Monthly Archives: December 2011

The sun will come out tomorrow…

Well, actually, it came out today.

It’s been gale-force winds here. The little wind ornaments have been driven mental, turning one way and another, not knowing where to go in the wind. A winter storm had passed over France, leaving some people’s houses flooded – others without electricity. We’re lucky. We had electric and I sorted out candles, matches, dynamo torches and the paraffin lamp last time we had a power cut so I think we would have survived.

But yesterday it was so bleak – the sky a tungsten and charcoal grey – and it didn’t really get light. Jake went to school in the pouring rain, we stayed in and I wrote. Steve had had a crap night’s sleep – so had I – something about worrying the shutters are about to come off their hinges at any point makes you worry too much to sleep. Sheets of rain came driving down off the roof, totally overwhelming the gutter and then slamming down onto the glass roof of the lean-to. I’ve never seen so much rain. It was like we got a month’s worth in five minutes. Tilly went out for a wazz and was soaked to the bone by the time when she got back in. Frankly, I’m surprised she even bothered going outside. Usually, the hint of rain makes her want to wee in the living room or the dining room or Jake’s room or the bathroom or the lean-to.

And I won’t deny it. I was feeling utterly miserable. Some days, you’re entitled to a poor-me moment.

Today, I woke up a bit later than usual. The sun was out – first time in three weeks – and an hour later, my dad finally arrived. I think he’s forgotten it was my birthday on Thursday, though I’m well-used to this. He forgets Abi’s birthday and it’s the day after his. Mostly, he just wanted to get my junk out of his car and go to the supermarket, so he didn’t stop, just dropped off parcels and packages.

And oh what a joy.

My mum has made me a fabulous – and I mean TOTALLY fabulous card that is so beautiful I’m going to frame it afterwards. I opened my birthday present from her and it was a beautiful jumper – at first I thought she’d knitted it – she’s a seriously wonderful knitter – but was only a little disappointed that it was from a shop instead, because it’s beautiful. I also got some very timely hand-warmers, a very lovely pair of stretchy jodhpurs and an undershirt.

The second present was off my Nana. Her card had arrived yesterday a little damp and worse for wear, but another beautiful, sparkly jumper. My mum and Nana have such good taste. I absolutely love them.

Then it was on to my sister’s. A gorgeous cardigan and THE COOLEST (well, warmest!) slippers. Love. ♥

New slipper boots. So warm.... soooo comfy

However, since some of my last boxes have made their way out here, opening them was like opening birthday presents too. I found my ‘hug me’ hot water bottle, a body warmer I had for horse riding, a couple of jumpers I forgot I had, my photographic enlarger (which was the only bit of kit missing and once it warms up, I’m totally out there making my dark room. Watch this space!) my other Moroccan pouffe, more Christmas decorations and the likes. Oh, it was wonderful. I’m strongly of the opinion that you should – once a year or so – let someone run loose in your house, take a few boxes of things, keep them from you for a year and then give you them back. It’s amazing how much more you appreciate them.

And with the passing of the torrential rain, we are left with a flood, but it feels like these sunny moments are so much more precious. A lot like life. It does feel like the sun has lifted on what has been a very crappy week. Thanks for all your love yesterday, too. xx

Some photos for you…

The bridge is a good two metres above the river bed...

The river bed was dry on Thursday so this has come up by about 2 metres over 36 hours. The Tardoire disappears down a limestone sink hole just between Rivieres and La Rochefoucauld, and I guess it goes to some underground lake or cavern or river. Then, when that’s full, the river starts flowing again down our way. But to go from being the foot-deep stream it usually is for four or five months (from November to April) to the bottom of the bridge, and flood the road entirely, well that’s a lot of rain to fall in one day!

A good two metres more than usual...

But, and if you’ll forgive the dirty lens, the village is looking lovely in blue.

The back lane to La Rochette

Molly nearly met her maker here – the ditch alongside must be a good two foot drop, if not more, and she went in over her head without realising there was no land underneath. For a dog who doesn’t like water on her belly, she did well. Steve was prepared to dive in after her. I had Tilly on the lead. She’s far too stupid to be round anything that might cause problems!

