Strange Ways, Here We Come

Ah, adolescence: those heady days when a fifth state – Kleptomaniac – often rode with the apocalyptic cavalcade of Pustulent, Famished, Deaf and Bored. Nicking for kicks was a ‘thing’ for many of my classmates, who descended on the local Superdrug like a plague of locusts, half-inching whatever was immediately at hand when the security guard’s back was turned. Which is how a friend with a number one buzz-cut became the chief cause and beneficiary of 1982’s Great Hair Bobble Drought.

Unimpressed by her hauls of random tat, I failed to develop a similar taste for grand theft. Along with some capacity for guilt, and a preference for misdemeanours that tend to pass undetected, that disinterest has gifted me a DBS record as spotless as a constipatee’s pants. I can walk past HMPs with the smug bounce of one who possesses no knowledge of Life Inside. Or so I believed, until I looked again at the evidence, m’Lud, and found that the stack on the opposite side was getting taller.

The idea that schools are sadistic prisons is not new. Not in the arts, anyway: see any number of Dickensian institutions, inspired by the author’s experiences; or Miss Trunchbull’s chokey in Matilda, inspired, perhaps, by the Iron Maiden in a former Principal’s office. It’s a notion onto which the zeitgeist appears to be latching, now that Cameron’s attempt to pay homage (again) to The Smiths*, by turning soldiers into teachers and vice versa, has all but failed. A Hull employment agency is currently advertising for (ex-) prison officers to work as behaviour support staff in schools. And as several Governors can testify, some of the teachers who’ve made their Great Escape from schools have found alternative employment as prison officers. So far, so literal.

* See ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ from Meat Is Murder.

However, let’s get metaphorical. For me, one of the first pushes away from employee-hood, towards a more independent modus operandi, was the increasing incidence of Stockholm Syndrome – or something much like it. Put bluntly, too many of my teaching colleagues were losing their ability to envision a different kind of existence. Echoing their gaolers’ words, ridiculous expectations and insane workloads were characterised as “the nature of the job”, circumlocuting the fact that a workplace’s culture is as much a matter of nurture, and can, therefore, be changed.

That I, too, was sleepwalking towards a comparable state of suggestibility became apparent when taking up a new job. With my start date delayed by an administrative cock-up, I fell into a depressive funk for several weeks, convinced that not working until the wee hours of every single morning made me a waste of good atoms. The impact on my nearest and dearest, as I self-flagellated to the edge of nutterdom, was a banshee of a wake-up call – one that turned a miserable experience into the point at which I decided that something had to change.

Catching up with erstwhile colleagues during the summer, when hearts were as light as the long, long, evenings, I was struck by how many of the old tropes still apply: tales of educational sweatshoppery; threats of defamatory references hanging from the rafters, like meat cleavers attached to thinning strings of cheese. For those of a more Kafka-esque bent, see the “Huh?”-inducing frequency with which employees are convicted of misconduct because they refuse to cheat, or incompetence because they know their stuff too well. Summarily dismissed, and with virtually no means of appeal at their disposal, their experiences remind us that education sorely needs a Me Too movement of its own.

And then HMP Birmingham ‘happened’, laying bare processes that, to those who work in education, are as familiar as they are instructive. Since its private takeover, the prison has been beset by squalid conditions, escalating drug consumption, increasingly frequent assaults on staff, and inmates in effective control. Now, Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before but have you seen the dangerous state of some Bright Tribe school buildings, documented recently on Panorama? Or the Labour Force Survey results, revealing that secondary school teachers suffered three times as many assaults at work as other respondent occupations?

As I discussed in an earlier post, peer-on-peer assaults often result in perpetrators facing no real punishment. According to the National Education Union’s ATL wing, crimes against staff are increasingly unreported because victims have concluded – from the evidence before them – that attacks on their persons and property are to be “accepted and expected”. Much of this is attributable to staffing levels. Thanks to cutbacks, mismanagement or, indeed, the second masquerading as the first, the adult presence in many schools is dwindling discernibly. Sending a miscreant into another classroom is of little value if escalating pupil:teacher ratios have left it bursting at the seams. Similarly, it’s hard to run a sin bin, cool-down zone or think tank when there aren’t enough employees to supervise it.

However, it’s in the quality of staff that the overlap is, perhaps, most apparent. HMP Birmingham has seen a significant influx of inexperienced officers since its takeover: approximately 23% of its staff have less than a year’s service under their belts. It’s a scenario recognisable from many schools, where NQTs, TAs and unqualified employees have, for some time, formed a growing proportion of frontline – indeed, teaching – staff. Too often, the same are left unsupported by seniors whose managerial style, much like that of their prison-service equivalents, bears more resemblance to the Mannequin Challenge than to any CPD I know. Add in a lack of pedagogic and subject expertise, and watch as those students whose outbursts arise from academic frustration remain academically frustrated.

