Saturday, 18 August 2012

A-Levels: Did they get easier? A multi-choice.

Hazy days have passed since A-level results so it doesn't feel ghoulish to gnaw on a few mouldy bones and see what kind of soup we can make from the stock. Results day has visited, eaten the scones and fled, and like an enormous Sorting Hat for attractive, spring-heeled Cotswolds dryads ('A lawyer you shall be!' 'A civil servant!' 'Ah, alas you shall be an educational blogger') destinies have been ordained or ossified to the rustle of Manilla envelopes.

The time has come, though, to speak of other things (insert joke about cabbages getting into King's here). The A-level pass rate now stands at 98%, and has been rising for thirty years. The % of entries resulting in an A or higher has also been climbing steadily for decades. And now turn away, reader: it has stalled, nay it has nose an astounding 0.4% this year. IT'S A MASSACRE. This is because Ofqual has 'advised' exam boards to 'err on the conservative side' to tackle what Glenys Stacey described as 'persistent grade inflation.'

There's been a lot of heat and light generated in this debate for as long as I can remember: what can explain this relentless ascent that has characterised A-level results for over a generation in education? Forget aping the Finns and robbing the tuck shops of Singapore- we have F*CKING CRACKED IT ALL BY OURSELVES. They should be watching us, feeling their undercarriages stirred by strange, primitive, envious passions, not the reverse. What could explain this scenario of success, this rags to royal robes story? There are three options:

1. Kids got smarter. 

YOU MAY SCOFF. But this is a theory that has been shuffling around for a while, looking embarrassed to be at the party. Some have said that children have actually become  brainier since the war. You may be familiar with the Flynn effect, the rather odd phenomena where IQ scores have been genuinely increasing year on year, for many years. It reminds me of the old pulp comic description of Superman's home world Krypton, 'A planet where men and women have reached near physical and mental perfection.' Maybe that's us; maybe, like Olympic records, the mental benchmarks are being hurdled and vaulted by successively intelligent generations?

But no. All the evidence we have supports the theory that our brains haven't changed in any significant way for many tens of thousands of decades- as we would expect from the Vatican-slow creep of evolutionary process. And the Flynn effect has levelled off in the developed countries, suggesting that other factors were behind the data- better nutrition, better schooling and so on, all benefiting the bottom end of the IQ scale and raising the average, along with greater familiarity with test-taking. Besides, species-wide change in genotype is measured with millenia, in human lifespans, not the heart beat of a few generations. We're not yeast.

No, they haven't become smarter. Not year on year, year after year. I've been in this game for a decade. The kids aren't smarter. Honestly.

2. Teaching has improved. 

Fifty shades of grade.
I refer you to my previous answer: I've been in the game for at decade, and I've worked with people who have worked for far longer. Teaching has not improved by an average 0.5% every year, without fail. It just hasn't. Nor have schools improved by the same amount. There have been great improvements made in some aspects of British education since the war, but significant gains in the way we teach? Not a bit of it. I can barely name an initiative- or at least I can count on two hands- that has made any real difference to the way we educate children. Personalised learning, independent learning, group learning, emotional intelligence, three part lessons, WALT and WILF....almost everything has been as transformational and innovative as an antimacassar, a homoeopathic syringe of magic water spunked secretly and uselessly into the canteen mashed potato.

I only have ten years' perspective; I can say without a trace of doubt, that teaching has not improved in the last ten years. If anything, I'd say the micro-management, the Soviet levels of reduction and reification and form-filling have damaged our ability to deliver anything  meaningful, but I don't need to prove that. I just need to make the claim that it hasn't improved.

3. There has been sorcery in the way we examine our students.

When I say sorcery, I'm being kind. You'll notice my opening quote from Glenys Stacey. She's the HEAD OF OFQUAL. You'll remember the scandal last April when the telegraph exposed the common practice of teacher seminars given by exam boards where 'clues' were given out like Easter Eggs to the content of the exams; the admission by exam salesmen that their syllabuses had 'better' pass rates (ie they were easier), and the whole bloody Eton mess of having competition between exam boards, which, being instruments of a market, were pressured to create survival advantages that would encourage their success.

