Reality bites

Just to let you know, today’s blog is a personal one, with not much to do with education. It’s been prompted by a short trip to Belgium I made yesterday to visit my uncle, who is very unwell. I had calculated roughly while sitting in my train carriage that I hadn’t seen my uncle for 22 or more years. For many of those years, I had simply lost touch with him, until I got a call out of the blue last year.

With my uncle yesterday

My uncle is from Syria, my late mum’s younger brother. I remember seeing him a lot during my childhood. He owned a fashion boutique in Damascus and would travel to Europe every year, visiting Milan, Paris and London to buy apparel from wholesalers to sell in his boutique back home. In London, he would stay at home with us, updating mum on the latest family gossip and showing us the garments he purchased each day. He would always bring with him some tasty treats from Syria, such as home made apricot jelly (a particular Damascene specialty) or pickled eggplants stuffed with garlic and pine nuts (delicious, I promise you). But then we had the Gulf war and the Axis of Evil, which made it more difficult for my uncle to get visas to travel abroad. We saw much less of him after that.

My uncle Marwan, looking dapper at my parents’ wedding

I myself travelled rarely to Syria. My last trip there was, I think, in the year 2000, and was totally unintended. I had been sent on a business trip to Beirut for a few days – at the time I worked for a consultancy that specialised in the Middle Eastern markets. On the spur of the moment, I had telephoned one of my aunts to say hello, and she had read me the riot act about not coming to visit them in Damascus. “Just get into a taxi and come over, it’s only an hour’s journey away”, she said. So I checked out from my hotel and asked the receptionist to sort out a taxi for me, and then made my way towards the Syrian border.

The taxi driver was friendly and chatty, and quite familiar with this commute between the two neighbouring capital cities. At the border checkpoint, I presented my passport (I was a Saudi Arabian national then, not yet a British citizen), had it stamped and sent on my way. However, just as we were about to drive off, a man in military uniform stopped our car and asked if he could nab a ride with us. The taxi driver was unable to say no. This big man, with a gun sticking out from his side, turned to me with false bonhomie and started asking me questions. The taxi driver turned silent and fearful, as for the remaining part of the journey, I was grilled on who I was, what my connection to Syria was, what was my reason for making this journey, who was I visiting, where did my aunt live, and so on and so forth. After half an hour of this inquisition, we arrived in Damascus, and the security official asked to be dropped off on a street corner, allowing us to drive off. I heaved a sigh of relief, as my taxi driver went back to his garrulousness. Looking around the city, everywhere were billboards and posters of the recently deceased Hafez Al Assad, and his son Bashar who had  succeeded him as ruler of Syria, together with patriotic slogans – a daily reminder of the almost totalitarian dictatorship in charge of the country. I kept my visit short. My family was welcoming but I couldn’t shake off that feeling of oppression when everywhere we went involved passing a security checkpoint, where the encroaching power of the state could be felt at every level. I vowed not to return, at least not until there was a better, more open regime.

During that short visit, I met many family members, but not my uncle. He had been ostracised by the rest of the family for his womanising ways. After his long suffering wife had asked for a divorce, he had taken up with a girl half his age, a girl from the provinces, that is, not from Damascene high society (shock horror). I heard he had married this young woman and started a new family with her, but as he was beyond the pale now, he had not been invited to the dinner being held in my honour. There was also another member of the family, my aunty Nadia, who had been similarly excluded. After an unhappy marriage, she had turned to drink and men for solace, and tales of her licentious behaviour had, it was claimed, stained the family name. This all sounds rather Victorian, doesn’t it?

