Saturday, May 05, 2007

Random moments from the last few weeks

Well, hello. Sorry I've been away. I've been sorting out IT coursework with a completely dead network; buying a new house; and trying to get access to Blogger, which decided to forget that I existed for a while.

We were in Manchester a few weeks ago; the police cars there bear the legend Greater Manchester Police: 'Fighting crime, protecting people.' My beloved was quite taken with this, and suggested we too should have a car with a slogan on it. 'Teachers. Drinking tea, shouting at children' was his suggestion.

I am astounded at the mess up with ballot papers in the Scottish Election. Every teacher knows that you cannot use more than one piece of paper in one sitting unless you photocopy them on different coloured paper. A yellow ballot paper and a pink ballot paper would have sorted it.

Overheard in my department:
"Sir, I know I didn't write enough. Couldn't you just imagine it in more detail?"
"Of course. And you can imagine getting a higher grade."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Up late, marking coursework and tinkering with the blog...

...angry at the students who couldn't even be bothered to put the pages of their project in the right order.

..grumpy at spelling mistakes, laziness, students who haven't even used a ruler and a pencil to do their sketches...

...wondering if my recent posts will enchant or bore new readers who come via the Guardian today....

...chatting with M via e-mail...

And he tells me about the shooting at Virginia Tech.

It's remarkable, the way that I now take the 24 hour a day global news stream for granted.

And it's sobering how easily we in Britain identify with American students; feeling much closer to events than the stories that reach us from other parts of the world. We have spent hours and hours soaking up the iconic American College of pop video, date movie and cult TV show... a mythical place to which our teenagers aspire, with its proms and gangs, cheerleading and cliques.

But suddenly it seems alien, a different planet, full of horrors we cannot understand. I may have to tackle ill discipline and mild aggression, but I hope I will never have to live through something like this.

"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community." - George Bush

And in a tiny way, even here.
Our thoughts are with you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lifehacks for teachers

We teachers are rubbish at sharing ideas. We largely exist in splendid isolation in our classrooms, only mixing with our peers for 'observed lessons' which are fraught, tense occasions as they are usually associated with appraisal or OFSTED. When we do have 'sharing of good practice' INSETs, everyone either wheels out really big ideas that intimidate the hell out of everyone else, or coyly refuse to take part.

It's virtually impossible to share the tiny little tips, ideas and personal lessons we've learned over the years, ideas which help us stay the right side of the line between thriving and surviving.

On the Net, however, there is a home for everything. I have recently discovered the phenomenon of life hack blogs, which seem to be places where IT professionals hold long and detailed discussions on the methods they use to avoid wasting time.

The mother ship seems to be here but my favourite so far is 43 folders. Broadly speaking, the focus on these sites seems to be professionals working on computer-based projects who have a reasonable amount of control over their time.

In contrast, teachers have ruthlessly regimented days, but their weeks follow a highly personal ebb and flow shaped by a timetable which reboots every September. They have 'pots' of free time which can be removed at almost no notice by either a cover lesson or a serious incident which demands immediate attention. But most perversely of all, despite their profoundly structured life, they are completely at the whim of the students, who can constantly and without any warning demand attention; and unlike adult co-workers, you usually can't ask them to make an appointment to see you at a time more suitable for you.

So I am inaugurating a search for teaching life hacks. Any subject - teaching, classroom management, time management, stress management...

To start, here are some things I've picked up from reading the notes on my colleagues' desks.

1) Make small paper slips with the names of everyone in a class. Stick a paper pocket onto the bottom of your register to store them. When asking questions of a class, use the slips to select who will answer each question so the class can see you are making sure everyone gets a turn to answer.

2) When you do the register, ask each student a simple question (e.g. a spelling) after their name.

3) When you say to a class 'You have three minutes to do this brainstorm' use an egg timer. (In fact you can buy egg timers for this purpose but I don't know where from.)

4) If you are using a projected version of a handout you made in MS Word, put the answers in, colour them white and then when you go through them, highlight them with the mouse to reveal them (and then change them back to black.)

5) Instead of writing a 'L' or similar in your mark book when a student is late, write down the number of minutes they are late. It's much more helpful when confronting a student with the problem.

