Posts Tagged ‘exams’

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part1.

February 26, 2017

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part1.

Only people living under rocks, or politicians in their infinite ignorance, are under no illusion that Education in many parts of the world is in melt-down crisis – the UK, the USA and Australia, to mention a few relevant systems that are entirely unfit for purpose and sadly in no danger of getting better any time soon. Who is suffering here: students and teachers. Whose voices are dismissed and not heard: students and teachers. After all, who in their right mind would ask those who know the most about anything what they think!!

Swiftie globe

This week in the UK stories are out again about the crisis in teacher recruitment – that for the third year in a row targets for recruitment have been missed. No teacher in the country is surprised by this – not one teacher in Oz or the US will be either. Too many experienced teachers are leaving before retiring and not enough young enthusiastic tyros are coming in the other end. The reasons for this, for both ends of the shortage problem are no surprise, have been clearly articulated for several years now, yet none of those in power are listening. They seem to think that slick advertising campaigns, bursaries for study and the much vaunted Teach First program will make a dent in the problem.

The powers that be seem to willfully ignore the issues and while they do, and continue to blame teachers for the ills of the world then nothing will improve.

Which makes me believe that perhaps they are quite happy with the parlous state of state education in their various parts of the world. After all, we aren’t really talking about private education here … No, we are talking about state funded, government education for the masses. The masses who voted for Brexit and Trump and brought Pauline Hanson back and even returned an Australian Liberal government that has continued to screw the worker and the less powerful since re-election. Think about that for a moment… If you think that right wing, conservative politicians care about the masses you are a fool. You need only look to the appointment of Betsy De Vos in the US to know that things are going to dramatically worsen in the States for students and teachers alike. She’s already said she believes teachers are paid too much…

If they cared, they would do something about funding state education so that it worked (yes, and the health care system too). So that repairs to buildings occurred, so that school supplies could be purchased for all, so teachers could attend Professional Development – especially in this massive time of change (yet a-fucking-gain) and so teachers were paid what they are worth. Yes, state education is a massively expensive enterprise and increasingly – as with health – governments are refusing to spend what is needed to make it work.

Teachers – maligned, over-worked, vilified – are what keeps the whole embarrassing mess from toppling over the edge of the abyss.

Teachers who care. Teachers who consistently go the extra mile. Who work all hours, who spend their own money to make things better, who ignore their own families and lives and even their health. If it wasn’t for caring teachers who go beyond their job descriptions again and again the whole creaking straining edifice would have crashed to the ground years ago.

 

Why is recruitment such an issue? The government here in the UK knows – God knows the teachers’ unions do enough surveys about work conditions and teacher ‘satisfaction’ for want of a much better word. The powers that be know, they just don’t want to face up to it. But let’s spell it out one more time in a simple, easy to read list:

1.Constant criticism from all – politicians, parents, celebs – essentially anyone who went to school and therefore thinks they are an expert on Education. This has been going on for years and continues – it is relentless and then ‘they’ wonder why people leave and why no-one in their right mind wants to step inside a cess-pit of blame and criticism. Really, would you choose a job where you are blamed for everything – where everything you do is wrong, but not the other people in the system?

2.Constant, relentless change to everything – curriculum, exams, assessment, Ofsted criteria – nothing has a chance to bed-in, let alone last long enough to be reviewed and assessed as to it’s worth. Change is not a new thing – I remember sitting in a meeting in around 1998 about the latest changes about to be introduced in the NT and thinking that there’s no point in getting as upset by this as my colleagues were, as by the time the ink was dry on this approved change, something else would be in vogue. I was right – it was an epiphany and it helps me cope here – to an extent. But what is killing teachers in England is the constancy of change – in the 9 years since I’ve been in London we’ve had 4 changes to the curriculum in English – no nothing has bedded in and the kiddies get caught out by it and they suffer more than we do. I won’t even mention the plethora of changes Ofsted has cascaded through to us…

2b. Test, test, test and then test some more. When did education become a series of tests and exams at every stage? What do tests do – tell us things we already know in different ways but what they do more significantly is raise stress levels in students and tell them they are failures almost from the moment they set foot inside a class-room. Oh, and tests/exams/SATs/NAPLAN – whatever you call them – tell teachers and schools that they are failures too. This bit of madness needs to stop too. 100% external exams means teaching to the exam. You ask any GCSE English or Maths teacher in England at the moment and they’ll tell you that’s all they are doing. Seriously, is this the sort of education we want? A legacy of yet another egotistical politician, our dear Michael Gove – dear in this sense meaning expensive and costly NOT beloved.

3.Levels of responsibility – somewhere down the line it went terribly wrong. Teachers are responsible for it all – for students’ progress, for having the frequently mentioned fucking pen, for tissues, for them having breakfast and a good night’s sleep. Oh and we’re responsible for the exam boards whims. Oh, yes we are, as an Ofsted inspector pointed out to me 18 months ago when the grade boundaries were suddenly shifted and we missed our projections. According to him I should have predicted that and taken it into account. Yes, I had to so bite my tongue. That’s the nonsense level of responsibility we work within. Every other bastard in the system has an excuse, so classroom teachers carry the ever increasing can of shit. Accountability is all well and good and fair, but being responsible for everything that moves and shakes and sneezes and shits in your working world is plainly nonsense.

