What's all this then?

I tweet too much. So I needed somewhere else to start storing all the words. This is it. Think of it as the external hard drive for my thoughts.

I don't have an obesssion, a dream, a fixation or a hook, so don't be expecting a focus here. It's like great big lumps of my twitterings. You may see teaching stuff, rants, maternal anxiety and occasional sojourns away from reality.

Anyway, I like a nice chat so we should talk. By we, I of course mean me...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Here come the Mind Twizzlers.

Free Schools have been in the offing for ages, so why am I particularly riled now?

It’s not just that Toby Young’s proposed West London Free School was in the news as a number of charities will be evicted from their premises to make way for it,  although that does make me seethe. It’s not just that a large County Council has this week given its backing to Free Schools, offering to support them rather than creating its own schools in areas of need. Although, that makes me very worried.

What has really got on my extremities is an interview I read in the magazine for the National Confederation of PTAs. PTAs are my new soapbox as I was just made chair of one. I only vaguely volunteered, but now I’m involved, I’m giving it my all. This includes settling down with a notepad, cuppa and the NCPTA magazine.

Half way through I discover a very long, very prominent interview with Toby Young, complete with the obligatory photo of him looking serious and smug in equal measures, which was a bad start.

That is the “After” shot.

He makes his usual crass and provocative statements throughout. Like pretending there’s an outside chance that his own children won’t get into his school, and that all staff will be made to wear “suits and ties”.  There’s also a comment that has worryingly racist overtones. He is, of course, not the right person to be running a school. Not many people are. Many Heads struggle, and they have the backing of LEAs, Councils, School Development Advisors, Mentors, Cluster Groups, Unions and all the other professionals that surround schools. A Free School distances itself from that support and puts itself in the sights of corporations ready to part schools and their money.

Belonging to a wider system offers some protection from that, protection for the students, who should not be a marketing opportunity. And schools should not be businesses. Who sets the curriculum when private money is involved? When school dinners were franchised out to private companies we ended up in a situation with children being fed the most appalling garbage in the name of the profit margin. It took a TV chef to begin to put it right. How much more risk is there when a school effectively puts its curriculum up for sale? Turkey twizzlers for the mind.

But I STILL haven’t explained why I am so angry. No, really.

The magazine is for PTAs. Most PTAs’ primary motivation is to raise much needed funds for their schools. At the moment their job is getting harder. School budgets are getting tighter. Businesses are feeling the pinch and are less likely to offer the donations and grants that they used to. Whilst some school funding has that magical ringfence around it, the auxiliary organisations that support schools are feeling the effects of the cuts. As they vanish, schools are left to dip into their budget to provide for the same needs that were once met by support services. Times are getting tough, PTAs are feeling that.

And into the PTA fundraising magazine waltzes Toby Young, knowing full well that free schools will be eating into school funding, leaving everyone else worse off. I’m furious they gave him the space in which to patronise everyone who works so hard to support their children’s schools.  He suggests that the type of person who cares enough about their school to join the PTA would also be open to setting up their own school. Last time I looked the PTAs of this country were only there to make up a funding gap that shouldn’t exist. Why on earth would those people want to become part of something that takes money away from our schools? Away from the professional teachers (in a Free School you don’t need to be a qualified teacher), away from the support provided by LEAs and away from the obligation to teach a balanced curriculum.

I oppose Free Schools on idealogical grounds, and because they are poorly researched, and because the funding sources aren’t even finalised, and because they are an untried experiment in this country, and I don’t think children make good guinea pigs. I am annoyed by Toby Young in particular because his rationale is a sham. He is doing what he fancies doing and the government is letting him. It reminds me a little of the “Reason” programme invented by Douglas Adams in the Dirk Gently novels. All his arguments work backwards from the point of “because I want to”.

Meanwhile, us on the PTAs will keep on going for a different reason. Because we have to.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The boy who liked to Explain Things.

This is a story about Steven. Simply because his is a story I want to tell.