6) Every year most teachers get given a new mark book. And most schools have electronic data stored somewhere, with lists of all students. Yet most teachers spend time copying name lists into their mark books at the beginning of the year! If you are IT literate and want to be benevolent, it's worth investing half an hour or so, copying and pasting the list of names into a spreadsheet. Then experiment with the Row Height setting until you can match the list of names with the lines in the mark book. Then print it out and stick it in. If you can knock up a brief handout explaining the crucial settings, and disseminate it among your colleagues, I promise you'll be appreciated far and wide; people who never normally talk to you will come up to you on the corridor and thank you. Our mark books are 17 on MS Excel; worth a try as a starting point.

7) And finally, I always teach better when I listen to Broadway musicals on the way to work, rather than Radio 4.

Any more for any more?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blatant plug

I am not a folk music fan, neither is my other half. But after he heard 'Roots' by Show of Hands on Radio 4, he went out and bought their latest album, and we have both become a teeny bit obsessed with the song. Whatever your views on folk singing, I urge you to hop on over here and listen to it (well, the first 1 minute and 30 seconds of it.)

Then peruse the lyrics, which I have to reproduce in full as they are just excellent

Now it's been 25 years or more,
I've roamed this land from shore to shore.
From Tyne to Tame, or Severn to Thames,
From Moor to Vale, from Peak to Fen.
Played in cafes, and pubs and bars,
I've stood in the street with my own guitar.
But I'd be richer than all the rest,
If I had a pound for each request,
For "Duelling Banjos", "American Pie" -- it's enough to make you cry.
"Rule Britannia", or "Swing Lo",
Are they the only songs we English know?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit,
They're never gonna grow without their roots.
Branch, stem, shoots.
They need roots.

After the speeches when the cake's been cut, the disco's over and the bar is shut.
At Christening, Birthday, Wedding or Wake,
What can we sing until the morning breaks?
When the Indian-Asians, Afro-Kelts -- it's in their blood below the belt.
They're playing and dancing all night long,
So what've they got right that we've got wrong?

And the minister said his vision of hell is 3 folk singers in a pub near Wells.
Well I've got a vision of urban sprawl.
It's pubs where no one ever sings at all.
And everyone stares at a great big screen,
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens,
Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps.
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk,
Of the way we look and the way we talk.
Without our stories, or our songs,
How will we know where we come from?
I've lost St George in the Union Jack,
It's my flag too and I want it back!

And then pop to iTunes (or whoever is your chosen purveyor of digital music) and buy it.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


I saw a young man reading one of the Tim Berners-Lee quotes on my 'quotes about IT' display, and disagreeing with it out loud, to his friend, who argued back.

A girl who started the year full of angry incomprehension at A-level work came to my class, in her breaktime, and handed in a complete coursework project, a day early.

I saw a kid open a door for a teacher overburdened with a box of marking.

Two young women, who had been withdrawn by their parents from an event I organised that was designed to promote religious tolerance, told me that when they had kids of their own, they would make sure that they went to events like that.

You feel you're getting somewhere.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

How to make the shortlist

OK, I have pontificated on previous occasions about how to deliver a good sample lesson when attending an interview. But you can spare yourself the ordeal of that sample lesson by failing to get invited for an interview.

Firstly, remember it doesn't really matter if you don't fill in the application form. We understand how busy you are: just send us a printout of your 10 page CV (listing every INSET you have ever attended) and we will cross reference it ourselves. It's not like we're busy.

Spelling, grammar and capitalisation errors are great. They show how happy-go-lucky you are and what a casual, easy-going approach you take to the written word and the process of checking over your work. They are really good indicators of how you will approach marking, planning and writing resources!

Illegibility and poor handwriting don't matter. Crossings out are not a problem. This is the era of the computer; you don't need to be able to write clearly to be a teacher.

If you are applying for an IT job (or if you mention your effective use of IT anywhere on your application) it's rather witty to back up your claims of being a well skilled in word-processing with an absolutely hopeless desk-top publishing job. Random font changes, embarrassing spell-checking errors, inconsistent indentation, inappropriate fonts... I know you're just showing me how aware you are of the commonest flaws in our students' work. And we love MS Word CV templates. They're so....unique.

Seriously, folks, it's not rocket science. If you can't be bothered to take care over an application form which I am duty bound to read from beginning to end, do you really think we will trust you with a teaching post? With, you know, real kids writing real essays and all that?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Some of the things I say to my students are true

Whenever I teach the Data Protection Act, I expend much energy communicating that knowing about the DPA could be one day prove very beneficial to them (unlike a lot of things they learn). The DPA is widely misunderstood; and it is hugely useful, for example if you should find yourself in the position of being unexpectedly turned down for credit.

