Saturday, 28 January 2012

Teacher Voice: we need more than #askgove. Teachers need to speak up

I'm warning you
Have you heard of Student Voice? Of course you have. If you haven't been interviewed by a twelve year old, or sat in the stocks of a 360 degree performance management assessment while your more feral EBD customers pelt you with mouldy tubers, then you, my friend, teach on the Moon.

Have you heard of Parent Power? Stupid question; when they aren't demanding to know why their children haven't completed their A-level in Further Maths in year 7, setting up a Free School, or crucifying you with league tables, they're logging onto the new 'Rat on a school' website designed specifically for people with personality disorders and bleak, flavourless lives to bleed their neuroses online while cry-w*nking into a sock.

Have you heard of 'Teacher Voice', the bold new initiative launched by the DfE to create a representative body that regularly polls and consults acting teachers, asking them about issues of pedagogy, how children best learn, what needs to happen in schools, classroom design, etc.?

NO YOU HAVEN'T UNLESS YOU LIVE INSIDE MY MIND. That's because it doesn't exist. Everyone BUT teachers has a megaphone in the meetings where nuts and bolts are cast. We don't even get an invite.

I am put in mind of this point because of the #askGove project that is currently lighting up the switchboards of Twitter like a pinball machine. It's an attempt, it says here, for the education select committee to get the views of teachers, ahead of  a meeting with G-Diddy on Tuesday. Well, excuse me for pissing on your camp-fire of I AM LISTENING, but what on EARTH is this designed to prove? We can send him questions any time we like already. Does anyone seriously think that all their questions are being put, as we tweet, into a big sack, and the Education Select Committee will rummage round it, arm deep like Jimmy Saville, and pluck out something to ask M-Gove? 'Now then, now then, here's a question from Beth from Middlesbrough, and she'd like to know if you've ever gone full pelt with a tranny. Minister?'

I SUSPECT THIS IS NOT A THING THAT WILL HAPPEN. No, what will happen is that they ask the questions that they wanted to ask anyway, and use any goddamn data they fancy from the #askgove pool of tweets to justify their interrogation. It isn't an exercise in listening, it's exactly the opposite; it's an exercise in appearing to listen, which as we all know from classrooms is ANNOYING AS HELL. It's also deceptive, and patronising.

Who devises policy? Who decides how best children learn? Who works out if class sizes are important or not? Who creates systems of assessment? Who says if a subject, a skill, a project is workable, or a laboratory Frankenstein, engineered in a Petri-dish of good intentions? Everyone BUT us. Now does that sound sensible to you? It doesn't sound sensible to me. In fact, it sounds perverse. It sounds like education is the ball everyone wants to play with, and the ones who actually do...you know, the educating thing....are the ones most removed from its design and execution. Isn't that odd?

In the Land of the Deaf, the big-eared man is King.
It is my mission in life, because I am on a mission, to wade through the slurry and the offal of guano that rains on us like Satanic Manna every day, wave my tricorder at it, and decide one thing: good idea in the classroom or bad? Most of what showers down on us that was decided solely in a department of education, a cabinet meeting, a pow-wow with speech writers and focus groups, falls fairly and squarely into the latter category. I have had it up to here *indicates a spot between nipple and chin* with False Prophets telling us, the experts, what works, and what doesn't.

We, as a profession, have been muzzled, fixed as neatly as any castrato. When  Ofsted ties its horse to the front gates and bowls in like Berty-Big-Balls, it consults the school leadership, the students, even the parents. How are teacher views taken into account? When, apart from the ballot box, when single issues conflate into a million others, are teachers asked to indicate their preferences for how they would like to teach, for how they think children learn, and what they think about the latest oh-boy initiative doomed to die, like mortal men in Middle-Earth?

Don't the Unions speak for us? Well, they have a different purpose these days, being focused more on pay and conditions- thanks for that, incidentally-than matters of pedagogy. They do act as a funnel for ideas and debate, but I don't think I'm ruffling any feathers here when I say that's not really what they're about any more. Also, their intrinsic aim of defending the lot of the teacher, while admirable in many ways, isn't the same thing as defending education itself, although it often identical. The GTC? The GTC is/ was a miserable embarrassment, because it could have been so much. It was meant to be a representative and regulatory body that ensured the profession was a profession. What it became also damned it; a punitive organ you only heard about when you had to cough up your fees so that you could receive a tatty circular sent to your previous address. Sometimes you heard about it when somebody got busted for downloading porn. It was the Vito Corloene of the quangos, awkward and unloved and it will not be missed.

'Oh we can HEAR you; we just don't have to GIVE a sh*t.'
And now there is nothing. The Schools Council, the GTC, all lost, like the library of Alexandria. Nobody speaks for us. Worse, we have even forgotten there is an us. We have lost consciousness. Never consulted, we now no longer even act surprised when we are not consulted. A generation of teachers have gone through the system who have never experienced what it feels like to question educational orthodoxies, who seem to be unaware that other orthodoxies, equally contestable, even exist. Teachers who have sat obediently through MAs and PGCEs who have never known anything other than the dogma of group work, of thinking skills, of learning hats, or levelled assessments, of value-added, of target grades and FFT, of green marking ink, of graded inspections, of skills-driven learning, of APP, personalised learning, AFL and positive behaviour management. We have become like the inhabitants of Huxley's World State in Brave New World, unable to conceive of other realities.

