Out of the mire

I’m horrified by the continued coverage of the exam board ‘fiasco’ – but I thought I’d add my piece about how it could be different.

First, you’ve got to think about what education is all about, and what you want it to be about. At the moment, education in England seems to be about two things: being a surrogate parent and being an exam factory.

The first of these – being a surrogate parent – seems to come off the back of several things. Mainly, the failure of parenting in England. Karen Matthews is an extreme example of the failure of parenting, but she reminds us of some things. Schools have become the focus of the five-pronged ‘children’s services’ centres. Every child matters. We’re charged with healthy eating, ensuring community cohesion, child safety, economic well-being and somewhere in there, ‘achievement’.

That’s too much. Schools used to be about achievement. But we realised we couldn’t do that without healthy, safe children. That means we need social services to step up and sort their act out and we need good parents. That’s another blog entirely. Healthy eating we can do something about. If you eat well, your brain grows, you are fueled to learn. But healthy eating in schools has failed. I might not be able to stand Jamie Oliver, but his heart is in the right place.

I think here we could look to France. School meals are heavily subsidised and because many children either live too far away from school or because their parents work, or because a school meal is cheaper than anything their parents could provide, school meals work. Most children at Jake’s school stay. He doesn’t. Mainly that’s because he’s too far gone to have school meals now. He’d just not eat them. Here, it’s different. No packed lunches. No well-meaning parents bribing children with biscuits in their lunch box. No crisps. No chocolate. Little sugar. Three courses, including a salad, protein, vegetables, a dessert, yoghurt, fruit. Everyone eats the same.

Now in some ways it could be improved. French schools do not cater for vegetarians and Sarkozy doesn’t think they should. I personally don’t approve of them serving veal. The children don’t approve of some of the things on the menu, like andouillette, ‘shit-pipe sausage’ as Steve calls it. You can get halal if you must, and I guess it’s the same for kosher food.

But this does many things. Firstly, ALL the children sit down together and socialise. Secondly, they get protein and vegetables, fruit and calcium. They are expected to drink water. And obesity among children in France is pretty low. You just don’t see fat children very often. And when you do, their parents are on the chubby side, so something is going on genetically or at home.

And apart from that, I think schools have enough to work with in terms of achievement. Sure they can act as social centres and can have policemen and social workers attached to them. For seven hours a day, most children in an area are present and it’s an easy focus point for other social services. But THEY should pick up the baton. Schools CAN’T be everything.

Then we can get to the real business of achievement.

This is where you have to think about what achievement means.

What should children achieve in school? What’s the purpose of the school?

I’d say two things. Yes it should be about preparation for life, particularly from about the age of 13-14. However, at the moment that comes down to a whole bunch of shit in England. There are a handful of vocational courses and mostly, they are seen as courses for academic underachievers. The ‘thick’ kids. They have 13 vocational courses available. Hospitality. Catering. Child care. Hair and Beauty. Mechanics. Building. You see how this is going.

And not all schools offer all of them. They can’t. They mostly offer two or three. That means, for all intents and purposes, 40 of the academic underachievers in a school year get to train in ‘child care’ or ‘hair and beauty’ or mechanics.

This isn’t inspiring. If I were a parent, I’d be mortified if my child wanted to do any of these courses, because they’d be in a class for 2 days a week with the disenchanted, the disenfranchised, the badly behaved.

Just as an indication, the 20 girls on the hair and beauty course at my last school used to accumulate outside my office. They used to talk and chat and eat their crisps and drink their full-fat coke, complete with 14 teaspoons of sugar. One of them once told her friends about having sex the night before with a forty year-old bloke. What I remember was her description of his belly slapping on her. It was revolting, mainly because she was still fourteen, and mainly because it’s a revolting image.

The girls were actually fairly pleasant sometimes. Yes they could be utterly vile, but they’d sometimes come in and do my hair for me. They loved my make-up bag and my straighteners. Once, when I had a visitor coming in during the afternoon, they all straightened my hair and did my make-up for me.

But school was nothing for them. Most of them were pregnant by the time they left. That’s tragic. They see that as their only future. They haven’t got viable alternatives.

I think this is a lot to do with our focus in England. We see academic achievement as the golden goal. If you don’t have A levels, your qualifications are suspect. If you do a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course, you might not get a job. And so most of us middle-class people push our kids towards academia, even if they aren’t cut out for it, like my sister and brother. And you are probably thinking that’s not a very nice thing to say about my sister and brother. And that’s because the British attitude is that you’re a failure if you aren’t academic. You are supposed to be like my Mum’s God-son who got 12 A*s (these are the ones who make the papers) and then 6 A grade A levels (he made the papers again) and you are then supposed to aspire to go to Oxford or Cambridge. He went to Oxford, got a first-class honours (or was it one of those double firsts??!) and then went to Harvard, where he is now, on a scholarship.