4.Life-work balance – we’re back in the dark ages of vocation, where people became teachers because they were ‘called’ to it and it would be their life and therefore nothing else mattered. When I first began teaching it was a lovely normal sort of job, where I had time to plan good lessons, kept my marking up to date and had a lively and interesting social life. I worked in the evenings or half a day at the weekend to make it all happen but it didn’t stop the rest of my life. When I had small kids I was Head of English and seemed to manage it all – family, friends, extra study, a husband. But now there aren’t enough hours in the day. The expectations are extreme. A number of my team struggle to keep all their balls in the air and it’s not because they aren’t good teachers who aren’t working hard enough. It’s because the system wants too much from them.

5.Behaviour and student needs – this is linked to the responsibility thing. An increasing amount of students are less and less inclined to own their own behaviour. They are not, for want of a better word, socialized – they do not know how to behave and have to be contained and controlled all the time. What do you think happens to learning then? And there is an increase in the needs of students – of students being identified as having ‘special needs’. There is an argument that this is progress, that students are no longer labeled at thick or stupid because they don’t understand or can’t learn in a particular way. Yes, that’s very nice but what about the poor teacher who already has 30 in her class and no support and has to plan for that child too? How do you think that happens? How do they find the time to plan for all the needs in the classroom??

6.Pay – while many teachers down-play this angle, I think it is significant. Teachers carry the future in their hands – we shape the future, for better or worse. So, if the future matters and if you want smart, driven, caring people entering the profession then pay them what they are worth. Education is at the core of a productive, intelligent, creative caring society. Teachers are the centre of that core – the magma of it all, so pay us what we are worth. Increase the status of teaching and people will stay and the right ones will chose it as a career. Remember Walter White from Breaking Bad would never have ended up wreaking all that murder and mayhem had he been paid a decent salary and was able to access affordable health care…

7.Trust – the system does not trust teachers – read this to be clear about that https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/a-broken-system-progress-gcses-and-sats/ … Hence the constancy of criticism, the constant changes to stop us cheating or ‘gaming’ the system, the odiousness of observations and Ofsted, the prescriptive nature of the curriculum and assessment regimen. I am not trusted to select texts or topics suitable for my classes. I am not trusted to assess them fairly. I have to be observed frequently, my marking checked, paper work submitted to those further up the food chain. I have to have meetings to explain and justify what I am doing. And now, as mentioned in 2b I am preparing students for 100% external assessment by exams. Yes, because I am not trusted to teach and assess fairly and objectively. Never mind that the system created the cheating, no, blame the teachers (and the senior management who endorsed and encouraged this) who have to meet ridiculous targets and so cheat. What other profession suffers under such scrutiny, such a lack of trust in their professionalism??

 

This list is not a secret. It is not something I know and no-one else does. Teachers are unhappy people, their hands are tied by systems and people who know nothing about education, about children and their world. Our education system is run by people who don’t have the first idea of what it is like in a classroom. Most of them wouldn’t last 5 minutes in a secondary school – they would find your average teenager frightening and not know how to speak to them, let alone control them for 45-60 minutes and actually teach them something.

 

Where education is thriving in the world several simple things happen: 1.Teachers are respected; they are valued and important members of society and usually paid accordingly.

2.They are not blamed for the ills of society. The education system is centred on knowledge not testing, on the child learning at its own pace, on sound educational pedagogy – remember that, Piaget, etc??

3.And, importantly, the education system is about the relevant society, what it needs, what its aspirations and desired future is.

This is Singapore and Finland, the places we look to for inspiration. They are not cherry picking bits and pieces from other systems and mashing them together. Their education systems are thought out, considered, be-spoke for their needs. Changes do occur, but not with the whirlwind destruction and rapidity of ours.

Why don’t we stop this constancy of change and listen to teachers, the ones in the middle of the mess, the ones who have had enough, who know what should be happening? Why don’t we ask the students what they want, what they need?

*Next week: the student perspective. (Image from Private Collection)

An English Teacher’s Lament

May 21, 2016

An English Teacher’s Lament

Tis but a little poem today

Because most of my words have flown away

No words

 

This morning I have not enough words

For although the world remains absurd

Nothing startling has fallen from the bough

To urge me to write just now…

 

Instead, in land of exams and data and marking do I dwell,

I must admit it is a living hell

No time or space to set the imagination free,

For the kiddies or for me…

 

There is no time to think, no time to rest

Must teach to that fucking stupid test

Make sure we all do our best

To avoid the ire of the Ofsted pest,

Before the exam boards do their thing

And shift the ground boundaries again.

 

Swiftie globe

Perhaps there is finally nothing left to say on a dull or cheery Saturday

Or is it this just a temporary stay? (Images from private collection)

Exam Season: hints for home support – helping the helpless!

April 30, 2016

Exam Season: hints for home support – helping the helpless!

In the jolly old UK as summer tries to get out of bed and rise and shine it is the dawning of the insanity that is exams season here. GCSE’s start pretty much now. A-Level practical subjects have been running for a bit.

