arive, the school clenches its collective sphincter, nukes the naughty kids out of sight, and strains to show its best side to the inspectors in the anxious, fawning manner of a dehydrated man trying to pass a dessicated raisin, barely able to squeak out a thin, reedy fart.


But, claim the denialists, where's the data to confirm this sensationalist dystopia? Well, unsurprisingly, it comes from the teachers. Every time anyone surveys the people who actually stand in the classrooms, rather than run through them like Ghetto tourists in Baltimore (I just read that there are actually Wire-based tours of the notorious badlands popularised in HBO's award winning TV drama series. We really are all going to Hell, aren't we? And we'll all deserve it.)


So every time anyone cares to survey those poor deluded nuisances, we find some interesting results. The NASUWT has just posted some of the feedback from its most recent survey. And unsurprisingly, there's a degree of divergence from the official picture that I can only describe as 'statistically significant.' It surveyed 8000 of its members, who provided the following nuggets:
  • a lack of parental support is a major problem behind pupils' lack of discipline.
  • many teachers feel let down by the lack of support from parents over behaviour.
  • More than two in three teachers identified a lack of back-up from parents as the most common underlying factor for pupils misbehaving.
  • More than half of teachers in the survey also complained that too many parents were failing to send their children to school with the right equipment.
On the face of it, it could be seen as a bit of a kicking for parents. And to be fair, there are some parents who appear to have learned their parenting skills from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or confusing Mr Spock with Dr Spock or something. I think it's a broader problem than that, and it's unhelpful to simply dump the blame at the doorstops of the family, for reasons I'll illustrate later.


8000 people; that's not a bad size for a sample. Of course as I like to repeat to anyone that'll listen, social science is a commentary on human behaviour, not an irresistible algorithm of certainty. But even taking into account that the kind of people who probably answer NASUWT surveys are a bit more vocal and militant than your average leatherpatch, it's still a fairly large 'No' vote to the denialists. Back in 2009, the same union surveyed over 10,000 teachers in a similar way. That time, it found the following:
  • On average, teachers in primary schools reported that every day 30 minutes of available teaching time is lost as a consequence of pupil misconduct in the classroom
  • In one in every five cases, pupils miss out on 1 hour of teaching time as a result of disruptive/poor pupil behaviour.
  • On average, teachers in secondary schools reported that every day 50 minutes of available teaching time is lost as a consequence of pupil misconduct in the classroom.
  • In one in every five cases, pupils in secondary schools miss out on 1 hour and 15 minutes of available teaching time as a result of disruptive/poor pupil behaviour.
  • Many teachers (61%) reported that they do not have confidence that when a disruptive pupil is referred to school management that the teacher will receive swift support 
Going back to 2004, the UK's largest teaching union, the NUT, found the following:
  • Two-thirds of 230 teachers questioned for the National Union of Teachers' survey said indiscipline was preventing them from doing their job.
  • Teachers also voiced concern over "blanket inclusion" in mainstream schools of children with behavioural problems, which took place "without adequate support and resourcing".
To be honest, some parents need a word.
Back in our Teaching TARDIS, we scoot forward again to 2008, and another survey by the NASUWT. It found this:
  • Almost half of primary school teachers say that the disruptive behaviour of a minority of children in their class is a daily occurrence
  • Acts of physical aggression (hitting, kicking, spitting, uncontrolled outbursts, destroying property) occur at least once a week in almost one in five primary classrooms across all key stages (F/S, KS1, KS2
  • Almost two thirds of teachers believe that pupil behaviour has got worse during the time they have been teaching
  • More than half the teachers surveyed believe that parents are largely to blame for the behaviour that they have to deal with in the classroom
I could go on, but one day I'll be dead and I don't have the time to spare. I'm not even cherry picking- keep digging up the surveys and they all sing the same chorus: teachers think that behaviour is pretty rotten; parents are often part of the problem, as are senior staff when they fail to support front line teachers. But isn't it funny how much these opinions differ from the people who:


a) Don't actually teach in classrooms, where the behaviour is occurring, and,
b) Have a vested interest in reporting that things aren't so bad after all?


Did you cuss my ideology?


There are many other factors at work here. On one hand, there appears to be a large camp of well-meaning commentators who appear to view any criticism of behaviour in state schools as an attack on the principle of state schooling itself- as if focusing on the fact that there is a behaviour crisis is simply part of a larger agenda to dismantle the vertebrae of state education. God save us from such a moral panic. Me? I'm all for state schools; I could eat them up with a spoon and ask for seconds. But they're not perfect, they're not invulnerable, and they need to be looked after, not diluted by the latest fashionable theory about how children best learn.


Child-centred nutrition.
Here's why, behaviourally speaking, some schools are less perfect than others: the authority crisis in society. Frank Furedi and others are very eloquent in their description of this state, and I absolutely concur; since the 20th century- Hell, since the Enlightenment- there has been a growing unease about authority based on tradition, or status justified by anything other than reason. The individual has become the unit of society, in a way that would probably please Thatcher and other neo-liberals. Capitalism, the decline in institutions like the Church, the Aristocracy, the caste system, the army, public schools; and the focus on liberty, rights and autonomy, has been a possibly inevitable part of the changes in our society. So far, so descriptive. But it would be childish to describe such a paradigm shift in terms so simple, so moronically blunt as 'good' or 'bad'. Such a sea change brings both treasure chests and seaweed. 


With the decline in deference that the emancipation of the serf, the worker, the oppressed has produced, there has also been a defiance towards any form of authority that is based on anything other than reason. 'Why should I do what you say?' as one pupil memorably asked me. 'You're just a teacher.'


Well, quite. You can only imagine how tiresome it is to attempt to engage an angry, screeching twelve year old in the corridor in a conversation about why there are rules, why they need to be followed, and how everyone benefits in a school community when they aren't flouted, and how the teacher's time is probably best not taken up by having to justify the whole theory of hierarchy, the chain of command, the need for children to generally follow the instructions of adults. Honestly, unless you teach, you have no idea how wearying it becomes. 


