Saturday, 30 October 2010

Seriously, I really hate inclusion.


This is from my second book, Not Quite a Teacher, out in a few months; it's a training guide for new teachers that uses my tragi-comic rookie experiences as a kind of a lighthouse, warning off new recruits from the reefs and rocks that scuttled me. It's packed with the kind of earthy, homespun wisdom about the actual, dirty-handed practise of teaching that regular readers will recognise from the Forums. I hope it offers a more realistic take than the in-at-the-deep-end philosophy of contemporary teacher training.

I normally blog more on Saturday, but after the TES session running to two and a half hours, I actually seem to have sprained my typing muscles. Still, it was great fun, and thanks to everyone who contributed. And apologies to anyone who didn't get their queries answered due to time; post it on the TES Behaviour forum (link to the right) and I'll reply as soon as I can.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

TES Behaviour forum- the Live Tour


TES On-line Behaviour Clinic

I'll be doing a live, on-line advice session on Friday between 1 and 3pm for anyone who wants to post a question (behaviour management specifically. I mean, feel free to ask about what kind of drill bit you need for MDF or something, but I can't guarantee a superior answer. Besides, it's moderated, so anyone trying to hijack the session like Fathers for Justice will be sorely disappointed.)

It's a bit like the regular TES Behaviour Management forum, only with more spelling mistakes. And the excitement that only a live show can bring. Possibly.

Here's the link.

Clinic. Interesting. I was going to call it a workshop, but as I have an instinctive revulsion against any workshop that doesn't feature spanners and men with pencils behind their ears, I demurred.

UPDATE: I'll be doing some training sessions with the TES on the 29th January 2011: click here to go to the link.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Inclusion: ruining education since 1978



Sir Alan Steer has been poking his oar in again. From the genius that brought us gems like "Only 2% of UK schools have unsatisfactory behaviour" and "behaviour is no worse than it's ever been" comes a new report: 'Excluded teenagers who receive a minimal amount of home tuition are falling into a life of crime and drugs'. Who would have thought? This just in: Fire Is Hot.

Now Surallun seems like a very nice man indeed; I warm to him; I embrace his beardy jowls. But I suspect that if you were to unscrew his skull cap, fill the brain cavity with hard sweets, and somehow mount his lower mandible onto a spring mechanism, you would have a reasonable impression of a Pez Dispenser. Tony Blair's Behaviour Tsar (I had to settle for Guru. It's like a number plate: you have to put your name down on a list, and hope you don't get 'Behaviour Monkey' or 'Behaviour Fairy') has told a cross-party commons committee that children that get themselves turned out of schools often end up as bad lads, hanging round bus shelters and mocking authority.

I imagine the Committee must have fallen off their sedan chairs when they heard that: badly behaved kids often end up badly behaved adults? But Mr Steer! Surely it's the well behaved, high-achieving students that fill our high-security prisons? It's not? Then the world has gone mad! Once they composed themselves I'm sure they thanked Surallun and asked him if he'd mind closing the door on his way out. Seriously; who gets paid for these kind of homilies and home-truths? Who pays for them? Oh yes, us, cheers.
"We have children who are out of school who are receiving as little as an hour a week of home tuition, week after week, month after month," he says. Oh, the horror, the horror. As a teacher who is regularly asked to coordinate or provide work for pupils on temporary exclusions, I can happily report that the return rate of work provided hovers somewhere around the 1% mark. Obviously schools rightly have a legal obligation to provide work for pupils on fixed term exclusions, as part of their national entitlement to free and compulsory education (and we can get ourselves in hot water if we don't provide it).

If only there were some way, Surallun, of these children receiving proper tuition in a wide range of subjects, in custom built premises where they were surrounded by curriculum experts, given free materials, support, and a structured diet of mental and physical challenges that eventually led to qualifications and valuable life experience.

Oh wait, they already do. It's called school. These children put themselves outside of the mainstream community. As a society, we burn a healthy proportion of our GDP on education, and quite right too. The twentieth century saw a progressive increase in the age, gender and curriculum entitlement available to children in the UK, which you can add to Human Rights and the Enlightenment as pillars of Human Civilisation and progress. We try to get as many children into schools as possible for a huge number of reasons. And we mustn't pretend that they're all about the beautiful flower that is the child:

1. Children deserve to flourish
2. Society's values need to be passed on efficiently
3. Societies need skilled work forces across the social spectrum
4. More educated children tend to generate more tax, commit less crimes, and require less welfare commitment.

