Saturday, 28 July 2012

Uri Geller bent my classroom: a parable of bad science in education


'Guess where this has been?'
I met Uri Geller once. You may know him as the Israeli illusionist and magic man who claims, among other things, that aliens visited him when he was a boy and gave him the world-changing ability to...bend spoons. No, I don’t know what they aliens were playing at either. Bending spoons doesn’t stand high on my wish list of superpowers, but I expect it’s jolly important to the fate of humanity. Anyway. Uri Geller makes a living bending spoons, and telling people he can bend spoons, which means he must hang out with a lot of fairly stupid people,. He was a chum of Michael Jackson, you know. Isn’t that nice? The King of Crawl and Magneto, Master of Cutlery and condiments. What a pair. Mankind’s only hope.

So I met him. I was running a restaurant (TGI Fridays, for my sins) in London, Piccadilly Circus, and Mr Geller was in town, on a tour bending spoons. (Jesus Christ, I feel like I’m writing this about the Victorian Music Halls- ‘Mr Geller the Israelite will bend metal paraphernalia to his will using electromagnetic mesmerism’ etc) He was dining right in the centre of an already indiscreet restaurant, and we had clocked him the moment he walked in. There aren’t many spoon benders, to be fair. 

At the end of the meal, he jumped up (I am not making this up- he leapt up like I was in a cutlery set. I feared for my belt –buckle) and grabbed me by the wrist.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he said. He was staring at me like I had murdered his family. He had presence, I’ll give him that.
‘Of course, Mr Geller,’ I said, big smoothie. ‘You're very well known.’ It’s odd speaking to a famous person who demands to be recognised. More from pity than anything else I wanted to put him at his celebrity ease. Plus he frightened me.
‘Do you know what I do?’
‘What apart from lie to people and hide bent spoons up your arse?’ is what I wanted to say. But because I wanted to enjoy a continued career in the upper end of the casual dining market, I demurred and flattered his withered ego.
‘I believe I do,’ I compromised.
‘Would you like me to show your staff something amazing?’ he said. In truth, I would have. Instead, I was worried it was going to involve a spoon. But I nodded.
‘Gather them round,’ he said, ‘And get me a fork.’ Curve ball.
As my staff were all carnies and out-of-work showbiz types, the chance of a bit of star f*cking and spectacle was irresistible. Try and get them to sing happy birthday to a child and they vanished like rats in a spotlight. Now, they clumped like iron filings around a magnet. Now the next bit is important. I went to the kitchen and fetched a fresh fork from the dishwasher, which is to say I had to clean it again before I took it out. I got the fork. One of our forks. That bit is important.
I brought the fork to him and we crowded round like mobsters round Brando in Guys and Dolls. Geller took my fork in one hand, and lightly placed two fingers in a benediction on to its throat. He rubbed them back and forth like a cautious DJ, everyone’s eyes trained on the unremarkable utensil, inches away.

And the fork started to bend. 

Slowly, but visibly. And it- at least it seemed- to carry on bending after he took his fingers from it. Reader, he bent the fork. Looking pleased, he smiled a smile that nature never made, and passed the fork to me. Curved, the neck was as stiff as steel, not hot. I held it like it was made of Kryptonite, or moonbeams.
‘Thank you!’ he said. ‘A souvenir!’ He left. I gave the fork to a waiter, who wore it on his braces for years afterwards.

Of course you may not be amazed to learn that Geller was doing shows in London that week. Who better to amaze than waiters in one of the West End’s most fertile gardens of pre-theatre-goers and the easily entertained? I knew a cunning nightclub manager who would ride in taxis, talk up the club, tip big, and give free passes to the cabbie. These people are key advertisers, and I suppose so were we. I imagine many customers heard that Big Chief Uri had parked his wagon in town with much big medicine.

This story illustrates how we can be misled from reason and the experience of our senses. I do not for one second believe that aliens from space travelled light years across the cosmos to impart a lonely Israeli boy with absolute mastery over the architecture of the tines of tableware. I don’t believe that the fork bent, or appeared to bend in any way other than the perfectly rational. I am well aware that he is a shuffling huckster, albeit a harmless one. But in that one odd moment, the unavailability of a sensible explanation left one with the palpable sense that something mysterious and inexplicable had occurred. In short, in the absence of a concrete explanation, the mind raced to alternatives more fantastic.