To test this hypothesis, one good approach would be, of course, to look at exam papers from thirty years ago and exam papers today. They would have shown some kind of dissolution into ease, wouldn't they? And they do. they do. Compare maths, english, science, with their ancestors, and if you think they're anything other than substantially easier, then I have some real estate on the Moon I'd like to offer you.Essay style questions have been reduced across the board; questions have been chunked into smaller fragments; multiple choice options have been accentuated. And of course, modules have been introduced, which enables greater possibility of incremental resitting.

Schools are now ruthlessly judged by their data; their place on league tables. Bean counters have this odd belief that in order to be healthy, a school examination record must show incremental improvements over time, as if they were some kind of odd balance sheets. This is surely one of the most vicious misinterpretations of schooling of them all. It's weird enough demanding infinitely expanding success in business, but at least there you have shareholders and dividends to fluff and nurse. What's the excuse for this devilish model in schools? Whatever it is (and I suspect the answer is simply 'Because we're stupid and a bit greedy'), it has been the spur and goad of the metrification, and subsequent mortification, of the schools. It has reduced us from a profession to a sector.


And to anyone who gets their knickers in a twist, seeing this as some kind of attack on the children or teachers, some kind of dismissal of their efforts, who think that criticising the process by which our children are graded and sorted is a simultaneous attack on the months of perspicacity and perspiration that lead up to the Manilla certificates, well, I'd ask them to explain how we are meant to proceed? Should we refuse to talk about global warming because it might disarm our infants of the belief that Santa lives at the North Pole?

So, option 1,2,3. Take your pick. 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Usain Bolt, chinning Russell Brand, and what do we mean by winning?

Everyone loved Bolt's one-eyed long lens.
Who's the fastest person in the world? If you said that Bolt cove then damn your eyes and call yourself an Englishman? It is, of course, Stephen Kiprotich from Uganda, who spanked everyone else in yesterday's Marathon. Fastest man in the world over twenty six miles and change. I'll tell you something else:  it's also Michael Phelps, at least over 100m in water doing the butterfly. It's also Victoria Pendleton, as long as you're talking about the women's (or 'girls' as commentators prefer to describe them, as if they were a clutch of spinsters descending on a tearoom, or Miss Jean Brodie's pride) keirin, which I think might be a boy's name.

Oh, I'm sorry, did you mean the fastest man over 200 metres? Or perhaps the man who obtained the fastest unassisted speed at any point in his event? The answer you get depends on the question you ask.

But at least there are benchmarks; cornerstones of absolute truth that we can all agree upon. Usain Bolt, you will be relieved to hear me concede, is certainly the fastest man in the world at this point, at least of the ones being measured, unless there's a very modest postman somewhere with thighs like Treebeard's middle leg. This might sound a bit 'Who's stronger- Spiderman or Captain America?', but how would he do against Mo Farrah over 5000 metres? Or forced to hammer down a rubberised track, leap short of the foul line and land in a sand pit? When you win, they call you a winner, but what we mean by winner depends on what you mean by a win.

In the Olympics, thankfully, such matters of salon philosophy are largely settled (thank Christ, thank Christ; can you imagine Twitter? 'What do you even MEAN by long jump?' etc): tracks are length X; competitors start at point Y; first person to chin Russell Brand wins, etc. Newtonian physics and our confidence in length, breadth and absolute time provides clean and clear results.

I think this is one of several reasons that the Olympics has been so omnipopular; where else in life do you get such pure narratives of success and striving? Every night for a fortnight we have seen people's dreams realised or battered in a clear and straightforward way. The criteria for that success has been unambiguous, unless you're watching Judo in which case a soft voice-over will tell you when someone stumbles. We don't get this level of clarity in life; we don't have such fairy tale scales and stopwatches to indicate that this goal has been achieved, or that target has been finally met, resistant to further rebellion.