The problems at Birmingham are ones of which the government has been aware for some time. Their escalation to the pitch we see now is largely the result of Home Office inaction – a negligence that threatens the service’s Reithian-sounding aim to punish, deter and rehabilitate. Similarly, the unravelling of several academy chains has been long-known but hidden from public view, only seeing the light of occasional scrutiny courtesy of leaks by concerned DfE employees. If a school’s purpose is to encourage the academic, personal and moral development of its students, it’s a social contract on which several private operators have reneged – though not before raiding the public till.

Perhaps all of the above are simple cases of I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish over-optimism. Whatever, I still don’t have much of a stomach for grand theft.

Continue reading


Race To The Bottom

Among the litany of ‘second subjects’ I’ve taught, Media Studies has been one of the more persistent. If you need an idea of how long I’ve been teaching it, consider that I started doing so in a department where ‘technology’ meant a colour printer and a stash of contraband Pritt sticks. Back then, Media Studies was a relative newcomer to the secondary curriculum, and an object of scorn: the journalists and politicians whose tactics students were learning to scrutinise repeatedly reminded Jo(sephin)e Public that it was a “Mickey Mouse” discipline* of no academic worth – a perception that may have contributed to my initial reluctance to take it on.

* Dunno whether the circular ears or the white gloves are the basis of this comparison.

I quickly became convinced of my error: not only was it valuable and, in the right hands, intellectually stretching; it was necessary.

I still incorporate aspects of Media Studies into my teaching, and it’s still a buzz to witness the moments of epiphany furnished by its insistence on critiquing the quotidian. So, it was with something of the same mindset that I read last week’s reports on the protests sparked by Donald Trump’s visit to the UK. I was especially tickled by one national daily’s decision to focus on the six protestors arrested – sorry, “ARRESTED” – in London, rather than on the tens of thousands who marched in noisy peaceability.

For the record, my participation in the London protest was not without ambivalence: I was prepared to see the visit as a distasteful example of realpolitik at work, and I felt uncomfortable about barring one deemed despicable for barring others. Despite that, I had a strong urge to be present: to participate in the chorus opposing the values that inform POTUS’s policies; and to help fill a gap in the hard-to-argue-against aerial shots with my pointillist dot of a head.

You see, some of my friends – indeed, some of my family – are women, brown or women who are brown. They are not, therefore, among the President’s favourite things, unlike (apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein) Fine lady-loathers/And upright Grand Wizards – a fact reiterated by his unspoolings on the lawn at Chequers and, one might speculate, by his absence from a compatriot’s attempt to make sporting history in SW19. Then again, he does prefer equestrianism, being a genius at the stables or some such.

With the consistency that characterises his self-regard, the President reminded us that, in Trumpton, immigration is a bad thing brown people do; white folks, by contrast, are just moving to other countries in search of better lives. Which may explain the pride with which he speaks of his Scottish-born mother and German grandfather. No immigration for them, godammit. The woman who was to become Mother Trump simply travelled across the Atlantic on RMS Transylvania (I’m not making this up), evincing her bravery and work ethic with a coiffure that, possibly, explains a lot about her son’s tonsorial and architectural preferences.

It’s one matter to lampoon the President’s hypocrisies (and, admittedly, take the p155 out of his mum in the process, of which I’m a little ashamed). It’s another to characterise him and his acolytes as anachronisms, swimming foolhardily against the cultural current’s  forward motion. For, in doing the latter, we risk missing the extent to which similar ideas are normalised by other forms of repetition, through conduits so innocuous that we scarcely notice it happening. For instance, it takes a mere flick through the TV listings to find several programmes, broadcast on mainstream channels, that follow ‘First World’ nationals – white ones, usually – hoping to move to other countries. Or, as it’s also known, immigration. Some do so by focusing on property markets; others, on comparative job prospects and costs of living. A more recent category explores the feasibility of assorted luvvies spending their twilight years in places where age is held in high regard (i.e. not here).

As such, the questions raised tend to be about domestic finances, the impact on family life, language acquisition and cultural compatibility, with pretty much every participant expressing a well-intentioned desire to integrate with the indigenous culture. (Though few, I imagine, aspire to work – just like the locals – in the poorly-paid service industries that sustain paradisical stereotypes). The ethics of seeking opportunities wheresoever one chooses remain unexamined, reserved instead for genres – documentaries, panel discussions and so on – associated with Pressing Social Problems. The kind of problems overwhelmingly engendered by darker-skinned migrants, often with smaller bank balances, engaging in dishonourable deeds: like fleeing war zones; or improving the life chances of their children.