And so on. It's better to be explicit about our assumptions of the aims of education, rather than pretending that it's all about growing beautiful seeds into fabulous butterflies, or something, and let's hold hands and cry while we talk about how much we love sunrises.

Steer's comments, while being pleasingly tautological, offer us an insight into the apparent helplessness of our school systems to deal with wide-scale misbehaviour.

It isn't their fault- it's ours. Somewhere along the line, we have blurred the definition of responsibility. These children are now the helpless passengers of the school bus, driven to destinies over which they have no influence.

I'm sorry, I must have missed the memo. I teach a lot of Philosophy, which makes me pretty rubbish at most things that involve plugs and building anything useful, but I do know this: moral responsibility assumes the existence of Free Will. If you want to be a Hard Determinist, and speculate that there's no such thing as Free Will, then fine- good luck to you. But the society you envisage as a result of such a conclusion is very different to the way we normally view the human condition. At some point we have to accept that people are responsible for their actions. Children above 11 can be treated as criminally responsible; my pre-teen nieces know the difference between right and wrong. By the time they get to secondary school, their actions are their responsibility. Poverty isn't a necessary condition for anti-social behaviour. Children are responsible for their own behaviour, certainly by secondary. Teachers and schools are responsible for how we react to that behaviour.

All children should be included in mainstream education. Oh you bloody think so? This kind of thinking makes Astrology look credible. The initial aims of this policy were admirable; to make sure that children with disabilities (and I mean proper disabilities, not just 'gets a bit angry if he can't spit on you') weren't marginalised simply on the basis of physical impediments. I might add here that, for instance, provision for blind children in any kind of education wasn't made compulsory until ten years after it was made so for the able-sighted.

But this has evolved in the laboratories of simple-minded educationalist panjandrums to include all children, at any point on the behaviour spectrum, whether their 'need' is behavioural, emotional, social, or any other definition of 'disadvantaged'. Suddenly, somehow, children who exhibit extreme-spectrum behaviour aren't rude or aggressive any more- no, they have 'Emotional and Social Behavioural Disorders'. Pupils who kick off and swear are sent to 'anger management' classes, as if their behaviour was somehow removed from them as people, in much the same way as people with enormous beer guts sometimes pat them disapprovingly and say, 'I'll need to get rid of this,' as if it was something that had been sewn onto them without their knowledge.

Keeping really badly behaved kids in school has been a disaster for children for a generation now. It was the first thing I noticed the very minute I stepped back into classrooms after a twenty year absence, and my opinion hasn't changed. Which ties into...

The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I have yet to discover a philosopher or educationalist who wouldn't die of shame if they were to try to justify this, but that's exactly what we do. We pretend that the child who brings violence or interminable rudeness into the classroom somehow has needs that must be serviced, even at the clear expense of the vast majority of the room. How many lessons are tied up, ruined and abandoned because some charmless oaf has decided to throw her toys out the pram? New teachers are particularly prone to this kind of attack on the classroom, because they haven't yet realised that the rules are no longer in their favour. The child has needs, to be sure: they need to shut the hell up and learn.
It should be as hard as possible to remove a child from school. And it is, it is. Not only do Government guidelines clearly express that schools should exclude permanently as rarely as possible, but schools with high levels of exclusion are judged as having unsatisfactory behaviour by OfSTED. So unsurprisingly, the vast majority of schools have resorted to the easiest way to turn down the dial: they exclude less. Which has the same logic as observing that a society with lots of people in prison must have high levels of crime; ergo, put less people in prison. Problem solved! Except it isn't. The causal relationship runs backwards in this uniquely backwards way of solving the problem. Or to put it another way: every time I go the doctor there's something wrong with me- so don't go to the doctor! Boom boom!