Now to this we can also add the fact that the DPA could one day help you out if you become a Doctor and your application for a job is turned down after electronic processing by the infamous MTAS system. This is the story of Dr Palak Trivedi, who used the powers of the DPA to enquire as to why... and got an interview.

Further MTAS horror stories can be found elsewhere on the good Dr Crippen's blog.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I'm sorry my posting is so moribund. I am quite low at the moment.

It's not my management - unusually for the blogosphere, I like my managers and I may not always agree with them but they do a good job.

It's the kids.

It feels like I am breaking a terrible taboo to say it, but the kids are getting me down.

Not the lad who - last Monday - was more threatening to me than any kid I've ever taught. Funnily enough, that encounter left me shaky but sound; I discovered that after 10+ years, my instincts served me well and I think I dealt with it effectively. By the end of our encounter he had apologised completely and sincerely, and I admired him for not running off and leaving us both in an intractable position.

No, it's the default teenage attitude to everything. It's the 'nice' kids. The way that it's my job to help them catch up when they've been off; the way that they will ask for help before they read the instructions, not after, because it's just easier. The fact that the things I used to do as an extra favour, such as lunchtime revision help, are now demanded as a right and complained about if missing. The complete lack of appreciation and gratitude. The absence of any awe, wonder, curiosity and imagination. The yawning, tedious laziness and banality of their approach; the relentless effort needed on my part to summon energy from them. The absolute and complete lack of intellectual curiosity. The profound selfishness of their approach to life. The fact that my energy and enthusiasm is being sucked out of me into the endless black hole of modern youth.

I know that I don't always feel like this. I know that I have been moved and thrilled by teaching young people. I can give you explanations political, historical, sociological and metaphysical as to why teenagers are the way they are.

But at the moment I'm just a bit fed up.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A tale of two applicants

University applicant A was 12 when her parents first took her to Oxford; as they wandered round the streets, they half-jokingly asked her 'Would you like to study here?'

At 15, she spent a day in Durham, visiting her Mum's godson, who showed her around a few colleges and told her all about student life.

At 18, University applicant A had applied to Cambridge, Durham and a variety of others. Her Mum and Dad had read through her draft UCAS application and made helpful suggestions. She knuckled down to swot for her A-levels, but everyone few weeks she paniced at the thought of what she would do if she didn't get in to Uni. Even worse, she worried what she would do if she did.... But her parents reassured her that she would be fine, and after all, she knew loads of people who had studied at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Southampton... Why couldn't she?

University applicant B was 17 when a teacher remarked to his tutor that 'he's the most gifted historian I've ever taught, is he applying to Oxbridge?' His tutor, and the history teacher, and the school G&T co-ordinator then began the slow process of encouraging him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. No-one had ever suggested it to him before.

At 17 and a quarter, he went to Oxford on an Open Day. Everyone he met appeared to him to be upper class, completely intimidating and to have nothing in common with him. He decided not to apply there and then; it was only after a long process of persuasion by his teachers that he changed his mind (and then only because he thought he probably wouldn't get in.)

At 17 and a half, applicant B finally explained to his tutor that the reason he hadn't filled in his University application was that he couldn't understand the Oxford web site. Somewhat annoyed, his tutor spluttered that as a straight A student, he should be able to figure it out. Sheepishly he asked "What's the difference between an undergraduate and a post graduate?" Equally sheepishly, she explained it to him.

At 18, B had applied to Oxford, and been given an offer, but he really thought he wouldn't fit in, and was seriously considering turning it down. Especially as his Mum, who was already worried about the cost of sending him to Oxford, was reassuring him that it would be OK if he stayed at home to go to Uni. If he wasn't going to be happy there, what was the point? After all, there was a university in the town where he lived.

It's not enough to say (especially from our comfortable perspective as successful graduates) that the cleverest students, irrespective of their background, will overcome their own self-doubt and inner demons, and gain places at our best Universities. It's hard enough with a fair wind, parental enthusiasm, and a cohort of peers behind you. Those students from what we euphemistically call 'non-traditional' backgrounds have far bigger obstacles to overcome and I welcome anything that helps them.
Whether this will help I don't know, but it's an idea.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Take a massively expanded University system; add many new institutions offering similar courses with lower offers. Blend in rising A-level results and the constant pressure to perform. Season liberally with the Internet. Carefully pick out as many seeds of imagination and creativity as you can from young people, using a constant diet of TV, computer games and a restrictive curriculum. Rinse repeatedly from Yr 1 to remove all trace of personal responsibility.

Now get your Lower Sixth cohort to apply to University online.