Honestly, his mum was pissed off. She’s a teacher and she didn’t want him to end up in teaching. She wanted him to be a doctor, or some other such lucrative profession that’s related to academia. Lawyer. Solicitor. Accountant. Doctor. This is what we dream of for our middle class children, because that’s how society has made us see it.

Yet some craftsmen like plumbers and electricians earn as much as these academics. Yet we frown on them as if they’re a sub-species. We have a dearth of British plumbers and electricians, so crafty eastern Europeans step in.

I look at Jake and know he’s such a practical ‘hands-on’ boy: he’d love electrics and mechanics; he’d be interested and enthused and like school. It’d keep his focus. He’s still got it, but give him two years and school will mean nothing to him.

So two things have to change there: our view of the craftsman and our vocational courses.

The first is hard. We have to change our whole view. The French have it better. An artisan is a craftsperson. They have guilds and unions and are highly respected. They specialise. Bakers, patissiers, plumbers, electricians, butchers, gardeners, horticulturalists, cabinet-makers, joiners, beauticians, hairdressers – most of the jobs that if we had a flair for it, we’d love to do. And it’s esteemed.

The second is easier in a way. City and Guilds need to come back and need to work from a younger age. Our City and Guilds qualifications were world-renowned, and now are practically non-existent. Yet they were perfect.

Jake has on offer in France over 300 vocational courses. Boat-making is the first on the list. That would be cool if you were into it. Steve wouldn’t have got much further than number 1 on the list, were it on offer. To be honest, I might have been tempted away from academia by at least 50 of the courses on there. But we had this, and we lost it. Bring back C&G!

So you have two real, valued pathways. Academic and vocational. And your vocational isn’t just lip-service to the sense of the word. It’s real. This would mean my lovely sister who is a superb nurse wouldn’t have spent 15 years in the wilderness and my brother would have got the self-esteem of knowing he was actually good at stuff beyond the academic. That very popular quote from Einstein (is it really??!) about if you assess a fish on its ability to add up, it’s going to fail – about how we’re all good at something and about how academic assessment is breaking some very gifted people by making them feel they have nothing to offer – it’s very true.

It means though we have to relinquish education to the good people of the community, like we used to do with C&G. And that means trusting each other, respecting each other.

So… schools should offer this from 14. This is easy. We used to think this way. We’ve done it before.

But what around it? What about the academic core? And what before it?

There are many things schools could be – and they can be magnificent. What we want to foster are children who love learning. Children who know their strengths and weaknesses. Who aren’t afraid to be wrong, who know HOW TO learn.

And there’s only really one thing you need for this: an empowered, enthusiastic and committed teacher.

These aren’t as rare as you might think, but what the profession is full of – and I mean FULL OF! – are people who don’t really want to teach. It’s just a salary. They neither love their subject and feel the need to share that love, nor love teaching for teaching’s sake.

When I started teaching, I did a placement at a terrible school in Barnsley. In the English department there were five of us, including me. The head of English was awful. She had been promoted off the back of an affair. Then there was a limp wet-lettuce of a guy who reminded me of René from ‘Allo ‘Allo, and a guy who was a bit of a spineless blimp. Why were they failing as a school? Just going into those classrooms would tell you! The Science department was a different kettle of fish. The head of science was dynamic and enthusiastic and excited. He made me think about being a science teacher – that’s how good he was.

My next school was Chaucer on Sheffield’s Parson Cross estate. At the time, its GCSE results were 10%. But the teachers I met there – wow! Eileen Tempest, the second in department loved both English and the kids. She never lost her calm; she always laughed and was relaxed with the kids, and they were with her. They loved English because she did and because she loved them. The same for Karen and Charlotte – all the whole department were committed to literacy and learning. They taught kids about Shakespeare and Dickens, would do anything with them. Charlotte wrote a new inspirational quote on her blackboard of inspiration every single day, in her beautiful italic handwriting. It was inviting and fresh and fun. In a sink school on a sink estate. A beacon of light.

What they needed was social services support and a whole range of strategies to help out the primaries, who sent the secondary school kids who still couldn’t read yet.

Then I went to Chorley. The department had huge talents. Fiona, Martin, Alison – wonderful, inspiring.

And this made me think when I was thinking of Southlands about two other things. Inspirational and sympathetic leadership, and the art department.

I’ve yet to work with an art department who are crap – all of them. Most art teachers I’ve ever met are great. They don’t shout. They respect kids. They help kids grow. They love what they do. Why is this? What is it about art teachers, and maybe music teachers, drama teachers, PE teachers (not all of them are like the caricature in Kes!) 