Not out of the woods yet…

There have been horrendous winds round these parts. It has rained for the best part of three weeks (and the water company just HAVE to send a €200 bill right now, don’t they??!) and according to Steve, the river has come back. Last night, I thought the windows were going to come through. It’s been windy enough to blow the horns off cows, as they say round these parts, and raining spears and ropes.

It’s not particularly cold, but we’re going through wood like nobody’s business trying to get dogs/clothes/boys dry. Steve’s room is down to 10 degrees, mine to 13. But with my double duvets, bedtime fleeces, socks, hot water bottles and shawl, I’m warm enough. In fact, it’s so warm it makes me not want to get out of bed because I know how cold it is out there.

It has been a shit, shit week. The chickens were all abducted – the only thing left were feathers, and though there was no blood, no bits of chicken left and very few feathers, it was clear what had happened. Couple that with two HoooooooogE bills, a couple of other payments needing to be made, wood running out, trying to weed in the pouring rain, it wasn’t the best of birthdays. Grrr. Luckily I had plenty of birthday wishes to cheer me up. Steve bought me a set of books in French about wine, so I can try to impress people with my knowledge of Pomerol. I’ll never be able to afford to drink it, but I’ll know about it. That happens a lot in my life.

Whether it’s the dark nights, or the pathetic fallacy of all this wind and rain stirring up emotions, whether it’s delightful companies sending you whack-off great big bills when you’ve been SO frugal, chicken feathers and no chickens, be gentle with me. Sometimes, I feel like running outside and yelling at the sky.

But I think the universe would send a single magpie to shit in my eye, so I will stay inside and hope that the wind doesn’t blow the roof off the house.

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.

There’s something rotten…

… in the state of secondary education in England…

The Daily Telegraph has run a series of stories about *shock horror* the exam boards ‘cheating’, as if they’ve exposed some big and new exciting thing. Hah.

Anyone with any sense could see what was going to happen.

In 2005, when RAISE-online was introduced (a method of identifying underachievement based on exam results) I wrote on the bottom of my meeting summary to my boss ‘We might have 21 vacant Head of Department spots tomorrow’.

Here are the facts:

Primary schools start the process. They are measured on their performance in English and Maths at KS2. The tests are flawed, narrow and rigid. Interpretation of the markscheme allows for little variety or variation. Results are patchy. I spent 3 weeks in a darkened room reviewing thousands of badly marked scripts in 2005. It’s not a perfect system.

Then it used to be that from these, predictions would be made about progress at Secondary. So each child arrives with a target grade. You MUST, as a teacher, by hook or by crook, ensure that these target grades are met because otherwise your underachievement is shown, warts and all, to the world via league tables and Ofsted reports.

So… you have to be prescriptive. You don’t have time in 3 hours a week to do anything more than drill pupils. Heads bring in in-house testing in Y7 and 8 to make sure pupils are ‘at target’, so you spend at least 6 weeks prepping them each year. Year 9 is essentially just a year of drilling, like Y6 was.

You focus on the test because you have to.

At KS3, the test was so badly managed that it collapsed under its own weight and is no longer.

But still, children are forced to live up to a statistically, mathematically and logically flawed ‘target’ and teachers have got to make sure this happens. Despite the fact you are dealing with people, children even, in fact ‘teenagers’, not a production line, you have to ensure that every single pupil meets their potential. Because even three children that don’t, in a school of 1200, mean a 1% dip in your performance. 10 kids off the tracks = 3%.

Despite broken homes, parents who don’t care, absence, illness, social problems, rioting pupils, knife attacks, drugs, alcohol – you name it, not one child in a hundred can be allowed to fail.

Across the whole school, the first target was 5 A*-C. So schools chose ‘easy’ courses or popular courses. Besides the basics, the other subjects at GCSE are, by and large, choices. Options. So children opt with their feet for interesting or easy courses – and academically rigorous courses go out of the window. Modern Languages, History and Geography have all suffered. Media Studies, Drama and other such social courses are on the increase.