Bake gently in the ovens of competition and wait for six months. And voila! Students are copying UCAS personal statements off the Internet.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Skills for Life?

Overheard on the corridor today:
"OK, go in, get into pairs and practice oral. I'll be back in a minute"

Wish I taught French.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Targets are bad for your health

OK, as my regular vistors will know, I spend a lot of time grinding my teeth over the misuse of statistics, targets and league tables. Last week I read this brief posting from geepeemama, that could have been devised as a demonstration of the fallout from stupid targets, and how they can produce precisely the wrong effect (in this case in the NHS.) Read it.

I don't think stupid is to strong a word.

Still here

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. It's been one thing and then another. Staff absence, which always slows me down. Plus half term, and - drum roll - a trip overseas with 30 sixth-formers. I've never done it before. I have never been so tired in my life.

To fellow teachers who know exactly what a trip like that entails, I would describe the week as fantastic, a real pleasure, hard work but worth it. The students' delight in the places we visited multiplied my own ten-fold, and they made us proud with their good humour, their insight and their good manners.

However, to those who accuse me of having (almost) free week in the USA when I should be working, I would describe it as a 24 hour a day ordeal of health and safety worries, relentless chivvying and mammoth organisation. A nightmare. I still haven't recovered.

So take your pick...

Anyway, now I have broken my silence, albeit to say not very much at all, I will try and get back to more regular posting.

One more thing - bravo to Brighton for allocating places at oversubscribed schools by lottery. A brave and fair move.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Everyone should read this...

This account by a teacher in an inner London school is serious, important and ultimately moving. Those who read some of the angrier teacher blogs will not be surprised by any of it. A school like this needs support and the teachers in it need encouragement and respect. Condemning a school with problems like these, without offering solutions, simply leads to a culture where schools hide their weaknesses and pretend everything is alright.

We need serious, well funded alternatives to short and long term exclusion: heavy duty pupil referral units where student behaviour can be confronted. If they worked, the cost would surely be less than future prison sentences for many of these young people. When the only sanction we have left for violent pupils is to ask them to go home and watch TV for a few days, we have effectively given up on both the possibility of change for those students, and the establishment of a safe environment in our schools.

(Government figures reported here)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More questions than answers on the hijab debate

The most recent incident relating to hijab and schools is the case of a 12 year old girl who is not being allowed to wear a niqab in class. From what I heard, the school have conceded the argument and allowed the girl back in class because Buckinghamshire County Council, which is responsible for the school, have decided they cannot afford the £500,000 it will cost to fight the case in court. (The Sun reports it here)

This sent me scurrying around Google looking for Shamina Begum, who took Denbigh High School to court in 2004 for the right to wear a jilbab at school. The school won. It then went to appeal: Ms Begum won. Then it went to the House of Lords, and the school won. Here's a summary from Wikipedia, and another from Daniel Pipes (an American neo-con.) My abiding memory from the story at the time was the words of the Head of the school, Yasmin Bevan (now Dame Yasmin Bevan.) Herself a Muslim, she had overseen the choice of a school uniform designed to accommodate Muslim, Hindu and Sikh pupils. Her refusal to allow Shamina Begum to deviate from this was to avoid a 'hierarchy of piety' among Muslim girls. She was speaking of peer pressure among girls; this young woman speaks of more:
"My younger sisters go to Denbigh High School which was famous in the headlines last year because a girl pupil went to the High Court for her right to wear the jilbab. Shabinah saw it as a great victory for Muslim women ... but what happened next shows this is not a victory for us.

"My sisters, and me when I was younger, could always tell our dad and uncles that we weren't allowed to wear the jilbab. Once the rules were changed, that excuse was not possible any more so my sisters have now been terrified into wearing this cumbersome and dehumanising garment all day against their wishes. Now most girls in the school do the same. They don't want to, but now they cannot resist community pressure ... I am frightened somebody is going to fight for the right to wear a burqa next and then my sisters will not even be able to show their faces.
(as told to Johann Hari)
The more you read, the more complex things become. Scrutinise some of the articles and you discover that choosing the jilbab over the shalwar kameez is far more than just a matter of degrees of piety. The shalwar kameez is a form of modest dress common to many faiths. However, it is also distinctively Punjabi and is the national dress of Pakistan. So when Shamina Begum (who is of Bangladeshi descent) wanted to wear a different outfit, what was her motivation?

