Watching The Detectives

Considering how long I’ve been on the planet, I’ve had relatively few dealings with the police (see earlier post on disinclination towards grand larceny). There was the time when Old Mother Allardyce was mugged for a piece of jewellery, leaving her neck ringed with friction burns. And the occasion on which Mother-in-Law Allardyce was caught orbiting a roundabout so intently, that the Fuzz attached her to a breathalyser. As befits the circular motif, my only other connections with Her Majesty’s Finest are a few rozzer-related cylinders in the gramophone collection.

So I was surprised, the other morning, to find my interest tickled by the long arm of the law: more specifically, by news of a scheme called Police Now that hopes to reverse a national shortfall of 5000 investigators. Ever the solipsist, it was the familiarity of a name yoking a professional activity to an operative timescale that grabbed my attention. Police Now cunningly combines the syntax of grab-em-by-the-newbies Teach First with the lexis of only-a-few-years-til-retirement Now Teach, to target recent graduates and experienced career-changers alike. Expect Teach From Beyond The Grave to arrive at a school near you soon. If you work in one, it may well feel as if it’s already done so.

The similarities are not confined to nomenclature. Police Now, like its teaching equivalents, is a charity with a mission to “transform communities”, much as Teach First’s is to “change lives”. Now Teach’s aim – which is, more or less, more of the same – is channelled through its desire to “change the face of teaching” by recruiting “high flyers” in their 40s and 50s from other fields. Presumably, to counterbalance all those ne’er-do-wells, whose willingness to spend earlier decades educating the next generations confirms their status as bottom-feeding underachievers.

The schemes’ modi operandi are also strikingly congruent. All declare a dedication to working with society’s most disadvantaged. Training, too, is structured along similar lines: recruits to Police Now and Teach First attend intensive summer schools, followed by two years of on-the-job learning. Concurrent programmes of mentorships, lectures and workshops lead to recognised qualifications, on the back of which graduates can expect to be fast-tracked into leadership roles. Those who decide that whichever profession is not for them are designated “ambassadors”, and assisted into alternative careers.

And therein lies one of the reasons that I fear for Police Now. Because, a decade and a half after its inception, Teach First still boasts the highest drop-out rate of any Initial Teacher Training route, with 57% of its graduates legging it embracing ambassadorship within two years of completing their training. As a result, it has proven to be one of the least successful, and most expensive, ways of plugging the growing gap in the qualified workforce. Perhaps because, by focusing solely on recruitment, as these things are won’t to do, it pays insufficient attention to the retention crises that necessitate it.

Angelina Dawson, a former detective, left the force after 10 years, citing the shortage of officers, consequent “massive workload”, and detriment to her health as her reasons for abandoning the career that had been “all I ever wanted to do”. Similarly, Simon Davison, another ex-detective, identified an “insurmountable” workload and “decimated” staff numbers as his reasons for leaving the job he’d once loved:

“They often got one detective sergeant and a trainee detective and that’s it for          the borough. It only takes a couple of serious incidents and they are completely stretched. So I certainly noticed that going into the CID offices, that they just had very few numbers and you could sense the morale was quite down.”

Hello, hello, hello; what have we here, then? Departments, staffed disproportionately by cheap trainees, forced to work at the very limits of their capacities? So far, so familiar.

One can only hope that Now Teach doesn’t prove to be another pale pachyderm auguring Police Now’s chances of success. After its first full year in operation, 25% of its graduates have decided to abandon education – which, admittedly, is positively triumphant compared to Teach First’s parlous retention rate. Still, as co-founder Katie Waldegrave admits, “the data-led, assessment-heavy culture isn’t one [all recruits] feel comfortable in…[l]inked to that is the workload and flexibility issues that we all know so well.” I suspect that our erstwhile detectives might feel right at home in such an environment.

With our gaze repeatedly diverted from domestic affairs to, erm, other matters, the last thirty-odd months have been a good time in which to bury bad news. Like the fact that key public services are being driven to the point of collapse/increasing privatisation by the attritions of underfunding and cost-cutting – the latter, often at its most ruthless where the each sector can ill-afford it. That, and an increasingly dominant belief that, as long as steady trickles of recruits are willing to enter the services, it matters not a jot how quickly they reach their points of egress, or that they so often do so by force rather than choice, exuding ash and vapour from their burnt-out shells.