I know many will say, 'Oh, but surely it's great if they grow up questioning everything?' Yeah, right. That sounds fabulous, until you try to get thirty kids together into a room and teach them calculus. Trust me on that one. See those statistics I quoted above, about how much time is lost in the classroom dealing with poor behaviour? That's what I'm talking about.


So while, as always, I applaud the NASUWT in any endeavour to find out the opinions of the people who matter in education- teachers- and not just the enormous, corpulent industry that surrounds them like a waxy, oleaginous condom, I offer this note of caution: it isn't enough to say that the parents are mostly to blame (actually, from what I can see, the findings of the survey don't make this claim- as usual, it appears to be the oppressed proletariat in the newsrooms who are forced to condense and sex up anything that falls into their laps by their, no doubt, despotic line management).


The reason why children misbehave is because they are allowed to. Adults in the free world are increasingly uneasy with the idea of being an authority figure in children's lives, openly admitting that they don't feel that they have the right to act as role models for children, to chide, to guide, to punish and to reward with the certainty that our grandparents enjoyed. Which is a pity, because while we're not perfect, we're all they've got. And if we don't assume the mantle of grown-ups, then nobody else will. Or worse, they will, and the lines between child and adult blur more and more, until eventually they end up on interview panels for teacher recruitment. Oh, wait a minute.....


'Frank: talk to me about the increase in bun sales....'
I see a lot of keyboard time being spent by people who want to claim that behaviour has gotten worse (I think it probably has in the last few decades), and those who claim that it has always been like this. I leave that for finer, more analytical minds than mine to pursue at the moment. Frankly, I'm not sure I care that much. What I do care about is how things are now, and right now, I should say that there's an enormous stink in the room.


It smells like elephant dung. More tea?
   

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Sunday Times Festival of Education: let teacher speak unto teacher



I'll be speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Sunday the 26th of June at 2:45- the topic will be the behaviour crisis in schools, how we got here and where we go from here. It's being held in Wellington College, which appears, from their website, to be based in Berkshire's answer to the Palace of Versailles. Other speakers include Niall Ferguson, Robert Winston, Bad Boy D'Abbs, David Starkey, Dominic Lawson, Katherine Birbalsingh, A C Grayling, A A Gill, Toby Young, and many other worthies. I can only presume that I'm the warm-up act or something, or that there's another Tom Bennett they've confused me with.


It also hasn't escaped my notice that there are a few alumni from Jamie's Dream School on the guest list, so the opportunity to see some of my favourite fictional characters in the flesh is almost more than I can bear.

Still, very excited about the opportunity to do this. The only problem is; where do I park my helicopter?

Click on this link to take you to the homepage for the festival. And a picture of me that makes Brian Haw look like Gok Wan.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Ofsted 'should be split into a million pieces, and then buried in the heart of a dying star', suggest Education Committee.

Those key recommendations:
The Commons Education Committee made a surprising announcement today when it announced that the Office for Standards in Education, Children's' Services and Skills (Ofsted) should be split, not into the two parts detractors had previously imagined, but instead 'annihilated by some as-yet undiscovered disintegrator ray,' before the remaining dust pile is 'cast into the Lake of Fire in Mordor', preferably by a ruined, obsessive hobbit.

When asked to explain this apparently disproportionate response to recent reports that Ofsted was too big, too unwieldy to serve any of its functions with efficiency and focus, Graham Stuart MP, Head of the Committee gave this reply:

'Naturally we are alive to accusations of excess, particularly in the current economic climate when the electorate are, quite understandably, seeking solutions that are both cost-efficient and future-proof. At first we were simply going to propose that the body be split into two agencies, one with responsibility for Education, and the other for children's care. But then we were all in the bar afterwards, shot-gunning vodka through our tear ducts, and we thought, 'Why stop there?''

'Someone pointed out that this was the same Ofsted that claimed that behaviour was good or outstanding in 92%- 92%-of all schools in the UK, possibly because some schools dart their 'special' kids with ketamine as soon as they get the phone call, and all the SLT get back out on the corridors for three days.'
'Some of them even need maps,' he added.

'Then someone else remembered that this was also the same Ofsted where, in some places, less than 10% of their inspectors are working professionals in the field they're investigating. Fancy that. Imagine being a teacher when some cadaverous, old has-been or school drop-out comes into your room like a bad smell and tells you you're unsatisfactory. I imagine some teachers would be a bit peeved.'

Binmen 'to assess Heads of Ofsted'.
'Then someone else remembered that this was the same Ofsted that used to- used to, mind- have 'non specialist inspectors' on some visits, ie people who have never actually worked in schools (lay inspectors). Isn't that grand? Perhaps my nan could go and review the people who run Sizewell B, maybe grade them on their fail-safe procedures in the case of a partial meltdown. I bet they'd like that.'

'By this point we were snorting Midori, and really got going. We talked about, how since the new stripped-down two-day inspections, almost every school essentially got the same grading as its examination results would predict, which made a few of ask what the whole bloody thing was actually for? Of course, by this point, some of us were sliding under the table, but  once we all got our second wind, we were back off the floor and dancing around a picture of Christine Gilbert, the Head of Ofsted. Did you know she's the wife of the ex-government minister Tony McNulty?  I bet the interview was hard. We talked about how the things that Ofsted look for become the only things schools focus on, until teachers spend all their time fretting about healthy eating in maths lessons, and promoting numeracy in PE, and the world, essentially goes to Hell.'

'Then, just about when dawn was coming up and we could barely move, we realised that the solution didn't lie in just breaking it up into two parts. We liked the breaking up bit. That was on the right track. But then we put gas in the tank and decided, f*ck it, let's do this thing. Let's just blow it to smithereens instead.'

International precedents for Quango reform were promising.
Asked if any other alternatives had been considered, such as reforming the aspects of the organisation that weren't fit for purpose, or redesigning the skill set for inspectors and their governing line management, Mr Stuart leaned back in his chair and made a thoughtful face for a second, before blowing a ring of cigar smoke towards the ceiling.

'No,' he said with a far away look, as if he was trying to think of something. 'No, that won't be enough. You know that bit in Star Wars, where the Death Star blows up Alderaan? Well, Ofsted needs to be on that planet.'