My aunty Nadia, in happier times

When my mum was alive, she had been the glue keeping the extended family, if not together, at least connected. But my mum passed away in 1999, and after that I received little news about my uncle Marwan and my aunty Nadia. The war started, though my family in the affluent part of Damascus seemed curiously unaffected. Facebook posts showed them dressed up to the nines attending weddings and lounging in cafes. About two years ago, I heard on my cousins’ WhatsApp group that aunty Nadia had passed away, and assumed she had died of old age as she was close to 80 years old. I heard nothing about my uncle until that phone call about a year ago, telling me he was now in Belgium but giving little detail as to how he arrived there. I promised to visit, but got sidetracked with work and life. Then I heard he had been admitted to hospital with a life threatening illness, and then sent home for the little time he had left. The visit could not wait any longer.

It’s funny how, you can be apart for decades yet still feel that instant connection and familiarity when you meet up again. This is how it was yesterday. I had brought some old family photos and we sat together and reminisced. I met my uncle’s wife for the first time – a lovely lady – and my two young cousins, a boy aged 11 and a 13-year old girl. Later, I found out about their harrowing journey to Europe. Back in Syria, they had given shelter to my elderly aunty Nadia, whose home in Ghouttah (near Douma) was in a zone of intense fighting. One day however, she had decided to head back to her flat – she wanted to get hold of a stash of money she had hidden away. No amount of pleading could persuade her not to go. She didn’t make it back from that short walk a few blocks away. It’s presumed she was shot dead by a sniper. They never managed to recover her body.

In due course, the fighting got ever closer to my uncle’s home, and they took the decision to leave. Everything they owned was liquidated in a few days, their home, their furniture, any of their belongings that could bring in some cash. They flew to Turkey and paid a smuggler to take them in a boat to Greece. They got on the rubber dinghy late at night, and luckily the sea was calm. After a while, they saw the lights of a boat approaching and panic set in. If it was the Turkish coastguard, they would be returned back to Turkey. But luck was on their side, as it was the Greek coastguard, who took them onboard and deposited them on mainland Greece. From there, they were dispatched straight to Germany, but my uncle’s wife had heard through the grapevine that refugees were no longer being welcomed there, following a backlash against Angela Merkel’s earlier decision to let many of them in. They decided to sneak away from the centre they were at, and with the last of their money, bought coach tickets to Brussels. Arriving there on a cold winter’s evening, they found the office for processing refugees closed, and sat outside, not knowing where they were going to spend the night. They had no money left.

And there, they were accosted by a kindly expat British couple, who took them into their home and gave them shelter for a week, while their documents were being processed. They were then told to go to a detention centre in a small town about an hour away. With help from the British couple, who paid their taxi fare there and even put them up in a hotel when they arrived and found the processing office closed, they finally ‘got into the system’ and were housed in the detention camp, four to a room, with communal bathrooms. They stayed there for four months, enduring many interviews to ascertain whether they were truly who they said they were. The camp was full of Afghan and Iraqis, many of them claiming to be Syrian, with forged passports in tow. Some of the interrogation involved them being tested on streets and details about Douma that only someone who had lived there would know. Finally, they were given residency papers and waited a few more months before they were housed.

In all that time, I was blissfully unaware of their fate. I watched footage of refugees in boats on the news, like everyone else, never thinking it directly affected me. Cushioned by the creature comforts of home, I felt sympathy but disconnected from it all. These awful things were happening far away, to other people. It was sad, yes, and I made charitable donations to organisations involved in helping refugees, to help me feel I was doing my bit. Finally, sitting across from my 72-year old uncle, reality came to bite. In all that time of tribulation, they never called me or my sisters. They didn’t have my number, but a few enquiries would have procured it, as they were able to reach me last year. Maybe it was pride or a sense that they had no right to ask for help from family members they had not spoken to for decades. In the end, it was not me who helped them, but an anonymous British couple. It’s no exaggeration to say that I don’t feel too good about myself right now.

Do we really need the Chartered College of Teaching?

My edu-Twitter feed is currently a hive of posts about the forthcoming elections to the Chartered College of Teaching, which was set up to be a teacher-led organisation but now looks like it will be anything but teacher-led. The discussion has been spearheaded by Andrew Old’s recent blog (entitled “I was wrong about the Chartered College Of Teaching. It’s worse than I thought it would be”), as well as this blog from Greg Ashman and this thread from Michael Fordham.