For thousands of year 11s Tuesday – thoughtfully after the bank holiday weekend – will be their iGCSE English Language exam. This two hours on Tuesday afternoon is worth 40% of their mark. So, many of them know exactly how many marks they need to get their magic C or better. Providing the moderators don’t downgrade their internal mark and the examiners don’t shift the grade boundaries up again. Which, as many of us know, happened last year.

Pal's pals@GCSE

Passing exams in this country is a bit like playing Russian Roulette – you never really know who is holding the gun and which barrel is loaded and pointing at you. But this year is the last year that year 11 students will have as little as 40 – 60% of exams to pass for English, and other subjects. Next year the world shifts back to the dark ages and we enter the abyss of 100% external exams. (All hail Michael Gove who knows more about education and learning than anyone else on the planet.)

Those of us who know anything about learning know that this is a recipe for disaster, just like starting school at increasingly younger ages, and the relentless desire to test, examine and measure. Next year brings a whole heap of trauma to parents of the youngest and the oldest, not to mention to the poor child and the hapless teacher who now has ridiculous targets to meet based on something that has yet to be tried, let alone tested.

Let’s return to this year – to students needing to pass, to parents who want to support them. Yes, it’s not all down to the teacher!! Ten years ago I published an article in an Australian magazine offering advice to parents to help them help their year 12 child survive and thrive during their final year at school. It was based on personal experience and most of the advice holds up today. So, here are the more relevant parts of that article.

Co-operative Relationships between Home and School

Ask any teacher and they will tell you that when parents, child and school are all working towards the same goals then success is invariably guaranteed. Teachers are highly focussed on achieving the best results for each student in their care. Expect them to know their subject area inside out and have a very clear view of your child’s ability and possible final grade.

If you want regular contact for any reason then let the school know. With e-mail it is easier than ever to have on-going contact. Schools prefer it when you get in touch before a problem arises. Usually issues can be worked out quickly and positively.

Being Informed

The best way to help your child to be as informed as possible. This seems too obvious but many parents ignore Information Evenings, course handbooks and never attend parent-teacher evenings. Make sure you are talking to your child about their subjects. Get in touch with teachers if you are concerned or think they need to know something. Look up courses on-line. All exam boards have sites accessible to the public. There is a plethora of web-sites about all things educational – texts, exam techniques; Youtube has tutorials on everything you can imagine

Health and Well Being

It doesn’t matter how clever your child is if they get sick or suffer any range of anxiety induced disorders then their year will be a nightmare. This is where you can practically support your child. Make sure they eat properly, get enough sleep, keep playing sport and don’t spend every minute studying or, at the other end, socialising such that they never complete assignments.

Stress is a major part of education now, especially during exam season, both for your child and you! Try to keep the house calm. This is not a good time for divorce or too many temper tantrums from younger siblings. It’s helpful if all family members are aware of the challenges and support the chosen child. After all, it will be the younger ones’ turn soon enough!

A wise parent keeps an eye open for substance abuse. During stressful times crutches are used and your child may be suffering more than you realise. Remember to keep an eye on all electronic devices – shut them down and remove them for specified times of the day, otherwise there will not be any sleep and there may be other disturbing things going down. Watch for changes in behaviour, mood swings, weight loss or gain. If you are worried speak to someone at school, your doctor and of course your child. Don’t ignore it.

Your exam stressed out child may struggle with his/her humanity and manners. Be kind, don’t shout at them (too much), take the rudeness/sullenness as a cry for help and take them to Nando’s and a chat. At all times this year keep the communication channels open!

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A balanced approach to school and life – make a study plan!

A student who maintains a balanced life for the year is in the best position to succeed. It isn’t necessary for them to give up seeing their friends, going to the movies, playing sport. In fact, given the proliferation of mobile phones and access to the Internet you haven’t a hope of stopping them communicating with each other. Your best bet is to discuss limits on non-study/school activities. You know your child – do they need a tight lead or a loose leash?

Help get them organised. Don’t assume that the school has taught them about good study habits or organising their time. Talk to your child, point out that a structured approach to life means that they can get their assignments in on time and still watch Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead and spent sometime on-line for part but not all of their day.

We can help our children in so many ways. Cook them their favourite food, do their washing, ensure they have a private, quiet space to study. Read The Crucible with them, proof read their essays, listen to their oral presentations. And when specialised Maths is too much, despite the fact that Dad is an engineer, private tutoring is an option. The essence is to be extra aware of your child’s needs this year.

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Encourage your child to –

Keep up to date with assignments

Seek help when they need it – that’s what teachers are for!

Change subjects early if the need arises

Be organised – draw up a study time-table

Eat sensibly and keep playing sport

Get enough sleep

Have realistic goals

Have a fall back position if the first choice of course or Uni isn’t possible

 

What can you do?