'Not a proper acronym', claims MP

'I mean, it's not even a proper bloody acronym for God's sake. How do you get Ofsted from the 'Office for Standards in Education, Children's' Services and Skills'? We might as well call it OFSECS, which at least has some prurient value.'

Ofsted would only comment that restructuring was a 'matter for the government'. Then it closed the lid of its coffin, and refused to take any more questions.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Jamie's Dream School 7: What have we learned?

Harlem discovers she's forgotten her umbrella.
I'm grieving, because Dream School has withered on the vine; like the closing scene of Grease, everyone has hugged, congratulated each other on how marvellous everything was, and ridden off on a fun ride, or something. Like a rose, its beauty lay in its transience. It is over, and now the edusphere is silent. It's like when I as a child, and I would stop reading a favourite book before the last page, so that I would always have something to return to. But even the children of Narnia had to go home sometime, and like everyone else who writes about popular education I'll have to find something else to get excited about. It's not looking good.

Dream School was always intended to be a lesson, and like currently fashionable idea about real lessons, it concludes with a recap of the aims, or a plenary: what have we learned. There were a lot of people summing up what the project was about- Mr Oliver was the most vocal: 'This has always been about the ones who have been excluded, who slipped between the cracks.' And a very noble ambition it is too- but his enormous heart needs to be channelled in a more effective direction, because mere compassion won't help these kids. That was part of the problem that got them here in the first place. Compassion by itself is blind, and can lead us to make decisions that harm more than help.

For example, take Angelique, who's been sparring with Alastair Campbell again (and by sparring, I mean 'telling him to go fuck himself'). Last week he was planning a trip to Number 10, but he was adamant that only those who could behave should go, which seems pretty reasonable to me, and probably the rest of the civilised world. Next lesson, Angelique goes off like Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, channels Harlem, and storms off like a pitbull. So Campbell, not unreasonably, canned her from the trip.

Now that looks, to me, like the most straightforward moral transaction imaginable: be good, and get rewarded; flip me the bird, and wave bye-bye to Christmas. Who wants to take a car crash like that to the heart of the British Government? On a day out to meet the PM? Every principle of merit and desert demands that someone who deliberately blows up as a hobby (or who, at the very least, can't keep a lid on their lip) shouldn't get the candy. What kind of lesson would it teach them, for such a person to be rewarded no matter what the behaviour? Such a strategy teaches students that actions have no consequence, and that virtue and vice will be equally regarded in the world. What madness.

Angelique was in proper apologetic mode: she even sent Campbell an email to apologise, fired it off, and crossed her fingers that he would forgive. And spectacularly, joyously, he didn't. He walked into her classroom, and she simpered up to him, meek as milk, and told him how sorry she was, and could she come?

And he said, 'No.'

I nearly did a star jump. She looked totally confused, like she didn't understand what had just happened. Hadn't she done what normally works? Act like a bitch, apologise later on, and carry on like nothing has happened? Campbell, who is more comfortable engineering international genocide, wasn't moved, and just repeated to her how rude and obnoxious she was. I have to hand it to him, he's my favourite Lord of Destruction. He would, I've already said, make a cracking teacher, as long as he could restrain himself from all that beastly slaughter and such.

No wonder Angelique was confused. This kind of appeasement goes on every day in schools across the country: kids act as they please, and increasingly the school reaction isn't to apply punitive pressure to the pupil in order to deter further outbursts, but to attempt some kind of wet reconciliation, restorative justice, or even worse, just pay lip service to manners, accept a watery apology, and move on- until it all happens again and again. That approach, while well meant, lies at the heart of the current behaviour crisis in education. Kids cannot believe their luck when they get away with rudeness and bad behaviour, and they cannot believe how stupid and weak we are when we fail to treat misbehaviour seriously.

I'm not a big fan of 'student voice' (in the sense that I think it's demonic and needs a stake through the heart, and it must die, die, and die again), but that doesn't mean that students can't tell us anything; and one of the most consistent pieces of feedback I've ever had from my students (especially when I was starting out, and about as effective as ice cream toilet paper) was that when kids get rude, you need to step up to them- maybe not physically (we can all dream) but structurally- don't ignore bad behaviour; tackle it head on, set detentions, send out, call home, the whole nine yards. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away, it just breeds and multiplies and swarms.

Danielle said it best when Mary Beard asked her opinion on what to do with misbehaviour. 'Send them out!' she shouted, without a microsecond of hesitation. Because she knew exactly what to do, even if the current educational establishment seems to be suffering a collective loss of bottle, nerve, cojones and spine.

'D'Abbs, mate! I found one of your bollocks!'
Of course, at Dream School (motto: Let no bad deed go unrewarded), the dice are loaded towards the side that says, Forgive them Father, they know exactly what they do. D'Abbs was all over Campbell like Johnny Cochrane Junior, rather than the Head Teacher role he allegedly occupies.

'Angelique's devastated,' he bubbled, while Campbell looked on like a stone and dreamed of drowning puppies in a barrel. I bet she was devastated. I bet.

'I want to see them all through Dream School, ' he pleaded. 'She's been excluded all her life, and if you exclude her again, you'll just confirm what everyone else has always done. I want her to see that adults are compassionate, and can give you another chance.' Then he made the 'seal' face. Or, this being school, it should probably be a SEAL face. Whatever. Campbell was probably wondering how such an enormous blouse could run a trip to McDonalds, let alone a school for drop-outs.

Could he actually be serious? I asked myself as he suggested that Campbell should go back on his word, and allow such a clearly belligerent and thoughtless person to dictate the rules of the classroom. Was he actually putting pressure on a teacher to not have classroom rules? Was he suggesting that anyone should be allowed to go on trips, no matter how badly behaved, because they should always be given a chance? I'm afraid he exactly was. I imagine how society would be run if such sentiments were to bleed into the courtrooms, the roads, the prisons of the world. I imagine it would be a lot like Hell.

Then he signed off with the adieu of the cowardly lion. 'I'll stiill support you if you say you don't want her to come.' Which is something every line manager with no spine says when they want to absolve themselves of blame, responsibility and guilt. Et tu, Pilate.

