Posts Tagged ‘GCSE’

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.

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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)

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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.

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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?

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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)

 

Social Mobility: Australia v England – a bit of a rant

May 9, 2012

Social Mobility in the UK lags behind the rest of the world – who is surprised at that? Denmark and Australia are two countries where if you are born poor you have a better than decent chance of making it up the food chain to a successful life. Now, I know virtually nothing about Denmark – other than Prince Fred married Mary Donaldson, an ordinary Australian girl, which must have seriously helped her social mobility, or his – but I do know a fair bit about Australia and feel experienced enough to offer some comparisons on the gap between social mobility in Oz and the UK.

First of all, the gap between rich and poor in Australia is nowhere near as vast as it is in Britain. We have no royalty or massive indolent indulged group at the top. Most uber-rich and successful Australians have got there themselves – usually the product of social mobility (well most of us began life as criminals so how much more socially mobile can you get?). Most of our super-rich are media barons or mining magnates – have been for some time. Yes, we now have dynasties therein – Murdochs, Packers, Hancocks, etc but build on the back of work and sweat and not a lot of university educations in the founding generations. Fortunately for the burgeoning ego amongst this lot, every once in a while on of them comes utterly unstuck and ends up in jail. Most Australians are enjoying the current discomfort felt by the Murdoch gang.

Witness Alan Bond, the epitome of a self-made Australian. He was a painter with ambition, got into land deals, made a fortune and it was his syndicate that first won the America’s Cup from the Yanks back in 1983. He was a national hero, a testimony to hard work, self belief and ambition. He didn’t go to university and was feted by his countrymen. He blew it though: too many dodgy deals and ended up in jail for a while. He landed on his feet again but this story is a reminder to those who over-stretch their reach and forget about the law. Alan Bond is a good lesson to Australians on many levels. Dream, believe, work hard but stay within the law, or you’ll get yours. We love justice in Oz and no-one’s too big for that here.

Celebrity culture in Australia is nowhere near as invidious or all pervasive. We have our footy heroes and movie and rock stars, but they don’t earn the money that a Beckham or a Rooney does. They’re more likely to be Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, far more the actor than the star – still one of us, still accessible, even if living OS more than at home. Even Kylie, one of uber-stars is one of us – she got cancer and has troubles with her men, so very much mortal. Yes, we indulge in reality TV and kiddies dream of easy riches quickly gained but most know it’s not likely and the only way they’ll have a life is through a job.

Our politicians are as useless as the English but don’t come from an exclusive club that went to private schools and elite universities. We have some clever pollies, but most of ours do not come from the privileged elite– they tend to know the price of milk and they avoid the entrails fiddling in education that is favoured by the likes of Gove. A Michael Wilshaw simply doesn’t exist in Australia. We also avoid the plethora of Sirs and Dames and have limited respect for those with such titles – it keeps the playing fields and work places more even, more democratic. More based on merit, not so much connections.

Let’s to education, then as a main lever for social mobility. In truth I never heard the expression ‘social mobility’ until I moved here in 2008. In my naivety I thought schools were about preparing children for the world of work and to be decent individuals who would contribute positively to the world and lead a happy life. It didn’t mean everyone had to go to uni (or be a failure if they didn’t) and it didn’t mean schools were responsible for all the ills in society. (Although to be fair to Australian education systems – federal and state – they have, like their British cousins, believed this too. If only teachers were better then we’d all be rich and happy and nothing terrible would happen to anyone ever again – nor anything exciting or interesting come to that.)

Australia doesn’t have league tables, or anything approximating Ofsted, nor do they constantly inspect, observe or rate teachers. There is performance management and teachers pursuing promotion willingly undergo scrutiny, as do all new teachers into the various systems. Other than that we just get on with teaching the curriculum (constantly under review and change), marking, assessing, preparing for the next stage, developing relationships, keeping control, meeting deadlines, writing reports – doing our best. We don’t have much truck with data – that belongs to a boffin in an office somewhere. We simply teach children our subject area to the best of our ability. We expect students to take responsibility for their own learning.

This scenario describes both government and private schools (both of which I have spent years in). Unlike England there isn’t always a clear division between the quality of either camp. In the NT for years the government schools were clearly superior to any private educational establishments. In Tasmania the private sector was favoured over the government, despite A level equivalent honours results being evenly distributed between both sectors. It wasn’t just about results or getting into university – parents were concerned about the whole child approach that is the raison d être of private schools – music, sport, debating, drama, trips – that caters better to the individual child.

I’m going to say that again – Australian schools expect students to take responsibility for their own learning.

I never knew that was a radical idea until 2008, when a Year 9 child gleefully told me that if I don’t make them learn I’ll be sacked. I still have my job and that child is not at university. But that comment, flung across the room one cold January afternoon symptomises the state of play in English education. The teacher is responsible not only for their teaching but to make the child learn, to take responsibility for that child – and the other 28 in that class (plus your other 3-4 classes if you’re a high school teacher).

Ofsted fails teachers if students are not learning, if a child is sitting in your room doing nothing, off task, unengaged, for whatever reason. In Australia, the teacher does all they can – examines their own teaching, consults a senior colleague, contacts the parent (who either doesn’t care, or is struggling more with the child), negotiates with the child, does what he/she can and that’s it. The teacher is not held accountable for the child’s unwillingness or refusal to get involved in their own learning. The child has the democratic right to failure. Some do fail, leave school sooner rather than later, but some get their act together. It may not be in your class, in your year but something will go ‘ping’ and they’ll understand they have to make the moves.