In the world outside the stadium, winning is a far fuzzier concept. 100 metre races end but life does not. There is a reason why fairy tales close with 'Happily Ever after. The End.' Because no one wants to read a story about what they had for dinner the next day (unless you're a user of Instagram) or how tired they were when they had to feed the baby (unless you're on Facebook).

And this points us, finally (I promise I will always Steve Cram education into these blogs) to what we mean by a successful school. When does a school win? Or a student? Whatever criteria you create, that is what institutions will strive to resemble, like plasticine. Jessica Ennis was not worried about the artistic points she would achieve from the angle of her foot or the vigour of her smile as she bossed the hurdles, because there weren't any. (Usain Bolt of course, was mugging it across the digital ticker tape, but he's a cocky showman with talent to burn. There are always exceptions, thank God) When you reduce success to a league table composed of one plane, or two planes, then don't be surprised if schools stop doing anything other than that plane; or if every other endeavour becomes servant to it. It's a horrible, anti-life state of affairs, but it's what you get.

I think people were a bit confused by the closing ceremony, because nobody knew if it was good or not. We didn't have a benchmark we could relate it to. Were the Pet Shop Boys fast enough? Did Boris Johnson win the Tory VIP dance-off, or did D-Cam steal it by a soft white belly? What about those moments when the organisers thought that world-class stadium entertainment meant piping recorded music over pictures of David Bowie while Pan's People built a tiny ziggurat out of polystyrene? Was that like the diving?

We all want kids and schools to win. But what's a win?

The Games are over. Let the Games begin.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Lessons from the Olympics 2: Wanting the World is not enough

It's like opening a window and smelling fresh air. Listening to people's reactions to the Olympics is almost as heartening as watching the damn thing themselves. Any cynicism about our four weeks of superhuman gasping is lying low for now like dry ice, and boy, is the air clear up here. There are plenty of things to get snippy about, to carp and mew and harrow; this is not one of them. No event is beyond reproach; nothing is ideal. But at least this aspires to be.

One of the saddest things I ever met in teaching was in a poor, poor school in a rough, rough area, where, when you asked the kids to what they aspired, they replied- seriously- 'the dole'; 'ASDA'; 'hustling'. That taught me that the cages we build inside our minds are at least as important as the economic circumstances from which we emerge. Being wealthy isn't enough- it sure helps, of course, and the concomitant support and culturally inherited aspirations are strongly correlated with that position. But it also takes something more, something that has been paraded prodigiously in the last week at Stratford.

It contains ambition of course, but many Alfred Prufrocks and Walter Mittys have ambition; I see many kids banished to school corridors, bunking school, bursting with ambition. That isn't enough by itself. The child who answers my earlier question with 'International Rap star blud' or 'Player for Chelsea' is being just as flippant with his future self if he isn't doing anything about it. He might as well say Peter Pan if he spends his weekends playing Call of Duty and his school days inhaling Dorchester Blacks. Ambition, without inspiration that translates into a plan, is just desire, wishing. I have yet to meet anyone whose dreams came true this way.

Careers advice in schools ranges from life-changing to life-changingly bad, as with any profession. A lot is said about teachers inspiring their students. I think these is truth in this, but not the bunny-hugging manner of those who think it means telling them Disney platitudes are true: 'Believe in yourself!' they say breathlessly; 'Follow your heart and be true to yourself!' they say, confident that they have ticked the box 'inspire' on the to-do list. Well meant, but this has the opposite effect from the desired one.

Tell a child that they have to be true to themselves, and they might decide that means they don't need to change because the';re just dandy as they are. Tell a child to never give up on their dreams, and they may find that those dreams have kept them from fulfilling another dream they never knew they had.

No. Here's how you inspire a child:

Part 1: You tell them they are capable of just about anything
Part 2: You tell them how hard it can be to achieve it.
Part 3: You show them how others have achieved it. No bullshit. No pretending it's easy.
Part 4: You tell them they can do it. Then you pass it to them.