Keep them in! Let schools become a prison for all. As you might guess, I support streaming, because it allows children to be taught at a level appropriate to their ability. Mainstream comprehensive education is a noble aim, but we mustn't be blinkered by orthodoxy to place it beyond scrutiny or critique: it sought to overcome the obvious class divisions of the Tripartite system of grammar, technical and mainstream schools, but it incurred another problem; how do you pitch a lesson to a class of very mixed ability? Oh, there are ways, to be sure, but it's an enormous challenge to the working teacher, lesson after lesson. Almost inevitably, the middle ability gets catered for far more than the extreme spectrum children, which is why we have SEN and G&T inelegantly stapled on to lesson planning.

Incidentally, I have a solution to this mess; I'm not a doom-sayer ('Doom! Doom, I say!'). Bring back the Special Schools in an enormous program that creates meaningful, professional environments where children with genuine special educational needs (as opposed to a wheat intolerance) are catered for with a student/teacher ratio that actually makes a difference. You see, I'm not one of those that just wants the difficult kids slung out on the streets- I actually want them to land somewhere that will look after them with a combination of tough love and concerned structure and discipline. Mainstream classes are not the right environment for a minority of the children we 'teach'; teachers don't have the time, and the other kids can't afford the disruption to their lives and educations.

If Alan Steer really wanted to make a helpful suggestion, he could abandon the well-meant but hopelessly undermining attitude that behaviour isn't really so bad, and that kids will behave well if the lessons are more interesting, and instead tackle the main causes of the behaviour crisis in schools: inclusion, inclusion, and...oh yes. Inclusion.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Auschwitz: Life, death and the Anti-Life


I took two students to Auschwitz this week. So much has been written about it that it feels like there are no more words to write. And what would be the point? In fact, what’s the point of going there at all? Historians tell us that one and a half million people passed through the gates, loaded into cattle trucks, worked like animals, treated like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals. One and a half million. This is an impossible number to grasp; like encountering a wall that stretches left and right forever, only to be told that it’s not a straight line, but a vast circle, immeasurable and incomprehensible. There’s no purchase on such a statistic; it refutes all attempts to reduce it to anything that can fit in one’s imagination.

The Holocaust deniers take what might even be an understandable view: such a figure is impossible, they say. No, it was only half a million, or a hundred thousand, or none. The very scale of the Holocaust cloaked it in the invisibility of disbelief during the war; the Allies and even the Jewish nation at large couldn’t conceive of its possibility.

Does the figure even matter? On one level, no. Two million dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia; twenty million starved under Stalin and Mao; hundreds of thousands in Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda. The mind’s eye blurs them into a tragic mass, all capability to discern and distinguish individuals crushed by time and distance, by the space between the one of ‘I’ and the overwhelming multiplicity of ‘the many’.

But we are not doomed by this inability; there are ways to at least begin to understand. I cannot even contemplate a distance over, say, a mile, not vividly. The distance between here and Glasgow is 400 miles or so; impossible to conceive when I close my eyes. But I can get there, by travelling as everyone else does; one mile at a time. So it is with Auschwitz. The only way that we, singular, finite units can understand is by understanding each story, one at a time. To even try to do so is to fall into the seemingly endless chasm of Auschwitz. To not do so is to deny the very thing that animates and unites us; our humanity.

One story; In 1941 Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan Friar who was captured and sent to Auschwitz One, the first camp, converted from Army Barracks into a work prison. In punishment for a prisoner escaping, the Camp Deputy- Commander lined up the prisoners and selected ten to be taken away and starved to death as a warning. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men instead- a man he didn’t know. They were kept naked without food for twenty days in an underground cell no bigger than a garden shed; Kolbe lasted so long that, impatient, the Commander ordered his death, by injection of carbolic acid.

That’s one story, and admittedly an inspiring one. There were six and half million stories in the Holocaust, and every one of them is important because every life is important. Kolbe’s story is exceptional because it describes how the purest of motives and deeds can perhaps only blossom in the darkest of soils; the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow behind it. Visiting the cramped, exposed cattle sheds where human beings huddled together with each other three to a bed, some dead, some alive, some dying, most rotting with dysentery, typhus and excrement, the miserable, insufficient sanitation, seeing the chambers where Mengele experimented on Gypsy twins, the starvation rooms, the ash pits where cremated remains were buried...it piles horror upon horror until you feel buried under its weight. No wonder numbness is a common reaction.