Which is exactly how I feel whenever I read educational research that suggests something idiotic, like all children learn better in horseshoes or hedgehogs or whatever. If someone tells you they can bend spoons in the classroom, ask them what other gifts the aliens gave them.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Ofsted put in Special Measures: the blind leading the sighted

The Watchmen: now hiring. No superpowers required.
The title of this blog is a headline you are unlikely to ever read. But before anything is invented, it is first an idea, so let's at least entertain the idea and aspire to its subsequent genesis. Why so serious? Because, like the rotten apple of Gotham City, the people tasked with directing and protecting education have become as wanton and derelict as any flatfoot with a roll of fifties and a guilty conscience. The Office for Standards in Teaching, has been caught in flagrante delicto. Who are the Watchmen? Ofsted. So who hires the Watchmen?

Reports in the TES indicate that:

Tribal, one of the major firms that carries out inspections on behalf of the watchdog, employs at least five lead inspectors who do not have qualified teacher status (QTS), it has emerged.
Let me put a frame around this: the custodians of our profession, the ones who make the judgements on us as we sweat and fret and plan and mug for their pleasure, desperate to catch their eye with a flash of learning ankle...some of these aren't trained as teachers. So what use are they to anyone?

It is not infrequently observed (at least by me; my sources are impeccable) that many people who occupy public office are unemployable in any other sector, at least until they have frotted their careers in a shameless, foaming dash towards the feathered cushion of an advisory role in munitions or finance. Career politicians give me a spastic duodenum. This state of over-promoted incompetence could only exist in a bureaucracy; now we see its tentacles in the inspection system.

Your inspection team are ready for you.
Of course, it's easy and unfair to demonise; there are many fine inspectors who bring a Rolodex of experience and wisdom to their role. But in the new order of inspection, such wisdom isn't required in order to meet recruitment standards. Here's an odd thing: who judges teachers? Inspectors, at least externally. So who hires and trains them? At some height, it would seem, that the answer is non-inspectors and non teachers. This has to happen eventually, of course. We cannot expect every minister to be all things. But the shame of it is that the profession is represented so badly, so close to the sharp end.

Lay inspectors are history (non-teaching inspection team members who were brought along to give a non-teaching perspective), and I'll raise a glass to that. But now it seems the institution remains in a ghostly, ghastly form. What's worse, if Ofsted don't even have data on how many of its inspectors have reached QTS, then this isn't evidence of a few slip-ups; this is structural; this is intrinsic to the recruitment process.

What other profession would suffer to be assessed by people who couldn't even do the thing upon which they sit in judgement? Can you imagine a surgeon being critiqued by the janitor? The average spectator at the Farnborough air show is about as qualified to assess the pitch, roll and yaw of the Red Arrows, as most people are to assess the minutia of education. Sure, you might be able to say, 'Bum move' if they hammer into a hillside, but even then they couldn't determine if the failure was inevitable or clownish. Good teaching is an art that in the end, it takes a good teacher to assess. Looking at data is only one piece of puzzle, and information without context is just that: information. In order to be understanding, it has to be triangulated with other variables, the most important of which is your appreciation of what's going on in the classroom.

HAHAHAHAHA.
I believe Dame Wilshaw when he says that he wants to root this out; that he wants to raise the game of his teams. But by God, he's got a rotten stable to clear out. If you want teachers to comply with Ofsted inspections, don't worry, we will, because we value our jobs, and schools will ensure that teachers know exactly what witless toy-town teaching liturgy we have to wave in the inspector's faces as they pass.

But if you want us to respect them, listen to them, and value them, then we need more than have-a-go hard-ons with clipboards and check boxes. As others have commented, many teachers have often noted that upon asking what they could do to improve their lessons, many inspectors are reluctant to reply. Well now we know why: it's because some of them don't know.

So here's my Teacher Voice Manifesto: ignore Ofsted inspections. I don't mean fly your career down the toilet, because I care if you can feed yourself. What I mean is that you should free yourself from the shackles of inspection fever, the anxiety that pervades and perverts schools and classrooms, and ruins learning. Stop caring about them. And turn inwards and outwards: inwards as you ask yourself, what should I be doing to be a great teacher?, and outwards as you watch other people to find out some answers. That's the key to being a great teacher. By reducing the standards of learning to formulae and quantitative outcomes, we have strip-mined the soul of one the most important jobs in the world. Well, to Hell with it, and to Hell with them.