And let me point out this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not passing judgement. I’m simply saying that if you allow children to choose, they’ll choose PE and Art and Drama and Media studies because they are taught, often, by enthusiasts, and the subjects are enjoyable. Then they have the so-called vocational courses, which offer 2 or 4 or even 8 ‘GCSE-equivalent’ passes – plenty of points, accreditation and interest. More academic dearth.

So then once options are chosen, teachers have a range of boards who offer the subject. You know you have to succeed, so as a head of department, you pick the exam board which is best for you. Sometimes that means smaller, ‘cosy’ exam boards where you can speak to the chief examiner when you have an issue. Sometimes that means courses that are rumored to be easier. Sometimes, that’s the course that’s the most pleasant for pupils. Sometimes, that’s the course with the most support.

Because you can pick and choose, the methods by which you were attracted are a key ‘draw’ – and thus the exam board play up to these attractions. If you came for support, they give you more. They get more clients. Whatever reason you pick a course for, getting better results is really the ONLY real reason. Because if you don’t do that, you’re damned.

Hanging over you is the league table, a public document becoming more and more complex by the day. And Ofsted.

It used to be that Ofsted came in and watched teaching. Some teachers would pull out a one-off great lesson. They’d prepare the kids rigorously for that one lesson, but, by and large, it didn’t matter if the rest of the year you were shit. Ofsted knew this. So they need other methods to know whether you’re doing a good job or not.

And that method was a league table.

They can compare you to your neighbours, to other schools like you, to other authorities, to other districts, to the whole nation. They can see how little Johnny Broken-Home is comparing to little Arthur Over-Indulged.

Obviously, that system is flawed. So in comes a ‘charitable organisation’ called Fischer Family Trust who created a whole load of analytical data they can use to determine many things. It takes into account things like postcode, age, month of birth, poverty (via free school meals) ethnicity and so on in order to make a prediction about little Johnny Broken-Home’s potential.

Personally, I find this pretty disgusting. It’s essentially your ‘life chance’. And the government throw billions of pounds at those schools with the lowest chances. It hasn’t made much difference other than to boost grades a bit. With 20% of 16-24 year olds ‘NEET’ – not in education, employment or training (i.e. unemployed) in England, it’s not working, is it?

But Ofsted compare schools’ potential with schools’ actual results. Only, it’s not a whole school picture. It’s based only on KS2-4 progress, and that can only be based on flawed data from Y6 comparing it to GCSE data. And since only English and Maths are assessed at KS2, when the child is 11, then you know which two subjects bear the brunt of the inspection.

And there’s another problem. Ofsted use the numbers to identify schools to inspect. And they’ve made up their minds before the visit (now a spot-check, 48-hours’ notice thing) and the visit is just to confirm what they know. They expect head teachers to provide them with tracking data and analysis and to say they’ve been observing lessons and self-monitoring. And all they’re doing is comparing if what the school thinks of itself matches with what the data tells them.

If the data tells them there’s a problem, they – in a 3 day visit – decide to slap a ‘special measures’ warning on the school. From that, you have a year to improve. And if you don’t, they’ll close you and re-brand you.

So as a head of Maths or English, or any other subject (excuse me if I piss you off by saying you’re ‘unimportant’. I don’t think you are, but Ofsted don’t really care about you…) you have to pick the right course. That means the easiest, the best-supported, the most simple.

And because the exam boards have desperate, needy teachers who rely on them, and they need more desperate, needy teachers, they behave in human ways. They give them what they want. The paper becomes transparent, past papers are discussed, tips are given. This way, you keep parents, heads, governing bodies, Ofsted, the media, the local authority and the government happy.

But the whole system is set up to measure statistics and numbers, not children. It’s set up to measure and account, so it’s based on things that are easily measured and accountable, like numbers, rather than quality of schooling.