This situation will last as long as we permit it. We are legion because, of course, there are many of us. Every teacher needs to wake up; to remember that the duty they serve is greater than any directive or article of best practise. If you saw a child being man-handled on the street would you ignore it? I hope not. If you see a child's future being wrecked in an act of abstract abuse, should we look away. Worse; should we enable it? Of course not. Teachers, we need to speak up and tell people when they're doing it wrong. You have every right; YOU are the expert on education.

And what of the commentators, the Professors of Education, the advisers, the talking heads? They too have their place in the discussion on education. Their ideas are useful, and important too. For all the faults I sometimes paint, we need them to act as a check and balance on us, to detect the counter-intuitive flaws of the classroom, to advise and challenge. They also care about education, and often, they have skills we lack and need.  But that isn't what they are right now. Right now, they are the ruling class, the Alphas to our Gammas. We barely register on the RADAR of the war room. In the Secret Garden of Education, the gardeners are now absent, replaced by flower arrangers. Like bee-keepers; they want the honey, but they couldn't make it themselves. If ministers ran a hive, they would probably advise apiarists to wake the bees up with Radio 4 and warm air because 'research suggests honey production accelerates in these conditions.' Either that, or they would slice each tiny insect open, looking for the honey.

So from now on, I invite you to remember that you have a teacher voice. We are the only missing guest at the party; in fact, there isn't even a seat for us.

Teacher Voice Manifesto:

  1. Realise we are a marginalised group.
  2. Admit that we know most about what happens in classrooms
  3. If educational research contradicts classroom experience, and the shared experience of your peers, then defer its acceptance until the research has been explored and reviewed 
  4. Speak. Up. Raise your voice at every staff meeting; email the HELL out of people with whom you disagree.
  5. Ask for explanations of every policy you feel is damaging and dangerous to children
  6. Raise your points with line management, governors, anyone you feel needs to know.
  7. Seek positions where you can influence policy yourself.
  8. Discuss and debate and defend your experience in every arena, virtual and solid, from chat-rooms to the staffroom.
  9. Always stay focussed on what we should be doing- educating children to the best of our ability- rather than what you are told to do: for example, raising the school GCSE rates. Such things are extrinsic goals, incidental to our objectives.
  10. Campaign at all times for teacher views to be taken into account at every stage of interrogation and data sampling. Who conducts national surveys of what we think any more, unless they want to sell us something?
    'PERHAPS YOU CAN HEAR ME NOW, F*CKER?'

Brothers and sisters, boys and girls, it's time to crash the party.

Teacher Voice.

Teacher Voice.

TEACHER VOICE.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

League Tables: Teachers to blame for stupid people, new report shows.

The league tables are out, and everywhere education analysts and correspondants are spontaneously giving birth parthenogenetically in their scramble to sieve and distil evidence that justifies exactly what they already thought. You can almost hear the collective sigh, from Whitehall to the Western Isles, as people look at exactly the same figures, the same data, and deduce completely different conclusions. Fill in the blank: '___________ category of students did better/ worse then ________ category of students. This clearly shows ___________. Glasses will flip elegantly between half full and half empty for about a week, I should think. And then, like December the 26th, everyone will clear the wrapping paper away, after a bit of a scrap, and think exactly what they always did.

If ever you needed proof that decoding data was akin to reading the entrails of a butchered goose, then feast your eyes over the bloody giblets of the educational commentatori over the next week or so. Let me know when it's finished, because my philosopher's soul cannot bear the simultaneous, effortless prestidigitation that accompanies the assertion that academies are both the solution and desecration of education's young dream, that lollipops, group work and independent learning tasks result in exponential rates of value-added, and a million other axioms welded, unwillingly, unwittingly to the innocent, unassuming figures.

I'll leave that to my betters. What I will do is pick up on the first wave of analysis I walked into; this article on the BBC News website. It was comedy gold, and managed to commit about five out of my ten favourite lazy education journalism clichés that I wrote about here. YOU WOULD ALMOST THINK THAT PEOPLE DID NOT READ THIS BLOG AND IMMEDIATELY AMEND THEIR WRITING HABITS.

1.'Just one in 15 (6.5%) pupils starting secondary school in England "behind" for their age goes on to get five good GCSEs including English and maths, official data shows.'

The crux of this proposition seems to be the quite spectacularly unspectacular claim that many students who start off secondary school with low grades/ results/ reading ages (insert your barometer) often fail to dazzle the world with their understanding of Proust and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle by the time they leave, as measured by average GSCEs. So let me get this straight- are you implying that kids who aren't doing well/ aren't too bright in year 7, are often still not doing well/ aren't too bright by the time they leave school? WHATEVER NEXT? People who eat too many buns often more overweight than other people? Short kids become short adults? Who knew?