The cumulative effect of this televisual output is an oddly Trumpian vision, in which white migration simply expresses an unquestioned/unquestionable right. Thrumming beneath its surface is the tacit assumption that white migration has either neutral or beneficial consequences, whereas migration by people of colour involves rapacity or loss. It’s the same set of assumptions underpinning a fair whack of imperial history and present-day ‘populism’ – another term of whose normalising connotations it’s wise to be wary. It’s also a reason why both former and aspiring emigrants within my white family  – all of them already in possession of enviable lifestyles, but searching for even better ones – are unlikely to be deemed greedy, refused permission to land, or threatened with having their airbuses shot out of the sky.

And why, more than two decades later, I still find myself arguing that Media Studies should be a compulsory subject.

The Farce Awakens

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further. (Darth Vader, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.)

A long time ago, Mrs Allardyce and I were selected to work for an international development organisation. A year of pre-departure training followed, during which our overseas posting was confirmed. We never reached it, however: the loss of someone close to us, a terminal diagnosis for another, and a political turn for the worse in our country of destination combined to scupper the outcome for which we’d left jobs and given up our home.

The fact that our plans didn’t come to fruition may well have been for the best, given our concern at the way goalposts were incrementally shifted during the training period. For instance, it became apparent, gradually, that the person specification for volunteers  – which, with its emphasis on resilience, initiative and problem solving, had seemed like so much good sense at first – was, in fact, treated as a Get Out Of Jail Free card by an institution that promised support, but could rarely be arsed to deliver it.

Similarly, its triangular model of co-operation turned out to be less equilateral than vaunted, and more isosceles, with two, identically-long sides placing overseas ‘partners’ and volunteers in a galaxy far, far below the apex occupied by the organisation. Prevented, at the time, from speaking or writing as they saw, a number of these co-operators have since verified that they were anything but.

It’s a blast I’ve disinterred from the past for two reasons. The first, and minor, one is that the body concerned was able to act as it did because it was assumed to be essentially altruistic. In the word association game of public perception, ‘development’ and ‘charity’ are rarely connected with ‘business’; so, too, ‘school’, although a closer look may reveal otherwise. The second reason is that stealthy redefinitions have been infiltrating education for some time and, often, with comparable effect. Just ask the staff who find that the Teacher Standards to which they are held also, handily, enable those in positions of responsibility to abdicate all, um, responsibility.

Similar sleights mean that a former colleague heads a department in which he is still the only subject specialist. The rest of his team – assembled, by management, with reference to neither students’ needs nor his preferences – comprises this year’s jumble of supply teachers and ‘under-timetabled’ colleagues from distant faculties. Press-ganged into delivering a subject of which they know about an ounce more than nothing, all are held as responsible for student outcomes as veteran experts would be.

None of them, however, has any right of reply because of the shifting definition attached to Qualified Teacher Status. Way back in the last century, when I was awarded my PGCE, my expertise was circumscribed: I was qualified to teach a particular subject, at a particular level, and no more unless agreed otherwise. ‘QTS’ now appears to mean that one is qualified to teach any subject whatsoever at any level whatsoever, as decreed by the senior team’s Knights of Ren.

There are, admittedly, a few of my acquaintance who could turn their hands to manything, but they’re rarities. More common are those who are highly capable within their specialisms, but become less so the further afield they’re forced to venture. The potential detriment they, therefore, pose to their students’ education makes placing said staff on career-annihilating support programmes a matter of little difficulty and, if expedient, absolute necessity. Nothing less will do, when faced with an inability to shape-shift at short notice and with minimal assistance.

Whether forced to leave as a result, or deciding to do so before being set upon the hard and narrow path to dismissal, many teachers subsequently register with supply agencies. As anyone who’s earwigged at the office door knows, these can charge schools a great deal of money for securing temporary staff, a.k.a. making a couple of phone calls. Indeed, when recruitment prospects look as parched as Tatooine’s landscape, the price for this service can escalate considerably – a big ask for any school facing financial, as well as staffing, challenges.

However, certain practices, highlighted by recent reports, suggest that some supply agencies are colluding with schools to exploit temporary staff, and that misnomers help to oil the process’ wheels. Placing supply staff in lower-paid ‘cover supervisor’ positions that, by the miracle of modern semantics, morph into substantive teaching roles, is one such commonplace. It’s the ‘trial day’, however, that represents the nadir of this collaboration, guaranteeing that, even when budgets are tight at schools, agencies still get their fees by ensuring that teachers don’t.