1) To adhere more closely to the demands of her faith? (This blog captures the depth of feeling that some Muslims have about the issue of modest dress)
2) In order to identify herself as distinctively Muslim rather than Hindu or Sikh?
3) In protest at being made to wear an outfit that she felt was not part of her cultural and ethnic heritage? (The Daily Telegraph report of the appeal proceedings explore this here)

Does it matter what the motivation is? Yes.

Situation 1) might be considered analogous to forcing Jewish children to eat non-kosher food on a school trip. I don't think anyone would approve of that.
Situation 2) might be compared with Catholic students fighting for the right to wear crucifixes to make themselves stand out from non-Catholic students. This is entirely different. Uniforms are designed to counteract exactly this kind of action.
And 3) might be like to asking English boys to wear a dhoti to school (an Indian garment a bit like a sarong). However, this is quite a bad analogy - the school uniform already incorporate non-Western garments, so the decision had already been made not to force the girls into skirts and sweatshirts. I suppose you would have to imagine English boys in school in India being asked to wear kilts. But remember that while white British people can easily separate ethnicity and religion, in other cultures the link is far deeper.

Anyway, here's an attempt at some sort of conclusion. As a person of faith myself, I respect other faiths; but you can't just sanction any behaviour under the banner of belief. Otherwise I would have to approve of Christian homophobia and war mongering. Let's hypothetically agree with all the worst interpretations of these news stories. Let's say it does boil down to adults within a Muslim community forcing their daughters to wear clothing that limits and damages them; should state schools impose rules that protect the girls from this indignity and grant them opportunities and freedoms in line with other British girls? It would seem so.

But - and this is a big but - if our aim is to ensure freedom for Muslim girls, we might need allow communities to impose whatever rules they please on their daughters if it ensures that they are educated in state schools - because the alternative, where they are withdrawn into private schools with no government control on curriculum and ethos - all for the sake of a veil - is even worse.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Birthday fives

Top five things that make me want to quit teaching

1) Lying awake at night worrying about pass rates, retention rates, targets and so on
2) The fear that I may be complicit in the creation of a generation of over-dependent, manipulative kids who are so used to people bailing them out of the consequences of their actions that the country will grind to a halt once they are running it
3) Articles in the press that take the form of an external expert (e.g. a Shakespearean Act-tor or a famous TV naturalist) talking about how wonderful it is to go into the classroom and 'show the kids what the subject is really about, rather than the boring stuff the teachers do with them'
4) Parents who collude with or approve of absence or bad behaviour
5) Marking coursework

Top five reasons I love teaching

1) Moments when students learn something and they enjoy it so much they forget it's uncool
2) Telling parents how well their child is doing and watching them both swell with pride
3) The wit, wisdom and compassion of teenagers, especially when it comes from unexpected quarters at unexpected times
4) The chance to be enthusiastic to a captive audience on a daily basis and get paid for it
5) The glow of smugness you get at University reunions, when you realise that although everyone else in the room earns three times your salary, they know they could never do your job and their career, in comparison to yours, is meaningless and trite

Five things I wish I'd never said to a student

1) You just can't be arsed, can you
2) Where's your bloody coursework?
3) If you don't turn that music down you'll end up a sad, lonely old man
4) Your brother would never have done that
5) I promise I'll mark that tonight and give it you back tomorrow

This was meant to go out yesterday on my blogiversary but I had a migraine and the computer crashed in sympathy.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Bad spelling

Yet another comment pointing out my spelling mistakes. It's really mortifying. But it is nice to know that all you folks are out there reading my blog and marking it for SPAG.

My partner (author of the wholly imaginary blog 'She's at it again: thoughts of a blog widower') got very excited about this and suggested I construct a post comparing my blog to British education policy and its critics. But I've had a glass of wine and I'm too scared to type any more in case I do something dreadfully ungrammatical.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Student Nearly Expelled because of Apple!

Spot the incorrect headline...

(a) Day's detention for eating apple!

(b) Boy's detention after apple snack!

(c) Pupil gets detention for eating apple!

Well done, all you who said (a.) Tom Bosley of The Kings of Wessex in Cheddar got the day's detention not for eating an apple in the wrong place, but for refusing to do his detention after school. School discipline works like this: you have rules, you have consequences for breaking them. If you break them you get disciplined. If you argue back, refuse to do a detention or otherwise fail to step up and take the consequences of your actions, you will then be liable for the original incidence of rule breaking plus the new infringement. Thus students can end up excluded permanently in a chain of events that starts with something as simple as the refusal to take of a cap.

