Thursday, April 13, 2006

Honours for cash for schools - and the '£2 million test'

Warning, long entry written in wroth!

OK, take a look at this news story: a Head from Barking who serves on the 'Specialist Schools and Academies Trust' which 'helps the government recruit education sponsors' told a journalist that if you donated money "the prime minister's office would recommend someone like [the donor] for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood". And ... Downing Street said at the time it was "nonsense to suggest that honours are awarded for giving money to an academy". (And the Guardian have it here)

Whoa. Now for a short test, boys and girls. What is the real news story here?

1) That knighthoods can be bought be large donations of money, making a mockery of a system designed to recognise merit
2) That Downing Street can swat away the on-the-record comment of a respected person by labelling it nonsense, and presumably insist he resigns to try and neutralise the effect immediately
3) That we live in a society where a majority influence on the governing body of a state school can be bought for approximately £2 million by anyone who feels like it.

And the answers?
I don't know about you, but I think that it's point 3) that has always been, and continues to be, the real news story.

I am vaguely concerned about the whole cash for honours thing, as I would like to live in a meritocractic society, but hey, it's no biggie.
Yes, it does send a chill down my spine to be reminded of the blatant way that government can silence any critical comment by saying 'it is not so' and demanding resignations and public apologies as scalps.
But the really, really important thing is this: inner city schools are being sold to anyone with any agenda at all. For the sum of only 8% of total start-up costs!

For this bargain price you get...
- influence in the name, ethos and style of the institution
- controlling interest on the governing body (yes, I said that before but it bears repetition)
- And once you have this influence with the governors, you can use it employ anyone you want because you are exempt from the requirement to only employ teachers registered with the GTC!
- And then you can pay them anything you want because you can opt out of the national pay structure!

(Aside - I wrote a sci-fi short story about ten years ago set in a dystopian future school; I was rooting around for a brand name to give the school, such as the 'Ronald McDonald High School' or the 'Microsoft School'. So I honestly thought it was fiction when I first heard about the Dixons Academy - but it's not. It's a state school sponsored by a chain of electrical stores.)

What does the government really think it's doing?

If there was a huge amount of money going into these schools, say £20 million, and if the major obstacle in the way of improving inner city education was simply cash, and if the government had a serious shortfall, I could be persuaded that huge injections from philathropists or businesses was justifiable. And if in return the donor got their name above the door or the right to serve on the governors as a sort of sinecure or even a knighthood, well, hey, I can live with that. But does getting 8-10% of the cost paid really help that much? Surely you could just build one less academy instead.

You see, I don't think the Academy program is primarily about fund-raising. The government don't actually believe that money is all we need to solve the problem of inner city schooling. Tony B wants to demolish old schools and build new ones but with a new ethos. And here's where it goes bad for me - he believes the only way to get ethics, values, vision and character for his academies is to buy it.

£2 million does not represent a shortfall that needs to be filled, £2 million is a test, set to see how strong someone's (or some organisation's) commitment to leading a school is. So the logic must be - to have something serious to offer inner city education, you must a) be interested and b) pass the £2 million test to see if you are committed or just pissing around, writing blogs and generally just talking it up.

I don't like it one little bit (which doesn't mean that all academies are terrible institutions per se, not even the Dixon's Academy which I've never visited; please don't think I am getting at you or your leadership if you are toiling in an Academy, doing your best for inner city students and making a difference.) I don't like it because the underlying idea is that the problem of inner city education can be solved by finding people and groups of people who pass the £2 million test. Wheras I think that the best people to solve the problem of an inner city school are a group of committed teachers, well-led by an inspirational and pragmatic leadership team (and a body of parents who will work to support the school.) And hey, they don't usually have time to accumulate £2 million between them because they are too busy.

To conclude at last: the major obstacle in the way of improving inner city education is not simply cash; we need strong schools with teachers and leaders who share a profound, robust vision for education and who can create a new optimism, value-structure and vision in the place of what was previously perceived as a 'failing' school. Knocking down the old buildings and replacing them is one way of kick-starting this change, so in that respect the government is maybe doing a good thing by flipping difficult schools out of the rut they are in. However, into that shiny new building you need to put the best, the most energetic, the most gifted, the most committed teachers you can find. And then you need to put an experienced Head and school management team in there and let them get on with it. They will be able to create a new ethos without any need for a friendly electrical retailer on the board of governors to advise.


PS I've never taught in an Academy. If any of my readers have, I sincerely invite you to rubbish all of the above.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Why boys don't read and girls don't take things apart

'In the beginning, boys don't do well at school because their verbal abilities are inferior to those of girls. As a result, they perform poorly in languages, English and the arts...In later years, girls fall behine in physics and sciences where spatial ability is vital. But while remedial language classes are full of boys whose worried parents hope and pray that their sons will eventually be able to read, write and speak properly, no such caveat is put on girls to brush up on their spatial reasoning. They simply end up changing subjects.'