And how did we react? As I walked around with Emily and Dami, two fantastic students, we fell silent very quickly, as did everyone. The place cows you into sincerity and sobriety as you start to absorb each grotesque diorama. Iconic images like the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the entrance are emblematic of every horror film imaginable; worse, as any artistic representation of horror can only feebly mirror the monstrous life here. Again, it is magnified into an infinite regress by the numbers involved. Such films seek to shock and disturb with their careful attention to our fear of pain, but Auschwitz presents us with something worse: a testimony to real torture and pain, endured not by a cast of a few dozen, but of millions; not over a comfortable hour and a half, but over years.

For me, curiously the exhibit within the museum that touched me the most was the collection of spectacles, thousands of them, stripped from their owners in the Sauna as they entered, and recycled by the Nazis. They sat in an enormous ball of steel, chaotic and bent, behind glass. Every single pair of legs embraced a human head, and the brain within; their memories, their personalities, their ambitions and their life. Each life as incomparably precious to its owner as my own. I felt my own glasses sit heavily across the bridge of my nose and tried to imagine them as part of that enormous heap in front of me, myself as vanished and eradicated as they were.

For others it was the room full of human hair, bleached grey by time; for some it was the thousands of artificial limbs, or the enormous room full of suitcases, each one written with the name of its owner, some of them bearing return addresses. The refugees had brought everything they thought they would need, and to see the collection of useless, pathetic artefacts was pitiful in the extreme. They thought they were going to be relocated; instead they were buried. Someone had even brought a set of measuring scales. Can you imagine? A set of cooking scales. In Auschwitz.

On and on and on it went. Finally, as the Sun set, we gathered around the memorial in Birkenau, Auschwitz II, where the train tracks ended. By now we had the camp to ourselves. Rabbi Barry Marcus led our group in a service. He provided us with something that I think the visit needed; a clear voice of outrage. It is fine, up to a point, to be reflective, and introspective, and measured in one’s response to the place, but allowing it to be seen as darkly as we wish, we risk reducing the Holocaust to something almost comfortable and ignorable.

He spoke eloquently and beautifully about the necessity of seeing Auschwitz for what it was: the celebration of death; an assault on what it means to be human. As he blew the Shofar Horn and its lonely note sounded in that dark camp where so very recently, Judaism was being rounded up and reduced to lampshades, fertiliser and soap, I realised how vital it was to keep that fact clear in our minds. In a secular age where the old ethical foundations have been unsettled and often toppled by the moral earthquakes of the twentieth century- of which Auschwitz was an essential agent- moral relativism and non-cognitivism are often attractive intellectual and emotional responses to a world that seems to display no inherent justice or provide any karmic reassurances that the good will be rewarded and evil punished.

And I can see that, I really can. But Auschwitz reminded me that, despite the obvious presence of an ethical compass, pointing to True North, this one thing remains: if this is not evil, then nothing is, and nothing matters, and nothing has value. Let Auschwitz stand as a bloody foundation stone to a moral pyramid, if something has to. Let every principle and creed evolve from this axiom: Auschwitz is the anti-life.

School trips are rightly aimed at enriching the experience of the students who participated. A place like Auschwitz becomes what you bring to it: on the surface of things, all there is to see are rows and rows of decimated sheds, rubble, pre-war barracks and abandoned avenues. Take away the history and there is nothing to see; the blood has soaked deep into the soil by now, and the adage that ‘here, nothing lives’ is a patent nonsense. Auschwitz teems with life; nature in its infinite variety breeds here with abandon and fecundity; sparrows swarm and even a faun dashed across our paths early in the evening, as a haunting counterpoint to the palpable presence of barbarity and death that we had steeped ourselves in. Dami and Emily had the sensitivity and maturity of spirit to bring to this trip what was required, as seemingly did the many dozens of students with us: humanity.

The Rabbis finished his service in what was now night, by singing a low, slow Jewish prayer. It reminded me of sand, and sadness, and thousands of years of Diaspora, alienation and sorrow. Kitty Hart-Moxon, the Survivor who had spoken to us the week previously summed it up. She said, ‘Everyone sees Auschwitz as a place where people died. But for some of us, it was also a place where you lived.’ As we walked back to the coach along the rail tracks in the dark, placing our candles along the sleepers and leaving them as sad punctuation marks in Auschwitz’s traumatised soil, I thought of everyone that couldn’t leave. Every life here mattered. Every life still does. The death of one person is a tragedy to us all; if it isn’t, then my life is also without value, because it is made of the same matter.