Know what options your child realistically has

Have a contact at the school who knows your child – let them know you care about your child’s progress

Feed them loads of fresh nutritious meals

Watch their health – physical and emotional

Help them organise their time

Get extra academic support if they need it

Keep the home as harmonious as practical

Allow them to opt out of home duties at a suitable time for your child

Keep the communication channels open all year

 

Make a Study Plan

  1. List all the activities your child is involved in
  2. Include sleep, meals and travel time (use it!)
  3. Break the day into appropriate time spans
  4. Week days and weekends will differ
  5. Allow for free time/TV/Socialising
  6. Allow enough time for study for your child –some need more than others
  7. Allow for breaks and exercise
  8. Make sure it’s flexible and workable

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Exams are nasty evil things but passing them is more essential than ever. If you want a good future for your child, one where they are socialised, intelligent, productive members of society then, as a parent you need to put in the effort too. Don’t leave it all to the school with their afternoon sessions and holiday classes. As a parent you need to be involved. It’s your child, after all! Good luck J (Images from Private Collection)

End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.

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Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?

 

I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.

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But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

dead angel

I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

GCSE’s – bring on the ungrateful

May 3, 2014

In some parts of the world children are dying because they want to be educated. In some parts of this country children would rather die than be educated. Think that’s a bit harsh for a Saturday?

Well think about this. This week 230 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from school while studying for their final exams – who knows what has happened to them and lord knows their government hasn’t been doing a great deal to find out. They reside in a part of their country where going to school can be fatal. This week my year 11s came back from their latest gee them up and boost their confidence assembly with this: ‘Why should we care about our education, why should we have to do anything about it?’ Coupled with a general: ‘Oh my god, are you going to make me work this morning when I’m so tired from the weekend?’

Needless to say I was not terribly compassionate to those who have complained this week about how much they have to do to get their C, or make progress in English. No, I’ve been singularly angry with those who don’t care, with those who think it’s all a joke, all somebody else’s problem. (Please note there is a disclaimer at the end regarding sweeping generalisations and students.)

I am appalled and disgusted by the attitude of too many children I have met over the last six years who simply don’t give a shit. Fair enough, my non-teaching friends are thinking, let them fail. And in a fair world we would. But Education in England is not about the consequences of your actions, or even learning; no, it’s about teaching. Specifically it’s about league tables, year on year improvements, and meeting and exceeding targets, that actually are not realistic or based in any sensible or rationale logic, just some massaged numbers.

Education is not about learning at all! It’s not about the students (and their families) taking responsibility, no it’s about teachers and schools busting their guts to get the numbers, to not fail, to not have Ofsted breathing down your neck, to avoid being bullied out of your job or sacked, or ending up in Special Measures.

At the moment, across the country teachers are offering extra lessons, spending weekends at school, creating booster packages for home study, running residential weekends; are doing everything they can other than write the exams themselves to get their students over the line. Teachers sit in meetings where management asks – what else could you do for them? Why isn’t management asking the students – what else could you be doing for yourself?

Why are schools chasing students to attend classes, offering inducements to attend extra lessons, ringing them up to remind them to attend extra lessons, allowing extra time for everything, even driving to their homes to pick them up for the exams? Why don’t students and their families care enough to do these things for themselves?

The poor woman who was stabbed this week was doing such a thing – in school on her day off to teach an extra lesson for her GCSE Spanish class.

Indeed, why do teachers care more about students’ results than they do, why are we working harder than they are for their GCSE’s????

In other parts of the world students are desperate to be educated, some walk miles and miles to get to school, some get shot on the way, especially if they happen to be a girl (remember Malala) and their schools do not have remotely adequate facilities. In other parts of the world students compete fiercely to get into the government schools (Shanghai) because they know if they don’t they’ll never have a decent job and there is no welfare to prop them up the rest of their lives. In other parts of the world students take responsibility for their learning; they read, they complete their homework, they focus in class and do their best.

pal studying

Here, in failing schools across the country students don’t care. They want to be entertained, because education must be fun! They don’t want to be in class every day or work effectively when they’re there. They don’t read and wonder why they can’t pass an exam. They get to year 11 having done bugger all for too many years and wonder why they aren’t going to get a C. And they blame their teachers because finally it starts to sink in, school is nearly over and what the hell am I going to do – it must be someone else’s fault…

And you know what, it isn’t actually all their fault. It’s the system that is failing them. Not their teachers, who are as much the victim of the pernicious focus on league tables and Ofsted as they are, but a system that has taken away the students democratic right to failure and to their own true success.

They exist in a system that is not about learning, not about becoming a worthwhile person, a person who doesn’t understand the worth of an education because they have not had to work for it. No, they are failed and continue to fail because schools are not allowed to fail and so we spew out endless young people whose C is not theirs, who haven’t read an entire book in years, who don’t know how to think, who have been drilled and coached and had words and phrases shoved down their throats so they know how to pass. But they don’t know anything worth knowing about English.

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In Shanghai and other places there are consequences for not learning, for not trying. Schools work because students and families respect education, know that learning is the only way to a good life, self respect and security. Teachers are respected, not blamed. Education is valued.

Gove’s reforms are doomed. Not just because he’s an egotistical idiot, but because he is dealing with the symptoms, not the underlying cause, not the disease at the heart of education. Ofsted and league tables breed lies, cheating and all sorts of scurrilous behaviour. Exams are a blunt instrument, but given everything else in the system is singularly lacking in refinement and finesse what do you expect?