From the looks of it, influential and already powerful people within the education establishment will have their voices amplified even more via this new organisation (which as I understand, has failed to recruit the expected numbers of teachers to its membership). Now, I have only worked in schools for the past three years, and been on educational Twitter approximately the same amount of time, but one thing I have noticed is the enormous amount of push-back and gatekeeping from an establishment keen on maintaining orthodoxy and silencing dissenting voices. Andrew Old summed it up nicely in this Twitter post:

I don’t particularly want to use this blog to add much to the discussion on the Chartered College of Teaching and how it’s run. My main focus in writing this is to investigate the question: do we really need it? I still struggle to get my head around why our cash-strapped government needs to spend millions of pounds on a new organisation for teachers. I’m told it is to develop the professionalism of teachers, by providing them with access to research and high quality CPD, as well as the all important certification of becoming a ‘Chartered Teacher’. This will, it is argued, provide a career path for teachers to rise within their profession.

Now, if you’ve been on this earth as long as I have, perhaps you too might be a little sceptical about certification as a way of guaranteeing quality. Just because someone holds an impressive looking certificate, and adds a few more letters after their name, doesn’t really mean that this person is any better at their job than someone without such accoutrements. Similarly, we all know that just because a school has been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted doesn’t really mean that the school is actually outstanding. These are often arbitrary judgements, made by people who are as prone to bias as anyone else. More often than not, such accolades are simply proof that said school or said professional has jumped through the requisite hoops, said and done the right kind of things to appear to be outstanding.

If the primary aim of the Chartered College of Teaching is to provide teachers with research and CPD, then here too I would question the need for this to be done via a well funded organisation. Opportunities for high quality CPD are plentiful without having to pay the rather steep price of membership. Just going on edu-Twitter, connecting with other teachers and reading blogs or articles they share, is a free and easy way to improve your practice. There are also many grassroot teacher conferences out there, such as ResearchEd, NorthernRocks, and BrewEd – to name just a few – providing teachers with a forum to share best practice. Some Multi-Academy Trusts also provide competitively priced CPD sessions in which they share good practice with other teachers and school leaders (I’m thinking here of Inspiration Trust, which has run some very interesting courses recently). So there’s plenty out there for the reflective teachers wanting to improve what they do.

I would argue that the best way to enhance the professionalism of teachers is to actually let them get on with their job and:

  • teach in classrooms where good behaviour is the default;
  • not bog them down with pointless paperwork;
  • trust teachers to do their job instead of micro-managing them;
  • provide them with opportunities to visit other schools and network with other professionals;
  • and, most critically, good leaders in their school, that set the right culture for the teachers to improve.

The amount of money that is spent in education on things that do not actually feed down to helping students improve is mind boggling. Organisations with large amounts of funding inevitably become bureaucratic beasts and vulnerable to takeover by the ‘established elites’. Do we really need this? I leave the last word to Mr. Blachford, who is a supporter of the CCT but concerned about the influence of non-teachers on the profession:

The Teacher Gap

I have just finished reading ‘The Teacher Gap‘ by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims, an important book in the educational lexicon which should, in my view, be essential reading for all stakeholders in schools – heads, middle leaders, teachers, governors and even interested parents. Not forgetting, of course, policy makers in government.

I read it with mixed feelings, because it spoke so eloquently about my recent experience, even though it wasn’t, of course, about me specifically. For anyone who doesn’t know my history, I enrolled on a school based ITT course (training as a history teacher) last September but bailed out a few months later for various reasons, many of which are explained very well in the book. I read this passage with a dawning understanding of my predicament:

Even worse, because it is the low performing and disadvantaged schools that suffer from staffing shortages, the schools with the strongest incentives to take on trainees are often not those that are best placed to support them. High performing schools with excellent working conditions generally have less need to recruit new teachers. As a result, those schools with the greatest strength and stability to deliver training experiences are often not the institutions who are incentivised to do so.