Out of picture: 'F-*-C-K-O-F-F'
Until Ofsted can convince the profession that they're more than just a branch of the Ministry for Silly Teaching, that they represent a meaningful cadre of professional experience and ability, then go to Hell. When you come into school, we'll caper and conga through our compartmentalised lessons with clear evidence of progress in fifty minutes, with learning objectives stencilled into everyone's books. And as soon as you leave we'll get back to the real thing, and wash ourselves thoroughly and try to forget how we sold ourselves and the kids.

I am ashamed to be in a profession that is so poorly tended by the panjandrums of bureaucratopia. For the sake of the good inspectors that do exist (and who must be aware of this Hellish pact between the incompetent and the affordable), for teachers, for the profession and for the children who are always at the end of this beggary, Ofsted needs to get itself out of Special Measures. In Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novel, the enduring motif of the narrative was a Smiley badge with a streak of blood: a tragic joke.

Ofsted, we need you to be better than that.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

You don't have to be crazy to run schools, but....you do. Wilshaw and the eccentricity of leadership.

Conan the SENCO
Sir Michael Wilshaw wants Heads to be more 'odd' according to this week's TES.

While Sir Michael was not encouraging his audience to don flat caps and prowl buses, he did argue that the best heads think outside the box. “Don’t be afraid to be slightly maverick,” he said. “Do things out of the ordinary; don’t necessarily be a conformist. Strange is sometimes good. The best heads are often quite odd people - I think I was one of them.”
 I will avoid the open goals that this offers, however tempting.  Dame Wilshaw draws opprobrium like St Sebastian attracts arrows whenever he says anything, and adding a breath to the mountain of mockery he normally obtains would be as churlish as criticising 50 Shades of Grey for being 'a bit shit', which it is. I have to say, every moment I have spent working within a hierarchy indicates that he speaks the truth.

I once ran an achingly unhip dungeon of disco in Soho; sent a new general manager, we all waited for him to turn up. When he arrived (late) he was a six foot Sicilian dressed chin to boot in SS leather, shirt slashed to the sternum like Conan, a line of white crumbs pointing a guilty finger at his sinuses.
'My Name is Alessandro Balisteri,' he said, without warning. 'You f*ck with me... I F*CK YOU ALL!' And he stalked off, back to wherever nut-jobs went when you couldn't see them.

'When the school bell goes- just TRY it.'
My point being that, in the debauched swamp of the Soho scene, he was a perfectly evolved leader, and believe me, you did NOT f*ck with him. Nobody came late; nobody pinched a denarius, and it was all good until he was busted for Dysoning barrels of beak while rattling equally mad Italian hookers in the office. No one's perfect.

I've worked with other Captains of mention; a TGI Fridays (don't; just don't) where Tim was the anti-Luca, running 100 men and women like a circus, knowing everyone's birthdays, arriving first and leaving last, fuelled by confidence and self-belief and charm; like Vic from Passemores Academy, the blessed martyr of Harlow who burns with so much determination that no one gets left behind that you fear for his lifespan. There is no template for leadership, no check list of standards that, once met, obtain the magic formula, because it is a magic formula. Leadership as a concept has been picked apart by the witless jackals of middle management. Here is my checklist of what a good leader needs to have:

1. A spine
2. A clear idea of what they want
3. Knowing what the Hell they're talking about.

See? The data is clear.
Beyond that, I'm out, because it can't be reduced to a shopping list of invertebrate inanity, usually written by people who are themselves invertebrates. Leaders can be friendly or frigid; democrats or tyrants. The necessary descriptor would be 'do people get behind them' and 'did it work'? Neither of these can be predicted or prepared in formula. As the renowned educationalist Baroness Mercury once said, 'It's a kind of magic.' Like so many things in education, it is predicated on concepts that are relative to the observer and loaded with social context, which makes them essentially resistant to reduction. You could bottle lightning more easily.

The problem for school leaders is that decades of micro-management that would make the Vatican seem bohemian, and being judged by cold, cold data has resulted in their jobs being reduced to that of administering dogma, then looking up fearfully  to see if they have been good servants or bad. I feel for anyone labouring under that yoke. Your role, one of the most sacred in society, has been turned from shepherd to bureaucratic piñata. Voltaire said as much: countries should be guided 'by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude.' WHile you might hope for a more democratic model, the essence is true- leadership requires men and women, not to aim for some swampish compromise where no one is happy, but to have a dream and create it, despite the world's insistence to the contrary. Which means convincing, and where necessary, coercing.

