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.