Steven was in the first class I taught. He is the child mentioned in my first blog (In the beginning...) The one who used to hang from the hand dryer yelling “CROCODILE ATTACK!”

Steven was, and hopefully still is, a one off.  I was warned he had behaviour issues. Which was sort of true. He meant well, but he was one of those children who couldn’t help himself. He developed a habit of scrunching the tops of other kids’ heads as he walked past which would inevitably result in
“Miiiiiissssss…. Steeeeeeven hit me!”
“He didn’t hit you. He just scrunched your head. Steven, what did we say about scrunching people’s heads?”
“They don’t like it”
“No, they don’t. Soooo?”
“We don’t do it”

Steven was a child with views. On everything. He was the child who derailed a class by offering to explain what an incubator was. His explanation actually covered the main points of fertilization and conception. A sticky moment in many ways. My novice response was to talk over the worst of it and ignore the little voice that piped up with,

“What’s sperm?”

Steven was a supply teacher’s nightmare. Sensing the vacuum left by the removal of the regular authority figure in the class, Steven would step in to help. His strong sense of natural justice would lead him to assume the role of  Chief Peacekeeper. Wrongdoers in the class would be severely punished under his rule. This lead to my return from a bout of flu being greeted with the ominous statement,

“Steven went in your cupboard.”

Ah, the hallowed portal in the classroom: the walk in stationery cupboard, a treasure trove of glue and coloured shiny paper. Entrance was strictly prohibited.
“What were you doing in there Steven?”
“Getting the rounders bat.” My blood began to chill rapidly.
“And why were you getting the rounders bat?”
“Peter wouldn’t do what he was told.”

In circumstances like these, it’s important to stay calm and ask the right questions. The right question wasn’t “What happened next?” as 29 other children decided that their version of events needed to be heard at this point.  Steven maintained an ominous silence.  It transpired that he had objected to Peter not doing as he was asked by the supply teacher, so he had gone for the baseball bat to enforce the law. Peter had, understandably, done a runner and the two of them had ended up doing laps round the outside of the mobile classroom. The pursuit had only ended when Steven climbed a drainpipe in order to launch a “surprise attack” on Peter when he rounded the corner.

“What were the rest of you doing at this point?” was also a daft question,
“And what was the teacher doing?”
“He had a guitar, Miss”

There didn’t seem to be much point in asking any more questions. It was obvious what had happened. Steven didn’t cope well with insecure environments. He struggled when the person in charge wasn’t. He didn’t like significant people being absent.  The previous year, his father had been killed in a road traffic accident. Steven had been affected by this grief in ways beyond measure and his behavioural quirks had developed as coping mechanisms. He lived in a world of his own most of the time and when he did surface it was to explain his experiences of the real world at extraordinary length. He couldn’t settle until he was sure that he understood what was new and puzzling. At least there were some things in his life open to explanation.

I did a bad thing one day. Some BEd students came in. They wanted to test Piaget’s theory that before the age of 9, children don’t understand the concept of the conservation of liquids. They wanted to show children aged 9 and below a variety of containers holding the same amount of liquid and ask them to explain what they saw. Steven was 9. I gave them Steven to talk to.  Several hours later they came to thank me, with somewhat ravaged looks on their faces.  I got my comeuppance later when Steven wanted to explain what he had seen to me.

Steven is one of those children you always wonder about. What became of him? Where will he end up? Is he conducting meticulous studies in experimental physics? I half expect to see him speaking on behalf of Scotland Yard.  I hope he’s well. And that he remains the kind of original person that draws love to them like a crocodile to a hand dryer.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

EBac: Victorian Delivery after years of modern education?

There are so many things I don’t understand about the introduction of the English Baccalaureate it’s hard to know where to start.  So, for fun, let’s assume the Gove hasn’t introduced this measure as a way to re-establish a two tier education system, that this isn’t a hopelessly naive nostalgia trip seeking to downgrade the subjects important to 21st Century life-long learning, and that the measure isn’t merely making no sense because no-one has thought it through.