That's inspiring. I recently did a series of classes for Year 9 and next year's sixth-form cohort where I talked about Uni and other options; it was 50% 'Go for it, you can do it' and 50% 'This is going to be really difficult. Are you ready to put the work in?' I tell them that for the vast majority of them, how well they will do at this point now depends on them, no one else. I tell them that from the second they leave the class they are masters of their own destiny. I tell them that they can get any grade they want...if they want it badly enough, and if they are prepared to put the effort in to achieving it. And I tell them, just as importantly, what failure looks like- not in the form of a grade, or a career, but in terms of the gap between what they want to achieve and what they will achieve if they don't want it enough, and don;t do anything about it.

It is a joy for me as a teacher to see so many people holding up the Olympians as role models, because they are; they represent a clear and clean metaphor for success and achievement and ambition that doesn't entail wealth, consumption or possessions, but instead the noblest goal of all- an object pursued for its own intrinsic worth: excellence. I don't want children to try hard solely to be rich (although by all means do so as well); I want them to try hard so they succeed as themselves; as the best that they can be in their own field.  These are the men and women I want my students to write essays about, and other Olympians in the fields of maths, science, literature and charity, to put stickers on their bags and phones, to look up to.

There is nobody hammering around the track, or draining their blood of oxygen in the Olympic Stadium right now, who has not practised and practised for more hours than most people would think existed in the day. The joy of it is that there are men and women there from the most modest of backgrounds. It is the duty of every teacher to believe that any child is capable of some form of greatness, because we all are.

It is also our duty to inform them that being great is rarely a product of not giving a damn.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Lessons from Poland: why international comparisons are sometimes odious

Dzien dobry.

I recently spent some time in Poland. I promise not to make this a 'what I did in my holidays blog' because there's enough of them and one day the internet will be full and then we'll all be sorry and I'll point to the kitten Tumblrs and Facebook inventories of people's childrens' stools, and I'll say 'You did this.'

So, Poland. I've been many times, seen Polish schools, spoken to Polish teachers, and worked with Polish teachers who have also worked in the UK state system. If you read the latest reports, you would think (correctly) that Poland is some kind of Eastern European educational tiger. Its school system has been collecting laurels like Michael Phelps attracts gold discs on ribbon.

'The most recent test results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) show that Poland is ranked 14th for reading, ahead of the USA, Sweden, France and Germany - and well ahead of the UK in 25th'
'The OECD points out that Poland's reforms have raised performance to the same or higher levels as those of the USA and Norway, "despite spending less than half of what those countries spend on education".'

Good for Poland. But why should we care? Because in the big economy of international politics, countries no longer simply compare pupils with pupils and schools with schools; they now suffer comparisons with other nations' education systems. 

And running research into how and why children learn better is time consuming, expensive and difficult. The possibility of simply looking to other systems and learning from them is very tempting. Witness the safari-park tours of any country that appears to be doing  well: Finland, Singapore.

And now, Poland is, like Hansel from Zoolander, SO hot right now. People are wondering why. But they're coming up with the wrong answers. Kids in Poland read real good better and at half the cost. You bet people want to know how that happens, so they can strip mine/ frack it back in skips to the UK. So what do they think is the reason for this Warsaw symphony?

21st century learners in the Polish flipped classroom
Some of the proposed reasons are sound: schools, freed from the Soviet yoke, deloused their curriculum of state sanctioned propaganda (Russian Lessons were compulsory, as was Citizenship, which makes me like it even less than before). Others have, completely sensibly, pointed out the enormous appetite for improvement that followed the liberation of Poland from the communists after the fall of the USSR.

It cannot be emphasised enough to people in the West the difference your position to the Iron Curtain made. For us, World War II ended in 1945, after a period where most people knew Fascism only remotely through privation, isolation and shelling. The Poles lived through a savage occupation, followed by an even more savage second occupation by the Russians. The desire to seize and enjoy the fruits of the tree of liberty were understandably strong, and education has always been seen as a way to achieve this.

