Sunday, 17 June 2012

Shazam! Teacher training, Teach First, and Gove's balls of marble.

'The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The stamina of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The courage of Achilles! The speed of Mercury!'

In the old Fawcett comic strip, Captain Marvel, the eponymous Olympian, magically embodied the six greatest qualities of crypto-history's six greatest heroes, which conveniently formed a mononymous acrostic in a way beloved of lazy english teachers setting homework everywhere. (Seriously: stop telling small children about this form of poetry. You condemn teachers to a stream of homeworks that look like this:


You SEE what Billy did there? DO YOU SEE? Give me strength. I usually smile, and say, 'Hahaha how long did this take you on the way in?' And we all laugh about it years later when they're robbing me on a night bus. Acrostic make wonderful mnemonics, and for fans of obsessive-compulsive disorders, and pedantry, I'm sure it's a hoot. For twelve year olds: less instructive. I'm sure some will defend it as an entry-level introduction to poetry, which is why I always start my kids off with John Cage's '4' 33'', as an introduction to nursery rhymes.)

But I digress, like a turkey stalling for time on Christmas Eve.

I suspect our very own wizard, Michael Gove, has been at the educational pick and mix too, judging by this speech he gave at the National College annual conference this week. 'The High Expectations of Singapore! The Success of Finland! The Exanple of Charter Schools in New York! The Transformation of London!'

Which spells 'Heset'. Hmmmm. MICHAEL GOVE ARE YOU F*CKING WITH MY MIND? See, this is how loonies get switched on to the Bible Code, or hearing messages from The Horned One in the lyrics of Judas Priest, or Katy Perry (especially her last hit Natas evol I)

It read...HESET.
Of course, any announcement by an incumbent Education Secretary will provoke gales, raging from hurricane hysteria to squalls of support. So what's the loveable rascal saying now?

1. Isn't London doing jolly well?

Is it? He quotes the stat that 62% of London kids leave with 5 A*-Cs, compared with 58% nationally. So far, so what; a 4% lead won't moisten any seats. But he 'digs deeper' to reveal that while nationally 35% of Free School Meal kids get 5 A*-C (including English and Maths) in London that figure is 52% Hooray! LET FREEDOM RING FROM THE HILLS OF HACKNEY ROAD TO THE SWAMPS OF HAMPSTEAD. He points to this miracle as being borne out of Academies, Outstanding schools supporting others, and 'a focus on improving the teaching- including Teach First.'

Except that this just doesn't follow. Regular visitors will know my pet saw; that in educational science, figures mean what you want them to mean, and linking cause and effect is as easy and  plastic as Playdo. If, every Saturday morning I wake up with a sore head, do I conclude that Saturday mornings cause sore heads? Or might I look to the pile of empty Talisker bottles that decorate my Ottoman? It's telling that he points to a metric that he replaced- the 5 A*-C bar, because that success criteria was famously gamed by schools in a Darwinian scramble for better and better results. One way this was achieved was by the adoption of BTECs and other qualifications, with their massively disporportionate equivalence to GCSEs. And where were these qualifications targeted? The D/C boundaries, and below. More capable kids didn't reap the same proportionate benefits, of course.

'Oscillate you hip and don't take pity
Me want fi see you get live upon the riddim when me ride.'
And schools aggressively targeted the C/D borderline kids, in one of recent educational history's most vile campaigns of injustice. Did you think schools were for everyone? Not a bit- bright kids could swim already, the least able could go drown in a shitty barrel because they would anyway, and the nearly-there's were VIPs, invited and goaded into interventions that must have made them feel, if nothing else, jolly special.

So while we can all pat ourselves on the backs for such a lovely FSM bottom line, let's not ignore what the figures conceal. After all, the coalition has successfully argued that schools were gaming the system, and changed the rules. And schools will bend themselves to that new order, and what is not measured will ultimately be ignored, as it always is.