Whatever happens to us when we die, wherever we go or not, we must treasure our humanity, and that of others; not because we fear death, but because we value life. Herr Einstein tells us that the nature of time is somehow simultaneous; that all pasts, presents and futures are wrapped together into a state of endless, perpetual presence. From this secular, emprirical perspective, no one who has ever passed is ever truly lost: lost to us perhaps, but enduring, existent in a way we can barely fathom. I find that comforting. The victims of death remain, somehow, even if it defies our perception.

May they remain forever in the company of the ones they love.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Low Standards: How Journalism Works


Learned a valuable lesson this week about how real life gets made over into news stories, and it wasn't edifying.

There was a tragic accident at my school on Wednesday. That's as much information as anyone needs to know, because the people that need to know about the minutia already do, and that's the way it should be. As someone once said, 'Just because you're interested in something doesn't mean you have the right to know about it.' Which I think is a pretty fine counterpoint to the argument that everyone's private spheres should be shredded and put on Youtube if there is even the rumour of any public interest in it. A girl fell from a height and seriously injured herself. If you need to know more, Google will assist you. It's a family matter, and to a much smaller extent, a school and community one.

The aftermath is what I want to talk about; particularly a grim news item that appeared in what I will mellifluously refer to as a London Daily Newspaper. It was just a short story, no more than a footnote really, referring to the accident. I'll quote you:

A young girl is fighting for her life after falling six floors down a stairwell at her school.

Terrified pupils are thought to have watched as the girl, 11, fell over the banister of a stairwell at the Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green on to her head.

Two years ago an Ofsted report criticised the quality of the school's buildings.

In 2008 Ofsted inspectors said: "The school's curriculum, which is satisfactory overall, is hindered by the restriction placed on it by buildings which are not always fit for purpose."

How journalism works 1: If there are six flights of stairs in my school, I’ll be very interested to see it. Two floors, certainly, which could generously be described as having four flights of stairs between them. Still, six sounds more exciting, doesn’t it? Stick it in.

How journalism works 2: Pupils, terrified or otherwise, didn’t watch as anyone fell over a banister, as all testimony and camera evidence has shown. On the other hand, it’s far more exciting to imagine it if there were. Stick it in.

I suppose we could be generous and say that the reporter did say It was thought, which could mean that the reporter thought it even if it never happened. That’s nice, isn’t it? If I can think it, I can say It Was Thought. A nice linguistic syllogism.

How journalism works 3: The OfSTED report quoted here does indeed make reference to the building as being ‘not always fit for purpose’. No argument there. Which makes it sound as if it was an accident waiting to happen, and we were teaching in a death trap. That’s bad enough; what really pulls my pin out is the implication that the school (by which I mean the staff) allowed this situation to happen and continue. The insinuation is clear, and vile. Because what OfSTED were referring to was the fact that the building, custom-built to Victorian civic specifications, is essentially a different shape, size and structure to what more modern civil architects would design were they to build a new school in 2010. That’s all. Some of the rooms are slightly too large, some of them slightly too small and other more heartbreakingly trivial points. The building (including the banisters) is safe and sturdy. There hasn't been a premises related accident in living memory or historical record.

But of course, five minutes on Google and the discovery that the building had in some small ways come up short, and we no longer have a tragedy, we have a story. In a vacuum of information, speculation and imagination act as oxygen. What we imagined to have happened becomes what happened, because no one can challenge it, as if the truth was so bleak and unclear that it needed to be tarted up to be taken to market. Well, I don't have the circulation of the Newspaper, but the school deserves an advocate, so I'll make it as an individual and not as a representative of the school body.