It's the alleged attitude of the parents that I find frustrating. What did Tom's parents think would happen? Their son broke a rule, which presumably he knew about. (You can read the school rules here) The student then decided to skip a detention (although according to the Sun, he did not check the notice board and was unaware of it.) Did his parents think that because Tom was a 'straight A' student, teachers should turn a blind eye to his rule breaking? I am wary of making too many assumptions about the people involved (I've made mistakes that way in the past) but surely one of the things that makes this school distinctive is its disciplinary code? Or maybe everyone concerned suffers from that common delusion of thinking rules only apply to other people?

Personally, I think some of the rules mentioned in the news reports do sound a bit draconian (if the reports can be believed, which is a big if.) However, yet again, it's pretty much a case of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' when it comes to school discipline.

PS I bet M only read this post because he thought it was me slagging off Steve Jobs again and he was getting ready to fight back...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Secret third objective

Officially, an 'outstanding' lesson starts with the teacher sharing his or her objectives with the students. Most of the time I tend to do this in a completely informal way, simply reminding them what we did last time and stating where we're going. Quickly. However, when The Inspectors are calling, I write three objectives on the board.

Thus, during our last inspection I found myself writing on the board the bizarre phrase:
'Secret third objective.'

I really can't remember what objectives one and two were. But the point of the last part of the lesson was for students to realise the necessity for something (it was an IT lesson.) I wanted them to understand that this thing was necessary because they had discovered the need for it themselves. The lesson was an adventure, a discovery, a confrontation. At the climactic moment, one of them would, I hope, say 'But this isn't working.' I would then have said 'OK, let's try and work out what will!' I hoped that a lesson learned this way would be a profound learning experience. If I had put the objectives on the board, there would have been no opportunity for them to make that leap for themselves.

How often we lose our collective nerve in our forced attempts to quantify everything: a good lesson must be X, must be Y, must contain Z. This is just a tiny example but it should make us question the recipes and formulae that we are often forced to use as we try to create good quality learning experiences.

The reason I mention this today is that I have just read this article on the very same matter. Go Philip Beadle!

PS The Inspectors didn't come in to that lesson. Wish I could say I was disappointed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

On raising the school leaving age

"Real change in education comes infinitely slowly, through calm and resolve and planning.

It begins (and ends) with good teachers and great heads. It depends on a steady recruitment of excellence into the profession, not surges of the second-rate followed by squeezes. It builds up a thirst for the benefits that education can bring, rather than ordering more booze in the last-chance saloon. It goes with the flow of ambition. It doesn't force, threaten or tangle in more webs of bumbling."

Peter Preston in the Guardian

Head teachers not that important... which is just as well?

Hum. I am a little perplexed by these two reports from the BBC. This one is about the shortage of Head teachers and this one is about that fact that we no longer need Head teachers. You will note immediately that they both have the same picture which seems to indicate that you can always recognise your Head, not by his grey suit, but by the fact that (s)he carries a sandwich at all times.

Now the situation seems quite confusing:

Are we short of Head teachers? Well, the NASUWT (who represent the teachers) say that when they last looked
"...up to half a million pupils in England's schools were without permanent head teachers..."

but as the DES (who are ultimately responsible for most of the schools) points out, this means that
"Less than 1% of schools at any one time will have a head vacancy and even then there will always be an acting or temporary head in place."

and while the GTC (who represent the teachers but in Not Quite The Same Way) predicts that
"... four out of 10 vacancies will be unfilled by 2011..."

the NCSL (who train the Heads) say it's OK because
"We are entering a new era in school leadership, which is challenging the long-held assumption that every school needs its own head teacher. In future school leadership may not be about just leading individual institutions, but about working in the wider system, although often still having one school as a base."

but the NAHT (who represent the Heads), say that the NCSL's report is
"extremely unhelpful".

So, a tentative conclusion: we do actually need more Heads.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

League table commentary

This is Mike Baker, the BBC's education correspondent, and it's excellent.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The news goes from mad to worse

I'm so tired I'm having aural hallucinations. I was in the shower this morning, and thought I heard someone saying that the school leaving age is going to be raised to 18.

Can anything halt this New Year flow of outrageous educational ideas from Alan? It's as if he got really behind with his work and decide to cram all through the Christmas holidays. Now he's handing in all these frenzied pieces of overdue homework he's copied off the Internet.

PS By the way, for one week only, listen to the News Quiz here - there's a killer answer to the question on Ruth Kelly by Jeremy Hardy (about 5.30 minutes in.) And he is even funnier on the subject of the iPhone at about 18 minutes in.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's League Table day!