It won’t be until this country looks at itself, at its issues, its massive gap between the rich and poor, and creates a bespoke education system, one for all the people who live here, not just patched in from bits from the rest of the world, that all children will have the chance of a good education and a better future. Someone really should be asking how you can have such world class universities as Oxford and Cambridge and such a third rate government sector… someone still needs to be joining the dots much much better.

Singapore and Shanghai looked inward, looked at themselves and what they needed and then they changed their systems. The best performing Scandinavian countries do the same. They didn’t cherry pick from the rest of the world and now look at them!

Disclaimer: I have taught some amazing and hard working students here, those who have really cared about their education and were impressively decent people. I still do! I have also worked with some amazingly dedicated and hard working teachers. Teachers and students are not the problem, not at all… (Images from Private Collection)

Let’s talk about reading, baby, let’s talk about a rich life, shall we?

February 1, 2014

It’s that time of year in the UK, kiddies starting to panic about their exams, about their GCSE C grades and wanting it, but not actually being prepared to work for it. There are many serious problems in Education, too many and too depressing to consider here, but the daddy of them all of them is Reading.

Fitzg

As an English teacher of extensive and considerable experience it is my considered opinion that the epidemic of non-readers is growing and will strangle the world, immuring us in illiteracy and idiocy. Forget global warming and the increasing divide between rich and poor, the divide between readers and non-readers will define the planet.

To read is to know, to understand, enjoy, think, consider, imagine, explore. To read is to be empowered. At its most basic and fundamental level reading = knowledge. And you must know by know that knowledge = power. Does anyone really think that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the guys from Google and Amazon don’t read, weren’t readers?

bookshevles2

It’s time to face the facts. Reading is magic. It does all sorts of tricky and scary things to you. It helps your vocabulary, it helps you understand how language works at a fundamental level – grammar and all that lovely stuff – and at the higher level of images and contradictions and challenges in ideas, and concepts. Reading takes you on a journey, to unreal places, to facts and information, to ideas that challenge and confront; to new worlds, both imagined and real. Reading is the fortress for the lonely, for the outsider, for the lost, for the vulnerable and for the smart. Reading fiction helps you understand the world, it makes you more empathic, more able to understand and read others: it helps you to be more successful in business. Oh, yes, there are studied about this.

Smart people read. They know its power. Dumb people, stupid people would rather have their fingernails pulled out than read a book. Oh, yes, it’s true. Stupid people don’t know how stupid they are, because they don’t read. Believe me, I have met too many now – students and parents who actually don’t know what a book is – other than something they had to interact with at school.

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But, more incredibly, there are schools that don’t think reading in class is a sound thing to do. Schools that think silent reading is a waste of time. I know this sounds like insane rubbish but it is true. Reading silently in class (because so many of our students do not read silently or otherwise anywhere else) does not show evidence of progress, means that some are day-dreaming, are not concentrating and simply wasting time.

These are the very schools whose results are on a knife-edge, where students can’t read for meaning or answer anything other than the most fundamental questions about the content. How can they pass an exam worth 60% (soon to be 100%), where half of that mark is based on the ability to read and understand unseen texts? Even the better students aren’t reading a wide and eclectic range of texts, a rich and varied diet of fiction that feeds them and encourages them to go onto A levels and thence to university.

But senior administrators fearful of the might of Ofsted and the madness that mandates evidence for everything cannot abide the quiet, soft, gentle world of silent reading, of a child sitting still, simply reading. Because, you must know by now, if you can’t measure something in English education then it obviously isn’t happening.

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Too many young people do not have the habit of reading. It is easy to understand, there are so many distractions, so many other easier more entertaining things to be doing, why sit quietly reading a book that will take hours or days to finish? What’s the point?

Indeed, I wonder too. Why am I beating my brains out to make fools and morons understand that reading matters, that it makes a difference. Fail your exams, have an utterly impoverished life, know nothing, at all ever.

But you know what, you aren’t in the majority. People read all the time, on the trains, on the tube, on buses and planes – they read the papers and books and e-books and you know what, these people are going to work, to jobs that earn money. Reading got them there. Reading enriches their lives and they know it. (Images courtesy Google Images and Private Collection)

 

Education Wars – stop the black v white view of teaching

April 12, 2013

Education in the UK is a mess. It’s clear that the divisions within the educational community are deep and wide and tremendously destructive. How can we have a world class tertiary sector alongside dismal secondary (and primary) education? How can Gove be so wrong/right and teachers and their unions so right/wrong? How can so many students from public schools get into Russell Group Universities compared to other sectors? Why does opposition to Gove or Wilshaw bring out vilification? Why are teachers led by the nose by their lefty unions, as if they are unthinking drones? Indeed, why are teachers all lefty Marxists who are lazy beasts who have too many holidays and are paid far too much?

snoopy & marshmallows

In fact the question to ask is why doesn’t the media ask incisive questions about Education and do some considered investigative journalism about the state of education in the UK. There was a report in a broadsheet recently about the advantages of young teachers and fast tracking promotion in schools. But it was a superficial piece that did very little to look at how schools were deploying staff, only a one sided presentation about the merits of fast tracking, with comments from young teachers. Surely the story about Annaliese Briggs, recently appointed to Pimlico Primary, at 27 years old, without teaching qualifications is worthy of a serious investigative piece? What does this development tell us about the current state of education, not to mention the future of the profession?