I think it’s love. They love what they do. They get to do art all day and share it with others. They get to see kids produce. Plus, they’ve not got the same amount of pressure. They have welcoming classrooms, they play music. They don’t get mad because the kids want to come to their classrooms, even if they don’t like PE or Art or Music. They have fun AND they learn. Art departments often get the best results in schools. Why is that? It’s not because Art is easier. It’s not. But when you look at an Art department on parents’ evenings or open evenings, they’re often the heart of the school. They’re the memorable bits and I’m sure you’ll join with me in saying they’re stunning.

All classrooms should be like that: a temple to the subject. No pressure of constant assessment and no drilling. And the end assessment? A portfolio of work you have done over two years, assessed by people who know their stuff.

There are lots of teachers I know like that. Yasmin loves kids AND English. She still updates her status about them. Teaching is who she is. It’s her life. Alison is a little older. She loves teaching, I’d say. She loves the creativity and the fun and they playfulness and she is gentle with the children, especially those who need it. She likes the prettiness of a classroom, the stamps and the different colours of marking, the illustration – I don’t think she loves one subject very much – she can teach French and she’s very creative – but she loves kids and she loves teaching. Chris was so excited about his classes – there was little to hold him back. He loved to write and create  – I think he still does!

But the people who are still ‘satisfactory’ after 5 years, or 10 years… why are they in schools still? Would we be okay with satisfactory soldiers?! A ‘satisfactory’ hairdresser might soon go out of business.

And schools protect them, as do the universities.

In fact, it is teacher training courses that should hold much of the blame. They accept people with no aptitude for teaching sometimes – and I think it is an institutional thing. I saw very few bad student teachers from Edge Hill, and very few good ones from St Martin’s in Lancaster. That means the people who are picking teachers have to be good. They have to weed out those who don’t really want to teach. Edge Hill are good at it. So are Man Met. Yet St Martin’s passed a student teacher I’d failed. He’s in the education system somewhere, messing up your kids’ lives.

Hopefully, he quit.

But there’s no way to get rid of teachers like this, and often they end up filling departments with their negativity and lack of ability to try, clinging to courses that are ‘easy’ and needing lots of help because they don’t get their subject.

Give me a poem, tell me it’s on the syllabus and off I go. I’m excited. I can find you a hundred ways to teach it. Give me the rubbish bits or hard bits, like teaching Shakespeare to a group of 14 year old bottom setters, and I can make it great, as can at least 50 teachers I could name right here. They don’t need support, or ideas. Talking to another enthused teacher gives them 200 more ideas and approaches. They know their stuff.

But I worked with 230 English teachers when I was an English advisor, and more than half weren’t like that. More than half were disenchanted. They blamed school management or head teachers. They blamed the course. They blamed naughty kids. They yelled all the time yet still had discipline problems. Their results were rubbish.

But they stay, and they stay. They feel they have nowhere else to go and schools are reluctant to put the teacher into competency procedures. I was involved in six competency procedures, where teachers are given a notice to improve. Most just meet the criteria, soaking up support, but then a year later, they’re just as bad. Very, very few go on to become good teachers. But most teachers on competency are there for political reasons; they don’t fit in and the head wants rid.

Most of the crap are just there, protected, supported.

Now I ask you, would we put up with a doctor who only got half his patients better, compared to one who could make them all better? Would we want a plumber who can only get it right half the time? A Dr Chinnery of a vet who often kills the animals?

I don’t think we all have to be Yasmins or Alisons or Claires (my amazing drama teacher friend who was born to teach and took a long time to get there!) but if we had a majority, things like assessment wouldn’t be as important. Assessment hasn’t improved anything. Weighing and measuring that pig over and over again has only revealed the flaws in the pig.

Billions were spent – billions – on school improvement under the Labour government. Most went into ‘BSF’ – these high-tech uber-amazing classrooms. But mostly, these are a distraction. Building schools for the future was just a fifteen-billion pound diversion. Yes, it’s nice to have a lovely classroom. But my motto has always been ‘I can teach in a playground if I have to’ – I used to have to do a lot of ‘sample’ lessons or ‘show’ lessons, and most schools expected me to have  a Mariah Carey style list of things I needed, disco balls, overhead projectors, interactive whiteboards, peeled grapes. And all I needed were children. That was all. And maybe a blackboard or whiteboard and a bit of something to create with.

I know lots of teachers like me. Lots. More like this – a tipping point – and things go in the right direction. Give them places on consulting boards, on exam boards, on steering groups, and stop putting people on steering committees who have no idea what they’re talking about, like politicians, put these people in charge of schools and education will be what it should be.

It’s ironic that the English Steering Committee for English education has twenty people on it. Only two of those people were ever English teachers. One is now a head teacher and only teaches one PSHE lesson a week – has done for years – and the other was the Chief Advisor to schools. 18 people whose only experience of English was many years ago. 18 statisticians and politicians – all middle aged, mostly men, all white. And we wonder why it looks like it does?