This try-before-you-buy practice – usually sold by dangling the possibility of paid work at its end – could be called, with equal accuracy, ‘qualified professionals working for nothing’. Though initially confined to a day or two, ‘trial days’ soon became ‘trial weeks/fortnights’, at the end of which schools almost invariably opted to try someone else. I’ve recently heard of an agency that asks those on its books to undertake a three-month trial period which, I believe, is also called ‘a term’.

Such a system means that the agency need expend little effort to secure a year’s worth of gratis teaching for a client school. If its database is crammed with staff in need of post-capability references, the ease with which ‘vocation’ can be redefined as ‘mug-off’ is even greater. It’s a process most evident when employers, recruiting through agencies that are adept at keeping mum, eventually reveal the totality of their vision.

Interviewer: Well, that all seems to be in order. One last point: are you expecting to be paid in return for this exponentially increasing workload?

Interviewee: Yes, I am.

Interviewer: Well, that’s unfortunate. You see, we envisage this as an opportunity for you to give something back…

Today’s CPD task is to come up with the interviewee’s response.

And so, we arrive at Teach Again, an enterprise that could single-handedly secure the supersession of ‘venture capital’ by ‘unbelievable shamelessness’. Teach Again charges experienced, qualified teachers £600; in return, it secures them year-long positions as school volunteers. Translation: applicants are invited to pay for being unpaid. At the end of the year, participant schools – of which there are, uncannily, many – provide their volunteers with references, thus enabling them to apply for other jobs which, as we now know, may or may not be remunerated. The option of extending volunteers’ placements beyond a year also allows schools to defer provision of references until such time as suits the Sith Order their SLTs or trustee boards.

Pay attention to the context in which this dialogue occurs, and ensure, if possible, that your retort cuts like a light-saber.

Translation: “You’re going to regret this.” (Princess Leia Organa, Star Wars Episode VI: The Return Of The Jedi.)



Talk Of The Devil

A few years ago, I worked in a school where a pupil allegedly engaged in sexual behaviour with unconsenting classmates. Like a bottle of M&S plonk, this was no ordinary child: this was the headteacher‘s child, whose appellation controlee meant that anyone who held him to account suffered kiboshed career progression, while those who looked the other way, or fabricated/destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, enjoyed the reciprocal backscratching of enhanced pay and plentiful opportunities. The entrenchment of these practices led some, sadly, to cross the floor.

When recollecting those on the opposite benches, I find it hard not to picture a scene from The Omen: the one in which Mrs Baylock, with her indeterminately yokel brogue, tells the devil’s offsprog to “Have no fear, little one, I am here to protect thee”. Damien, as I shall refer to him, has since moved to another school where, one can only hope, his parent’s professional status wields no exonerating influence. He took with him an unblemished record – the product (much like the licence afforded another powerful movie figure) of longstanding conspiracies of silence.

Nepotism isn’t the only reason that potentially criminal careers, like Damien’s, continue unabated. According to data released by 38 UK police forces, 2625 peer-on-peer assaults – including 225 rapes – were committed on school premises last year, with no consequent sanctions in the majority of cases. Though legally required to report abuse by adults to the police, schools are under no comparable obligation when the perpetrators are students. Instead, they must rely on their own safeguarding and disciplinary procedures.

Or not, it would appear, from those instances where alleged assailants have gone unpunished – even when witnessed harassing their victims – leaving the latter to find their own ways of escaping their abusers. According to Sarah Green, of the End Violence Against Women coalition, “In the worst cases, schools are worried about being seen to treat an ‘unproven’ allegation seriously, and girls commonly leave school.”

The DfE website helpfully reminds us that sexual assault is a crime, and that schools have safeguarding responsibilities. The Cameron government, however, refused to declare lessons in sex and relationships compulsory, despite the pleas of parents, staff and several cabinet members. Justine Greening has, to her credit, reversed this decision so that, from September 2019, they will be mandatory subjects in secondary schools. And why not, given that teachers and external specialists can now do a far better job of this than was the case Back Then, when my understanding of human reproduction was constructed largely around the procreative habits of rodents?

As our blushing Biology teacher waved towards a chalk doodle of a mouse, assuring us that it was “a bit like that in humans”, thirty confused kids eyed each other’s – and their own – netherlands with an admixture of scepticism and terror. Similarly, the only wisdom we received on contraception was a teacher telling us, for the best part of an hour, nevereverever to have sex – counsel which, if followed to the letter, admittedly achieves the lesson’s purported objective. The same member of staff also considered ‘Nitrosomonas’ a suitable name for a child: one, presumably, born of ammonia, rather than concoctions of sperm and egg.