Another beautiful assumption is that this kind of thinking requires that we accept there is a level they should be at by that point. Of course, what this means is that there is a statistical mean that most have reached. Which means there will always be some above and below that magical intersection of the many and the few. If everyone reached that point, then...the point would simply be moved higher. The headline might as well have read 'not everyone above average' and stood back in awe at itself.

2. 'The government data published as part of secondary school league tables suggests the majority of schools are failing struggling pupils.'

OH THE DATA SUGGESTS THAT DOES IT? WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME OVER HERE AND SUGGEST THAT? OH BOY I HOPE YOU DO BECAUSE MY FRIEND I HAVE A NEW TYRE IRON I WANT TO TRY OUT.

We're failing them again! Failing, I tell you, failing! Man, that is fighting talk. Every time someone falls over, someone has failed them. When a patient dies on the table, did the surgeon fail? Or did they die? When I see a KitKat wrapper on the pavement, have the rubbish men failed? Is a mugging a failure of the police? It's raining today. Did Michael Fish fail? This absurd, utopian framework, where anything bad that happens is evidence that someone somewhere has failed is laughable. I particularly like how the definition of failure here is 'not making everyone smart,' 'Not getting everyone 5 A*-Cs' (which was itself a target plucked from the ether) and 'not ensuring everyone succeeds.' Jesus CHRIST but that is a high bar to hurdle.

And that was just in the first two sentences.

By the time they got to:

'As expected, those from disadvantaged backgrounds (classed as those on free school meals or in local authority care) do less well.'

...I gave up. My satire muscles are sore from straining. New bollocks, please. 




Monday, 23 January 2012

Crystal Bollocks 2: A response song


'An empire will rise in the East...Danny Adams in 11F will get a B...'
Remember Response Songs? They used to be big in the charts, when popular songs would be replied to; I believe the hippety-hoppers still do it quite a lot. I had my own experience in the form of  this blog (click here) by Mike Herrity, who has apparently been chewing on the issues raised in my recent blog on Value Added, and target setting in general . He did so in a such polite and thoughtful way; I must say, I wish that more people could hold a dialogue about education like this. A lot of the comments I get remind me of the sort of responses underneath online articles in the Daily Mail (‘time to end the great democratic experiment’ / ‘boil in the filth of your own excrement’ etc). So I thought I would do the same.

The first thing is to admit where I might have been clearer:

1. I conflated Contextual Value Added with Value Added. Value Added is a more general measure of absolute progress; contextual value added is the same, but taking into account the social and economic indicators I mentioned previously.  Now there are significant differences between these of course- but they both still rely on the same principles of comparison, and estimation of average outcome:

From the Dfe itself, a reminder that CVA and VA share most of the same DNA:

‘CVA is not very different from simple VA. The basic principle of measuring progress from the KS2 test to qualifications attained at KS4 remains the same. However, a number of other factors which are outside a school's control, such as gender, special educational needs, movement between schools, and family circumstances, are also known to affect pupils' performance. CVA therefore goes a step further than simple VA by taking these factors into account and thus gives a much fairer measure of the effectiveness of a school.’


'CVA is dead! Long live VA!'
See? We’re not so different, you and I, Austin Powers. So while I was playing hard and fast with the terms, I think my substantive point about its prognosticative powers remains, ie that it is a statistical estimate, and entirely devoid of predictive powers. As Mike points out, I am aware that neither CVA nor VA is intended to be used in a predictive way, not by the FFT, not by any serious statistician involved in its production.

But that's not the point: the point is that this is how the measures are used in schools. Believe me, most schools I work with DO use CVA and VA as methods for retrospectively evaluating school, department and classroom teacher performance. And they shouldn't. But they do. It's no good defending CVA/ VA by saying, 'ah but that's not what they're supposed to be used for.' They ARE used for that purpose. When Ofsted, or any other interested party comes in for an inspection tango, they don't look at your CVA/ VA and go, 'Let's just ignore this, shall we?' They get stuck into it, boots first, as a method of evaluating the school's performance. And teachers are called out on it. A mother might leave a credit card in the hands of a teenager 'for emergencies', but if the card is regularly maxed out in Top Shop and Nando's, then you'd think again about the strategy, just like I'd think again about how such data is disseminated.

2. CVA has been phased out, in response to the School White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, November 2010. Value Added is the current, new measure being reverted to. I hold my hands up to this one- serves me right for not keeping abreast, and it took a few kind people on Twitter to point it out. But like I say, Value Added still retains the intrinsic problems shared by CVA:

From the TES:

'The...review of the English exams system, conducted by Sir Richard Sykes and published this week, attacks the “implied precision” of CVA as “spurious”, which it says makes the measure “unfair” to schools, teachers, pupils and parents.
The review says it should be abandoned, along with value added, unless the “underlying validity to their methodology” can be proved. A leading academic said this week that it could take five years to develop a replacement measure....Professor Stephen Gorard, from Birmingham University, has warned about the dangers of the measure before it was even introduced. He said there was so much missing data and “measurement error” that the end result was a “nonsense”. “If the use of CVA continues I think there will come a time when it results in court a case,” he said.’