Polish children attend Primary School, from about 5 to 12 years old. Then, they sit a compulsory entrance exam which determines which secondary (or gymnasium) school they attend for 3 years; then another compulsory, competitive exam which determines which type of upper secondary school they attend- either a technik (more vocational) one up until 18/ 19, or a liceum, a sort of sixth form that prepares pupils for university entrance.

So what many propagandists in the West conveniently ignore is that the Polish system is quite close in many ways to the tripartite system of grammar/ comprehensive/ technical schools. But most people who admire and laud the Poles conveniently forget this, or don't mention it. When some form of quantifiable success is spotted in any emergent system, it becomes a magic mirror, reflecting and confirming what people already believed to have been the reasons for its success.

Rows and columns. GET. IN.
But I don't see any of this as of primary importance. The answer is much simpler: extremely well-behaved children, on a nation wide level. Adult authority is still deferred to in Poland, and teacher authority more so. Children misbehave to only a fraction of the extent that teachers in Western European Democracies frequently report. The extremes and excesses of the UK classroom would be viewed with horror by most Polish children, who also know that if they receive a certain number of demerits from a teacher, they can be held back a year for behaviour alone, not just for academic underachievement. (Click here for more.)

I struggle to understand why some people don't see good behaviour as one of the most fundamental influences on children's education. It isn't just one issue amongst many, it's foundational. If you have well behaved classes where kids tacitly assume the deal is to work at least reasonably hard, then you can take kids to the Moon in your lessons. If you spend most of your time dealing with so much poor behaviour that you don't even see it as poor any more, then that's an issue.

To say 'elephant in the room' is a tired metaphor, but it's absolutely applicable here. In Poland, kids behave really, really well. Families value education. Families also reflect a much more pre-war (for the UK) model of organisation: stable married families providing long term structure and routine, and support for children as they progress.

True Blue Steel: he's SO hot right now.
From my own experiences and interviews with teachers, I would also add that people in Poland really, really value education: they see it as an absolute asset, and they treat it with care. To have your child waste their time at school would be seen as a disgrace. And children and families have to provide all their own pens, pencils, exercise and text books. That's why it costs so little. Because families assume that you would provide your own equipment, and make space for it in the family budgets, no matter how poor. It's telling that, at a Polish wedding, many of the gifts that guests present to the bride and groom will take the form of pencils and other equipment, which is then traditionally donated to a local school. That's how embedded in the culture it is.

And if you needed more proof, consider that Poland has a Teacher Day, October the 14th, when teachers are brought gifts by children, and sometimes get time off; children prepare stories and speeches to say how much they appreciate their teachers.

Some might find some of this authoritarian and restrictive. Frankly, I am so down with it I can barely get up again. What amazes me is how people can come away from an analysis of the Polish miracle and forget to mention such intrinsically essential cultural axioms as these. Actually, I shouldn't be amazed. People often see what they want to, and like the abbots of Glastonbury claiming King Arthur's bones for their Abbey, will turn any success into a justification of their own position. We mythologise success easily, especially when the reasons for that success are so easy to obfuscate.

Which is, of course, a tragedy, when the truth is much simpler, but much, much harder to export.

Do widzenia.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Olympic Legacy for Education

As I write, the Übermensch are making nations of boggling Calibans like me vibrate with silent, reverential awe as they caper, vault and hammer on the envelope of human possibility. Something wonderful has accompanied them; the cynicism and (sometimes justified) schadenfreude about the bureaucracy of the project has been swept away in a touching Mexican Wave of sincerity and admiration. From the first bars of Danny Boyle's satisfying smörgåsbord of wit, sentimentality and spectacle, even the Olympic pedants of Twitter were struck dumb, like a mass, Damascan conversion in cyberspace.