Allan and Barbara Pease, 'Why men don't listen and women can't read maps'

Was reading this book again and came across the above quote, very striking in relation to yesterday's Purves ponderings. I always said that the most important thing you need to take away from your education is the ability to read so would have previously supported this verbal bias in education unthinkingly. I am a 'typical' woman - I can't parallel park, navigate judge spaces - but significantly, I wanted to be an engineer at various times in my childhood (well, a coal miner actually, but what I was expressing was a yearning fascination with heavy machinery, not a desire to be underground.) I did go on to do science A-levels but did not end up in physics or engineering. One reason was that expressed by my Mum as 'You can't be an engineer, people who end up as engineers take things apart and you don't do that'. Well, I did try and make up for this in later years but lacked the instinct and the chutzpah shown by (usually) men when they take your bike/computer apart with the blithe conviction that they will be able to put it together again. I always thought that my Mum was right and I would have been a rubbish engineer anyway.

But let's turn it around. Little boy wants to be a historian because of a fascination with the olden days. Would a parent say 'You can't be a historian, people who end up as historians read a lot and you don't do that'... Hum, maybe, maybe not. But as the Peases point out, there is a huge public concern about the fact that boys don't read enough... and when was the last time you read a newspaper story about how appalling it is that girls don't play with construction toys enough?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Forced to agree with Libby Purves

Less than 48 hours after her first mention on my blog, Ms Purves makes a re-appearance. This article in ATL report is all about the lack of practical content to the modern curriculum. I think she's on to something.

(I had a ruthlessly hands-off education at a girl's school where we didn't even do domestic science because the indomitable head had decreed that 'Any idiot can read a cook book'. Science did include practicals but there again we only did two sciences a term (chemistry and physics, then chemistry and biology, then biology and physics) to make way for the four - four - languages I was studying by the age of 14. I certainly never studied woodwork or metalwork, and my one attempt at pottery was a complete disaster, shattering in the kiln and leaving me with a long-standing animosity towards my art teacher. So I never had a chance to improve my lack of co-ordination through experimenting with my hands, which is certainly a shame.)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Scientific illiteracy (via other blogs of note)

As it's now the Easter holidays I have time to mess around with my Blog template. Be not alarmed if it changes over the next few days.

It's also time to catch up with posts on my other favourite blogs, which in no particular order include

'The Teacher' for wit and misery from the chalkface

'Cornescast' for M's rants (which increasingly rival those of the rant-master himself, Dr Mark Kermode)- Cornes's tend to start out as hardcore computing and end up as tirades against life itself.

'The Dormitory Boys' because nothing sums up the banality and brilliance of the WWW like web cam footage of teenaged Chinese boys lipsynching while their dormitory mates get on with life in the background. (I pretend I'm trying to get inside the minds of my students but really... just watch 'Bu de bu ai')

Anyway, Mr Cornes has a very interesting entry about scientific illiteracy. I think the solution to the problem is teaching school kids the philosophy and sociology of science at school, along with how to deconstruct TV documentaries.

And the solution to getting more and better maths teachers is the same as the solution to many educational problems - make teaching a more enjoyable job by reducing beaurocracy, improving respect and sharing some of the blame for low standards around - it's not always our fault, it's also the fault of government, the media, parents and students themselves; so please step up and take some responsibility...

My 2001 threshold application

It's the Easter Holidays, so for two blissful weeks I only need to go in to school to run catch-up sessions for those who did not complete their coursework (see last post) and can spend much of my time relaxing (in between proof-reading the typing in my students' late coursework submissions, putting the sheets into the right order and then, finally, marking them)

As a result of this free time, I have been tidying up my computer hard disc and came across this - my first ever threshold application from 2001. I thought you (my five readers) might enjoy it.

1 Knowledge and understanding

Please summarise evidence that you have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the teaching of your subject(s), and take account of wider curriculum developments, which are relevant to your work.

- I regularly listen to Radio 4, and take on board all specious and patronising comments targetted at me by Libby Purves, John Simpson etc
- I regularly note the arrival of government directives, packages and initiatives. Sometimes I even flick through them before putting them in a very dark filing cabinet
- I watch Channel 4 documentaries and frequently incorporate the insights gained into my teaching, especially in that last half-hour before the bell goes
- I do aikido evening classes and have signed up for something at the local City Learning Centre, I think it has to do with CD-ROMs or maybe it was ICBMs?

2.1 Teaching and assessment - Planning lessons

Please summarise evidence that you consistently and effectively plan lessons and sequences of lessons, to meet pupils' individual learning needs.

- I consistently plan lessons and then adapt them in an ongoing and dynamic way, incorporating insights gained on the hoof as the class arrive fifteen minutes late and high as kites
- I have written several schemes of work incorporating the next big thing, and successfully disguised the fact that they were simply recycled from the last big thing. These schemes of work are regularly ignored by other members of my department
- I regularly adapt my lessons to meet the individual learning needs of the gifted and talented, by letting them go on the internet when they finish early
- I complete ILP's for all students when I am told to. I always apologise to students with SLDD who's speling I have acidentaly criticised

2.2 Teaching and assessment - Classroom management

Please summarise evidence that you consistently and effectively use a range of appropriate strategies for teaching and classroom management.