Well, actually, every day is league table day. That is the problem. But as it's the day when you get to see that your school can be summed up by two numbers (such as 51 and 1061.5,) here's a handy worksheet (don't worry if you haven't got a pen, I've summarised it for you.)

Why league tables are bad for students

By Ms Pepperpot

1) They distort the curriculum.

Schools have limited resources and there are a finite number of timeslots on the timetable. In a climate of league tables, schools will favour courses and options that maximize the points scored for students. However, this is rarely the best thing for all students. For example, some schools insist every child does a GNVQ - worth 4 GCSEs in the league tables. What if they are not interested in any of the GNVQ options? Another example is the debate over the science curriculum.

2) They distort the advice given to students.

You might think, naively, that the best advice for a particular student will be the advice that gives them the best exam results; so striving towards league table success will guarantee the best chances of 'success' for each individual student. This assumes that 'success' is the maximum number of points on the league table scale, irrespective of how those are earned and whether they will help the student in the next stage of their education or in the workplace. It also leaves out any concept of risk, of allowing students to be exposed to challenges. It leads pretty quickly to the assumption that students should only be entered on courses they are guaranteed to pass. So what do you think about the theoretical idea of a public exam system with a 100% pass rate? (see Ouroborus)

3) They stop students ever experiencing the consequences of their own actions.

When a student is late, absent, doesn't hand in work or can't be bothered to bring a pen or make notes, this should have an impact on his or her learning. He or she should learn, as a result, that punctuality, deadlines, personal organisation and above all hard work, are necessary for success in life. However, if their behaviour impacts in a negative way on their study, the results will drop. This will show up in the league tables, supposedly indicating a failure on the part of the institution. Therefore... if a student is late or absent, we will help them catch up. If they can't be bothered to make notes, we will make them handouts. If they don't hand in their coursework, we will chase them and extend the deadline right up to the wire. By the time they reach their first workplace, they are deeply marked by this - a terrifyingly large number of students have never had to face the consequences of lack of commitment or effort.

4) They steal teachers' souls

Humans working under pressure in a stressful environment, who are constantly prioritizing and who know that they can never do enough, are acutely sensitive to the currents that surround them. What is the priority? What really matters? When push comes to shove, when you are up against it, what do you choose, creativity or exam success? Answer: Exam success. To which of these endlessly demanding hoards of kids will you give your limited supplies of energy? Answer: Borderline kids (those who hover on the boundary of a statistically significant grade or mark difference. Such as the C/D borderline.) We want to educate the whole person but we have to service the pass rate first.

I'm not against evaluation, I'm not against criticism, I'm not against challenging poor standards. But this is not the way to do it.

A blinding flash of inspiration in the middle of an INSET

It wasn't anything to do with the subject of the INSET itself. Here's what happened. The facilitator wanted us to do an active listening exercise; we would pair off, and then each speak for two minutes on any subject we wanted, while the other person listened to us. They would then feed back to us everything we had said.

However, the moment the slide went up on the screen, this is what went through my head..., could talk about blogging, no, ridiculous idea; could talk about role play gaming, no, he'll think I'm crazy; how about my new car? No, dull; My Mum? Too personal. My outfit? Just silly...

I was paralysed - it was utterly ludicrous! Then I suddenly realised that this is what happens to my students when I ask one of them for a random suggestion or contribution. I frequently pepper my explanations with demands such as, 'Let's imagine you are downloading a song by.... OK, someone name a pop group!' or 'Right, so you've got a database of names and addresses. Someone give me an imaginary name for a person in the database'. Invariably no-one says anything; and I then rant about how they have no imagination, how they are not paying attention and so on and so forth.

But they must be sitting there thinking
'Can't say Oasis cos I'll look stupid. Can't say Snow Patrol cos no-one will have heard of them. Can't say anything Goth cos Bob will laugh at me... can't... can't....

Anyway, I turned to my partner and spent two minutes explaining this insight.

Trying to work out a position on anonymity

I'm thinking a lot about my blogging at the moment. I'm coming up on my blogiversary and my 100th post, and I have been thinking again about anonymity. When I started blogging last year I hadn't really thought it through, beyond an idle plan to stun the world with my witty badinage, and to bring Tony Blair to my door, begging me for an audience, where I would succinctly explain to him how to reform state education.