There were inevitable outcomes as soon as league tables were produced. The first is that because they were clumsy and mathematically flawed, they would become increasingly sophisticated and in-depth. Thus you now have the new measure 5 A*-C including English and Maths (because who cares if they’ve got 5 A*-C in PE, drama, art, music and media studies and not in English and Maths? Well, Ofsted and the workplace don’t care. I’m saying these are all valuable, but I’m a lone voice on that…) because someone who’s got an A* in GCSE PE and an E in English isn’t useful in an office, are they? Despite that PE teaches them self-reflection, confidence, peer assessment, team work etc – these aren’t easy to measure, so it’s become a ‘useless’ subject, if engaging for pupils – you can’t measure it easily – so don’t measure it at all. And if you can’t predict how their teamwork skills should grow, then you can’t set targets, so don’t bother. Just measure the things you can) and value-added data, because we all know it’s not fair to compare 5 A*-C from a school full of Johnny Broken-Homes with a school full of Arthur Over-Indulgeds.

The only problem is, if you don’t have value-added data, you can’t compare the two. So you compare what you can. English and maths. And you compare them ruthlessly and without any qualitative data, because that’s too hard to analyse.

And that means that heads put pressure (and do very little by way of support) on core departments. You have to do the best you can in the best way you can.

I mentioned my salary in the last post. It was a good salary. However, I was still teaching 18 hours out of the 25 school hours. In my remaining 7 hours of ‘9-4 time’ I was supposed to work for at least 1 hour with the graduate teacher the school had taken on because we were short-staffed. I was also supposed to work for 1 hour with a newly qualified teacher. My planning and departmental planning and analysis, marking, lesson planning and so on had to go in those other four hours.

Because we had a member of staff off for cancer treatment and two maternity leaves, I picked up two extra classes. There was no funding for other members of staff, so we all shared up one of the timetables. Because we had no representation on the senior leadership team, we were given classrooms all over the school. History, who attracted 22 GCSE students, but had two deputy heads, had a full suite of classrooms. As a school of 1600, I had one class in Art and then another class in the MFL department and I had a 5 minute walk between them.

Because we were forced to only have one after-school meeting per week, and the agendas were often set (one was ‘how can we teach about healthy minds in English?’ and we only had one teacher training day to ourselves, I had precisely 7 hours to deliver every piece of update or subject knowledge or expertise to my department. Each member of my department was allowed precisely two days on courses and each one had to be value-for-money – i.e. we had to be able to do something with it afterwards, and that something must affect our results otherwise it wasn’t worth it. Beauticians are required to have more ‘development’ than this in order to keep a licence.

And so I was in school from 7 a.m. latest to 5 or 6 p.m. and then I was planning, marking or writing reports.

Plus, I marked. I marked exam papers at first because it gave me another £1000 on my £14,000 salary. Then I marked because I learned a lot through it. I’ll be frank. I learned how to teach to the test. I learned all the little things that would make a big difference, and all the little quirks. I got to see papers from other schools, the outcome of other teaching methods. I saw interesting work and I saw shit work. I learned how to and how not to.

It made me a ‘better’ teacher in the way that counted: measurement. Unless you mark, the markscheme is meaningless and you only see your own kids’ results. It’s pretty much the only way I got to be a ‘great’ teacher – and that was in the eyes of the statistics. My results were better.

And then came the moment when someone said ‘those results are too good. They must be cheating’ – and despite the fact they analysed over a million pieces of data and found NOT ONE SINGLE PIECE that was linked to me or written by me, and what they did find was ludicrous – exactly what every single other department in the land was doing – I found it impossible to stay.

Now the Telegraph think they are revealing some big secret. But let me ask you: when the only thing that matters is what you can measure, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

Now England is left with a flawed test system built on flawed analysis built on something that was never intended to be used in this way and yes, it’s rotten. It stinks.

That’s why I don’t do it any more.

Ironically, the exam board were the only people who supported me, I mean really supported me. And it’s the only teaching work I still do for other people. It’s my only actual employment where I am paid by someone other than the actual client. But go ahead, Daily Telegraph, find flaws in a symptom of the whole diseased system.