I don’t know Professor Gorard, but I likes the cut of his jib.

Other points:
No, I don't use wikipedia as a source to justify my arguments! In the case he refers to I thought the Tweeter was from abroad, and might just need direction to a brief explanation of the term. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, but like I say, it has no direct impact on the problems of CVA or VA.

He is so wise.
'What am FFT?' That was my darling writing style, not an error. See: Bizarro, Mongo from Blazing Saddles, Rudolf Steiner, et al. Oh, and I never implied that they are, like, 'the man', oppressing schools with their heavy data. They do what they do. They are entirely, I am sure, without spot or blemish. It's what happens to that data after it leaves their hands that I object to. They can sell it or give it away for all I care.

Mike Treadaway, Director of the FFT is 'horrified' at how schools use the estimates, you say? So am I! I don't blame him. But what people often fail to appreciate is that as soon as you issue estimates of what pupil x is statistically capable of achieving, using their peer group as a base line, then you ARE in the business of implying that a child should be reaching level Y. Trust me, if a pupil goes below the FFT estimate, you better believe that schools, parents and LEAs get on the blame bus. It's no good, saying, like Mr Spock, 'Ah, this child has defied the FFT estimate. How interesting.' No: it's clobbering time. Performance Management, SEFs (RIP), inspections, all lean on FFT data as gospel. This is how it's used in schools. That's why I think we need to cut up the credit cards.

One of my main problems with the concept of value added is that it’s a concept lifted directly from the market place: the difference between the sale price and the production cost per unit. It also refers to a feature of a product that goes beyond the standard expectation, like a car with a holder for a mug. It describes how a product increases in value as it goes along a production line.

What some schools see when they get data.
Now aren’t THEY lovely metaphors to use to describe the education of children? The answer’s no, incidentally. I mean, I get it, I understand what it’s trying to say, and there’s certainly some good in it- we all want to ‘add value’ to children- but the danger of metaphors lies in over-identifying the signifier with the signified. Education isn’t a commodity; a child isn’t a product. There are fundamental conceptual differences, and if someone doesn’t grasp that then they shouldn’t be in education.

An A isn't the target I set my children. It's the target I set for myself. The target I set for my children is that they try their damnedest, every time. Sure, for some kids that will mean I task them up differently, to meet their different needs. But the day I tell a kid I expect anything less than the best from them is the day I hang up my cardigan. They can get an A or they can get a D; as long as they- we both- tried our best. Run, Forrest, run!

The use of data in teaching is an interesting conversation; but the bean-counters have had their way for too long, and we have increasingly found that we now have a generation of teachers and school leaders who a) believe FFT data is predictive and b) have forgotten how to predict grades or set their own targets with confidence. It has been removed from the hands of the experts- the teachers, by people who are obsessed with accountability and market based models of education. 

The problem is that schools aren't factories where ball-bearings are made. And a large part of what we do defies the spreadsheet. Children don't learn in smooth, incremental gradients. They stall; they reverse. They leap forward; sometimes years later. We don't deliver parcelled units of knowledge or learning; we teach; they learn. The process is abstract, intangible at times, and often maddeningly defiant of metrification.

Just like people.


Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Bones Have Spoken: Is Value-Added Crystal Bollocks?

It's gospel, mate.
NICK GIBB  HAS HIS BALLS OUT TODAY! Calm down, major, his Crystal balls. Today's piñata is the Great Satan of Fischer Family Trust data, and the lesser demons of value-added and predicted grades, and boy am I going to beat the HELL out them.

He's- quite rightly- spoken out against the gamification of league tables, where schools, in an attempt to meet the success criteria dictated to them, put their shoulder to nothing but those criteria. Every teacher knows about this- intervention classes aimed at C/D borderline students; not entering the hopeless for final exams; press-ganging children into high-value BTECs for point score advantage, and so on. It's evil, but perhaps understandable when the stakes for schools are so high; let your slip show on the league tables, and you might as well load all six chambers of your gun with dum-dums and press the muzzle to your temple.

So what's the Funky Gibbon proposing? Stand easy citizens- schools will be exhibiting their Contextual Value Added scores from now on, not unlike a baboon, presenting its ghastly floral undercarriage. Gaze into the abyss, for it cannot be unseen.

Pick a Card...any card

Now I have a problem with CVA. Not me personally- my CVA is, thankfully, bulletproof, fireproof, and susceptible only to Kryptonite, and I only say that so you don't think I'm a bitter victim of its diabolic engines. I just don't think it's that useful. In fact, I think the way it's used, it's corrosive, and actively damages education.