Which is exactly what he wasn't doing. He wasn't supporting the classroom teacher. He was implying that the teacher's system of discipline was wrong. That the teacher would be at fault if he continued to punish this girl (or, more specifically, not reward her. He wasn't punishing her; he was simply applying simple logic to the rules he imposed on his class). He was trying to get him to change his mind. He was telling him that it would be the school at fault if it didn't include all students at all costs.

This policy (inclusion) has been the ruin of many a classroom, teacher and student, as schools tie themselves in knots to avoid removing the desperadoes from the classrooms, all in the vain name of social inclusion, because it would be better- it is suggested- that those on the fringes of behavioural acceptability are best handled by maintaining them in mainstream environments. Meanwhile, the vast majority of well behaved, mainstream students, suffer irreparable harm to their lessons and their lives. But heigh- ho, that's the price we pay for inclusion. Which is another diabolic invention of Satan, incidentally.

Later on, Deirdre- sorry, D'Abbs- 'supports' Campbell some more by telling Angelique that if she really behaves in her next lesson, Campbell might change his mind, and that he hopes he does, and that he's tried to talk him round. It was embarrassing. Seriously, man, grow a pair and support your staff. All it looks like is you backing up Angelique against her teacher. 'Support' my righteous ass.
'No, she can't. Kill her!'

Sorry for the rant, but that kind of behaviour is exactly why there is, not only a behaviour crisis, but as the wonderful sociologist Frank Furedi suggests, an authority crisis in contemporary society. Adults colluding with children to undermine other adults? An infinity of second chances, no matter what the rules are? Sanctions over ruled in the short sighted name of supporting children, when in reality all it does is teach them an untenable, unrealistic value system that doesn't exist in the world outside Dream School? That kind of lesson only reinforces the emotional and mental crutches that these children have constructed for them, until they carry on the construction themselves. It's not enough just to believe in them; we have to believe that we know what's good for them, and sometimes that means taking their toys away.

The differences between Dream School and real school

Alastair Campbell, who has transformed himself in this series into an unlikely John the Baptist of education, railing against the iniquities of Herod, produced one of the most sensible paragraphs in the entire series when he said, 'It's important to not go away from this showing that this is how you reach children, because in reality this isn't anything like how real schools operate,' or words to that effect. He remarked that, whereas in Dream School, students had acres of time to talk with their teachers after class (the apparently miraculous missing ingredient to Nanakwame's education), in real schools, teachers have to...er, go teach other lessons. In other words, they have a full time job to do, not just a guest appearance in educational never-never land. Of course, we should expect nothing less from Campbell, who is neither stupid, not ignorant of the dangers of undermining the teaching profession.

Another issue is that of class sizes: Jamie and D'abbs were fond of repeating the 'No child left behind' mantra when it came to exclusions and trips. But did you notice that the average class size appeared to be somewhere between seven and twelve? What were the other eight doing? Presumably they were working on their portfolios and learning another language. Starkey had Jamie salivating with pleasure in this last episode, with his ground-breaking approach to teaching them thinking skills, not just content (which is a false dichotomy anyway, as skills and content are impossible to separate. There- decades of educational debate solved in a sentence. You're welcome), in a circle of students working on laptops and critiquing each others' work (which is actually a useful exercise if done properly). How did he get so few in the room? Remember when Andrew Motion 'uninvited' a few students from his poetry circle? I suspect the same thing has happened here. What happened to 'No child left behind?'

The reality for all teachers in the state sector is that we don't have a right to refuse to teach, so we're stuck with the good, the bad and the ugly. Which means we need to have rules in our room, which leads to sanctions, exclusions and removals. Which, for a minority leads to expulsion (I know they're called permanent exclusions these days, because nobody likes the word expel any more, just like we're not supposed to mark in red ink either- see previous blogs for a detonation of both dogmas). And that's where all that 'falling between the cracks' happens that Jamie frets about. Believe me, very few people get permanently excluded because they were misunderstood angels. It's easier to build a stepladder from shaving foam than it is to get excluded from school. If they get chucked out, there is almost universally a very, very good reason, and they're normally not ones you go, 'aww, that's a shame' over.

The Teachers' Last stand

It was interesting to see the celebrity teachers wrapping things up in remarkably similar ways to conventional schools: Robert Winston made them sit a test on what they'd learned (no results available at time of press; I'm sure if they'd been any good we'd have known all about it, accompanied to the theme from Chariots of Fire and lots of slow-mo chest bumping and crying.

Daley Thompson managed not to hug anyone this week and organised what was almost a school sports day versus Mill Hill School (a nice co-ed boarding school in North London, or as the voiceover intoned, 'a  posh private school'). Can you imagine the fuss if Dream School had won? Alas, it wasn't to be; I can only guess that the DS Olympiads had to have fag breaks every five minutes. Sorry, I'm being churlish.

Andrew Motion organised the closest thing we had to an end of term performance (bad show, Simon Callow- where was our Romeo and Juliet, with Harlem as the dainty heroine? A missed chance, sir) when he organised the poetry recital. In amongst the Hallmark limericks and rap operas, there was a moment when Henry basically just threw the concept of poetry aside and used the performance as a cover for him to say how much he loved his parents, which went down, as you can imagine, a storm.

No caption required.
Then there was the matter of the portfolios; this was in lieu of an actual certificate of any meaning of course, and to be fair, wasn't without value- it gave them something to aim for, and provided a record of work. I'm not sure too many employers would be dazzled by a home printed certificate that said 'I climbed Pen-Y-Fan', but it was a start. I suspect that's why Unis ask for..you know, GCSEs and that.

Harlem went through her interview process with Rankin and Campbell and provided a reminder of why Angelique is a mere upstart compared to her leviathan surliness and self-righteousness, by essentially sitting there, scowling and looking like she actually hated the pair of them. No, hate is the wrong word- she was totally apathetic, indifferent to them. Her emotional palette consists of two tones- feigned disinterest, and rage. Two qualities that I imagine will stand her in good stead when she applies to be a bomb disposal expert or ambassador to Japan.

Starkey attempted to kidnap Danielle (who was my hero of week three) by taking her round his old alma mater Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. That was nice of him, wasn't it? I notice that Harlem wasn't involved in that beautiful piece of social mobility. I can't think why. Oh wait a minute- I can.