 So what does it signify? A goldmine of meaning and understanding about what we value and how we choose to achieve it. These games are the incarnation of what we perceive to be excellence, the word made flesh. And that scans precisely onto education; already the chattering classes (of which I am a citizen) have started grumbling for their countries: Lord Moynihan has stated that the independent sector's domination of the medal table is 'one of the worst statistics in British sport.' Lord Moynihan, who attended a boarding school under a music scholarship, strikes up a common, faintly boring air that is played at every such event. You might as well ask why richer people have bigger cars. Some people will never be happy, it seems, until the demographic of economic position is perfectly mapped onto every other demographic possible.

What do the Olympics actually tell us about education?

If you build something, the bricks have to come from somewhere

So far, it appears that the promised Apocalypse of transport gridlock failed to happen. London can be navigated with as much ease as such a metropolis allows. To my mind this indicates that the transport planning has been successful. WIN? Not a bit of it, apparently, as men with Armageddon placards wail in corners bemoaning the loss of consumer footfall. They are apparently oblivious that when you move something, other things move to accommodate it, like shifting a coloured square on a Rubik's Cube. This is also a common headline in education every time a new policy is invented, and shrieks rise up declaring that some other group has been disadvantaged. No change benefits everyone. Progress requires advantage and its opposite. Nothing incredible was ever built without effort, and sacrifice. The only way not to disturb anything, is to do nothing.

We actually quite like winning

For Adam Smith, competition was the fuel that propelled innovation; Mickey Marx decried it as the goad of the beast, pitting brother against brother. In schools, too, we often see apprehension about where to put the competitive spirit. I remember at my secondary the Head Master announced at an assembly that we would no longer have school prizes because it was elitist, while we looked at each other and thought, 'You BASTARD' and quietly vowed to each blog about it decades later. At some schools, Sports Days have melted like mist in the face of this anxiety. Levels replace grades, in AFL, grades vanish entirely in case children fall victim to the vice of comparing themselves against one another, and like Jamie's Dream School, no one leaves without a certificate and everyone's a winner.

Ban this competitive filth
Well, as I like to keep mentioning, when everyone's special, then no one is. You don't have to subscribe to Gore Vidal's lovely saw that, 'It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail,' to believe that competition is a healthy and human part of our outlook. Unfettered, it becomes an egoistic burden; directed, it becomes a powerful incentive to human achievement. You think all those athletes would be just as happy running and leaping by themselves? Not a bit of it. The sound of spiked plimsolls drumming the track inches behind you turns a run into a race into a chase, and ambition is multiplied. Children need competition too, guarded and monitored by an adult to prevent its excess.

Right now, a nation is hopping up and down about, amongst other things, medals, wins and dramatic narratives of prowess. There's a lesson for the classroom there. I chide any child in my class who doesn't do as well as I think they could do, not the predictive quack prophecies of the FFT scatter graph. I push, I coach, I nudge, I harass, and I praise, according to their ability. And if someone does a bad job, I bloody well tell them it was a bad job. No one is served by wet platitudes about 'well, at least you turned up.' Children deserve better. They NEED us to be better.

We also quite like people trying really hard

Winning isn't everything though; we also value trying. I've heard some brainless, sub-Talksport debates about whether success is winning or not. We value both the achievement and the effort. If we didn't then the Paralympics wouldn't exist: we don't look at the achievements of Paralympians and say, 'Yeah, but Wiggo was faster, who GIVES a f*ck?' (actually, the Daily Telegraph might say this, but we'll gloss). In fact, if we didn't, we wouldn't have women's sport at all because 'they mens is all quicker, innit?' We do celebrate the ones who defied the percentages and nearly made it.

Exams are getting easier.

The 12 Days of Christmas got a makeover from Spinal Tap
I've heard people say, 'Well, Olympic records keep getting smashed,' they say. 'Surely this means the 100m is getting easier, ha-ha take that people who think exams aren't as hard.' And of course it doesn't, because for a start, all the best times are now millimetres away from each other rather than miles. And also best times can't regress; they can only get beaten, eventually, which given thousands of athletes all smashing themselves against the wall of human possibility, is bound to happen eventually.