In many ways picking a fight with predictions is an easy task, because I'm attacking the belief that we can tell what is going to happen about things that have not happened yet. Can you see where I might be going with this? Nobody can tell the future, not even with a great big telescope and all the data in the world. Not even then. While science has offered us many sweet meats and shiny trinkets in the fields of the natural world, it has yet to lift its petticoat in any meaningful way in the realm of something more stubbornly unpredictable: us. Human beings resist the reductive powers of physical determinism; we just won't do as we're told. This is why we are human, and not, say, a Meccano Set.

The problem is that schools are- now, at least- very much in the business of predicting the future. Why? Because..well, the simple answer is because Lucifer the Hoofed one rules this world, but that won't get me into the smart edu-blog clubs. The other answer is that we are required on an annual basis, to show that children have made good progress, not merely an A, or a B, but progress; that they have become smarter. The hope is that it's something to do with us. How do we show this? By comparing what they get to some notional projection of what they 'should' have obtained. And that's where the problems start.

If Little Davina or Limoncella start year 7 with a level 5 in English and Maths, then we know that's good- probably better than most of her peers. So you'd hope she'd leave with a bag full of A's at GCSE wouldn't you?

Your data manager, yesterday.
Most schools (and by most, I'm suggesting 100%) use Fischer Family Trust (FFT) or ALIS data to set targets for pupils. What am FFT? They're an organisation that sell data; they take the results of all the children in their data set, and then track the % of those children on, say, level 4 at the end of Key Stage 3, to see how many of them achieve an A or a B or a C at the end of their GCSEs. They then plot statistical projections of likelihood that Davina will get those grades.Sounds simple. On this level, it is. Then the problems start:

Here are SOME of the problems; I'll deal with more in a subsequent post:


1. Nobody but wizards can understand how CVA is calculated. Do you know how many factors are taken into account when constructing the predicted median for a school's grades? Here are, I think, the key ones:
  • pupils’ prior attainment
  • special educational needs;
  • English as an additional language;
  • pupil mobility;
  • age of pupils;
  • an ‘in care’ indicator;
  • ethnicity;
  • free school meals status; and
  • a measure of social deprivation.
These are then thrown into the tombola of certainty, the handle is turned, and the future is born, neat as an egg. When Einstein published his theory of Relativity, it was alleged (probably erroneously) that at that point, only a dozen men and women in the world could fully understand it. The number is even smaller for CVA calculus. It is a done deal; the High Priests have spoken, and we must genuflect to the wisdom of the ancients. I'm not saying they're lying or anything, I'm just saying I have a gut mistrust for any pupil prediction that can be obtained with NO KNOWLEDGE of the pupil whatsoever. This ties into my next point:

2. It's de-professionalises the whole role of the teacher. Excuse me? You want to say what one of my students is probably going to get this year....and you haven't even met them? You say that you DON'T sit in the classroom with them every day, working with them, talking to them, marking their books and correcting their mistakes? Well I do. I know my students. I can see their potential. I have my own data set I base predictions on, and it isn't one I can write down or reduce to an algorithm. It's in my mind, and my gut, and it's part of what being a teacher is about. My contempt for the practise of reducing children to points on a scatter graph is endless and bottomless. It could boil iron.


3. They're NOT predictions. I can't emphasise this one enough. EVEN THE FFT DOESN'T THINK THEY'RE PREDICTIONS. They are wise, the wizards of the Fischer Family. This is a common problem: often, research is published in any field, with sensible, delicate, cautious conclusions, only for the recipients (in this case, politicians, journalists and school leaders) to go OH BOY LOOK AT THESE COOL PROPHECIES WRITTEN BY THE WIZARDS IN THE MOUNTAIN. THESE ARE OMENS FOR SURE LOOK THE BONES HAVE SPOKEN.

Here's what the FFT actually have to say:

'The FFT Data Analysis project produces ESTIMATES of likely attainment. The estimates are calculated for each pupil and, from these, school and LA estimates are calculated. They are called estimates – not predictions or targets – because they provide an estimate of what might happen if your pupils make progress that is line with that of similar pupils in previous years.'
NOT predictions. NOT targets. That's because they're professionals, who are more than aware that we cannot tell the future. They're statistical guesses; they're probability fields; they are the statistical equivalent of saying that Summer will probably be hotter than Winter, but we don't know if it'll rain today or not. The comparison with the weather is appropriate: we know what water is; we know what heat is; we know what pressure is; but the enormous density of causal factors makes weather forecasting impossible for more than a few hours in the future. The Met office gave up long-term forecasts a long time ago. And humans, as I repeatedly point out, are a Hell of a lot more complex than a damp bag of warm gas in Brownian motion. (Most of them- I saw TOWIE once)
'What band should we use, oh omniscient one?'

So when the FFT says that a given child is estimated a B at GCSE, based on prior attainment data, once social and circumstantial factors have been accounted for, what does it mean?

Almost nothing. Almost nothing.

What it means is that many children with similar socio-economic and attainment levels achieved that grade. So what? Most children in Mozart's street didn't grow up to write The Magic Flute, but he did. Most children from Omaha, Nebraska didn't grow up to lead a black consciousness movement, but Malcolm X did. I taught a kid who scraped a C in bottom set RS, who scored a U in AS, and then an A at A2. The human spirit is a genie; it is absurd, noetic, a screaming eagle of ambition and indeterminacy. It is a ghost, a comet, a nuclear furnace of optimism and ambition and impossibility. It is also a disappointment; the anti-life, failure snatched from the jaws of victory. House prices can go up as well as down. That is what makes being alive so glorious and terrifying.