It goes a long way towards explaining the dearth of high quality history teacher training positions in my area. To remedy this situation, the authors recommend two things:

  • Create an institution that can collect accurate information on which schools have the capability to provide high quality training placements. [I’d be interested to see how this could be done without some schools ‘gaming the system’. Also, in this crowded institutional landscape, do we really need to add a new institution, rather than enhance the remit of an existing institution?]
  • Provide funding for reluctant schools to train novice teachers.

Another of the problems highlighted with teacher training in the book is that it is far too ‘front-loaded’, which can be overwhelming for new teachers. Novices are expected to learn everything there is to know about teaching in the first two years, after which no further formal training is required of them. This doesn’t give them time for deliberate practice and mastery of different aspects of teaching. Very often, new teachers are having to plan a whole career’s worth of lesson plans in the space of one year. It’s suggested that schools should support novice teachers by providing them with lesson plans prepared by experienced colleagues and ensure that mentors give non-judgemental support, and act as genuine role models rather than just going through the motions and doing the paperwork. Also, the training teachers should be allocated their own classroom, even if it means the head of department goes without (wouldn’t I have loved that!)

These are all things that can be done by schools without waiting for policy makers. However, policy too could be changed to tackle that front-loading aspect of teacher training. The authors advocate a system whereby it takes two years for a teacher to obtain a diploma, and then a further four years of practice before they obtain their full teaching qualification, all the while receiving support and coaching. In this way, novice teachers would have the space to master their craft in a supportive environment rather than being cast out to sink or swim.

These are all sensible, if expensive, proposals. However, in my view, they fail to take into account two things. Firstly, the elephant in the room that is behaviour. The book touches on this issue but doesn’t delve into it far enough. This is a shame, as I think poor behaviour in schools is one of the most critical issues in teacher recruitment and teacher retention. New teachers wanting to engage in deliberate practice of different aspects of teaching – which is what they need to do to become expert –  are often compelled to put all their focus on managing behaviour. If we want teachers to develop their teaching, then they need the space to teach without constantly having to fire-fight disruption in their classroom. I would suggest that an important part of the capability judgement on whether a school is suitable to train new teachers or not, is the quality of the behaviour systems in place. As a minimum, new teachers (and experienced ones too for that matter) should not be running their own detentions. School leadership should be visible and proactive in ensuring good behaviour is maintained.

The second thing is that it’s all well and good to advocate extensive coaching and mentoring over the course of several years, but this only works if the quality of the coaching is good to start with. I believe there is a deficit of expert people who can help develop good teachers. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but country-wide and system-wide that is not enough. Novice teachers to this day are being taught about learning styles on some ITT courses. There is also a structural bias towards teaching constructivist pedagogy (particularly in the university-based PGCEs), where didactic teaching from the front is frowned upon. How many ITT courses I wonder are introducing their trainees to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, or discussing the merits of explicit instruction versus inquiry learning? There was an interesting Twitter thread not long ago discussing things people had been taught on their PGCEs which they now realise were wrong. This prompted a prominent academic to censure them for slagging off their courses. In my experience, that type of push back, or gatekeeping, is fairly common and symptomatic of that constructivist or ‘progressive’ bias when it is challenged.

The Teacher Gap also discusses other factors which are contributing to the exodus of teachers from the profession. Workload, lack of autonomy and the audit culture in schools are laid bare for the chimera that they are – none of these measures (which have made teachers’ lives much less tolerable) have improved outcomes for students. The message is clear. Restore trust in teachers, and manage out the minority that can’t cope without being audited to extremes. The collateral damage of trying to micro-manage this minority of under-performing teachers is killing the profession. This book should be a massive eye opener for school leaders vested in their tracking systems, or book scrutinies or data drops. I wonder though how many of them are self reflective enough to digest this message?