Great to see Jazzy B and Richard Starkey having a barney- Starkey thought that Connor wouldn't amount to much unless he could learnt to listen to people (which is true) and Mr B thought that Starkey could do with a few lessons in listening himself. Starkey begged to differ, explaining that he was at a different stage in his life, where he had a position of authority and an expectation of deference. JB thought that nobody listened to him, and thought he was a bit of a 'gas bag'. History, posterity, and the program makers didn't share with us his reply. Priceless. It was the kind of celebrity mismatch you normally only get from 'IACGMOOH'.

Another great moment when Alastair Campbell and Cherie Blair had their first on-screen meeting at Dream School; wonderful to see the Big Beasts circling each other, watching the pulsing jugular veins on each other's necks and waiting for the right moment to lunge.
'Do you know where I'm going on Monday?' said Campbell, hiding a snarl behind a smile.
'Where, darling?' she replied, wondering if she'd left the children in the gingerbread oven.
'Your old hunting ground,' he replied.
'And yours,' she replied, and I felt a cold hand clutch my heart as I witnessed the two predators acknowledge each other, like old foes. Terrifying.

Of course, the alleged highlight of this week was the visit to number 10. Much has been written about this already, and I don't think that, educationally, it was particularly significant; it was a school trip- the kids were all seemingly well behaved, and the person who ended up being cheekiest to the majesty of the state was Campbell himself, when he crowed at George Osborne as he signed autographs, 'He has to go now and cut your mum's benefits,' with a dragon's smile. Compared to that (and what a joy it was to witness Osborne's pique), having their shirts hanging out (which they nearly all were) and chewing gum (Harlem, of course) was pretty small beer.

Of course, Cameron made mince meat out of them, because just being drop outs didn't mean that they were articulate or actually confident enough to take the old Etonian Ogre on in his cave, where all his power came from. Besides, if they had japed about like idiots then I imagine it wouldn't have taken much persuading for an SAS marksman to waste a bullet or two in the name of national security. ('Who the FUCK you think you are, Daniel Carmeron, fuckin' Prime Minister FUCK.' Bang!)

There was one missed opportunity, though; when Jourdelle started the conversation with D-Cam by asking 'How many GCSEs do you think we, as a collective group, have?' The Great Satan dodged the bullet with practised ease. I was praying for him to snap, lean back in his chair, pick at a nail absent-mindedly and say, 'Oh, I dunno. None? Fuckin' waste men.'

But Jamie's still not happy. 'There are still a couple of them we've let down,' he says, mournfully, as if a million pounds of free, Disneyland education somehow wasn't enough of a gift for his crew. There are many things we should all feel guilty for, but believe me, Jamie, this isn't one of them. I think we can officially say that you tried. Honestly, don't beat yourself up. Try being a teacher, and watching kids leave every year with less than they could have achieved. You never learn to like it, but you learn that you can't save the whole world; and sometimes you can't even save the bit right in front of you, not if it doesn't want to be saved.

As everything has a beginning, so too must it contain the seeds of its own demise. The students were all given scholarships- of course. No matter what they had done, they all won the first prize. Which begs the question; why should they bother? Seriously- if no effort and every effort are greeted with the same reward, then why should people struggle? I believe Marxism wrestles with this same basic problem. I don't begrudge them for a second, as long as we appreciate that this isn't education, this is a birthday party, where everyone leaves with a bag of goodies.

And so, back to the real world. How did our class of 2011 do? Well, as can be expected, with everyone winning access to the scholarship funds, everyone had a chance to buy themselves back into education. Out of the twenty young guns, Nanakwame got a conditional offer to Uni, Angelique, Aysha, Laytoya, Carl, Jourdelle, went back to taking GCSEs and BTECs, Jenny and Michael found spots in Jamie's restaurants, Georgia went to the London School of Photography (motto: we will take your money, cheers), Connor and Danielle went for courses with the National Youth Theatre and are looking for portals into acting, Chloe enrolled at the Jemma Kidd School of Make Up, and so on. Oh yes, and Jamal is 'hoping' to take a course in make-up, so at least he doesn't want for ambition.

Nothing wrong with all that, and quite a lot right, of course. Did going to Dream School make a difference? The scholarship certainly did- money opens a lot of doors. And of course, being exposed to different careers and life experiences is invaluable for helping a teenager find direction. But school already does that- the difficulty is that most of the teenagers who don't 'get the benefit' from school can't see that at the time.

'Why...can't ...she go?'
And that's not the fault of school. It's not the fault of a system that doesn't care. It's not the fault of the mysterious 'they' that Harlem blames for her every discomfort. It's their own fault. The blame has to stop somewhere. Don't blame the world for your own lack. Encouraging the attitude that nothing is ever our fault is one of the key reasons these lovely children have ended up where they are. The end credits informed us that 8 of the Dream Students had been given professional mentors from Ingeus and Deloitte. Who they? A 'provider of employment-related support duties', according to their website, in partnership with...the Jobcentre. 'Helping the long term unemployed get back into the world of work,' to paraphrase their website.

The ones that grasped the opportunity (like Danielle, like Jourdelle, like Jenny and a few others) absolutely deserve the doors that open in response to their enthusiasm and character, and good luck to them all.

A final couple of differences between Dream School and Real School

Look closely at the credits: how many schools do you know that have a paramedic? Or TWO food stylists? Or indeed a clinical psychologist? No bloody teachers, mind you. Why on earth would you need them? And if you're wondering where all the dosh came from to fund, among other things, Robert Winston's Frankenstein experiments, or Jayne Ponter's Biosphere, look no further than a £30K grant from the Wellcome Trust. Which is nice, all that money, isn't it? PS, loved it when at the end of Winston's last science lesson, they all went up and bumped him, and someone obviously asked if he was coming to the end of term party. 'Oh, I'll be in China by then,' he muttered. Yeah, mate, I say that kind of thing too. 'Sorry, I'm in China then,' I say.