I have a knowledge of my children's predicted grades that approaches telepathy, because I know my subject and I know my kids. But every year I am knocked sideways by kids who exceed my expectations and those who ridicule them. Nobody can predict the future. Guesses are fine, but let's admit that's what they are.

Guesses.

Let's stop pulverising children with our bureaucratic assumptions about their potential. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be told by your teacher that your prediction is a D?

F*ck. That.

You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That's the target I set myself, and if I don't get it, well, I try again next year. I don't cry into my coffee, I just try again.

Here's a thing: what does it even mean to 'aim for a C, or a B'? Have you ever seen a kid revise, and try to get a B? It's nonsense. Kids try as hard as they can/ can be bothered, to get the best grade they can. If you set a child to run 100 metres, and they really bash their guts out on it, can you imagine asking them, 'What speed were you going for?' No. They just run. They just run. Target setting has become the fetish of 21st century teaching. It is another ravenous, ridiculous imported imaginary animal from the paradigm of the market place, where ambitions are plucked from the air- and they are- and called 'predictions', when they should be called 'hopes'.

When I worked for the Great Satan of commerce, every year our units were given sales targets to reach. Meeting them, would ensure we survived. Failing to meet these targets was an assured spell in the cooler. The targets were usually 'Last year's sales, plus 5%'. Brilliant. How long did you think it took for them to come up with that?

Aggregating outta Here

The market has infected the classroom, and I use the word infect carefully. It is a sickness that cuts down children, teachers and learning. It is already absurd that the economic model is predicated on infinite expansion, in a world that is plainly finite; it is doubly absurd to do so in a room full of children, nenulus and spectral a commodity as you can imagine, in an environment where they are learning, an abstract multiplied by an abstract. The Data Oracles pretend they are dealing in beans, when they are counting intangibles. They are trying to catch a fairy tale with an iron claw.

I have no idea what they have in their nets. But it isn't real.

I'm not finished with you, CVA *looks sternly at it*. Keep looking over your shoulder.

UPDATE: In response to some comments to this blog post, I've added another supplementary post to it here. I haven't changed this blog, because I think the discussion makes more sense if I jes' leave it as it is.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Newsnight, and the Dark Arts of Exclusion


'Right- MANAGED MOVE'
Did you see Newsnight? DID YOU SEE NEWSNIGHT on Monday? It had a feature about Academies, and how they are linked to the DARK ARTS. Not, as you suspect, a reference to the Hogwarts curricular black hole into which new staff would annually tumble (sorry, that was DEFENCE against the Dark Arts), but a way to describe how academies seem to exclude a lot more strudents than LEA controlled state schools, with the implication that there's monkey business afoot.

The presenter said that, 'The most vulnerable pupils’ are at risk of being managed out of the system, sacrificed for the league tables. It’s funny that when people outside of education say the phrase 'vulnerable’ they often seem to mean the kids who write C*NT on the corridor walls and spit on each other. Vulnerable. Yeah, that’s what I think when I see them. They’re vulnerable. What bizarre dimension are these people from? When I hear non-teachers use words like that I feel a bit awkward, like when someone you think is nice uses a racial slur, or like when a child says, 'Is fire hot because it's angry?' and you go 'Aww, they don't get it, but it's sweet.'

It’s a great story: we have a favoured government initiative; we have a desperate need for that initiative to appear successful; and we have evidence that in order to obtain this evidence, such schools are prepared to sacrifice children on the altar of self-advancement. The BASTARDS.

But the whole piece was as empty as the inside of an atom, completely without substance. It was one of the oddest, and least informed pieces I have ever seen on Dame Newsnight. Let me be clear, I have no pro-academy axe to grind; they have advantages and disadvantages, like any initiative. They are neither the solution nor the cause of education’s ills. But this was Hogwarts-wash.

'When shall we three meet again?' 'Depends on the grading'
Here are the home truths about this situation; this is what really goes on in schools, not the partial perspective of the dilettante:

1. Schools hate to exclude pupils permanently. Why? Because it makes them look terrible. One of their success criteria, expressed through the medium of Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. This is based on the idea that a school with high exclusion rates must have really bad behaviour OR be really bad at dealing with behaviour. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the truth. A school might have high exclusion rates because it has really difficult children in its locus, and in order for the school to function, there might be a high number of exclusions;  imagine an area of high crime- you’d expect more arrests, more sentencing, etc. It isn’t pretty, but that’s the way the world is.