Education touches many lives, whether it’s getting into the school of choice, support for students with special needs, league tables, academy take-overs, free schools, curriculum changes, standards, access to universities of choice. For parents it is central to their family’s well being for many years. The stories about couples moving to get into the right catchment areas are legion in the papers, as are the stories of heartache when children cannot get into a school at all, let alone one of their choice! It is no wonder that Education is a topic that causes great division in society.

But, it does not need to be so. I am very far from being pro-Gove or pro-Wilshaw. I consider both men driven by their egos and a belief in their own rightness at the exclusion of all else. All that I read about Gove supports this, from the amount of dissenters to his policies, to the bullying of his staff. I have worked with Wilshaw, so I know thereof what I speak. Both men have an abiding belief in the avenging, correcting all conquering hero, not a view I subscribe to, but observing the parlous state of state education here I can understand their positions.

Dear reader, the Education world does not have to be viewed as black or white, which is what our educational political masters, in league with the media, would have us believe. Teachers are not lead by their unions, nor are they in charge of what happens in their curriculum and not everything Gove says is, or should be automatically rejected by teachers as, rubbish.

The truth is that the politics of division is useful, it manufactures fractures and breaks where there are none, it makes wars where there is no need and it keeps the politicians in the news.

Shockingly, not everything Gove says is automatically rejected by ordinary class-room teachers. I come from a system where there is no such thing as a two tiered exam system, or the chance for endless re-takes – I find this to be the cause of much unnecessary angst and confusion in my school. It’s not actually that difficult to design an exam that caters for the range of students. And there seems to be an awful lot of money being made by the various exam boards peddling their wares to support their curriculum. Is Gove wrong to try and shut them down?

Is Gove wrong to change the way Education is delivered in the UK? Perhaps some of his methodology needs revision, some of his priorities need challenging, as do some of the current educational practises… But to pretend everything is hunky dory is to live as a frightened ostrich does.

snoopy & sax

A curriculum based on facts and skills is the most sensible way to go. A less emotive word for facts might be content. Skills need to be hooked into content. Many commentators are now ranging the Education wars into those who support the American E.D Hirsch and those who reject him and his list of facts for American students so they can close the poverty and achievement gap – The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Interestingly he comes from a literature background (not education) and discovered the lack of broader knowledge through reading tests. Most experienced English teachers know that the further students go with studying English – A levels and beyond  (but GCSE’s too) – the more advantaged they are by reading widely from an early age and knowing about the world.

This was brought home to me twenty years ago, incidentally not that long after Hirsch came to his conclusions, when I had several students from Papua New Guinea in my A level equivalent English class. They were hard working, keen and responsive students. But one of the areas of deficiency I could not over-come for them was their lack of knowledge about the Bible, myths and legends and other English literature texts referenced in the literature we were studying. It reinforced what I knew instinctively, that the more widely read you were, the better your ability to understand texts and then write about them and achieve the grades you needed to go onto university.

Thus, dear reader, the importance of reading to your child all those wonderful fairy stories and legends from long ago, and then keeping them reading widely and independently cannot be overstated, despite the electronic temptations of our age.

snoopy & homework

I was also privileged to work with some clever people in curriculum design who understood very clearly that you learned ABOUT English THROUGH English. To wit, that skills and knowledge were not separate entities, that they worked together, that certain ‘facts’ of English had to be learnt, such as grammar, spelling rules, structures of texts; that certain texts had to be read. Thus students had to have a diet of Shakespeare, novels, poetry, short stories, modern drama and non-fiction texts, as well as an expectation of independent reading, that would go onto inform their writing and success in exams. Creativity did not suffer and students were excellent at discussion, group work, using evidence to support opinions, and the use of their imagination.

A misconception that needs to be smashed apart: Teachers are not in charge of what goes into the curriculums they teach. They are rarely consulted about what they think about teaching and learning – I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve been consulted only once about changes. Most ordinary classroom teachers are told what is going to happen next and then go on to do their best to implement the changes in the best way they can for their students’ needs. Teachers are not resistant to change if they see the need for it. But too many changes over the years seem to be about anything other than what is in the students’ best interests. Teachers are not naturally left wing or Marxist and they invariably do what is expected of them within their school structures, following the various curriculum specs their school has opted to work with. Nobody I know who teaches English has been happy with the change from Course-Work to Controlled Assessments and would cheerfully tell anyone who cares to listen what should be happening in the fraught and political world of (subject) English assessment. But, as we were told recently by a senior man from AQA (our exam board) changes would be coming thick and fast for some time and we were all in for a turbulent ride. Where are the changes coming from? The top: not teachers. Our opinions on exam content, weightings, grade boundaries are not sought, believe me.