It’s a strategy that’s precipitated a mass exodus, and then used the same as its pretext for establishing a ‘new normal’ of de-professionalisation, short-termism and techno-panaceas. All of which, despite the assertions of ‘personalisation’, actually add up, too often, to an experience for service users that’s as fragmented as much of the previous sentence. So, as I wait for the next batches of entrants to appear over the brow of the hill, my gaze occasionally falls on a clock whose hands are moving inexorably towards the stroke of thirteen.

See you on the other side.



Mother Is The Necessity Of Dissension

The last few months have seen me spending considerable amounts of time in hospital. Not, you understand, in a bid to catch the marbles spilling out of my ears. No, whatever ailments I may have are a mere side-salad to Old Mother Allardyce’s veritable feast – one that has had her pinging in and out of A&E as if attached to its doors by elastic.

It’s a sorry state of affairs, brought on by existing conditions, age, and the hospital’s managerial ethos – the last of which is the reason why I’m writing about it in a blog purportedly concerned with education policy. For, while Mother Allardyce snored through the long nights spent waiting for a bed, and while my better half and I sat beside her gurney, bug-eyed and nuts with sleep deprivation, I had the oddest sense of déjà vu…

Ma Allardyce is frail enough these days to spend a lot of her time visiting hospitals. Recent admissions for bouts of violent, inexplicable vomiting have ended with her being rehydrated and sent on her way – except for the occasion on which she was rehydrated, warmed up and sent away, having been blue-lit into the resuscitation unit with an accompanying temperature drop well below what’s considered hypothermic. Unsurprisingly, she was back five days later, with exactly the same, dangerous symptoms. In hospital parlance, this is known as a “failed discharge” – a term hastily retracted and divested of its paper trails, when those who’d uttered the words realised that Allardyce eyes were narrowing at their implications.

The reason for our repeated visits is that, once sepsis has been ruled out, no attempt has been made to investigate other physiological causes of the vomiting, the hypothermia or, indeed, the fact that my mother has lost 13% of her body weight in six months (a 5% loss over a 6-12 month period is considered a ‘red flag’ symptom). The hypothermia was deemed “environmental” by someone who, never having been to her house, was able to declare, with confidence, that it was too cold. Let the record show that the heating is turned up to levels that make a 10-second walk along a corridor feel like an hour of Bikram yoga.

Those of us with experience of working in schools know that, while Every Child Matters, Some Children Matter More Than Others: those on the Grade 4/5 threshold, for instance, at whom every resource is lobbed, in repeated bids to drive them over the line. Meanwhile, woe betide those unable or unlikely to clear the same, for whom off-rolling, quite possibly, awaits. So it is – or something like it – with the elderly and their medical care, starting with reduced checks for certain (potentially fatal) illnesses, and ending with geriatrics being discharged at speed, only to die days later from undetected infections.

That’s what happens when an institution’s right to survive is determined by imposed targets: other matters become un-targets, as do the people to whom they’re attached. Sepsis is, clearly, the issue of the moment, over which – and not unreasonably – hospitals are held accountable. There’s a formidable list of checks in place, to determine its possible presence and set the wheels of treatment in motion. In its absence, the diagnosis seems to be “Bu99ered if we know.” Ad infinitum. Or nauseum, at least.

I’ve seen this before, in a different form, having worked in the NHS when the Quality and Outcomes Framework was introduced. QOF gave GPs financial incentives to maintain checks on patients with particular conditions. The choice of ailments was not nonsensical, being those that threatened serious – sometimes, multiple – consequences, if left unattended. And so, reception and admin staff spent much of each day on the phone, working through lists of patients with said conditions to ensure that incentivised appointments were made.

One unfortunate, if unintended, result was that other patients found the phone lines even more engaged than usual – a particular problem for those too immobile to visit in person. Another was that serious conditions not on the incentivised list were often sidelined. This is why practice staff were instructed to regard as low priority a diabetic patient, whose legs wept with arterial ulcers that refused to heal – a condition that, by clinical standards, warranted attention. (In this case, the patient was treated, in camera after hours, by a doctor and practice nurse opposed to QOF’s introduction – not an option available to all in similar predicaments.)

 The second reason our hospital experiences felt familiar is their underlying economic imperatives. Or, as Mother Allardyce would describe it, the state of being “penny-wise and pound-foolish”. Confirming a diagnosis costs money, as does any follow-up treatment it entails. Still, how much of the NHS’s valuable resources are spent – wasted, even – on repeat admissions that, with a bit of investigation, may be avoidable? I assume and hope that any savings made by current practice are reinvested somewhere vital. Otherwise, there’s little to show for the patient’s ordeal.