Except that’s not the way some people see it. High exclusions bad, they bah, which means you’re a bad school. So the most obvious things that schools now do to improve their AAA rating with Ofsted is...they don’t exclude. It’s as simple as that. If excluding kids gets them into hot water with the LEA or Ofsted, then exclude they jolly well won’t. If this sounds brainless, it’s because it is. It is not unlike tutting that crime rates are awfully high...so let’s get those bloody figures down by not arresting people. Crime rate down, job done! Oh dear, someone appears to have stolen my car. Doctor doctor, it hurts every time I do this; well, don’t do it then.

2. Permanently excluding is nearly impossible. Do you know how much paperwork has to occur before a child can be permanently excluded? LET ME TELL YOU IT IS A LOT. It is nearly impossible to exclude a child. Let me assure you that if a child is anywhere near being permanently excluded it is usually not because they have been misunderstood by a system that didn’t care. You have to tell a LOT of teachers to go fuck themselves to even get close. We are not talking about angels with dirty faces. You have to bring a whole drawer of knives in to start building up a charge sheet that will get you more than a few days out. Believe me.

3. If you can’t permanently exclude, what can you do? Well, you could temporarily exclude them. Much safer, and much easier to give them a few days in the ‘internal exclusion unit’ or whatever you call your isolation panopticon. Basically it means another room, out of regular classes, or perhaps a separate part of the school building. It’s part punishment, part rehabilitation, as they usually receive more one-to-one supervision and coaching.

4. What if you have a kid who hasn’t quite hit the permanent exclusion mark yet, but looks likely to get there? The ‘managed move.’ This is the Dark Art being criticised. It is VERY common in many schools- and I am setting my phasers to the whole state sector here-  as a way of nudging the process along- rather than a family and school fighting each other in the courts, or facing an exclusion on their record, the parent is persuaded that the child isn’t doing well at school, and might be better off having a fresh start somewhere else. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s an admission that things aren’t working. If you want to attach blame to that one, I’d start with the one pissing about in every lesson and telling their Head of Year to go f*ck themselves. I know, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Now, academies are in an interesting position. They don’t have to report to Ofsted for chocolate buttons so much. They’re freer to do as they please. SO OF COURSE THE’RE GOING TO EXCLUDE MORE THAN OTHER STATE SCHOOLS. I certainly would, if I had a school that wasn’t judged by such things, and the pupils deserved it.

'No come to me wid them aagiment deh. Chah!'
Because what’s at stake here is something more fundamental than just ‘are academies in league with Goody Gove’- what are exclusions for? And the answer is, to assist behaviour in schools. If a child has exhausted classroom behaviour management, and routinely exhausts the senior staff repertoire of tricks to avoid further mayhem, then the school must- MUST- reserve the right to say to the child, OK; we’ve tried everything we can. This isn’t working. Your behaviour is disrupting not just your education, but the education of scores of other children. You want to know what the single biggest problem in schools is these days? The thing that prevents your child from learning the most? Let me tell you: 70% of the teacher’s time is taken with 5% of the kids, because they muck about and cause trouble for everyone. Not content are they with sitting relatively still and getting on with work in a pleasant way. Oh, no, they were born for greater things; like storming out of rooms, ruining lessons, and bullying smaller kids. If someone stole something valuable form me, I’d call them a thief. When a kid does it in a classroom, by depriving others of education, they’re called troubled, or vulnerable.

Vulnerable.
 Give me a break. How vulnerable do you have to be to tell a teacher they’re a dickhead? To punch a kid in the classroom because you’re in a bad mood? To screw up a worksheet, throw it at the teacher and say, ‘You’re a cunt- and a shit teacher.’? Make no mistake- this is what classrooms are like for many. These are the children who get permanently excluded.

We had a lovely example on the Newsnight clip-  a charmer called Chloe and her mother Donna. You’d like Chloe. We first see her, playing with her Christmas present. A Kindle? No. 

A Stripper’s pole. In her BEDROOM. 

I AM NOT F*CKING WITH YOU HERE SHE HAD A STRIPPERS POLE. She described how a teacher DARED to try to confiscate her phone (which is their right to have and use in the classroom, as defined by the Geneva Convention), so she assaulted the teacher in the classroom. ‘But it weren’t that bad, because she didn’t fall over,’ she opined, wise as Socrates. This, it seems, was the girl we were supposed to feel sorry for. She attacked a teacher. And there was pressure to exclude her. I am NOT shitting you here. I would have excluded her twice, and then watched the reruns on More4.

Burn her!
One problem that Newsnight emphasised is that Chloe had been identified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). Which sounds serious, as if she had a disability of some kind. But being identified as SEN only rarely involves being diagnosed as suffering from some legitimate problem. In most cases it means the child has been observed as behaving badly regularly, and then labelling them as having Emotional And Behavioural Difficulties. Which is to say, it’s a description of their behaviours rather than a metaphysically existent entity like a limp or a cataract. So to describe some one like her as vulnerable because they have a problem is the greatest piece of ontological sleight-of-hand possible, similar to the claim that people are obsess because they have a fat gland, or possess a gene that makes them talk during the quiet bits in films. It isn’t a condition; it’s character.