But as time has gone on I have become more confident in what I will and won't do when writing about actual events at work. One aspect of this is a desire to protect my students, who really don't need to stumble upon their silly behaviour thinly disguised while busy looking for videos of people falling over. The other aspect is to do with criticism. In blogging, as in life, my frustration and anger at educational policy usually goes straight to the source - i.e. the government. Sure, I have my share of whinges and gripes with my place of work but who doesn't? They divide into the intensely situational (which I am not particularly interested in sharing, especially as I like my SMT and think they are doing a good job) and the basically political (where I am more interested in criticising the policy than having a go at the way it was implemented in our particular situation.)

I also mix my comments on school and college management with places I have worked in the past, and the management in other schools and colleges where I have friends.

As a result of all this intense introspection, I've been playing about with a short statement to put on the side bar. I don't want to sound like I am covering myself from tyrannical persecution or getting ready to expose some terrible secrets. This is my current draft. Any comments much appreciated.

I blog anonymously - it makes thing easier. I 'fictionalise' my anedotes to avoid making anyone uncomfortable by recognising themselves, but I don't exaggerate to prove a point. My criticisms are aimed at government policy makers, and comments on how these policies play out in institutions are not to be read as criticisms of my workplace. In expressing my opinions I am in no way representing any institution for whom I work.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Burning up on re-entry

Been back three days and it's been frantic up till the end of today. I always start the term exhausted as I get insomnia the last few nights of any holiday; however, once back at work I only have enough time to worry about one thing at a time so I am much happier. But during the first week, I always feel like a falling satellite, hitting the atmosphere and incinerating as I plummet back into the orbit of the school.

It's been a pretty hairy few days, culminating in the dispatch of 107 portfolios to the exam board this morning. This entailed a colleague and I checking every one, putting them into order by candidate number and then packing them lovingly into 17 plastic bags (the official bags each take about 7 portfolios.)

Doing this we both realised that actually the vast majority of our students are rather nice. When you are forced to consider, in turn, every single student, you realise how disproportionately the 'bad' kids take up your time and emotional energy.

By the way, for all you non A-level teachers; it is now January module time. So of course I have to go on a compulsory government INSET the day of my last lesson with my little lower sixths.

I'm just doodling about on this topic because I haven't really worked out what to say about the Ruth Kelly thing; and I really haven't the energy to digest the 'personalised timetables, SATs on demand, and private tuition on the government' thing.

I'll think of something. Promise.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A New Year's rude awakening

2007 started badly as two young men tried to break into our house in the early hours of New Year's Day. As I looked down on them from my bedroom window, they looked up... and scarpered. I worried momentarily about what I would do if I recognised either of them.

Nothing was taken, the only damage a broken window which cost us time, effort, money and peace of mind. In the days afterwards, I experienced that intense anger where you imagine or even verbalise the words you would use to tear into them should you have the opportunity to talk those who have wronged you. "What right have you got to break into my house? I am a hard working, public spirited person. What do you mean, I can claim on insurance? Don't you understand that insurance premiums go up if people are always being broken into? What about my right to live a peaceful life, my right to feel safe in my own home?" But the feeling passed.

I am a theoretical believer in restorative justice. But my experience in education lead me to believe that actually making people change their understanding of what they are doing on a profound level is very difficult and takes time, care and patience - things we lack in today's society. How long does it take to change a child's mind so they understand that lateness to school is a bad thing that is slowly corroding their education? How long does it take to make a child understand that their belittling or mocking behaviour is actually bullying even though they just think it is the normal warp and weft of teenage life?

One of my colleagues announced at the beginning of last year that she had decided to try and change her own mindset instead of railing endlessly about the way the students are. Instead of wasting her own anguish, railing about their attitudes and behaviour, she has decided to focus all that mental energy on working out how to deal with the students and move them on. Maybe she is right. Maybe our righteous indignation, anger and passion is misdirected and serves only to hurt us and dissipate what energy we should have for creative solutions to the problems that face us.

Or is she wrong? Is it the burning, personal, deeply felt sense of anger at the way the world is that drives us forward, that gives us the energy to keep working in education?

I don't know.

On a different note, this was my first encounter with the Police since I became a blog reader. I was very impressed with the police officer who attended; not at all shocked by the amount of paperwork the incident provoked; charmingly able to save her time by knowing the meaning of terms due to my obsessive reading of 'Wasting Police Time'; less impressed the following day when the SOCO turned up despite the first officer telling us it was OK to go ahead and clear up as there was no point in the SOC people attending (explanation - change of shift); and generally reaffirmed in my prejudices that while individual police officers are fantastic, they are hemmed in by statistics and beaurocracy in much the same way as teachers.