There is another debate about academies, but let's not pretend that the figures show that they are grade-boosting engines of destiny. There are great ones and terrible ones, just as there are champions in the state sector, as well as chumps. The irony is that the more prescriptive the state system got (and let's be frank, it was getting to the point where we were nearly having our urine tested), the more damage to teaching resulted. Try and make every teacher and school fit into the same cookie cutter and see how far it gets you. Oh, we have. Ah.

This government is often accused of being both tyrannical despots of dictatorialism AND dismantlers of a state system that unifies and directs practice. Which is it? We appear to be run by Bruce Banner. There's an odd two-lane system in education right now- the national curriculum is being reworked at the same time as schools are being encouraged/ strong-armed out of the LEAs. The message seems to be 'ACADEMY STATUS WILL SET YOU FREE FROM THE TYRANNIES AND INEQUITIES OF......THE THINGS WE'LL TELL YOU TO DO.' What is going on?

Let me be clear- I think schools should have more autonomy; I think we've reached a point of synthesis in education- the internal stresses of the last few decades have to break something somewhere. But the argument that they result in better grades simply won't do- there isn't enough data yet; and claiming that they are the philosopher's stone to low grades just isn't scientifically tenable, when there are so many other possible explanations for grade improvement.

And that's without even beginning to get into the debate of whether grade progression is, or should be the main way that schools are assessed externally.

2. Teach First: better, faster, stronger, harder.

Then he claims that Teach First teachers have made a small but significant impact. I'm calling this one out, as I was involved in a similar predecessor program called Fast Track. Where's the evidence that it's building the teachers of tomorrow? The Fast Track was an expensive recruitment campaign, and most of my peers from my cohort have long since buggered off (or 'taught first', I should say...). The expectation seems to be that we'll have better teachers if we aggressively recruit top-flight graduates and those with business experience. But while I always applaud any drive to ensure that teachers are as academic as possible, it's not a sufficient condition of being a better teacher, above a certain level of certification. And as for business experience, I am reminded of the Troops to Teachers-style recruitment currently being rolled out. It's not that great graduates, business managers or ex-soldiers wouldn't be great teachers - I'm sure many would be, and are- but that the skill sets don't overlap in a particularly meaningful way. 

Besides, I can't find any data that suggests that TF teachers have done more or less to change education than any other cohort. Some, I bet, are total stars; some are Smeagols, no doubt. Funny that. Just like everyone else. And also, the training is punishing; all on-the-job, where the stakes couldn't be higher. It's a route (like GTP) that suits some, but is a devilishly risky way to teach a teacher. Here's some deep water, dive in. Oh dear, etc.

Oh, and I gather the drop-out rate for TFs isn't too impressive, which isn't surprising given the incredibly stressful way they're introduced to teaching. Yet the GTP route is being fazed out, which had many of the same stresses and strains.

3. Bursaries for highly qualified teachers to train.

I have no complaints about this (surprisingly enough), as I see no harm with putting incentives in front of prospective teachers with better degrees. Which isn't to say it's a necessary condition for a great teacher (see previous), but a good asset to have rather than not. Especially in shortage subjects. Eeh, I'm old enough to remember when there were bursaries for RS teachers, ah... good times.

4. Teaching Schools.

An aim to have 500 of these by the end of Parliament (I presume he means this session, but you never know; they might be dismantling the Old Lady or something. The Queen's been looking shifty lately, that's all I'm saying). The Teaching School Network: applications of this were so high, sayeth Gove, that he was 'blown away, man'. I applaud and fret about this: too many teachers enter the profession knowing more about Learning Hats than practical teaching skills, and there have been many, many members of the training establishment who were so out-of-touch with classrooms that they could barely remember which way up kids the USB went into the kid. But what they do provide is a useful reflection point on the training, and structured interpretation of the the teaching experience.

Training schools- they MIGHT work, but I'm curious: the quality of provision would be crucial, and that depends on people, not policies. Get a great teacher-trainer and you get great teacher training. Get a mug, and end up swimming in ordure. These schools would have to work their knackers off keeping great teacher-trainers. And how do you assess that? By other great trainers, I would suggest, although given my experience of the marketised school system, it will probably be moderated by an Ofsted-style tick sheet. Plus ca change.