We want to be proud of ourselves

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it seems, but we don't even have to succumb to this to admit that feeling that we share values, that we can participate en masse in some gargantuan, unifying communal event, even as spectators, is a baptism of satisfaction and value. We need shared values and communal hopes to flourish not only as citizens, but as individuals. Never mind that this sentiment is often exploited by the ruling classes to direct nations to war and consumption; it is also a powerful pillar of succeeding in a society. You don't have to divest yourself of the liberal attraction towards individualism and autonomy in order to perceive the value of the polis.

Schools need to understand this; I've seen schools that are almost apologetic about proposing shared values and ambitions, as if they were terrified of offending anyone. Perhaps it's the necessary uncertainty of a largely post-religious state that is still coming to terms with absolutes and foundational truths in the absence of God. Whatever it is, schools, teachers and parents need to be careful to represent values towards their children; if they don't, the children only learn to value what they themselves considerable desirable, the values of their immediate peers, or worse, nothing. We are not carbon neutral in their lives; we are participants, not observers. We are catalysts. We might as well be good ones.

How do we provide for the most able?

Can you imagine being Jessica Ennis's PE teacher? I imagine it would be a mixture of pride and fear. I know a lot of teachers struggle to know what to do with the most able, so they just give them loads of extra work, or let them sit quietly texting when they finish. One casual factor in this has been the accursed league tables, with their damned obsession with the D/C boundary that meant schools raced like Usain Bolt to assist the borderline babes, and ignored the very best and the very least able as done deals. A plague on this House, that condemned 2/3 of our children for being too bright or not bright enough to care about.

Actually, most PE teachers I know are pretty good at catering for the most able; extra coaching, out-of-school clubs and so on. It's in the classroom I'm most worried about, as some teachers still treat the more able Olympians of Geography, History and English as lower priority students. There's no more G&T program (if indeed, it was effective, it was because it at least focussed on them as a group in need). Now we need to make sure that all able students are pushed as hard as they can bear if they're not prepared to do it themselves. And many aren't. They are, after all, children. Some mornings they want to train in the dark, and sometimes they don't. Our job is to play the part of of Burgess Meredith in Rocky, cycling along beside the great Italian hope as we chew on a stogie and shout 'Ya needs ta run faster, ya bum!' through a megaphone.

The legacy of the Olympics shouldn't just be about stadia and vajazzled lawns rising from the marshes of Stratford; it can also be about what we mean by excellence, and how we want to achieve it. Which means schools. Which means how we teach.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Train wreck: why lowering the QTS bar is a threat to education

T'was midnight in the classroom 
and all the desks were shut.
When suddenly 

the DfE 
produced a quiet ‘Cut-cut’

Said Gove to we
‘I don’t like T, 

or Q so close to S.
Academies have said to me
‘Our schools are in a mess.’'

The powers-that-be, the DfE 

 declared a novel route: 
not GTP nor ITT 
for schools now to recruit

So Gove was cheered by nobody

as schools snoozed on the beach.
The problem never seen before 
was teachers trained to teach.
'DUDE! You are TOTALLY now a teacher!'

You will forgive my hack verse. Barely droll near-poetry seems as good a response as any to the bizarro-edict that has united almost every teacher: the announcement that in future, schools won’t have to hire teachers with QTS. Which means for the first time in several decades, state schools can recruit staff with no teacher training to teach, with no requirement that they eventually obtain such a novelty.

A DfE spokesman said that ‘academies had been asking for this freedom,’ to which my obvious response is, ‘Well, how about if we all start making requests about what we’d like?’ What is this, Christmas?  I’d like trifle. Can I have that? Some people eye their dusty cat-o-nine-tails with misty-eyed memories. Are they making a come-back too? 

Michael Gove, I am hugely disappointed (which will no doubt have him weeping into his Happy meal). So far, I had liked the look of a number of this administration’s policies more than half; where New Labour had gone so wrong was to pimp out their commitment towards the three Es of education to the fashionable, flimsy, Frankenstein orthodoxies of league tables, metrification and progressive flim-flam; this regime seemed to genuinely believe in driving up teaching quality.