And finally

This was, start to finish, a total blinder. Mr Oliver, I salute you. And to Storm Theunissen, the series producer, I salute your fabulous name. As a school, this institution wouldn't last five minutes. But as a profile raiser for the NEET generation, it was gripping. I think we should see the Dream School for what it was- an extended internship, rather than a school of any real kind. I hope Oliver continues it; this time he can cut out the middleman (the series, the school) and just create his own scholarship system for kids like Danielle who have missed out on education through no fault of their own and really deserve a second chance. Or maybe he'll go ahead with his own Free School, as he's mused in the Nationals. After this experience, he certainly couldn't do worse than many others, and probably a lot better than many.

'Nah, mate. I'll be in bleedin' China, innit?'
It'll be hard for me to let Dream School go; I have slavishly watched every minute of it. And I have to admit, I absolutely loved it. As I said in a previous post, not because I think it offers any real new solutions to the educational crisis (it doesn't) or that it has improved in any way on what already goes on in thousands of good schools up and down the country (it hasn't). It has almost no lessons to teach the teaching profession because we have to teach children exactly like Harlem and Angelique and Connor every day of our lives. And like ER doctors, we can't save them all.

We try our best, teach them what we can, and cross our fingers. That's the nature of a national school sector. It can't be tailored to every child, because we don't have the time or money. It can't indulge their every whim, because not only do we still not have the time and money, to do so would actually be harmful to them. So we reprimand and we reward; we set boundaries, we encourage, we lead, we educate, we try to set an example, and sometimes we blush with pleasure when caterpillars turn to butterflies. The point of education isn't to teach them that life owes them a living: it's to teach them everything we know about the world and hope that they make a good job of running it before they pass on what they know to their children.

We are the custodians of our planet. Teachers, parents, and a million other professions are the stewards of our cultures, our technologies, our successes and failures. Jamie Oliver has, yet again, done a huge service to everyone by raising the profile of education, and bravely attempting to see if there are any ways to get everyone on the bus. It's not possible- there will always be people who fail, as everyone fails from time to time. There will always be people who fall through the cracks. And of course it is perfectly right to try to keep helping more and more, in the hope that we can make a difference. But we shouldn't claim that, because the system isn't perfect, it must be broken. Actually it's not. It runs pretty well, for the most part. And until people themselves are perfect, we have to live in a world where not everyone comes first.

Thanks to everyone who made this series.

And a last word to Harlem.

'Fuck!'

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Jamie's Dream School 6: Not everyone gets to fly the plane.

'I'm really worried about my portfolio
I wonder if the program makers were aware that this week's episode ('No Child Left Behind') was named after the 2001 Act of Congress that required all states to provide standardised tests if they wanted to qualify for federal funding. As Charles Murray put it, 'The law of the land is that every child is to be above average.' If they were, then they have a strange way of matching title to content; this week we saw the continuation of the project's commitment to reinventing school to re-engage twenty Prima Donnas and Desperados through a combination of no perceivable rules, bottomless resources, celebrity supply teachers and a legitimised smoker's corner (hardly makes it worth bothering with then, doesn't it? Don't worry, they still find the energy to 'engage' with their Benson and Hedges).

This week saw the abyss of reality start to peek through the blinds, like dawn rising in Transylvania, and even Jamie acknowledged he was worried about what was going to happen to them after Dream School threw its mortar board in the air. It's episode 6, and Jamie's been thinking.

'I'm worried that the basic problem is behaviour.'

Nora brings it.
And the Prodigal Son comes home. After watching his twenty Charlies huff and mince and scowl at the privation of luxury, celebrity, personalised education for the past month, you'll have to forgive me for pointing out that this gun has been smoking since the minute Harlem first opened her gob to say something undoubtedly angry and self-justifying. ('Harlem, could you pass me the salt?' 'No way, I'll fuckin' lay you out right here, salt, fuck you salt, the FUCK you sayin' salt shit to me for I'll lay you out I fuckin' will...'). Of course it's behaviour that's the key problem here. Not their particular point on the spectrum of dysfuntionality, not the deprivation or the construction of their families, not the way they're being taught, not whether the teacher 'gets them' or 'understands them,' not whether their needs are being met, or the lessons are fun enough, or long enough, or short enough, or taught in a field, in a biosphere, in the Globe or at the top of Pen Y Fan by someone who 'really, really believes in them.'

None of that matters, none of it is essential- in fact in the wrong proportions, some of it is actually harmful. No, the single biggest axiom of student success is how they behave in the room. If they won't sit reasonably still, listen reasonably well and follow reasonable instructions, then you have nothing; nothing at all. Call it manners, call it social skills, call it anything you want- that's the first, the last, the everything of being able to teach students. And every teacher realises it the first time they walk into a room of kids who, believe it or not, would prefer not to do calculus or read The Grapes of Wrath.

Some try to sidestep this problem by claiming that the structure of the classroom and schools themselves cause this bad behaviour- that if children were only allowed to guide their own education then their natural curiosity and love of learning would lead them to academic excellence. This is, of course, mentalism of the highest order, brought to you by such goons as the American theorist John Dewey, in what I can only assume was some kind of belated revenge for the War of Independence.

It's behaviour.Crack that, and you have a chance. Crack it not, and it'll crack you.

Bring on the Dinner Ladies

So what does Jamie do after this epiphany? After all, his Head Master seems to be allergic to issuing sanctions (I'd like to point out that Harlem got two days at home for the accumulation of aggression and intimidation she wages each week. That'll teach her), so where do we go from here? Of course, there's only one thing for it- get a dinner lady to teach them cooking. Brilliant. And not just any old dinner lady, Nora , last seen scowling in Jamie's School Dinners series. (Incidentally I love how she was introduced at first as just 'Nora', indicating a level of familiarity and celebrity enjoyed only by Madonna, Squiggle and Bianca from Eastenders. Even Lady Gaga has a title).

Of course, the presence of a middle aged woman with an accent shouting at them about how untidy they were didn't exactly transform anyone's lives. And why should it? I'm sure she's a fine, competent woman, but at the risk of repeating myself throughout my reviews (I prefer to call it a theme) she's not a trained teacher. None of them are. Every week we have a non-teaching Assistant Head, a non teaching, teaching staff, all scratching their heads and saying, 'Golly, they seem to be mucking about.' You don't bloody say.