This idea of personal responsibility is quite significant to me because if the covert curriculum is to inculcate certain values – which society tends to agree are worthwhile – such as co-operation, trying hard, persevering, coping with set-backs – the much vaunted resilience – then by making the teacher responsible for all that happens in a classroom you are failing the child and consequentially failing society.

You end up with what England has now – a passive underbelly which believes it is owed a living. That a job should be exciting and well paid and the employer should be grateful the employed have simply turned up to work. If schools in the UK have been running the no-responsibility approach to education for students (and their parents) for many years now this is the natural consequence. People expect to be given to, not to work for things, not to earn things, but to be given – as they were (and are) in school. The current approach simply tells students they aren’t responsible, it’s someone else’s role to make them… whatever.

Let me tell you a story from Australia, from a private school. Tim was completely off the wall in Year 9 – he hated school, didn’t co-operate in any lessons, let alone mine. He ruined my lessons, when he was there and the worst report I have ever written in my life was about Tim. His parents were educated and caring – they’d lost him too. All they wanted was that he was at school and safe until he was old enough to leave and in the meantime we hoped for some sort of miracle. Well a miracle did not eventuate but Tim made it through to university entrance subjects – we met up again along the way and while he had immense difficulties putting his now quite amazing and insightful ideas to paper he was growing up and becoming quite an actor. Between myself and his drama teacher we kept him going; she found him a course post year-12 and he was free of school, now a socialized and decent kid – a young man with prospects. He didn’t make it to uni but he makes a living and looks after himself – his friends love him and he remains close to his family. Is Tim a success story? He’s not a failure, he took responsibility for himself and lives a life independent of state support, still being an actor, if not a terribly successful one just yet.

These days I meet too many 12-16 year olds who think school is about being entertained, that if they are asked to complete a task that they deem boring they have the right to complain and refuse to do it. I meet too many children who have no idea how to deal with their emotions, who think it’s their right to be angry and sulk because they’ve been reprimanded for something inappropriate they have done or said. I meet students who have no idea about manners, taking turns, listening, respect for others and who think they don’t have to worry about such things. I meet too many children who have to be literally stood over to work, to put their pen (if they bring it to school) in their hand and put it to the paper.

I meet students who will not read. Despite visits to the library, to support from an excellent librarian, in a library with a plethora of books for teenagers, these children – and it is girls as much as boys – will not read. They’ll sit and look at the cover, pretend to read while staring out the window and someone, somewhere says this child must get a C+ in English to be able to go to University so they can move up the social mobility ladder.

The more governments fiddle with economics and education (health too) the worse they become. Australia is strong on personal responsibility – on being independent and able to look after yourself. You can be who you want and do what you want. Part of ‘The Lucky Country’ belief in self still exists. We have a healthy disrespect for authority, we hate being told what to do, we don’t care about titles. We believe in hard work, in not being a ‘bludger’, we don’t expect others to take responsibility for us.

Perhaps the difference in social mobility between Australia and the UK is more about national character than anything else. The resistance by teachers to be told what to do by successive governments, such that we can teach individually and creatively – across the states, across the government/private divide and students are not constrained by the insane examination culture that measures – well, what exactly? In Australia you learn, you don’t learn, in the end it’s up to the child with the help of their parents and the school. It’s not about the teacher, not on their own, not at all.

 

The current UK government seems to concentrate on three of the seven truths about social mobility –

1.Breaking the cycle through education…

2.Through the quality of teaching

3.The belief that University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key

 

Which is all well and good. But it ignores at its peril –

1.What happens at home before age 3

2.The importance of out of school time (like trips and clubs, the home environment)

3.Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing

 

These matters are not within the remit of the current educational climate of England. The relentless drive for progress, for C+ at GCSE, to pass exams means children know very little of any worth and their skills set is short term. In too many schools their grades are not their own (have a read of the TES chat rooms from time to time). League tables make this happen – make teachers scaffold work to such an extent that all students do is regurgitate their teachers words and interpretations. It is not really the teachers or even head-teachers fault, this is the system they know and even though they know it’s flawed have no idea how to work without Ofsted looming over their shoulders, tracking progress through numbers and passing exams.

Why do the English think schools need to be inspected? Is there some belief, some inherit distrust of teachers and schools, that says they won’t do their job unless someone is coming to check on them? How many professions suffer this indignity???

Take a long look England, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Michael Wilshaw – your education system is failing the most needy children. It’s not doing much for the bright ones either, but that’s another blog. Your systems do not enhance social mobility, they do not equip students for the world of work, further education, life long learning or how to be a good citizen. Have a long hard look at Denmark if you wish, but look at Australia too. Our education system is flawed for sure, but children are making it through their education to go onto better things. Perhaps that tells you something??

Social Mobility is not about schools, it’s not about teachers who can’t make students learn (learning is what you do for yourself– where you, the individual acquires knowledge). It’s much much bigger than that. So give teachers a break – look at your society, your massively unequal society, your massive inequity between the rich and poor and do something about that.

According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2012 those with a fortune between 330 – 750 million pounds have enjoyed increases of 7.8% while the poorest households have seen their income drop by 1.5%. Do you think this might impact on social mobility in this country? Do you really think any government is going to tackle this?

Don’t, for God’s sake, introduce more tests and benchmarks and hoops to jump through, especially not for the poor. Consider what to do about the fact that in the last twelve months the rich have got richer, the poor poorer – that would be the bold thing to do, the brave thing. The right thing to do. Go on, I dare you…