 

 

 

 

The erosion of knowledge

I watched an interesting video clip yesterday, kindly shared on Twitter by Martin Robinson, of an interview with Roger Scruton. It’s long (about 52 minutes altogether), but well worth the time if you can spare it. I had of course heard of Roger Scruton – mainly through people tweeting soundbites of things he has said – but I had never heard him speak before. The interviewer in this clip (an academic from Berkeley University) commits the cardinal sin of talking more than the person he’s interviewing, but the result is that it feels more like a conversation than an interview.

Why am I writing a blog about it? I’m not entirely sure, but maybe it will become clear as I write. There’s a moment around 23 minutes into the interview, where Roger Scruton discusses the importance of teaching grammar at school and his experience, coming from a poor background, of going to grammar school. He compared the approach taken by his teachers then with what is happening in schools today:

“our teachers as their first instinct when they found you were handicapped by the language that you’d learned from your parents was to take you in hand, give you the advantage which your family had not, so that you could catch up with the others. I think that idea of teaching, that you’re actually lifting people up, so as to be able to receive their inheritance, that idea has gone to a great extent. It’s much more now that the teacher comes down to the level of the student.”

I was struck by the truth of this observation. Of course, this is not the case in all schools. There are some wonderful teachers and leaders in this country, determined to give their students, no matter how disadvantaged their background, the knowledge and skills to be able to accesss our shared cultural inheritance and to join that great conversation of mankind that has been going on through the ages. But they are a minority. Overall, my experience of working in a variety of schools the past three years, has been an inexorable dumbing down of content in order to make the curriculum more accessible and engaging to students.

In this context, I think the idea of a personalised curriculum, where what is taught is more dependent on who the student is and what level of attainment he or she has reached rather than on an ambitious curriculum for all, has been corrosive for our education system. I remember some years ago working as an LSA in a year 7 class, and the set text in English one term was “Terror Kid“, a novel by Benjamin Zephaniah. I can see that the book ticked a lot of boxes, written by someone from the same Afro-Carribbean community as the majority of the students and dealing with the subject of violence and terrorism, very on message with the whole ‘Prevent’ strategy. The fact that the book contains an implausible plot, stereotypical tropes and, worst of all, pedestrian prose, is conveniently overlooked. I can think of no clearer example of teaching being brought down to the level of the students, rather than aiming to lift them up, and I can almost guarantee that no independent school in this country teaches that book (I could be wrong, correct me if I am).

Now, I’m not particularly intellectual. I must admit to spending a large part of my youth reading Mills & Boon type novels (though I also devoured ‘War and Peace’ in less than a week). I still feel a little intimidated in conversations with people who obviously know much more than I do. For example, I’ve had several illuminating Twitter chats with The Grumpy Teacher, an anonymous history teacher, where I’ve felt a little out of my depth but gained fresh insights about the Feudal System, among other things. When I decided to get into teaching, I had great hopes that my staff room would be full of Grumpy Teachers, from whom I could absorb, osmosis style, knowledge and erudition. So it has been a particular disappointment that often – and I have no wish to blow my own trumpet here – I have found myself to be the most intellectual person in the room.

This, I feel, has been the single biggest crime perpetrated by the progressive, constructivist posse on education today. I wonder how many excellent and knowledgeable teachers have been driven out of the profession over the last few decades, because what they had to offer – knowledge – was no longer valued.

 

Adventures as a Supply Cover

I had an experience yesterday which made me want to write another blog. These last few weeks, I’ve been doing some supply work as a way of earning a bit of extra cash before I start my new job in September. I’ve worked as cover in both secondary and primary London schools, and while the experience has been valuable and informative, I’m glad it’s coming to an end.

