Tag Archives: Michael Gove

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’.


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.


Strange things are afoot at the Circle K

Yesterday, I blogged a little prayer. Several things have happened since then:

1. The drunk mother to whom I refer literally fell out of a pub on Saturday (and into a busy main road, in front of an ambulance carrying a man who’d had a heart attack! Couldn’t make that up if I tried!!)  and it has now come to the attention of her lovingly-misguided children that Mum is not okay. I’m glad. Children shouldn’t have to worry about their mum, but they told her they were worried and now she’s said she’ll quit. She said she’ll quit smoking too. I’ve heard this from her for 20 years, but nothing beats the concern of your 6 year old to make you quit doing something.

2. Jasmin, who rocks, is Steve’s daughter. Seems like her day got a little brighter

3. Anne, from United Utilities rang to check if my meter had been read and said she’d passed it on for refunding. Above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks, Anne. It almost makes up for being robbed by your company.

4. The boat sold and there will be money by Saturday.

Unfortunately, poor Mr Gove, our Minister for Education, is still ‘on trial’ in the Commons today. I wish him all the best. I know it will mean not all schools end up glamorous and glitzy, but that’s not what makes a good education. I went to visit a friend’s sister once, who works at a very, very exclusive public school in Hertfordshire. High fees, vast lawns, golf classes on Fridays…. like Hogwarts without the magic. And she taught in a portakabin that had a tree growing into it. Still, she was a biology teacher, so she made the most of the tree. But the desks were wobbly, the chairs were mismatched. There wasn’t an interactive whiteboard in sight, and they still get amazing results. Unfortunately, poverty = under-performance, and no amount of shiny atriums will iron out that so easily.

I’ve just checked out my nemesis the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust – they’re my nemesis because I did some work for them. Firstly, it was in the Emirates Stadium at Arsenal. I have no idea how much that venue is to hire, but I’d like to bet it’s not as cheap as, say, a mid-budget hotel and conference facility. Secondly, they’d rounded up ‘coasting’ schools and told them off. Yeah, not how you inspire achievement. Thirdly, they have all these bizarre rules for conferences, like providers can’t give out handouts. As a teacher, you judge a course by its handouts. How, also, are you supposed to remember anything? They didn’t even provide slide-show notes! Also, there was no agenda. There were no aims, no outcomes and it was for a very mixed audience.

Geoff Barton, my hero, presented the first session. It was great for motivation and common sense. It was also, sorry Geoff, lacking in actual, practical tips for improvement. The English section really stuck in my craw, for two reasons. One of these is that English education has, for a long time, been about ‘reading books’. If you don’t read fiction, and worthy fiction at that, you’re not reading. I’ve seen Jake’s report. It says he doesn’t read at home. He does. He reads comics, magazines, things on the internet. He reads quite a bit more than my brother Alastair used to, just because of the internet. The written word is replacing the spoken, right now, for Jake, through texts, instant messaging, status updates etc. He reads a lot. It was however, the bugbear of the teachers there that ‘boys don’t read’.

Well, should boys read fiction?? Do men read fiction? My dad reads about a book a year. He enjoys it. It’s always a Lee Child book. He reads the papers sometimes. Steve reads off the internet, only for information. He never, ever reads for pleasure. Al reads from time to time. John, my step-dad, is the most educated ‘intellectual’ man I know. He reads the Guardian daily (online) and the Observer. He reads academic economics books and studies. He reads books about cricket, autobiographies and history, especially of Manchester City. I never see him read ‘a book’ (fiction). Dale, my step-brother, reads sci-fi, that last bastion of man-centred reading. He loved Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett. He likes humorous sci-fi or epic fantasy. My Gramps read Wilbur Smith and the Daily Mail…

*Just as an aside, the Daily Express headline yesterday made me almost wet myself. It said: ‘One in Five Britons to be Ethnics.’ I kid not*

So, boys read. Men read. They just don’t read what women read. Or, specifically, what middle-class women read. Fairly educated women read books prolifically. All my girlfriends read a lot. My mum and nana read all the time. So does my sister. And we read junk.

Who really reads those books on the Man Booker list? One or two break through, but they’re middle class readers, academics, predominantly female.

So, to have a session moaning that boys don’t read isn’t good.

Secondly, his advice about getting a C was reductive at best and educationally unsound at worst. He reduced it to a D grade checklist: a recipe for how pupils can get a C. Well, sorry, Geoff. I’ve marked thousands of exam scripts and what you said was a C, isn’t. Maybe that’s where people are going wrong.

Anyway… I see Sir Bob Geldof is presenting the next conference. More money than sense, the SSAT. I’m not being funny, but what does Sir Bob know about education?? Fuck all? Close to Fuck all? Tenuous link: he and his kids went to school once. Now, I like Sir Bob, but he’s not exactly who I’d choose to head a conference about education in England.

Hah. I also see they’ve got the publicity-seeking psychologist-whore ‘Professor’ Tanya Byron. Hmmm. Dubious Labour connections there. She writes the most trite, patronising ‘psychology’ reports ever. She wrote an article about her husband being fat and he got a book out of it. I’m aghast. He wasn’t even that fat. She co-created The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, picking up on middle-class anti-Jeremy Kyle mentality, and her back story is filled with media connections. What I dislike most is the line on a top search for her that says ‘The Prime Minister asked me to write…’

“Asked ME…” It’s so vain.