What proportion of staff could be trainees? There's a tipping point where the training experience could damage the learning experience, unless the kids were very biddable. And if they were so biddable, then teachers won't learn much about behaviour management. We already have training hospitals, but at least with them you get a grown-up to make sure no one gets their frenellum stitched to their chins.

So: if Training Schools are just a cheap way of churning out exhausted, nerve-wracked cannon fodder who have no idea why they're teaching, or any sense of different styles of pedgagogy rather than 'what I saw from my trainer' then this could be a disaster. But then any scheme could. It could produce teachers with their eyes firmly on the classroom, and not on Dewey or Rousseau or any of a hundred romantic education wreckers.

I'll say this for the Goveinator; he has balls of purest marble. He really, really couldn't give a monkeys what anyone else thinks. Now that might be seen as a weakness by many, but to some extent this is a necessary quality of someone in a position of power. It has been famously observed that decisons made by committee are usually those those that offend the least number of people. Sometimes decisive action needs to be taken, and it takes a hard-ass to steer them through. You may criticise MG's policies, but I really don't have a problem with the fact that he isn't a big listening teddy bear. EVERY education minister drives through their own policies, and let's not pretend that any politican has any kind of duty to listen to everyone, stroke their big politician chins and pick the decision everyone agrees with. I like decisiveness in a politician: kind of makes a change.

Of course, his content can be challenged. But don't damn the man for sticking his flag in the sand.  Too many people have decided, 'Oh he's a Tory, so everything he says is evil and bad.' Well, from where I'm standing, I'm not seeing any smoke signals more inspiring from the Labour camp either, as they adopt the arse-in-the-air position of trying to please everyone, so beloved of politicians hungry for votes everywhere.

Gove then finished with a live set that included poetry readings from Michael Rosen,  and a punk acappella tribute to Tupac entitled 'Only Dave can Judge me.' Hollah.


'And then the Phonics Monster gobbled him up!'
Phonics. I'm a secondary teacher, specialising in Philosophy and RS. What I have to say about the acquisition of language is loaded towards fuck all. And yet LO: it appears that everyone is now an expert on it. I'm serious- everyone and their maiden Auntie has become a child psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a philologist. Holy Smoke, where can I get me some of whatever they're drinking?

It's odd, this sudden expertise everyone has. In fact, no it's not; listen to any pub full of gym-dodging lardies when the Euro's on, and you'll see this punditry in action. Do phonics work? Do phonics decimate language acquisition? I don't know- and neither, I suspect, do most of the people talking about it. And not just talking, but getting REALLY RED UNDER THEIR VESTS about it. It has become a Shibboleth- are you FOR us, or.....*beady eye* *fingers cutlass* AGINST US, YE DOG? Both sides are apparently convinced that the other side will liquidise the minds of children with their devilish, continental ways.

There is, I'm sure, a decent debate to be had about this, but if your mindset is 'Gove versus the DEATH, and to the victor the spoils, arrr', then you need to adjust the contrast on your conceptual telly, because it is set way too high.

1 comment:

  1. Just a bit of Teach First experience which although anecdotal, is nonetheless valid for that, especially considering what passes for "research" in the world of educational ICT! I was a tutor for Teach First in their first ever year and an indication of how much of a fan of the programme I am, is that I've subsequently persuaded two different companies to sponsor them. I tutored a whole bunch of their trainees in, and out of school, and observed them teach dozens of lessons. Without a doubt they put some outstanding teachers into the classroom who would never otherwise have got there. I did a little test for myself and found I could even now, all these years later, instantly name 11 tutees of mine who were simply breathtakingly good teachers. One of the secrets was their selection process which not only put emphasis on subject expertise and ability, but very deliberately chose people who would never have even contemplated teaching via any other route.