Not unlike classrooms, funnily enough.

Wilshaw's right, you  know. Good leaders are often a bit odd. That's what makes them good leaders.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Troops to Teachers: Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Twiggy?

Panic.
I normally prefer to play the ball, not the man, but Stephen Twigg is beginning to look like Quiz-Kid Donnie King, the washed up yesterday man from Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 ensemble film Magnolia. 'Look, you used to love me!' he seems to say. 'I sorted that rotter Portillo out, remember?' Well, I do remember, and I'm very grateful. But right now Michael Gove is rolling his tanks on to the lawns of the secret garden, and there's no credible opposition across the sword lines that looks close to matching wits with him, like Moriaty and Holmes, grappling on the Reichenbach falls of the schools debate. It's The Hulk versus Mr Bean right now. Whatever camp you're in, that can't be good for the debate. Every time I see Stephen Twigg I think, aww man, does his mum know he's got those scissors?

The latest mouse fart from the Ideas Factory is a strangely familiar air: Military Schools for tough (read: poor) areas. A spot of service, it seems, will turn bawds and brawlers into One-Man-Learning-Corps. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes: Michael Gove's Christmas list. So military schools can join academy schooling as something championed by both sides of the House. Now they just have to find ways to hate each other for the same thing but for different reasons.

I wrote about this before, when the American project, Troops to Teachers, was first proposed as a roll-out over here. Like rock 'n' roll, fee-paying tertiary education and the influenza of sub-prime debt, where the colonies lead, the parent follows. At the time I was concerned that every statistic and claim made by the TTT zealots was based on suspicious evidence to say the least. Claims of academic improvement in such schools were more modest that the headlines suggested, and more worryingly, every major study into the efficacy of such institutions that I could find, had been conducted either by the TTT leaders themselves, or by the educational institutions that ran, or were affiliated to, the program. Hardly impartial researchers, I think many would agree.

That's not to say that some ex-military men and women wouldn't make excellent teachers, and I can certainly see how many of their army experiences would be useful, transferable skills into the theatre of education. But it isn't a simple, linear process to map one industry with another. They are very different fields. Or to put it another way, does the process work in reverse? Would we say that the army would benefit from teachers bringing all their terrific classroom experience into the army. God help us. If we'd sent most staff rooms I know against Hitler, well, the Queen would be wearing a moustache by now.

Is this what you want, Twigg? IS IT? Monster.
There are other claims in the Respublica think tank Green Paper that smell of the smoke that accompanies mirrors; that, for instance, kids in tough backgrounds are better served by people who grew up in similar circumstances to them. I hope *peers down spectacles* that you're not suggesting that you have to be from a specific community to reach or teach a specific community, because that's not a logic I'd be very comfortable applying to, say, race, gender or ethnicity. I'm a lower middle-class white man teaching children in a poor part of the East End, from all backgrounds. Does Stephen Twigg suggest I'm handicapped in my teaching thereby? Just asking.

There is nothing wrong with admitting what this program is: a back-to-work project, moving demobbed military into other jobs where they can be useful. This is simply a sop to an anxious electorate, concerned with inner city decay reaching their drive-ways. But to call it a 'strategy' to remotivate and re-engage the poor is an insult to both sides of the equation, neither of whom are so simple as to be the solution to each other. And don't let's succumb to the gruesome subtext of some who complain against this scheme: those dislocated hipsters who basically have a bee under their backflaps about the army even existing. If you have a problem with the military being involved in schools then I suggest you ask yourself from where people are to come who will join and preserve the liberties we enjoy so fitfully? I rest my case and swerve from Godwin.

Kids in all schools need strong boundaries, governed by love. Kids from chaotic backgrounds need it more, if you're even remotely interested in social mobility. You don't need an army to do that. You just need teachers that care enough to bring order into classrooms, and school leaders who care enough to back them up.

Any other bright ideas, Private Pike?


Saturday, 7 July 2012

The 2012 TES Schools Awards: Oscars for Mr Chips

'I think I better MARK NOW!'