Do people think that teachers just turn up, juice up the Interactive Whiteboard, and play DVDs until the bell rings? It appears that this is, indeed, how our profession is perceived, and the blame can probably be laid at a number of doors- successive education ministries run by people who have never actually been involved in education in any meaningful way, a decline in adult authority, a growing suspicion that adult authority (upon which the teacher's role rests) is somehow coercive and evil. So I feel the need to get up from the sofa, waive my tiny fist and shout at the telly, 'We're teachers! It's a job! We deal with this kind of thing all the time!' It amazes me how people routinely have the balls to preach from the mountain top about anything in education, from curriculum to teaching styles, without any experience in the field at all, apart from having once been a student themselves. Teaching is a skill, a craft, and a field; it may surprise some people, but we have actually dealt with rudeness, apathy, aggression and disruption before. Seriously, we have.

And they're prepared to do so because everyone thinks it's a piece of piss. Really, they must do, because you don't get many people phoning up NASA and saying, 'Nah, mate, you want to differentiate your electron resonance a bit more if you want to find a super particle. Long wave variable interference? On a Monday? You're 'avin a laugh!' If you want your boiler fixed, call a plumber. Want somebody taught? Call a _______ (I'll let you fill that bit in, in an exciting new teaching style designed to exploit your curiosity, activate your left hemisphere and develop your emotional literacy).

I'm your Personal teacher: Reach out and touch me

Next week's Head of Maths.
Anyway. The other theme (as the title suggests) is 'reaching' the students who haven't 'engaged' yet. I don't know what all this 'reaching' fuss is- they're right there, on camera, having fags, sulking, swearing whenever they can't think of anything else to say, and describing everything as 'boring'. See? I could reach them in a second. Georgia and Rikki exemplify this charming position I can only describe as amoebic. Rikki appears to have a bit of a breakthrough (and I use that term very loosely, in a way that is only visible through an electron microscope) later on when he actually manages to write two hundred words for his mission statement (which bizarrely enough isn't actually a mission statement, but a rather uninspiring explanation to future employers that his GCSEs are a bit rubbish. But, small victories, eh, Daley?)

Georgia (or at least her TV edit) starts off apathetic and manages to shred every drop of viewer sympathy as she goes along by her petulant, casual egocentrism; with two days to go, she bugs her biddable mother to take her home, and plants her ass in the family car. She won't budge, and refuses to come out. (I should point out that she's already had her confrontation with D'Abbs- 'I don't have time to deal with this, Georgia,' he said, channelling John Rambo and Oliver Cromwell, before walking away. That'll teach her).

'I want to be happy, and if I stay there, I won't be happy. I'm going to stay in this car until you take me home and you can have that on your conscience. Well fucking done.'

This, to her mother.
While she has a fag.
In the car.

The words National and Service sprang to mind, unbidden. So Mum takes her home, and Georgia drops off the radar, hopefully forever, unless she reincarnates as some kind of avatar of apathy and peevishness.

Jamie receives the (suspiciously and conveniently filmed) news from Alastair Campbell that the kids can come to 10 Downing Street to meet D-Cam (is this a last minute attempt to apply sanctions? Sorry), but because this is vaguely the real world, he says that he won't take any that are going to embarrass him. I like that- the understanding that inside the bubble biosphere of the Dream School, the kids can have an infinite number of chances, but step one millimetre outside onto the pavement and you're lucky enough to get one chance, let alone a fistful, and blowing an opportunity leaves you with nothing but regret, not a chat with D'Abbs and a sad face from Jamie. Speaking of whom, Basher D'Abbs comments to Jamie, 'This is what we dreamed about...that we need to make some changes in our education system...and this is our best opportunity.'

I don't know what changes he's talking about, but if it involves schools with no consequences, no sanctions or punishments, based entirely on rewards and praise and forgiveness, where pupils can do as they like in the hope that one or two of them will descend from their marble roosts and allow themselves to be 'reached', then I can only hope that David Cameron has his Bullshit Sunglasses on the day they come for Tiffin.

No matter how hard you might want to.
After the Battle of Nora's Kitchen, Jamie sounds glum. 'My first get tough measure hasn't worked,' he says, as I rub my eyes and wonder if I missed it. And Nora provides some of the best lines of the program:

'They think someone owes them something. You've brought them into a lovely world and it don't exist.'

She's a wise one, that Nora- she's the first one to express the plain, unvarnished truth; that it isn't school that's failed these kids. For a variety of reasons, they've failed school. That doesn't make them write-offs, or untouchables, or chaff, or vermin. It makes them human. And humans make mistakes and get on with it. Some of them have. Many of them haven't, and have blown Dream School in exactly the same way they did Real School. Jamie acknowledges this when he admits to them that he sees 'patterns' in their behaviour that holds them back. Yes, it's called character. How many chances does someone get before we admit that it isn't more chances that some people need; it's the ability to reflect on what failure means, and what they're going to do about it.

The new celebrity teacher this week is David Templeman Adams, the businessman and explorer (it says here) who takes them off to do a bit of climbing through South Wales. They display the reluctance of condemned men on their way to the gallows, and Georgia decided it was all shit and pointless before she took a step. Mind you, that appears to be her default opinion for anything unexperienced, so I imagine it's a pretty crowded category of event for her.

DTA drags them up the hill, and hearteningly enough, they like it when they get to the top. The point of this jolly is to teach them the value of something that takes effort to achieve, which is fair enough, but it takes more than a weekend in Wales to drill that kind of message home- it requires living it, reflecting upon it, and assimilating it into your attitude. Still, it's worth a try. And I must say, having helped run Duke of Edinburgh camping expeditions for a few years, it's always worth a chuckle when you see kids packing for a walk up the Welsh mountains with hair straighteners and two-litre bottles of Pepsi. Wait until their Skittles run out.

Angelique (who apparently covets Harlem's tiara for unconcealed rage and venom) behaves herself on the trip, leading Jamie to say, 'This is the Angelique we want to see- Jekyll, not Hyde'. But that's the problem- these aren't two people; these are two parts of an integrated whole. We don't scold 'bad' Angelique and praise the good one- and we certainly can't separate the behaviour from the person. Actions flow from character; they are integral to each other.

'I got a bigger mention here than on the box.'
Poor old Michael Vaughan; Captain of the England Cricket Team for several years, and all he gets is ten seconds of telly time at the Dream School. Presumably nobody stormed out of his lessons or told him to f*ck off.