I can speak with some authority on this: I was teaching a hall of sixth formers, metres away from the accident. I was amongst the staff who were at the scene within seconds, and it is something I hope I never have to repeat. Unlike the reporter, I can confirm the facts, such as they are, and I can confirm how plain, grey and awful they are. They don’t need to be sexed up to inflame interest; if the truth isn’t exciting enough for the prurient tastes of writers or readers then they should pursue fiction and let people endure disaster without the added indignity of conjecture. I was touched and proud of the school's response to this accident, and the response of the students and other staff. I was less proud that anyone should see opportunity in tragedy for anything other than a respectful description. But why wait for the facts, when fantasy sells stories? The fact that it was such a tiny article, such a scant but scathing aside tossed in to such a small report, makes the implication stand out even more. There was, it must be said, no need to do so.

Why does this happen? I won’t repeat the sin of speculating about a particular reporter’s motives. But I’ll exercise my right to theorise in general. Tragic accidents resist explanation or reasoning; they defy our intuitive habit of trying to explain why things happened, because asking why implies that an intention was at work behind the events. That’s why we turn so easily from blunt descriptions of events towards ‘who’s to blame’ and ‘who can we point at?’

Witness the Volcanic eruption that parked all the planes this year: the story hovered around ‘Volcano erupts’ for a few days because nobody could blame anybody, until quickly it descended into ‘Who’s to blame...for people not getting home/ paying for the hotels, etc?’ It’s as if we need to try to find purchase on tragedy and blind fate, because we can’t imagine that sometimes, things are beyond our control, that we aren’t complete masters of our destinies, and that sometimes, just sometimes, accidents happen and the only correct response is to mourn and to endure.

Dedicated to the family.




Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Why teaching is still one of the best jobs in the world




Most of the time it's very easy to dwell on the flaws in the education system- and oh my deary, but it's a compelling place to dwell. But it would be mean minded, and evident of profound self-loathing, if we didn't occasionally recall (I nearly said 'touch base' there, and then I would have had to ritually purify myself) why we endure the flack, the angst and the frustration. I had two experiences in the last 24 hours that gave me what alcoholics would call 'a moment of clarity'.

First of all: yesterday I and two of my finest A-level students attended a seminar organised by the Lessons from Auschwitz project, in preparation for a day-visit to the death camp of Auschwitz- Birkenau in Poland(and I do mean a day visit; leave at 5am, back by midnight. The Scarlet Pimpernel spends more time when he comes to town). At four hours, it promised to be a difficult, if entirely necessary experience. Afterwards, I felt I would have paid to attend. The reason was the electric, softly dramatic presence of Kitty Hart-Moxon, a Polish/ English survivor of World War Two's most infamous human abattoir. What an incredible woman.

What amazed me was how animated, how alive she looked, for a woman in her eighties. She spoke for an hour like a machine gun, well practised after decades of recital. But her testimony was vital, intense, detailed and personal. She said, 'Many people just think of Auschwitz as somewhere that people died; but it was also somewhere people lived.' And live she did- two years in a camp that held 100,000 people; so many that she said she survived because she knew how to 'hide'. To be where the killers were not- and the most immediate danger there was, she said, was not the guards, but the fellow inmates, the privileged, the favoured prisoners who could have you killed. Those, she learned to avoid. The average prisoner lived three months; they couldn't bear the awful reality of the cold, the starvation, the worthlessness of human life. But Kitty, like others endured; and the more she did, she said, the more she wanted to keep surviving, because she had come so far.

She talked about the peculiar hierarchy that existed in the prisoners- with German criminals at the top, political prisoners, then other nationalities, then Jews and so on and so on, in a similar way that hierarchies exist within any prison. The inmates segregated themselves into racial and ethnic groups, for communicative as much as survival reasons, reminding me of Hobbes' comment that all men, being rational and self-interested, will flee the state of nature, and create a civil society, the Social Contract, in order to advance self-interest through mutual cooperation.

Religion, she said, was a chimeric motivation: some looked at the endless squalor and the bottomless degradation and said, 'Where is God?' Others woke up every morning thanking God for sparing them another night. There was no universal reaction, no flight into disappointed atheism or soothing theism. The spiritual experience was relative to the beholder.