Shame on us, though, for allowing that fact to undermine our faith in her judgement. Her observations on the coercive power of language, and its impact on girls’ autonomy, should have a place in every school’s pastoral curriculum (assuming that it still has one: greater curricular freedoms have allowed many schools to jettison PSHE entirely). For, when sex is reduced to mere mechanics, with no mind paid to relationships and their ‘grammar’, the ignorance of – or, even worse, disregard for – consent comes as little surprise. Credit again, then, to Greening: learning about healthy relationships will begin in primary schools and extend into the secondary sex-ed curriculum.

Her proposals will, hopefully, address some of the damage caused by other, seemingly unrelated, examples of DfE tinkering, driven by her predecessors – policies that have helped to turn too many schools into environments where inertia is the preferred response to assault. The rules around exclusion, for instance, when taken alongside the Department’s favoured structural policies, can act as disincentives to action.

Barring students from their premises for five days or less obliges schools to provide excludees with work for that period, beyond which alternative educational provision has to be arranged. In the past, the latter would have been managed with the assistance of Local Education Authorities. However, with heads having been urged to academise themselves out of LEA control, and the majority in the secondary sector having taken the bait, the same responsibility now rests more heavily on schools. Many find, in these less collegiate times, that others aren’t tripping over each other in the rush to welcome fledgling sex offenders. Nor are they obliged to do so, particularly if they, too, are academies or free schools, in which case the five-day prohibition may be as punitive as it can get.

Target-driven pressures to reduce exclusion can also deter schools from taking disciplinary action, as can the clearing of other statistical hurdles. Prioritising results above all else creates perverse incentives to keep assailants on site, lest they miss a valuable millisecond of rocket-boostingly interventionist additionality. This perceived imperative may explain the alacrity with which some schools will suspend a staff member for the flimsiest of reasons, while displaying an equally vehement lethargy when a student oversteps the mark by a country mile.

As may the fact that managing student (mis)behaviour can be damned hard work. Hinted at but rarely explicated, the increase in peer-on-peer assaults suggests an alarming aversion, among some senior staff, to undertaking their supportive duties –  especially (but not only) when it threatens the metrics on which careers are now built. These are often the cases in which leaders, including those with corroborating evidence of sexual misconduct, have preferred to advise victims that “this may not be the school for you”.

So forgive me if I accuse the DfE of having spoken with diabolically forked tongue. Thanks to its policies, education’s moral infrastructure has been so eroded that some school leaders now sport eyes even blinder than Father Spiletto’s, acting as if life-chances are more profoundly enhanced by a grade, than by learning that it’s both illegal and Just Plain Wrong to force oneself upon another. As long as it remains so, the devil’s children may just continue to enjoy the devil’s luck.


Things We Found In The Fire

It’s a sign of the times that, following a dearth of sombre posts, two should need to come along in succession. The last, written in the wake of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack is followed now – so very regrettably – by another, scribbled in the aftermath of the North Kensington inferno. Including such occurrences in a blog primarily concerned with education would feel like an exercise in tangential connection, were it not the case that significance sometimes exceeds its source, and at speed. So it is with Grenfell Tower, whose charred remains stand like an accusatory finger in a borough where wealth accumulates barely a stone’s throw away from worsening poverty.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea exemplifies, to an extreme degree, what can seem like the capital’s credo: despite reserves of almost £300 million, and enough for council tax rebates to those paying the top rate, RBKC saw fit to claw back a few thousand pounds from the refurbishment of a high-rise block housing some of its poorest residents. In recent years, it has also ‘boasted’ the most unaffordable rents and the greatest degree of benefit polarisation in London, the vast disparity between the ends of the economic spectrum being masked by its high average income. The spot in which the tower is located is both economically deprived and a prime location with considerable cultural cachet, the latter thanks to the famous post-Windrush Carnival and the more recent influx of celebrities to the south.

In the wake of the fire, the area’s schools have, in many ways, exemplified the generosity and defiance that has driven ‘ordinary’ people to fill the vacuum left by the local council’s inertia. It’s evident in their swift provision of counselling to those affected by the inferno. In the speed with which other schools absorbed students displaced from the academy next to the tower. Most touchingly, perhaps, in the young woman who, having escaped the blaze, sat her Chemistry GCSE a few hours later in her pyjamas – the only clothes left in her possession. I can think of few more humbling statements of belief in education’s value.

Beyond this, however, the appalling fate suffered by Grenfell’s residents should resonate with all of us who work in or use our public services. Social housing for those rendered homeless is scarce because much of this collective asset has been transferred to private hands. Just today, RBKC has been given sixty-eight flats by the Corporation of London, so that erstwhile Grenfell tenants – some of whom have been sleeping rough – can continue to be housed in the borough where they’ve made their lives. Being part of the affordable quota on a luxury development, the apartments would command considerably higher rents on the open market, although RBKC is bound, for the moment, to honour existing tenancy arrangements. Whether it remains obliged – or, more importantly, inclined – to do so is anyone’s guess.