No, let’s be rational and analytical like the well-educated individuals Gove wants. Let’s ask some questions.

1.Will including one language GCSE in the Ebac will improve the general ability of this country to speak Modern Foreign Languages? 
It’s a bit late by then, to be honest. We all know that early language learning is the key to competancy. Gove’s comment that without language learning “ an integral part of the brain's learning capacity rusts unused” leaves me bewildered. The brain’s ability to learn language in a natural way that is distinct from other learning declines rapidly from infancy onwards. It plays no part in learning at GCSE, it barely impacts on language learning in KS2 when MFLs are introduced. One language in the EBac is not going to make the enormous cultural shift in learning that this country really needs to improve communication in MFLs (not that all of Gove’s languages are Modern. The lack of uptake in Ancient Greek is just as worrying to Gove), and his comment on the brain is dangerously close to Bad Science.

2. Will the EBac help improve uptake of Science subjects? 
No. As with language, just the one science is needed, a requirement most schools make voluntarily. One science at GCSE does not a scientist make. It won’t help you study at A-level standard and cannot possibly of any use at university level, given the current Science A levels only just meet the mark.

3. Will the Ebac help your University chances?
No. A levels are what Universities look at. And if you’re applying for Engineering, will your Geography and Written Hebrew GCSEs really help you get in? No more than that week at Cub Camp you padded your UCAS form with.

4. Does the EBac imply you’re smart?
Gove wants students who achieve the Ebac to get a Special Certificate. To show how special they are. Maybe they’d like a sticker too, which is just as meaningful.  My Husband studied no humanities at school, would not have got his EBac sticker, but can calculate cumulative interest payments in his head, which is pretty handy. We all know people who are brilliant in their field and hopeless outside of it. Taking EBac subjects does not imply that you are any more intelligent than someone who has studied Music or Sociology or Theology or ICT. However, the fact that other subjects are  no longer ”core” and referred to as “soft” does devalue your ability in them. We have no need, EBac says, for the engineers or the designers, let alone the Artists or Musicians. Let their needs and talents go by the wayside. Because that’s what will happen to those subjects when schools don’t have to account for learning in them.  There is only so much budget to not-quite-go-round, after all.

5. Why isn’t the EBac being made compulsory?
The National Curriculum is a legal document. It is a legal requirement of schools to teach the National Curriculum. To make the EBac compulsory would require all sorts of complicated law-passing activities, which need consultation, research and evidence-based rationale. Why bother with all of that when you can simply pressure schools into using it through the menace of League Tables? Much simpler this way.

6. Are Geography and History the most valuable humanities?
Of course not. They are no more demanding intellectually than sociology, psychology or RE. To classify them as harder than other subjects is ridiculous. Questions are only easy if you know the answers. I studied History and Geography at GCSE. I got an A in both without too much effort. The subject that made me sweat blood was Graphic Design. Our abilities are diverse, a fact recognised by the breadth of GCSE subjects currently taught.

7. Isn’t it good that we should make able students take challenging subjects?
See above. Also, no. All children should be free to study the subjects they feel passionate about, be it Ancient History or Cooking. They should be able to specialise in the area they want to work in, and academically able students should be free as any other to study in whichever field they may want to devote their working life to. Otherwise it really is Education with all the reality taken out. It might reduce University attrition rates too. Oh, and improve children’s well being (which given that the UK comes bottom out of 21 wealthy nations in 2 of the 6 dimensions on the Unicef child well-being index, may not be a bad thing http://www.unicef.org/media/files/ChildPovertyReport.pdf).

8. Does anyone else think the term EBac sounds unfortunately similar to VBAC? That’s Vaginal Birth After Caesarean, to clarify non-teaching jargon.
Just me? Oh well.

Anyway, this analysis has now taken us from Gove to Vagina. Which is probably where we should stop for today.