Kitty herself survived on the possessions of the dead; shocking to the comfortable contemporary sensibility, but a savage necessity in a world of endless competition and brutality; the alternative was to try to jump onto the hierarchy and make a position for yourself with the collaborators and the capos. She told a string of horror stories, each one more appalling than the most childish of slasher porn films that infect mainstream cinema, because they were true: the time her mother hid her under a corpse in order to avoid an inspection that would have killed her for having Typhus; or when she watched her friends being executed, and she was ordered to load their bodies on to a van; or when she and her family were told they would be shot in the morning (with the accompanying night of terror and awful cognizance preceded it), lined up, only to find that when the guards fired, they were pretending, and they weren't to be killed then. And so the stories went on.

Just as touching was the Q&A afterwards; it was humbling to think of a question, any question you might have ever wondered about Auschwitz- did the guards associate in any way with the prisoners?- and to hear the answer given by a first hand account, with detail, emotional context and utter sincerity. It was utterly authentic, and liberated the story of Auschwitz from the well-meaning pages of an infinite series of books or documentaries. Mesmerising.

The second experience was another special guest, one I had invited into my school; Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre came to speak to my sixth form. Ian had been involved- and escaped- from a Canadian Cult years ago, and devoted his time to teaching about the dangers and methods of, and countermeasures against cults in the UK and internationally. Like Kitty, his familiarity and prominence in the field was an honour to behold.

He spoke confidently and authoritatively about a subject which is increasing in prominence because of the very public movements of Scientology in the UK. Not that I'm making a connection between Scientology and cults, because as Ian pointed out, they have a penchant for suing people that make that claim, and even my humble blog might fall under their omni-computer or something, endlessly trawling Google for defamatory comments.

So I am in no way saying that the Church of Scientology is in any way associated with quack science, pseudo religion, cults of personality revolving around a quasi-mystical semi-divine leader who has found 'the answer;, and which doesn't like being scrutinised, criticised, probed too deeply as to its aims and core beliefs, and requires substantial cash payments to progress through the hierarchy. Oh, or that it likes to segregate members from their non-Church family members. I'm just concerned, that's all.

Like I say, he was fascinating, and I recommend anyone who is interested to get in touch with him and the CIC here, because it's very worthwhile. And I thought to myself- for there was no one else with whom to do so- how lucky we are sometimes, to be in this kind of job; where you can go from one once-in-a-lifetime experience, to another. There aren't many jobs where variety, challenge and inspiration are- or can be- integral parts of the professional experience. This job's a blast.

I'll get back to the snide, cheap shots at Michael Gove and his ilk soon.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Weird Science: superstition, spoon bending and spurious research


I was hugging myself with glee to read this article in the TES this week: Sydenham High School, where parents drop £12K a year to have their girls turned, out have introduced scented oils with the 'pungent aromas of lavender, grapefruit and mint' into their classrooms. Which sounds very lovely, actually. Nothing wrong with making your class smell of something other than Lynx, desperation and paper mould.

At this point, the article bicycles off the cliff of 'fair enough' into the abyss of 'you're kidding me on, right?' The school claims it has adopted these oils in order to 'aid students' recall of key facts in exams'. Let me check that I'm on the right page: having a nice smell in the classroom will help students remember things? I'm not saying that a nicer, more pleasant classroom doesn't have a general beneficial influence on how people feel- and it's fairly uncontroversial to claim that people will enjoy lessons more if the room doesn't stink of tummy gas and KFC boxes.

But that's not the claim being made here, which is something delightfully specific: that performance can be measurably improved by the use of what appears to be Body Shop Bath Bombs. And what a wonderful world that would be, ladies and gentlemen; forget complicated strategies to raise attainment in students via well trained professional teachers, improving social welfare and tackling other deeply unsexy civic fractures- we can massage their memory cortexes by teaching them through their noses.

Says who? Anthony Padgett, the owner of Memory Oils, who claims that a handkerchief soaked in grapefruit oil helped his dyslexic daughter through her exams. "She was predicted Bs and Cs in her GCSEs," he said. "But she came out with A*, As and Bs. She puts it down to the oils." Great Krypton! A pupil who was predicted Bs and Cs ends up with, er...Bs, and better. Did you have a magic lamp with a genie?

That could never happen under the laws of physics as we know it- a pupil exceeding their predicted grades! Have you ever heard of such a thing? That would suggest that grade predictions aren't some kind of immutable engine of predestination that can only be thwarted in some nightmarish dream.