Anyway, between pseudo-pop-psychology of low ecological value, based purely on this woman’s usually personal opinion (she’s very good at giving that out, and being patronisingly middle-class) with no science behind it, and the other non-teachers and non-educationalists (a guy quoted as inspiring the uber-middle-class Slumdog Millionaire and an opera singer) there are three people who have an educational background.

SSAT? Huge waste of cash on ‘nu’ values and divergent thinking that doesn’t actually get to the root of the problem: what makes a good learner, and how can our teachers ensure they get good learning?

Anyway, back to the point. Good luck Michael. And, just in case you’re wondering what to do next, look at getting the SSAT to cut back their ridiculous speakers and make their conferences sharing of good practice. Not just a whole load of ‘fashionable’ and ‘important’ people in the world who have little idea what happens in a classroom.

It all seems, again, like the SSAT going for showy and shiny over substance and science. Hmmm. Theme of the last 13 years of Government, it seems.

I’m particularly interested in how these SSAT aims are going to be achieved by Sir Bob, and Professor Byron et al:

How should students learn?

I might go to the conference, for a laugh! I’d quite look forward to hearing TB talk about pedagogy and practice.

Another rant bites the dust

I’ve been watching with interest how the media and public handle the news that Michael Gove has cut funding to Building Schools for the Future (BSF)

I was expecting uproar from the schools and unions, of course, and as well from the Labour Government, but Gove is right: it has been a huge disaster from start to finish.

The first problem has always been that schools that get good at bidding for things are usually first past the post in terms of funding. This happened with the Specialist Schools’ Trust, where even if your results were a little wobbly, you could still be awarded ‘Specialist School status, just off the basis of a good bid. One school I worked at was first through the post with Technology College.  This was all well and good, but the head of IT had been off for months with a hip replacement, and there was this rusty old Canadian guy, who, if the truth be told, amused me a great deal just on the basis he once threw his lunch away because the girl at the dining table in front of him was wearing an indecently short skirt. It seemed to be that if you could find an industry to shoulder some of the initial bid, you would get the rest. It seemed to leave a bit of cash for a new IT suite and an emblem on the new ‘Atrium’ floor (read ‘porch’ for Atrium, and you’ll get the idea) which was walked over by 1,000 kids a day. Instead of going for the departments where the work was stunning, like Art or PE, they went for a nondescript subject, because it was the first offered.

Likewise the second school I worked at. They’d spent the money on a room that nobody was allowed to use. I can’t remember an IT suite as such, only a few old machines dotted around the school and then a whole load that were locked up unless someone important came, like the Queen.

Many of the schools in the authority in which I worked had specialist status, especially as it broadened its wings. So… in essence, if you had a crap department, you would use them to get the bid, and then become a ‘Centre of Excellence’ without any results behind it whatsoever. One inner-city school had the poorest science results in the authority and they were the only science specialist school in the area. Nonsense.

So, those first in then got a second bite at the cherry with the ‘joint status’ specialisms, like Humanities and Maths. Fair enough. What always got me was that there was never a specialism for ‘English’ which is ridiculous considering it’s our national language and we all read, write listen and talk every day.

So, ten years in, some schools are awfully good at getting funding. They have people appointed for marketing, called ‘Specialist Schools’ Trust managers’ and they earn a packet by bidding for everything going.

This only works if you’re in a proactive authority. Some nay-saying authorities got caught out here, since BSF initially only went to a few. Likewise funding for other ‘pilot’ projects. So, if you played nice, you got a lot of additional funding. If you knew the right people at the DfE, then you got a lot of funding. If you were good at asking, you got a lot of funding. And the more you asked, the more you got. At one point, I was running three separately funded projects for the DfE, QCDA and the NAA.

This is great if you’re good at stating your piece and holding out your cap, taking people round and showing them how much you’ve achieved. I was. However, it’s not so good for those who are more humble. I was once told to be more humble as a performance target. It was my only target. I ignored it, since it came from a horrible woman, plus, it’s not a SMART target. How would I have known that I was more humble? Would I have started rubbing my hands together in the style of Uriah Heep?

So, some poor schools fall by the wayside, especially in reticent authorities who ‘wait and see’ what everyone else is doing.

Luckily, they, now are the ones who are not suffering from ‘Of Mice and Men’ syndrome as the Con-Lib government whip away their dreams.

Matthew d’Ancona in this week’s Daily Telegraph says it all perfectly:

“It’s easier to promise shiny schools than better teaching.”

And he’s right. Because something got lost behind BSF, which was Sue Hackman’s mission to drive up School Standards. Suddenly, it was all about atriums and shiny rooms and interactive whiteboards. I have to first admit there are some truths in this: comfy chairs do make learning easier. Nice classrooms are nice to teach in. But I never needed anything other than new desks, better quality chairs and a lick of paint. A few nice displays and you have a wonderful learning environment. For about £3000, you can have an entirely revamped classroom. You don’t need millions. All of a sudden, head teachers stopped being bothered about driving up standards and starting being dazzled by shiny atriums.

“So true: it was hardwired into the previous government’s soul that anything new and shiny, “state-of-the art”, and modernist in architectural design was intrinsically good.” he says, and how right he is.

And, like Matthew d’Ancona, I’m also very glad Michael Gove has gone ‘back to basics’ – hopefully, schools will need to rely on good teaching now, not the level that currently exists.

I’m woefully appalled every year by the ‘mis-teaching’ that goes on. Sometimes, it would be better if pupils didn’t have any teaching at all. At least then they might come up with some decent ideas, rather than being taught that every poem’s layout has some kind of meaning, that they must describe using the ‘five senses’  and that they should start every story with a rhetorical question.

I’ll save my rant about Ofsted for another day.