Put me and Yasmin, Alison, Chris, Rachel, Kath C, Vanessa, Elizabeth, Karen, Charlotte, Elizabeth T, Elizabeth (three fab English teachers called Elizabeth… Hmmm… ), Alison (another one!) Jo, Jo (two of them, too!)  and Sue in a room for a day and we will give you an English curriculum that is thoughtful, progressive, assessed, valued, engaging, enjoyable and relevant – as would any group of inspirational teachers – these are just some of the ones I know – And then give us 500 English teachers who can take it and make it their own, and you’ve got a winner. Yes, I’ve only got one man on my list. No, I don’t care. The equivalent Science and Maths steering groups will make up the gender imbalance!! All I ask for are a starting point of teachers who live to teach, who see it as a vocation, who love kids and know what makes them tick, and who know their stuff.

It already works with music, art and drama. There’s no reason it wouldn’t with bigger subjects.

But politicians need to be removed from the process completely, except for observation afterwards – and then maybe we wouldn’t have had 20 years in the wilderness.

In short: bring back high quality, varied, vocational education from 14 and get good people to teach it. Stop making schools be the Nanny babysitter responsible for everything and let us concentrate.

I bet you have 300 reasons you think this might not work. I have 3,000 answers for each of your questions. Solutions R Us.

Longest blog post ever. Fact.


4 thoughts on “Out of the mire

  1. Yes, well, now you go into the coalface detail, I’m horrified too. It’s sad for all concerned. To feel you were trapped as a teacher with no vocation would be a ghastly place to be personally, quite apart from your impact on the kids.

    1. It is. Because none of those teachers were bad people. Okay – one or two – but if you teach in a department where everyone is like that, it means you have no hope to change. It’s also been a real symptom of education that it’s not okay to be an outstanding teacher (luckily, that’s changed) like you’re embarrassing everyone around you. I once had a performance target to be more humble about my abilities – a target to hide my talent in a way. And I’m not the only one!

  2. One of those days – I am riveted to your blog and nothing much else is going to happen (except my spaniel goes for a trim LOL!)… oh my, we would have much to talk about and maybe not always the same opinions but we do have a LOT in common!!
    Anyway, ever looked at the Swiss education system? 2 yrs kindergarten, 6 yrs primary, 3 yrs secondary then the majority do 3-4 yrs apprenticeships and a maximum of 20% go on to a grammar school to do university entrance – in 13 subjects. Some people poohpooh us for not being academic (and many Swiss look down on academics), but personally, I think it’s a much better system. I went through an international system, was expected to do the IB but chose to do A’levels (well, you know the age and I was desperate to go back to England at that point!)… I was already trilingual and yet did French, German and History (which I loved but failed). As a daughter of language teachers and translators, I became a freelance translator after a few years of office jobs that bored me to tears and have enjoyed being a stay-at-home mum, which mine never was. In my late 30s/early 40s, I did a BA for the fun of it, but I also enjoy homemaking and crafts (mainly knitting). Hubby did his apprenticeship in admin and went on to do stuff that made an MBA seem superfluous, with continuing success (now self-employed) and also on a federal level. Our daughters: 1) did the grammar school but decided she’d rather train as a veterinary nurse, doing the 3 yr course in 18 mths, now dog-trains and runs a multiplex cinema, married with 2 young kids and 2 foster kids, oh, and a Great Dane. 2) failed the grammar school so wasn’t allowed to go to uni, suffers migraines but is a self-taught classicist and philosopher who has a working knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek and loves anything Asian (she speaks Japanese and Korean), married at 19 and has just accompanied her vocationally-trained physics technician husband to a new job at a science institute near Didcot – straight out of the apprenticeship and on a UK average salary at 22, no children planned but both totally anglophile and 3) is less academically inclined, has finished secondary school at 16 and begun a 3 year apprenticeship as a dressmaker i.e. not “fashion” but hands-on sewing, pattern-making, textiles etc. as a couturier (from what I can glean online, neither the UK nor the US offer this kind of training unless you attend courses at some kind of night school or fashion college, where design seems foremost). Her friends are in apprenticeships training to be bakers, florists, retail, admin (banks, insurance, industrial etc.), care (both old-age and paediatric), chimney-sweep, concierge, construction plumber, multi-skilled mechanic and construction draughtsman… none of them will ever be out of a job here in Switzrland – and more to the point, none of their employers would have known what to do with an academically trained candidate.
    Sorry for hijacking you like this, but it’s such a fascinating subject and I can only feel glad we didn’t go back to have our daughters educated in Britain when we had the chance in the early 90s!!!

    1. I think we certainly would have a lot to talk about! I think it sounds wonderful to learn a skill or trade, and 20/80 sounds about the right balance of academics to real-life people. That dress-making course sounds amazing. One thing you never hear is ‘Switzerland needs to pull its socks up’ regarding teaching, and this just might explain why! Thanks for the post.

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