I wonder how Mr Padgett established beyond clinical refutation that his daughter carrying around a smelly handkerchief in class (I imagine she was popular- 'that weird kid with the handkerchief that smelled like a fruit basket') was the significant factor in her impressive performance. That's the problem with anecdotal claims about specific outcomes; unless proper, controlled procedures have been put in place to test any hypothesis to exhaustion, any reliance on an unrepresentative sample is doomed to pointlessness. In other words, I might have worn my lucky pants to the interview, but it doesn't explain why I got the job.

Stories like these are adorable; and then they're just depressing, because it indicates at least two

1. Professionals- teachers, SLT, LEA wallahs- waste their time on spurious, feel-good medicine- man quick fixes, rather than focus on issues that we know create good schools; effective behaviour, well trained subject experts, and supportive parents, to name a few.

2. Lazy thinking: if the people responsible for educating our youth are satisfied with the mushy-minded candy floss non-thinking required to support these kind of non-scientific claims to efficacy, then God help the kids, because they'll be raised by people without an atom of discernment between clear, structured thinking, and accepting any old rot that appeals to their poet's souls.

I repeat my earlier assertion: I'm all for classrooms that smell nice. Give me your petition and I'll sign it. But to claim that it has a measurable effect, and roll out a few dubious papers of dodgy provenance to support it, is huckstering of the foulest order. Education has enough on its plate, without spoon benders and fortune tellers pimping out their simple minded voodoo on gullible, unsuspecting children. Sydenham should hang their heads in shame, or admit they like it because it 'just smells nice'.

I'll leave the penultimate word with Steve Garnett, quoted as the author of...well, some more spoon bending hokum; he suggests the following moonshine:

'To Reduce stress - spiced apple, rose and chamomile.

- Reduce anxiety - vanilla, neroli and lavender.

- Relax - basil, cinnamon and citrus flowers.

- Energise - peppermint, thyme and rosemary.

- Relieve tiredness - woody scents, cedar and cypress.'

I suggest one more: reduce intelligence- bullshit. I wonder if I can flog that on my website too?

Hands off education, Witch Doctors, and get back to the Dark Ages. We're on to you.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

This is going to Hurt me more than it hurts you...


Gladiators ready! Michael Gove continues to surprise with his reasonableness, by declaring that from now on, teachers will be allowed to use reasonable force in classrooms, and encourages schools to abandon well-meaning but self-defeating 'no contact' policies, which were designed to safe guard children (and quite right too) but ended up with teachers standing by as kids got pulverised. Read the BBC report here.

So; another week, another teacher friendly policy. If he's not careful, the Unions won't know who to protest against*, given that he's promised to practically abandon the school Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) and now, streamline the diktats from The Department of Silly Teaching to something digestible.

Hang on, though; this isn't a new initiative. In April 2010 the DCSF (as the Laughter Factory was known then) issued guidelines that advised teachers they had these powers and rights already; to use 'reasonable force' to prevent harm, damage to property, or to maintain good order in lessons and the school at large. This meant that teachers could, say, use an open palm to herd someone out of a room; to hold an attacker in order to prevent a fight; or remove a weapon from someone's hand without their consent. Obviously, the word 'reasonable' still left enough details blurred to allow any number of devils, but at least the guidelines were backed up by the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act (ASCL) 2009, so it had solid legal foundations.

AND, under an initiative spearheaded by that stalwart of Conservatism, er Gordon Brown, Heads already have the power to approve searches of a pupil's bag or locker without their consent (with reasonable grounds) if there is suspicion of the presence of knives, alcohol, pornography, tobacco, electronic devices, and most importantly here, drugs. In fact, they can even search for and seize legal drugs such as methadone or glue. So Gove's expansion of this list to include anything 'prohibited by school rules' will expand that club to include...what? Waterloo Road DVDs? Tuck?

So; has Gove simply reiterated what already exists? Has he simply announced that, from now on, oxygen will be free to all UK citizens, and that anyone who wants to breathe in and out can do so safe from the fear of incurring charges? It looks like it, and teachers will be watching the content of his speech with an understandable mixture of interest, scrutiny, and low hopes. Given the relationship between the profession and their Whitehall Gradgrinds, I can't say I blame them.


*unlikely.