At the 2012 TES School Awards yesterday, because Duck Confit with five-spice chutney doesn't eat itself, you know. The oddness of the hour was circumscribed succintly by the host, Rob Brydon when he said, 'It's always been my ambition to host a mid-afternoon award ceremony that celebrated educational achievement.'

Our romantic ideals are rooted of course in Oscars, Baftas, Tonys; garrulous, rather grimy back-scratching affairs where the neurotic and the desperate congratulate each other on their capacity to be unhappy in public. But at least they're dressed with the doomed and the beautiful. If you've ever seen (and I have) a Whitbread middle-manager awards ceremony, then reader, you possess the exact GPS coordinates of Hades. Christ have mercy.

The showbiz ceremonies shamelessly mug success, measured either by the slavish number-clicking of bums hitting cantilevered seats, or by the oligarchic decree of a self-elected inner cabal of critics and industry aristocrats. How Green Was My Valley scoffed Best Picture at the 1942 Oscars, which was hard cheese for the obviously rubbish Citizen Kane.

How does this translate into the educational sector? It's a tricky knot to unpick, like a Rubik's Cube made of bastards. It was, I must say, a lovely affair, hitting many of the right notes: Park Lane venue- check; cavernous ballroom lunch- check; red-tailed MC leading audience in charity japes- check (why IS it middle class people can't have an event without a fund raising fig-leaf? Ah yes, it's a tithe that balms the conscience, like a pro-active Our Father before a night in Sodom).

Rob Brydon, celebrity seasoning? Check. He brought something important to the affair: a soupçon of perspective. 'I told the organisers I'd only do this if there was an award for Outstanding Literacy or Numeracy initiative,' he said, neatly lampooning the  nature of award taxonomies.

Batman and Rotten
The charity of the day was the undoubtedly virtuous Kids Company, and the founder, Camilla Batmanghelidjh gave a mercifully short speech on how misunderstood children are, and how we need to see bad behaviour, not as a result of flawed character, but as a sign of deprivation. It might seem churlish to poo-poo her sentiments, but her position as angel of charity mustn't blind us to the fact that what she knows about child motivation and responsibility could be written on the back of a Park Lane napkin. You'll remember Ms B; she was the one who thought that the London riots weren't the fault of the rioters, but the fault of society, or the Illuminiati, or something. (click the link for madness). She was lucky she got off stage quickly: much more of that, and the room, full of teachers would have been lighting torches.

Her work with disadvantaged children is superlative; her sentimental hand-wringing mantra of Will no one think of the children? ironically strips them of dignity; reduces them to helpless harbingers of their upbringing, and shatters the concept of moral responsibility upon which, er, our entire moral framework depends. Once you start succumbing to determinism, however well meant, you helter-skelter into nihilistic irresponsibility.

Until proven otherwise, I teach all my children, from hard homes or happy, that they are responsible for their actions; that what they do is important, and therefore has meaning; that they are masters of their own actions, even if nothing else. By so doing, I treat them like human beings, and not as irresponsible engines of destiny. Let kids believe that 'they can't help it' and see how much progress they make with their characters. As teachers, we don;t have time for such middle-class, pampered wooly-mindedness. The kids have even less time for it.

And the winners? A collection of teams and schools and individuals who are all, in their own way, fighting the good fight behind closed doors, working hard and staying late to make sure that kids leave their care in better shape than they arrived. Everyone there was  a credit to the profession.

The people presenting the awards were the usual collection of industry grandees, sponsors, and others; I get a special, 50-shades-thrill in my saddle when I see Head Teachers (or Head Learners, or Principal Facilitators, or something Satanic) break out in hives as they realise they actually have to deliver something on stage other than a bollocking about Sports Day, or a pious chunder through Deuteronomy 23:1 (look it up, I beg you). Unanimously, they spoke about how proud they were of their teams, and of the children who had propelled them there, and it was hard not to feel quite a lot of pride.

'You like me...you really LIKE me...'
Was Renee Zellweger really the best supporting actress in 2003 in the whole world? No. There are Koi Carp in the London Aquarium that could have provided a better foil to Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain. But the existence of an Academy gives the industry something to get excited about. Some wag on Twitter said the other day that, if it weren't for the Olympics and such, we'd think that athletes were all nutters. Maybe that's the point of an awards ceremony for schools: by the act of celebration we show that we consider their efforts are worth celebrating. Flawed and odd, it might be, but that's something very rare indeed.