More successful, of course, is Cherie Booth Blair (nee Sauron) who gets another bite of the cherry this week. Possibly because her voice is hoarse (presumably from swallowing whole children that got lost in the Enchanted Woods, or gargling holy water), she reverts to the lazy teacher standby of 'having a debate' (we've all done it. Well. Maybe not in maths). Only, this being dream school, the guest speaker isn't just any old rentagob from the local council. No, it's John, who apparently took an axe to his landlady and spent time in the Big House for his trouble. How absolutely charming.

What makes John even more interesting is that he's a man with a mission now. Not for him the mundane life of a serial axe murderer, oh no. Now he campaigns for prisoner's rights, and Cherie's brought him in to host a discussion on lag voting ('John went to prison for manslaughter, and when he was there he didn't think it was right that he was denied the vote,' said Cherie, apparently without irony. Poor John. Life is so unfair in prison, isn't it?).

The debate ended with Cherie hurriedly summing up a slim majority against Prisoner Voting Rights. 'So this is an issue that doesn't have a right or wrong answer,'  she said. Which is the kind of soft-headed, wishy washy thinking that makes people distrust lawyers and all vile creatures generally. No right answer, is there? How terribly, fashionably post modern. It's all a matter of opinion, isn't it? A bit like the idea that anyone can teach, and subject content isn't as important as learning emotional skills and such- it's all a matter of opinion, isn't it? I shudder at such moral and physical relativism, and education shudders.

We finished the week with a nice cup of tea and all the parents. Angelique blew a gasket at Alastair Campbell, who took it in his stride and said, 'No skin off my scales; off you pop,' or words to that effect. You have to hand it to him; he may have been partially instrumental in genocide, but he'd make a terrific classroom teacher. And I'm serious about that. Gobby little shrews like Angelique and Harlem don't even register on his radar.


'One-legged arse kickers...hmm..'
It's nearly the end of the Dream for the kids. The experiment lurches from comedy to comedy, but I (unlike many people blogging, tweeting and writing in the edusphere) still hold Mr Oliver in high esteem. It's brilliant that he's got so many people talking about these issues. But as he himself admits 'School is about engaging children- ALL children- and there are still children slipping between the gaps in MY school.' That's him, slowly realising that ambition, compassion and enthusiasm aren't enough to get everyone learning if they really don't want to. 

God knows what I'll blog about when it finishes.

Quotes of the week:


'My head feels totally clear- you don't think about anything.' Emma, at the top of Pen-Y Fan, not realising that you don't have to climb 2000 metres in order to achieve that state of bliss, not at Jamie's Dream School.


'I'm not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed.' Angelique, racing up my charts.

Monday, 4 April 2011

British Children 'bad losers', claims survey by people who want to sell you something.

'Leave me! Save yourself!'
An article on today's BBC Education portal highlights the no doubt vertiginous decline in the average school child's ability to lose gracefully or, indeed, to win gracefully. I wonder how they came up with a sufficiently large data set to arrive at this conclusion, given that school sports days appear to have gone the way of the Daily Sport and vanished from most school's year planner, on the basis that the very rumour of competition will have less physically able children curled up in a foetal ball of misery and self-loathing akin to a diabetic fit.

But given that they actually found enough children who were allowed to actually compete with one another, the findings seem, on the surface, to be a cause for concern.

'Two-thirds of parents of eight to 16-year-olds said their children reacted badly when they lost, the poll found.
A further two-thirds of respondents said parents behaved badly when watching children's matches.
Some 1,008 parents and 1,007 children aged eight to 16 were questioned for the survey by Opinion Matters.'

How awful. And, I'm sure, quite true, quite true. Still, it always gets my whiskers twitching when I see survey findings being posted slavishly as headlines, despite the cowardy-custard get-out of putting it in between two lazy apostrophes to indicate a possible lack of veracity. Try ''David Cameron wears tights,' an unnamed source claimed last night.' The writer gets the neon headline, the reader gets mauled by a grisly, unforgettable image, and all is well, except for the reader's orientation to any actual truth claims. So, how firm is this piece of educational news?

'After you.' 'No, after you.'
Well, it's been conducted by Opinion Matters. Who they? Well, if you're Marks and Spencers, or Vitabiotics ('where nature meets science!') you'll know all about them. They're an 'independent' market research company (what does independent even mean in this kind of context? It seems to mean, 'will work for money') who, as their website proudly says, 'make it our priority to aid our clients to generate headlines and create coverage that highlights and reinforces their branding and key messages in media.' In other words, they conduct research that will get their clients into the press. You'll have seen this kind of thing many, many times before- have a look at the Vitabiotic link above, where they advise the client that a survey or two- a bit of science- will get lazy journalists writing about the product, even though the survey in question relies on 'perceptions' and subjective opinions. So they're used to dealing with sensitive subjects with impartiality and rigour. So far, so good.  Have a look at the website. How do they sleep? (As Don Draper would say: 'On a bed of money.')

And who commissioned the research from these paragons of objective investigation and veracity? Surely not the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Cricket Foundation? It certainly was. One might reasonably ask why such caryatid columns of sportsmanship and integrity are interested in finding out how badly Britain's youth react to winning and losing. Perhaps they're just curious.
 Or perhaps not. As we discover buried away in the legendary bowels of the article (which you get a chocolate biscuit if you're still reading by that point) is the golden nugget that these august bodies have recently started 'offering sportsmanship lessons to state schools'. So, no financial or commercial interest in this research at all. Still, at least the researchers were independent. Somehow.

The data says ______.
So there we have it: a story based on research commissioned by bodies who have a vested interest in the findings, conducted by people who are delighted to make sure that the findings are found, and published uncritically as fact by a public body funded by the license fee. The sad thing is that I probably have a lot of love for the Cricket Foundation. (I mean, it's the Cricket Foundation, for God's sake.) And the idea that children should be more sporting. And the idea that engaging kids with good role models in sport might be a good idea. It's just as charmless as Liberace to see it all stirred into the same cauldron, sold as fact, and served up as news. I think we all deserve a bit better than that.