Not least because whatever housing is still left in RBKC’s possession has already been eyed up for the rich pickings it could furnish: indeed, a senior councillor (describing himself as a developer who works for RBKC “in his spare time”) has purchased property in the borough’s less salubrious north, apparently anticipating a significant rise in its resale/rental value as the area is further gentrified. According to local action groups, this is the intended outcome of the council’s euphemistically-named “decant” policy, which will relocate social housing tenants to other boroughs so that regeneration work – purportedly planned with the same residents’ interests in mind – can be carried out.

However, in Grenfell Tower’s case, it would appear that the focus was less on regeneration than on a cosmetic quick-fix – one that would appease the aesthetic sensibilities of those who view social housing as an eyesore, rather than provide a habitable space to the people for whom these supposed blots on the landscape are home. Which is why, with disastrous results, the block’s exterior was deemed more important than the functionality of its infrastructure. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that tenants’ safety concerns were either dismissed repeatedly or silenced by threats of legal action. Both responses bespeak an alarming ease with fobbing off, rather than heeding, People Not Like Us.

All of the above demonstrate how prioritising the needs of the already wealthy over the poor, and profiteering over provision, can bequeath consequences of such life-limiting enormity that they oblige us to ask “What if…?” elsewhere. What if governments persist in hacking at the limbs of our health service? What if the restructuring and mis-funding of our schools continues apace? Thanks to the Mid-Staffordshire Trust scandal, we know how the NHS version might look. Let us imagine the education equivalent: an outwardly attractive structure serviced by inadequately qualified or temporary staff; apparently philanthropic sponsors and quasi-patrician leaders drowning the concerns of certain kinds of parents with claims that, comme noblesse oblige, they are acting in the best interests of the children; skewed consultations and misgivings silenced by menaces. Oh, hang on…

But imagine it we must, because the consequences of the above will be felt most starkly by society’s least advantaged, for whom there are no options other than what the state provides. Just as they were on the day when Grenfell burned.







Us And Us Only

Unusually for me, and a blessing for you, this post is almost entirely free of poor puns and flippancy. I struggled a little with the title, eventually (and unexpectedly) choosing one from a Charlatans’ album for reasons I think – hope – you’ll understand. The alternative had been an allusion to ‘Love After Love’ by the recently-deceased Derek Walcott – a poem that always calls to my mind Frantz Fanon’s delineation of colonial psy-ops, and the self-hatred they instil in the subjugated. Walcott emerges from the other side to offer a more uplifting coda: an invitation to his reader to “love again the stranger who was yourself…whom you ignored/For another”.

The tension between self-perception and how others see us is a unifying experience, crossing time, space and culture. To be frank, it’s one on which I thought I’d given up, having decided, in the way of elderly curmudgeons, that life’s too short for it to remain an ongoing object of concern. However, the terror attack on Westminster Bridge, that has spattered blood over Wordsworth’s gilded vista, has brought it back to mind with some force…

…as has the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy that channels a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner scenario through The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Skin/White Masks and Macauley’s Minute. I also witnessed – again – what I call a Cameron Thayer moment, after a character in Paul Haggis’ Crash: an instance when a person of colour was reminded that, while identifications may be multiple, perception can still be determined by a single aspect of the totality. However s/he behaves, Fanon’s colonised wo/man remains visibly – and, therefore, primarily – black to others.

In less than a minute, three bystanders and their killer perished, followed a few days later by one of the hospitalised. It’s hard not feel somewhat connected: the victim killed on her way to collect her children was an administrator in the Westminster college where a friend’s husband teaches. Another of the dead lived in the same area as me. I know people who work in the hospital to which many of the injured were taken, and the bridge is walking distance from several of the places in which I work. So far, so proximate. More unnerving is my place – our places – in the bigger picture.

One of the most frequent questions posed since 22nd March has been “Who or what turned Adrian Elms into Khalid Masood?” It’s a question relevant to our profession, as teachers are statutorily obliged to protect students from extremist ideologies, and to do so with an urgency not deemed necessary in the 70s and 80s, when far-right groups sought to recruit schoolchildren. The dissemination of British values is now a matter on which educators can be held accountable, and rare is the school website that does not advertise its commitment to the above. But it’s a big ask, and one that we can ill-afford to leave to teachers alone.