Heaven forbid you might actually get to the root cause: a sequence of governments and quangos and quasi-legal non-appointed bodies who have led you down the track that says assessment is the be-all and end-all of the education system, because it’s the only thing that can be easily measured.

My key word there is ‘easily’. Enjoyment, transferability, becoming a successful, mentally healthy person – they’re all tough to analyse. Not impossible, but qualitative. And we all know ‘soft data’ is ‘dirty data’.

So bad statisticians caused this. People who think numbers can measure stuff and they’re the best way to measure stuff. Any good statistician will point out the flaws of the system in an instant: flaws that have been overlooked in this great stampede towards ‘accountability’.

Whew.

Maybe tomorrow I might say how I think the system SHOULD work. But who cares what I think? Yet again, I feel like Cassandra pointing out what is true and suffering the very terrible curse of having nobody take it on board.

Meh.

Money, money, money…

I had two things on my mind this morning, but ironically they ended up being about the same thing.

The first was this post by Leo Babauta on Zen Habits: The No-Gift Holiday Challenge which is about spending Christmas in other ways, other than the money spree. Coupled with Cyber Monday two days ago, it couldn’t have been better timed. It’s all about the joys of spending Christmas in other ways, other than the Big Spend. He’s right. The most precious gift we can give of each other at Christmas is time and each other. I wish I could have an hour in the company of all the people I’m giving presents to, and all the people I’ll get presents off. That would be enough for me.

Leo says this: “Do we really want to teach our children that giving is really all about buying? Do we want to teach them that to show love, you must buy something? Do we want to set an example of consumerism instead of creativity? Are we saying that the only way a family or friends can get together is if we spend a crapload of needless money?” – and he’s right.

Sometimes a gift is so well chosen, so perfect that it’s a real addition to someone’s life. My best two have been cameras, both bought by my family for me. They give me the ability to record all those things I’d forget and to keep them as a little burst of happiness when I need it. My film camera opened up a whole new world, and though I got it back in 2002, as my 30th birthday present, it’s been the gift that brought me the most pleasure of anything. Whether it was Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Morocco, Cuba, family events, the countryside near me, Manchester… that camera has been everywhere and recorded everything I’ve ever treasured in the last 10 years. The second is the digital camera I use every day – yesterday I got a picture of Tilly being cute, of Steve with a blue tit in his hands (it had flown into the lean-to) and our barn lit up (it looks like a nativity scene without Jesus!).

The nicest gifts are the ones you see people using or wearing all the time. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the pictures I bought my mum from Brazil on her wall, the photos I took of Manchester on my sister’s wall, the photo of Paris my brother took on my dad’s wall, the t-shirt I hand-painted for Steve, the graffiti t-shirt I made for Jake. None of these cost a lot of money, but I know they are all treasured. That’s what gifts should be – symbols of love. Something that, when you look at them, reminds you of other people’s love for you. I’ve got the two house-warming gifts from Joanne on my mantelpiece – the photo of my cat, Basil – more lovely now he’s no longer with me – the fruit bowl is filled with pine-cones and baubles. Every time I get in the hammock (not very often!) or look at it, I’m reminded of Deb. Those are great gifts. The cardigan I’m wearing now that my sister bought me… the fluffy socks I wear in bed. They remind me that other people care about me.

But Leo Babauta received a couple of comments about being a Grinch because he didn’t spend much money on his children – as if, without money, Christmas is crap and you aren’t showing any love at all. He makes the point more eloquently than me about why this is so wrong, and these comments are a symbol of consumerism at its ugliest, where children are taught that unless you spend a lot on them, they are worthless and you don’t love them. His response is here.

He’s right. I’ve had more pleasure making presents for my mum and step-dad, my dad, Steve, Jake, my sister (I LOVE what I’ve made for my sister!) and I know that they’ll love them too. It’s sad that some children are endlessly disappointed if you haven’t spent a huge amount of money on them, and what’s saddest is that we have done this to our children ourselves.