But this is an Olympic somersault.
Your new Head of Music
Your new Head of PE

But stay; what value QTS anyway? Regular readers will know that I view much teacher training with the same sense of weary disappointment as the average Christmas Cracker toy (even the nice ones from M&S). There’s a lot of guff on some ITT programs. I learned a whole lot about EAL inclusion, but less than nothing about behaviour management, on mine. Brainless ideological dogma, witless mis-prioritisation and a national inconsistency of training are just some of the problems. Perhaps M-Gove was reverberating to the hum of this fork.

But the solution isn’t to drive an axe into the base of the bark; the tree needs pruned and treated, not ruined, harrowed, the land salted.

Some have said that in practice, this will mean little; that schools would be mad to hire staff who didn’t have suitable experience and education for the role of teacher, and that we should trust Heads and Governors and schools to recruit in their best interests. This market model of moral motivation- that by pursuing our own self-interest we ensure utility- is partially true, but ignores a more complex problem with self-interest. There is a huge difference between one’s interest, and perceived self interest. Exhibit A: crack addicts, doomed lovers, and other desperadoes. While many schools would never dream of hiring an unsuitable candidate, given the pressure of budgets, the attractiveness of cheaper staff, and the inexorable pressures of expediency, schools will, and I repeat, will, hire teachers with inadequate experience and ability to ‘fill gaps’, as temporary fixes that become permanent non-solutions.

Don’t believe me? Witness the rise of the Cover Supervisor as long term teacher and supply; witness the rise of HLTAs from classroom assistants to full time teachers. Hundreds of schools have already told me how non-teaching staff are already used as teaching staff, as cover. Some have even told me about office staff being used to cover lessons, and TAs. Fine, in a pinch; not as a rule. Is sort of expect my teachers to have degrees in their subjects, and some kind of formal instruction in the trade.

Another caveat: there are undoubtedly some excellent people teaching in schools who never experienced ITT, but have flourished in their roles; One excellent headmaster even told me he’d tried to fill vacancies at school, had no luck, and went for a non-teacher option; successfully. And of course non-qualified teachers are common in the private sector, so what’s the fuss, say some? If private schools do this, why shouldn’t we? And to be fair, this IS a good argument, and possibly one that moved Gove more than most. Critics of the scheme shouldn’t ignore this: it can work, in certain circumstances. Why not in the state sector?

Your new Head of Broom Cupboards

The first answer is that, just because a strategy can work in exceptional circumstances, doesn't mean it should be a freedom allowed to all; a system needs to cater for the blunt fact that its inhabitants will be largely within the norms of the bell curve of excellence. Some dedicated stalwarts would take this opportunity and honour its noblest possibilities and responsibilities; others will take it to the pawn shop and flog it for a bag of magic beans. And the race to the bottom gathers pace.

The second answer is that opening this hatch, however slightly, is an invitation to dilute the profession even further. There will be more and more teachers now who have never made the commitment to teach that an ITT course provides. Despite the current wobbly table of the national training situation, it is better than no table. Teaching isn’t something that ‘You just have a go at’ it’s a specialist skill. And yes, most of it is learned on the job; but leaving it to schools alone is a huge mistake. As recruitment can fall victim to expediency, so too can training- many schools train staff as poorly as they can afford, and concentrate on ticking induction boxes. Of course some don’t. But that’s the national situation. A formal process of training at least ensures a softer landing into the classroom, with built in time to reflect, research and review one’s practice.

I’ve just come back from Poland, a country where the minimum, mimimum time it takes to get from nought to teaching is three years, and that’s fast track. This is the educational tiger of Eastern Europe remember, pissing all over the PISA tables for literacy and improvement. In a few years time, we’ll no doubt be sending delegates of concerned investigators over there to find out why they’re doing so well in the international Top Trumps.

And we’ll notice that they train their teachers. And we’ll go, ‘No, that can’t be it. Maybe it’s the perogi?’