Labelling is a damaging thing. Left wing, Marxist, reactionary, conservative, liberal, progressive – all labels that are imbued with meaning intended to damage and discredit. Labelling is about marginalising and therefore discrediting comments from the people or sectors given such labels. Therefore quelling opposition and discussion. Surely Education is too important for this on-going mudslinging? We need to stop the commentary of division – just because the NUT says something doesn’t mean it should be dismissed out of hand by Gove and his acolytes. Just because Gove says something doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t worth consideration.

It’s time for all sides to bury their egos and look to the future of the children of the UK, together, in a measured considered way. We need to stop indulging in false dichotomies – rote learning v discovery learning; facts v imagination; exams v course work; academic subjects v arts subjects: Gove v teachers.

snoopy-working tog

Education should not be about which politician or public figure/organisation wins but what is done for the children of this country. We must stop the Us and Them approach to Education, whichever side of the Educational fence we sit upon.  (Images courtesy Google Images)

Teacher Bashing: A National Sport?

September 23, 2012

Is there something in the air? Is a post-Olympic slump that’s brought out the Teacher Bashing Season? Or were we merely beyond the radar for the summer holiday – which is simply too long, as all right thinking people know.

My favourite Michael – Sir ‘I am Clint Eastwood Wilshaw’ has once again shown his distaste for the profession he is meant to represent. We should all work longer days to get pay rises and furthermore Ofsted must enforce this.

The truth is, for as long as I’ve been teaching, some staff have always left on the bell but a great many others left later, or what most did was choose the time and place of their non-contact teaching time. To pretend teachers don’t work out of school hours is a nonsense: you can’t do the job effectively if you don’t.

For years I lived and worked in the tropics. School finished at 2:30 and yes, on several days we were out the gate by 2:45, down to the beach to go fishing or walk the dog. The sun was gone by seven, the evenings cooler and I did my preparation and marking then. Actually I spent hundreds of Fridays sitting on a beach at Drimmie Heads marking year 11 essays while my beloved fished. Ah, the difference between being and English teacher and a Maths teacher!

These days I am at school around 7:30 and leave around 6 most evenings. This weekend I immured in numbers as I ‘crunch data’ and sort out my departments KS4 Schemes of Work for another meeting. I am working this weekend, Michael, because my week is too crowded with sudden demands up the food-chain; the manic ‘I want this yesterday’ from someone who seems to be ticking boxes.

Is that what teaching is about – ticking boxes? Is that what Wilshaw has – a list of provocative statements he wishes to hurl into the public domain to undermine the teaching profession?

 

Here are some truths, based on nearly 30 years of doing this sodding job, in no particular order.

1. Teaching is demanding work; children drain your energy and you need time and space to recover, to be able to think and revitalize. In Shanghai – where students do exceptionally well – teachers teach less hours because the powers that be want them to have time to think and plan imaginatively, effectively.

2. Some teachers are inefficient and need to work all hours to do what others can do in half the time.

 

3. Some teachers work better at home, prefer to work at home; some prefer to have everything done at school and separate their life from work

4. You need all sorts of people in a school – we have all sorts of kiddies, they need a variety of adults to interact with – we’re not ‘Stepford Wives’ and we shouldn’t be!

 

5. Most people I know care enormously about their students, they invariably go the extra mile.

6. There are more good teachers than bad, and I do agree with the former Ofsted head, the odd limited teacher is not the end of the world for a student

7. Learning goes on outside of school, longer hours at school does not mean better educated

8. University is not the holy grail of education – decent, thinking human beings who can look after themselves and contribute to society should be the aim.

9. You don’t have to examine and test everything

10. Character is as important as results

11. Most adults would not choose to spend their day in a room with 30 teenagers: most adults can’t bear to be near more than 6 teenagers at a time – well 3 really, and only their own, on a good day

12. The two counties in the world with the biggest social mobility issues are the UK and the USA and they examine and test the students to death and blame teachers for it all

13. Teachers need to be valued

14. One size does not fit all

15. There are too many egos in British education and schools

16. All new principals/head-teachers think they know the way, the truth and the light

17. Good teachers are offended by the likes of Wilshaw because of his blanket generalizations; poor teachers don’t care what he says

18. We all deserve a decent life-work balance; the kiddies want people who are real, who know about life and can guide them as well as teach them.

19. Most of us remember an inspirational or caring teacher that made a difference to us

20. Relationships are what matter most in a school

 

A final note: in the paper last week there was a small column about the amount of respect the public had for various professions in the community. Doctors and nurses were at the top, followed by teachers on around 70%. At the bottom, the very bottom, were politicians on 1%.

Remember that the next time Gove and Wilshaw (who is just a politician these days – ‘look at me, look at me’) make a pronouncement about education. (Images courtesy Google Images)

Don’t Blame the Teachers; Think of the Kids

September 18, 2012

Isn’t it sweet how Gove and Clegg look so chummy in their recent publicity shots for their grand announcement about the revamping of the exam system? Isn’t it wonderful how they’ve worked together to over-come the malaise in the education system to rescue standards and improve kiddies’ chances?

Did you read the twaddle in yesterday’s papers? They know about education, about the scandal of re-sits and re-takes and all about English course-work, which actually, boys, no longer exists. It was flushed away in the recent over-haul of English courses, leaving us with the travesty that’s just occurred.