It reminded me that those without money are the only ones to have to think about it. When I had money, I didn’t have to think about it. Now I don’t have much, I think about the value of every single penny. “Is it worth it?” I ask myself. “How much pleasure per penny will this give me? How much use will I get out of it?”

I know my best moments on Christmas Day will be when I talk to my family, or when I see them – and those moments I have every day – petting Tilly before getting up, her excitement on seeing Mr Fox, reading people’s glorious blogs, seeing into other people’s lives and sharing a bit of their loveliness.

But all this ties into a conversation I had with Steve yesterday about the potential downgrading of France’s coveted AAA status. He was asking what it all means. Essentially, it’s no different from credit ratings for people. If you borrow a lot and pay it back promptly, if you have the means to pay a lot back, they like you. AAA. You’re a good customer because you borrow and give back all your interest and you have the means to do so. Next down the chain are those who haven’t got the means to pay back a lot. And, at the bottom are those who have no means to pay back what they borrow and what they’ve borrowed in the past doesn’t get paid back. I guess Greece is our big example, but then I think there are at least fifty countries who must have a worse credit rating.

So what actually happens?

You can’t borrow as much. Or you have to borrow unscrupulously. Just because you don’t have means doesn’t mean you can’t get it from somewhere. Look at those companies who remortgage your house for you and ‘tie up all your debt’ for 1475% APR. And if not them, in a barely legal way, then some street loan shark.

Even a jobless, penniless guy can borrow a tenner from his friends. And if he doesn’t have friends, there’s always some dodgy geezer able to lend him the cash at a ridiculous rate. I think that’s what happens in countries like Zimbabwe if they need cash. They go to another dodgy geezer and borrow from them. Remember Barclays? They of the 30% monthly APR ‘Barclaycard’? Just because certain African countries in the 70s didn’t have the means to pay back what they were being offered didn’t stop Barclays lending it to them, did it?

So it’s meaningless to me to lose your credit rating – a vague threat that you won’t be able to borrow ludicrous amounts of money you couldn’t pay back anyway.

This is where I get a bit religious. It’s no flipping wonder Jesus’s first major act as a prophet was to turn over all the tables in the money lending bit of the temple. He realised money IS the source of A LOT of bad stuff. Mohammed did a sensible thing too – which is why Islam does not allow usury – or interest. In fact, it was a sin in the Catholic church too – and one pope made it a heresy to even believe that usury – lending money with an interest rate attached – was unacceptable. Islamic banks work on the principle that interest is wrong, but have get-out clauses to get around it. Oh well.

So it all kind of comes together, this consumerist Christmas and the AAA status. The only people who profit – as they always have – are the money lenders. And I forgot about that for a long time. Money dazzles, especially when it is non-existent. Cards, credit cards – they all take away that sense of the value of money. I could get a withdrawal card and get my money out of La Poste without a trauma, but I like the process of having to go in to get cheques cashed or get my money out. I can’t remember the last time I paid for anything with my card. All bills, including my 500€ taxe fonciere bill, are paid in cash. It definitely helps to keep an eye on what I’m spending.

That said, it IS nice to give at Christmas, to see your children’s faces light up. Nobody said that stuff had to be new, first-hand, expensive or shop-bought, though. Jake’s best present this year was a second hand motorbike. He loves that bike. It still cost a bit, but as a combined effort, it was definitely worth it.

Much love Mondays…

I might not have managed much silence yesterday, but I’m sure I can manage a little Monday Morning love. It’s Monday. It’s December. Here, it’s bleak, wet and miserable – it rained all yesterday and the house looks like a Chinese laundry as I try to dry all the clothes off. It’s yucky. Steve won’t let me start my Christmas playlist and got all Grinchy when it accidentally started itself (I swear I had nothing to do with it!) so Much ♥ Monday is Much Needed…

So what are my raves today?

♥ my sister who has put together a mystery package and I’m so excited I can barely contain myself

♥  Tilly who got very wet yesterday and I had to wash her in Timotei because I’d run out of dog shampoo. It’s not so bad. I once used Dog Shampoo to wash my hair, so fair’s fair.