- I use a variety of different approaches to classroom management, including shouting, pleading, sarcasm and running out in tears
- I nick every good idea, worksheet and anecdote produced by my PGCE students
- I know a couple of very good jokes about Mancunians in a filing cabinet
- To take account of those who learn best in a self-directed, text based, non-interactive way, I regularly tell students to be quiet and copy out of the book for half an hour
- I have the following technology in my room but never use it because it is broken: electronic whiteboard, OHP, networked computer, blackboard
- I do funny voices and pretend that I am using drama across the curriculum

2.3 Teaching and assessment - Monitoring progress

Please summarise evidence that you consistently and effectively use information about prior attainment to set well-grounded expectations for pupils, and monitor progress to give clear and constructive feedback.

- At the beginning of every year, I analyse all my groups according to the 'method du jour'. I faithfully copy this into my planner and look at it occasionally
- I encourage all my students to maintain appropriate career fanatasies
- I mark regulary, accurately and in depth, giving postive feedback and pointers for improvement. Thanks sir, my pupils say, reading the notes I have written, and using it constructively to improve their next piece of homework, while being careful to avoid the detritus from the airborne swine who congregate in my classroom

3 Pupil progress

Please summarise evidence that, as a result of your teaching, your pupils achieve well in relation to their prior attainment, making progress as good or better than similar pupils nationally. This should be shown in marks or grades in any relevant national tests or examinations, or school based assessment for pupils where national tests and examinations are not taken.

- Using the the 2000 Autumn package, crossed referenced with Yellis, averaging downward to take into account small group size, all my students in Year 11 achieved above the lower quartile range relative to their IQ and ability, except for the one who truanted, the one who went on holiday the week we started that piece of coursework, and the three who used to sit at the back and smoke dope. And that girl with the nosestud but she was a Whole School Problem.

4.1 Wider professional effectiveness - Personal development

Please summarise evidence that you take responsibility for your professional development and use the outcomes to improve your teaching and pupils' learning.

- I have learned the meaning of the following terms and sometimes use them: computer-aided learning, benchmark, learning style, prior attainment data. I almost never call a specification a syllabus
- I have successfully learned how to use each successive new photocopier
- I downloaded this document from the DFES web site
- I have attended all INSETs laid on for me by my school, and do not always sit at the back. I have willingly filled in personality tests, brainstormed, made posters, fed back onto flip charts, learned to juggle and revised my schemes of work, all without complaining

4.2 Wider professional effectiveness - School development

Please summarise evidence that you make an active contribution to the policies and aspirations of your school.

- I aspire to a high status job which earns me big bucks for not doing much work and allows me to blame others for my inadequacies, in common with my Year 11 group
- I support all the rules and policies of the school, I have never blagged chewing gum off a kid, lost confiscated jewellry or feigned deafness when a large Year 11 was listening to a walkman
- I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a delegation, whinging consortium, rumour mill or Union. I never make cynical remarks in INSETs or staff meetings
- I keep my contributions to morning briefing short and to the point

5 Professional characteristics

Much of what you have said earlier in this form will give information about the professional characteristics you show in your teaching. Please give any further examples of how you are an effective professional who challenges and supports all pupils to do their best.

- I inspire trust by wearing the clothes expected of me by generations of teachers. I never buy a new suit unless it is absolutely necessary. I sleep under my desk from time to time
- I challenge all pupils, usually to guess what I am thinking
- I am a team player, giving my colleagues unrestricted access to my lesson plans, resources, pens, pencils, keys, coffee, cigarettes and bank account
- I submit myself to writing time-consuming forms whenever Estelle Morris offers me a decent salary in return for my soul

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Well, it's coursework deadline season. The deadline passes. Do they come and see you, clutching their cherished handful of sheets, hollow-eyed from staying up a little too late but glad it's over?


Do they come in fear and trembling, begging for an extension and crying with relief when you offer an extra night?


Do they come at all?


You see them on the corridor and you say 'Coursework, Boris?' 'Oh, yes, I can let you have it next week.'

No apology, no embarrassment, no shame. No doubt in their minds that they will be able to hand it in right up to the night before the exam board deadline. (Or even after. And they know this deadline because they have read it on the exam board web site.) And no doubt in their minds that the worst we will do is shout at them a bit, which they will deal with using their best Cool Hand Luke impressions. They know that they are untouchable for the simple reason that we cannot afford to let them fail.

So you come home from a day of pre-emptive rants (If you haven't got your coursework tomorrow you will at the very least treat me like a human being and find me in the building and preface your excuse with an apology) to listen to attempts to sort out the problems with the Northern Ireland Assembly which seems to be about one missed deadline after another.

In fact, just look at the first ten hits on a Google search on 'deadline missed' . Maybe the kids are more in tune with the real world than we are.