Yet again politicians are interfering with education. Gove has already imposed his will on Primary school curriculum and now he is doing the same for the exam sets for secondary students. Has he talked to a teacher? Does he know what it’s actually like in schools in the UK? No, is the answer. He thinks we are the problem and we have failed the children. We have dumbed everything down in a search for the bottom, in our desperate quest for improved grades and places on the league tables.

Here’s the thing: teachers don’t have a say in what happens in schools. Some collection of people miles above them in the food-chain make the decisions, usually without consultation, or with that faux consultation where your choices are all bad. We just get to carry out orders. It’s more like a warzone, where the generals and commanders sit miles back from the action but tell us what to do, especially what we’re doing wrong. We’re the ones who go out to be shot. Remember Gallipoli?

I’ll tell you what we’re doing wrong- we’re failing generations of kids by this constant measuring and examining. What other country is as obsessed with testing and examining as the UK is? All Gove’s research should have told him that social mobility is not improved by exams. We’re now going to fail oodles more by this retrograde step – the EBacc – which will push the poorest students further away from uni or decent choices about their futures. We will have a 2 tiered system, where some subjects are valued, and therefore some skills, and some subjects are not.

Wither Music and Art, DT and ICT? Where are the creative, making subjects in this brave new education world? Gove and Clegg have thrown us backwards, not taken us forwards. Young people need to think for themselves, be equipped for a changing, evolving world, not just know facts or recite poems (although all of that is nice). They need to be creative, resilient, tough. They should be able to enjoy a range of subjects at school to know what they’re good at, to make choices about their futures based on interest and skills. They should be able to learn without everything being about an exam at the end of it.

Have Gove and Clegg thought of the current batch of students who have just suffered through the latest exam debacle, only to be told their qualifications aren’t actually worth anything? That, really, as everything’s been dumbed down, they are just dumb, dumber than those who were educated in the good old days, when rigor and standards meant something? Seriously, why do we listen to these men?

These fools are busy telling me I’m responsible for the failures of their system. They tell me my students are dumb and unworthy. They’re telling me my daughter’s GCSE’s aren’t worth having, not to mention her choice of A level subjects.

These fools haven’t the first idea and as soon as people realize Education is simply a political football, a way for politicians to grandstand and stay in power and we ignore them, we’ll actually be able to look after the students, teach them things worth knowing and be much better off.

Parents, teachers, students: we’re all in it together, not the politicians. It’s time to tell them where the fuck to go.

Avoid the Exam Hysteria – 6 ways to support your child and stay sane

May 22, 2012

Perhaps a bit late seeing as exams have started, but it’s never to late to ensure your child makes it through the exam season in one piece.

GCSE’s are upon us, and KS2 SATs have just gone. Re-takes occur in January, early entry in November – there’s always a school exam running somewhere in this country – indeed I’ve never been anywhere so keen on exams and therefore susceptible to the on-going joys of exam stress. Find herein some useful and practical advice to steer your child through the abyss and avoid insanity along the way.

Success in key exams comes from a year (and the rest) of steady work and support from home along with good stuff from school. Hopefully your child has kept up to date, completed all assessments, has all the books and access to the requisite web-sites, is getting a meaningful revision program from school and actually knows something.

What can a caring parent do?

Ensure everyone knows when the exams are and that your child has a study timetable/plan of what to study in what order and when. Some subjects are more important than others. We know English and Maths take precedence for GCSE, but your child should ensure that the subjects they intend to take for A levels are prioritised so they ensure the grade they need to keep their place in 6th form. Pin the exam schedule in a prominent place!

Keep your eye on what they are doing. Ensure that study is occurring – check them in their room – are they just sleeping or playing? Check their computer time, is it subject related or Face-book and other assorted time wasting activities? Don’t be misguided by music – it helps a lot of kiddies concentrate. Apparently heavy metal is favoured by many G&T and high achievers.

Make sure your child has some free time. Your child can’t spend all day at school and study all the rest of the hours God (or Richard Dawkins) sent them. They need time off – to relax, veg out, watch TV, be with their mates, sleep. All things in balance so they don’t burn out too soon in the exam season.

Make sure they are eating and sleeping properly. No-one can concentrate on the back of a carrot and three hours sleep. Make sure your child is in bed at a reasonable time – the same time every night is best in terms of ensuring a good night’s sleep. Make sure they have three good meals a day and that fruit and protein are included. Protein is very good for the brain. Fish especially. Our baby girl thrives on salmon – indeed for her previous Maths exams we had a week of salmon for dinner. It worked – she was 2 marks off an A!!

Offer rewards and incentives – money, food, trips, whatever it is that floats your child’s boat. Our study board has a list of grades and their monetary equivalent. It works for us! Plus chocolate and a few hours of unfettered computer time between exams.

Be there for them. This simply means being aware of what exams are on and asking them if they need any help from you (you know more than you think) and always asking how they went afterwards, offering sympathy if they think they went badly. They need to know you care and are interested – it boosts them no end.

Your support and care is what matters most now – all the teaching that matters is done. Now you and your child must ensure that the year’s work is not in vain and your child gets the results they deserve so they can go onto bigger and better things. (Images courtesy Google Images)