♥ the fact I’m up to Medusa in the poetry anthology and I ♥  Carol Anne Duffy in a non-lesbionic way – she rocks the poetry world.

♥ Aurelio Zen – just working my way through the second book.

♥ Fires and cute dogs.

♥ Marge’s new tail feathers, even though she still looks very pale and her legs are very yellow – moulting must be horrible

Marge's new tail feathers!

♥ that it’s only 10 days to my birthday

♥  planning a new Alphabet lesson for Lilia – teaching primary literacy is SO much fun!

♥  Christmas tinsel

♥  Mr Fox who is scabby but purring. I ♥  Mr Fox our beautiful cannelle cat

♥  having great ideas about what to do with that big square of  “grass” that is really just dandelions and mud – oh just you wait and see!

♥ my Christmas ladder

Not so silent Sunday…

Some Sundays, I’ve just got to get words out. I am not a Trappist monk, after all. But I have photos for you 🙂

I went to Moulin de Tin Tin in St Junien this week, just to drop off the fabulous Living Poitou-Charentes magazine. I’m going to post a picture because it is too cute. I need to find one first, though.

I love Moulin de Tin Tin on many levels. First, I bought some inexpensive gifts for various ladies in my life (and had a discussion with the French shop lady about why the word for mother-in-law and step-mother are the same) and I mooched, getting ideas. I love their bookcases filled with old French hardbacks. Brocante and vide-greniers next year – I await you eagerly! Plus, I’ve got about 200 fabulous ideas of what to do with old pages from books. Wait and see, my dears, wait and see.

I love the kitchen-y bit and I love the bed bit. I mainly love the bed bit because of beds like these:

Beautiful bedhead 🙂

I so love the toile de jouy bedhead and base, but it’s far too posh and big for my little French house, so something more simple would be much more appropriate. Besides, I have toile de jouy dreams of my own. It doesn’t mean I don’t love these beds though 🙂

Love the lace covers. Pink and lace - just so lovely!

Moulin de Tin Tin lady laughed when I said that if they ever need live-in security, I’ll be it.

I think I love the pink and blue patchwork bed covers the best, though. I still want to do a couple of quilts, especially a winter themed one.

I love this pink and blue patchwork!

But the patchwork and the toile de jouy weren’t my only inspirations:

How cute?! Definitely making these 🙂

But the thing I want the most (Mummy, you can make me one of these, surely??! xxxx) is this patchwork armchair. I was telling Grace at Equilibre Naturellement in Rochechouart and she was laughing at my covetousness. I w-A-n-T this chair:

Sorry it's a bit blurry - I got too giddy to hold the camera straight

But these haven’t been my only inspirations. Of course, it’s Christmas coming (I’m making my Christmas playlist right now. Can I put a month’s worth of songs on it? I guess I’ll try! Can I get a day’s worth of Boney M on there? I think so! I’m loving Feliz Navidad. It reminds me of Christmas in the Caribbean!) so I’ve been getting festive. Firstly, I’d seen a ladder-inspiration. I know. Sounds weird. Looks great!

And when I was wondering aloud on my Anglo Info blog about my wreath (already planned. Browns, bronzes, golds, pine cones and ribbons) a lovely lady gave me the idea for a tricolore wreath. I know it looks a little 4th of July, but I love it. I bet you didn’t know you could decorate a ladder! 3€ of the cheapest baubles out there and I’ve got this.

Too gorgeous festive, French style.

Except I gave myself a rather vicious hand cramp tying these baubles on. Bah. How I long for HobbyCraft. Cultura is good, but it’s just not THAT good. Dunelm, HobbyCraft, I miss you! Mine’s not quite so beautiful, but it’s definitely rustic glam!

You couldn't spend 3€ more festively!

I’m going to be doing my wreath today… I’m too excited!

When I’ve done my month-long playlist, I’ll post it for your enjoyment… but if you feel all Bah Humbug! You’d better stay away from me for the next month!