Thanks to the convictions he’d amassed before embarking on his murderous drive, plenty of column inches have been spent on constructing Khalid Masood’s etiological narrative. Much of this, by focusing on his time in prison and in Saudi Arabia, is comfortably discomfiting: the villains are brown men with unruly beards who, between them, create another villain from an already unstable man. And therein lies the problem. For, by concentrating on these episodes alone, we risk mistaking the moment of Masood’s recruitment for that of his radicalisation. The latter will, almost certainly, have started much earlier, and be a collection of many moments that, together, rendered him vulnerable to malign influences disguising themselves as empowerment.

We now know that, at various times, Elms had been one of a tiny number of black (or, in his case, mixed) individuals in an otherwise white environment: at school in Kent where, three to four decades ago, he was the only black pupil; in the Sussex village where he shared a home with the mother of his two oldest children. According to several reports, an altercation that ended with Elms slashing a publican’s face bore “racial overtones”. Some also state that Elms himself had, previously, been knifed in the face following a racially-charged dispute in another pub – the point at which he began carrying blades as a matter of habit.

The story of Elms’ metamorphosis into Masood speaks of a man quick to perceive racial slights and rejections. The racism he may have experienced does not excuse him: few are the people who turn from victims into homicidal perpetrators. However, as Judge Charles Kemp observed when sentencing Masood afterthe Northiam knife attack, it is a significant part of the explanation. Claims that “we’ll never know” how he evolved into the man behind the wheel must, therefore, be critiqued according to whether they are offered in recognition of the complexities at work, or with disingenuous intent to protect white societies from scrutiny.

According to Ofsted, the “fundamental British values” it is our job to instil are “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith”. On all of these counts, Elms/Masood ended up un-Britishly wanting – by reactive choice, it would seem. Many of these values are common to several nationalities if, indeed, they need to be nationalised at all. Their characterisation as a means of in/exclusion risks creating a potentially corrosive them-and-us dynamic.

Because the truth is that assimilating said values does not guarantee that many British children won’t feel excluded from that category by other forces. Some may well be inside the home; others, without. The latter might include a history curriculum that, prioritising “our island story”, also attempted to whitewash the black from the Union Jack. Our pupils are connected far and wide, in acknowledgement of which we can choose to hashtag our tweets ‘Pray for Kano’ or ‘Pray for Peshawar’ as readily as we do ‘Pray for Paris/Brussels/Berlin’, when suicide bombers target black market-goers or gunmen slaughter brown schoolchildren. We can choose to tint our Instagram uploads with combinations other than red-white-blue or red-black-yellow..

Inclusion and its obverse require uncomfortable degrees of self-examination, and acknowledgement of the power asymmetries from which we, possibly, benefit. Liberals who believe them/ourselves to be without prejudice are not necessarily anti-racists; indeed, as Peele reminds us, educated folks wearing tolerance like sandwich-boards can, sometimes, be among the worst offenders. Addressing this is never more vital than when doing so remains as inconsequential for some as it can be life-determining for others.

It’s not enough to enjoy a curry, to listen to the blues, or to watch SNL skits sending up Trump. Or, indeed, to laugh at the Smug Family Armitage clod-hopping sinisterly through Get Out. Not if the only ‘others’ with whom we interact are on the far side of a counter or in service uniforms. Not if we squint in pre-emptive incomprehension when some people open their mouths, and then find that, by focusing so intently on how well they speak English, we’ve failed to register anything they’ve uttered. Not if, even with benign intent, we assume or attribute expertise – sport, dance or cooking – of our unimaginative, blinkered choosing.

And certainly not when we dismiss or pathologise awareness of the aforementioned as over-sensitivity. If people of colour carry as many chips on their shoulders as some would have us believe, we can only conclude that they must like potatoes as much as the Irish do.

Us and us only.

Back To The Tutor

Back in the days of dodgy dossiers and covert arms possession, I found myself seated near a cabinet minister at the theatre. With an official inquiry underway, and jobs – including his – on the line, most of the audience averted its eyes while hissing “It’s him!”. Against the susurration of whispering grass, R+J, The Splinter Group’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, rang true and clear: four schoolboys deploy their own secret weaponry, acting out Shakespeare’s play in their dormitory after discovering a copy concealed beneath the floorboards. The production opens with the pupils conjugating amare in the rote fashion demanded by their strict school. However, it’s through their private, unfettered immersion in the contraband text that the four leads learn what it is to love.