There are plenty of people willing to make this kind of argument in education, and unfortunately Newsnight just got on the bus. I don’t blame the parents of these children making excuses for their children. Actually, I do, but it's their job description. It's unforgivable that trained professionals often make the same philosophically bankrupt claims to determinacy. Vulnerable my righteous ass.

You see, it’s not that an exclusion is a desirable outcome- it isn’t, it’s a bad end to a mess. But it is the best bad end. If you don’t exclude, if you don’t have some terminal sanction, then what’s to stop a pupil just entirely ignoring all detentions, sanctions and deterrents? Deterrents don’t deter without some kind of teeth. Deterrents need to be uncomfortable; they need to make you uncomfortable. Once children see that misbehaviour won’t lead to consequences, then the meaner ones will reason, quickly and correctly, that there is nothing- NOTHING a school can do to them. So not having the option to exclude trickles backward into every classroom, and the charmless children can do as they please. The only ones that suffer are...well, everyone else. The kids who want to learn. The teachers. Everyone else.

There are a tiny minority of kids like this- whom exclusions are aimed at. But there they are. Prisons aren’t pretty either, but we need to have them. You don’t solve crime by banning prison. And with just a fraction of children experiencing the ultimate deterrent, the other children will realise that there are consequences in school, and life, and learn a valuable lesson. That schools are there for their benefit, not just as a holding pen where they can exercise their whims. That they are springboards for human ambition. Not everyone can see that.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Doom would be alone! The world's oddest comic about teachers. And the Fantastic Four.


There exists, in at least one of the galaxy's infinite universes, a comic so bad, that even putting Doctor Doom in it can't save it. And it's about teachers. Here's the link. My blog can only contain so much..whatever it is. The horror. The HORROR.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Ten reasons why your sixth formers are late to lessons

'WHY are you always picking on me?'
DfE Guidelines now suggest that the following reasons for being late to your lessons should be considered as acceptable:

1.      It’s 'a bit cold' out.
Research has shown that, on average, the ambient air temperature of ‘outside’ is less than the temperature ‘inside’. This variance increases when one uses the average temperature of the air pocket inside a duvet as the base line. Teenagers may express this excuse in the following way: 'I read this thing, right, that said if they school goes below, like, ten degrees, right....it has to shut or it's breaking the law.'
2.      It’s bare hot
Equally distressing as (1), above. If, at any time, the temperature in the school looks likely to exceed the exact, perfect preference of the student, then this entitles absence, on the grounds that, well, it’s nice. At this point, students should be entitled to request that all lessons for the rest of the week should be held in the park. Note that, making this request should be taken by the teacher as fair warning that the student will be unable to attend for the rest of the week due to the dangerous heatwave. See: 'I read this thing, yeah...'
3.      Some Next Guy started talking to me in the street, yeah? And I was like, leave me alone.
And that’s why they’re late. This one is self-explanatory, of course.
4.      I saw someone sneeze on television
Any indication that viral infections may exist, anywhere in the English-speaking world, are clear indications that the outside world, let alone the petri-dish of the school, is too dangerous to enter. This could lead, of course to...
5.      I felt ‘really sick’.
Students in year 11 have an absence due to sickness rate of around 1 % or 2% in the average school. Amazingly, this escalates to around 25% in the sixth form. At first this might seem odd, or in some way indicative of malingering. Nothing could be further from the truth. The individual is best placed to self-diagnose, due to the internal, subjective nature of illness. If they say they’re sick, they are. Often, students can will themselves to feel nauseous and weak. This is entirely normal.
6.      It’s ‘that’ time, Sir.
At the merest mention of the lady tummy, male teachers should act as if the ‘get out of jail’ card has been played. Interestingly, this syndrome is predominantly absent as a reason given to female teachers, most of whom have, presumably learned to cope with the life-threatening effects of menstruation through meditation and radiotherapy.
7.      I don’t like the teacher
'We read a thing, right...'
In this situation, steps must be taken to ensure that the teacher is likeable.
8.      I don’t like the subject.
Teachers should be encouraged to thank the student for turning up at all, in gratitude for their mere presence. As Kanye West said, ‘You should be honoured by my lateness.’
9.      I’ve got problems at home.
This mustn’t be confused with genuine problems that some students experience, of genuine economic, social or personal hardship. This reason refers to, for example, a student staying over at a friend’s house the night before and having to get up half an hour early to make the train. It can also include the Monday Morning recovery cycle, after a night out on Merrydown and White Lightning. Teachers should be encouraged to view this reason as the most flexible of all. It is vital that sympathy is expressed to the student, otherwise they may have recourse to report you to the European Court in Strasbourg.
10.   Jasmine’s even later than me.
'I need a long lie to function.'
Keep your hair on. It’s only a few minutes. Why are you always picking on me? See: 'Bitches Be Trippin'
Through careful attendance to this policy, teachers will be able to enable student voice, as expressed through the medium of sloping in half way through the lesson. They should also look at ways of ensuring that students are not late, for example by making sure that lessons begin after noon, and involve DVDs about pop stars killing each other and having group sex while driving Ferraris.
Thank you for your attendance.