There seems to be signicantly more demand for supply cover in certain kinds of schools, the ones with high rates of absenteeism because the working conditions are less than good. The ones with poor behaviour. My first supply job was actually rather pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of optimism. “This is easy money”, I thought at the end of that first day. Not so now. Some jobs were one off days, others were several days in a row, and others were regular repeats. So when I got the call yesterday morning to say, there’s a job at __ primary for a one-to-one with a SEN student, I knew exactly which one it was. Off I went, signed in with the receptionist who knew me well by now and went to see the SENCO. “You’ll be one-to-one with S”, she said to me apologetically. “He didn’t come in yesterday, so if he doesn’t come today, I’ll put you somewhere nice”. I got the sense that everyone was rather hoping this boy didn’t turn up. Of course, he did come.

As far as I can tell, this student never actually sits in class with the rest of his cohort. He is taken out to do one-to-one work, for which he is rewarded with “choosing time”, a euphemism for time playing on the laptop. Last time I worked with him, that’s what he did for pretty much the whole day, apart from running off a few times, and making me chase him around the school and the playground. The class teacher handed me some books and worksheets for him to complete, without any great hope that he would do them. After a half hour of him acting up (basically lying down under a table and moaning that he wanted his usual TA, not the supply), he got what he wanted: the laptop (after which the moaning stopped). Immediately, the latest video game ‘Fortnite’ came on, while I shrugged internally and picked up a book to read. I tried every so often to remind him of the work he was supposed to do, and eventually he promised to do it after morning break. As it happens, there was a PE lesson after break, which he was allowed to take part in since he had been so quiet all morning (laptop time can work wonders that way).

So anyway, I come back after lunch and remind him of his promise to do some work. Quick as a flash, he’s off to hide under a table and have another of his tantrums. One of the school staff comes over to him and coaxes him out. “I don’t want her”, he says, pointing to me. “She’s evil, I hate her.” Some time is spent talking to him and calming him down. No attempt is made to get him to apologise to me. Then I’m left with him again. I pick up my book and sit down to read. As far as I’m concerned, he can spend the rest of the day on that dratted computer. But no, he gets up and decides to go for a walkabout, so of course I follow. “Don’t follow me”, he snaps.

“I have to, it’s my job to supervise you”, I reply.

“Then I’m going to see Ms M” (the head teacher).

He runs down the stairs and I follow at a more sedate pace. I reach the head teacher’s door and look up through the glass to see him inside her office. Satisfied that he’s where he should be, I find myself a seat outside her office and wait to see the outcome of this chat with the head. Ten minutes later, I see the boy beckoning me through the window. I go into the head teacher’s office. She smiles at me and says “S will spend the rest of the day in my office but he needs his laptop. Would you mind going to fetch it for him?” I put a gracious smile on my face and say “of course”, and trudge up two flights of stairs to go fetch the laptop. When I bring it back, no words of thanks from the boy. The head teacher is the one who does the thanking, then asks me to re-join the class.

Back up two flights of stairs I go, but half the class has gone off for a transition day at their new secondary and I’m not needed. With an hour to kill until home time, I walk a few doors down and poke my head into a year 4 class. The frazzled teacher there welcomes an extra helping hand so I settle in for the rest of the day. It immediately becomes clear why the poor teacher is frazzled. Behaviour. I spot a boy in the corner dancing a little jig to entertain his classmates, and loudly talking over the teacher. He also seems to be the only child in the class to have a laptop open in front of him, playing some video game. Quelle surprise. The worst behaved child is given a laptop (I find out later it was a reward for having behaved in the morning).

And so, after an hour in that rowdy, disorganised classroom, I finally went home, breathing a sigh of relief. I’m not planning to go back to that school again, no matter how many coaxing phone calls I get from the agency. In fact, I think this is the end of the road for me as a supply cover. Life’s too short and the sunshine is beckoning me, telling me to start my holiday a little bit sooner. Before I head out into the garden for a bit of R and R, I’ll leave you with one last thought. That school was rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.