I was reminded of this a few years later when a parent, whose children I was tutoring, described me as the family’s “contraband secret”. How we laughed, as I surreptitiously checked for loose planks underfoot. Despite* being an erstwhile school governor, he had a keen sense of which way the policy winds were blowing, as well as a nose for distant pongs that could put Jo Malone out of business (*delete or not, depending on experience). With education becoming increasingly reductive in scope, he was convinced that more and more parents would seek out independent sources of ‘real’ learning. Walking home the other day, I was reminded of his witchy prescience by the number of tuition centres lining my route, some of which I’m not sure were there when I set out that morning.

Decked in the obligatory primary colours and not-at-all sinister pictures of smiling students, places offering supplementary education are proliferating like Fibonacci’s rabbits. Like the estate agencies whose names they often approximate, with their Primes, Premiers and Rights, they’re to be found in multiples on many a high street. And, like estate agencies, they all seem to be doing pretty well. No surprise, really, given that literacy and numeracy are fundamentals rather than decorative add-ons. It’s all ‘high-stakes’ these days, don’t you know; and, with everyone persuaded of the ills that befall those with less than top grades, additional help has become the sine qua non of getting ahead.

For long the commonplace of the privately educated, tutors have become even more necessary to the same, now that institutions previously accustomed to admitting students on a nepotistic nod and wink enforce more meritocratic entrance criteria (oligarchs excepted). However, it’s the demand for tutors among parents of far more modest means that is, perhaps, the most striking development – a tacit demonstration that, when schools replace departing staff with the cheapest option available, the lacunae of expertise that inevitably appear can only be addressed qualitatively and not, as the DfE’s numerically-obsessed refuseniks would have us believe, by quantity. “moreteachersthaneverbefore” is no substitute for qualified, experienced staff who know their subjects inside out.

Assuming, of course, that leavers are replaced at all. With some schools simply distributing schexiteers’ timetables between remainers, the concomitant growth in class sizes swallows up those in need of personalised attention, however differentiated the lesson content may be. So, whether offering a cut-price service at the kitchen table, boasting a website like that of a modelling agency or insisting, as some do, that only high-net-worth parents need apply, the promise of teaching that focuses on the individual virtually ensures some custom to all manners of tutor.

Not only is the change evident in demand; it’s also apparent in status. Once was the time when engaging a tutor was tantamount to insulting the teacher. Now, it’s a reason for staff to exhale in relief and/or send detailed notes about what the tutor should cover. In my experience, this often amounts to requests that substantial parts of the curriculum be delivered – for the first time or, even, solely – by the one-hour-a-week private operator. Resisting the urge to remind them that they can dictate to me when they pay me, I understand the temptation that some teachers in schools must experience, to offload onto a tutor – particularly when the losses they stand to incur, should they fail to make the grades, are as as onerous as those borne by their students. For, whatever is stated on paper, many members of staff are now employed on de facto temporary contracts, to be renewed only on clearance of every hoopla and hurdle.

Never mind that they may have been directed to teach far beyond their specialisms; or that the CPD they were promised, to bring their subject knowledge up to scratch, has yet to materialise; or, indeed, that they may not have any qualifications beyond GCSE in subjects for which they are now held responsible. The post-factual fact in our ‘no excuses’ schools is that not knowing is no excuse for not doing, if not overdoing. Or something. Given that many of the old farts now working independently – former occupants of the upper pay scales who were shown the exit door – really do know their alliums, the temptation to pass off their ease with exam syllabi as one’s own must be huge, when jobs and pay rises hinge on results.

Percentages of students achieving 5 good GCSEs fall markedly in some schools when English and Maths are included. How much more would they do so if it were possible to discount the impact of tutors? As long as schools tacitly anticipate that parents will engage private teachers to make up the shortfalls created by questionable staffing practices, the latter will persist. In fact, they may even become official policy. Reform, a respected and non-partisan think tank, has recently suggested that graduate teachers are over-qualified to no good purpose, and that less educated apprentices would make for a more cost-effective “labour force”. Indeed, Reform goes further, mooting the possibility that the staffing crises currently faced by many schools are a consequence of arsey degree holders taking umbrage at poor conditions, rather than of the conditions themselves.

Thus, having established that it all comes down to arrogant pique, the problem is solved. No need to tackle the dissatisfactions that are leading Those Who Can to abandon this most indispensable of occupations, upon which so many others depend. No need to address what an educational researcher has termed “the proletarianisation of the teaching profession”. Just draft in staff who, with rectums free of their own heads and fewer prospects at their disposal, are unlikely to complain. Better still, hitch your cart to Lord Nash’s caravan of guff, and repeat after he: teachers do not need to be creative; they need to “embrace standardisation”. Or, as it is otherwise known, behave like the mindless factota he clearly thinks they are, delivering stuff created elsewhere.

So, back to the tutor. Whether problem or solution, you can be pretty sure that s/he’ll be Coming To A Cellar Near You.