Perhaps to distract attention from the accidental admission of failure, two young medics became disproportionately excited about a brief spell of diarrhoea Mother Allardyce had experienced – a typical consequence of the weapons-grade antibiotics she’d been given on her previous admission, just in case the sepsis that wasn’t there was actually there. The runs were seized upon, so to speak, as evidence that she must have been constipated but no longer was, as proven by the fact that her rectal passage was behaving exactly as it should (huh?). Whatever, a predictable and, ultimately, irrelevant episode became the favoured talking point/ means of circumlocution. Suffice it to say that we attend a different hospital these days. And that the Rosetta Stone does not look like an impacted bowel.

Which brings me to the third reason why I felt that I’d been here before (apart from the fact that I had): the most senior member of staff to examine my mother on any of these vomit-spattered occasions was a registrar – the medical equivalent of a teacher with a few years of post-QTS experience. The majority of examinations have been carried out by foundation-stage medics who, like NQTs, have attained the necessary post-nominals, but have yet to complete the period of practice without which they are not deemed qualified.

Told that we’d been seen by a consultant – an invisible, silent and odourless one, presumably –  Mrs Allardyce and I pointed out the error of the claim, at which point it was quickly amended to her notes having been seen by a consultant. So, to be thorough about this, an experienced medic looked at some notes made by a trainee carrying out an unsupervised examination, and based his/her assessment thereon. Is it just me, or is there a parallel with matters about which I’ve been droning on ad infinitum et nauseum?

Assembling the picture these fragments afford, we appear to have a system that is being forced to rely heavily on cheap staff who also happen to be pretty inexperienced; staff who (are encouraged to?) make target-driven decisions that, in some way, benefit the organisation at significant cost to its users; target-driven decisions that are often designed (though the staff may not always be informed of this) to save or make money; money that could be spent on better-informed processes yielding longer-lasting results. But that isn’t. Because the decisions needed to implement this do not get to be made.

Physician, heal thyself.


Exchange And Mart

Young, free and single are, evidently, where it’s at in schools these days, which may explain why I no longer work in one. There’s Toby Young, of course, inveterate big-upper of free schools, and single-minded advocate of Latin for the folk – although his apology for tweeting about massive t1ts (a habit that, in some quarters, i.e. my house, constitutes compelling proof that it takes one to know one) was delivered in English. In se magna ruunt.

Teachers in schools, including those like Toby’s, would also do well to observe the aforementioned trinity. The young have sufficient energy to undertake the endless everythings that – this year, at least – keep accusations of failure at bay. A willingness to work for free also helps, as evinced by the widening gap between ballooning hours of work and deflating rates of pay. Moreover, it’s wise to aspire to the single life, now that the DfE’s unofficial motto appears to be ‘Eatschool. Sleepschool. 5hitschool. Repeat’. Thanks to the entrenchment of the work-work balance, opportunities to meet, mate and (if so inclined) marry are as good as impossible during term time. Listen closely and you may just catch the tinkles of sundering partnerships, as they shatter beneath the weight of the same mantra.

Being married to the extraordinary Mrs Allardyce – who, surely, deserved so much more from life than years of unremitting spousal drivel – means that singledom holds little appeal for me. Not unless it promotes strength or fairness: one union, for instance; or a single exam syllabus, so that like can be compared with like. With my state-educated students tested entirely by exam, while their privately-educated counterparts secure up to 40% of their GCSE grades through coursework, the case for uniformity in assessment has a certain appeal.

Still, there are situations in the face of which that singular sensation subsides. Take, for instance, the case in favour of pre-scripted lessons; or, to put it another way, attempts to shoo teachers away from planning their own, in favour of buying in the ready-made and more uniform. It’s an idea that’s already been floated by Lord Nash who, urging it to “embrace standardisation”, would like the teaching profession to re-vision itself as a riff on Deliveroo.

The latest advocate of the pre-scripted lesson plan is John David Blake. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Blake is Head of Education at Policy Exchange – the think-tank set up by Francis Maude, Michael Gove and Nick Boles, and by which the DfE has been most inspired over the last decade, after a funny thing happened to Centre Forum. It’s the same organisation that, slapping the figleaf of “reform” over its bollocks, lives up to its mercantile moniker by espousing market-led solutions to public sector problems.

Unlike most of the domini at the DepartmentBlake admits that the number of teachers deserting their profession is a problem, and that workload is a major reason for the exodus. What’s more, he’s located its increase in the myriad forms of accountability imposed on schools. Before you fling your laurel wreaths aloft, take heed: the metrics under which teachers buckle are, and will remain, non-negotiable fixtures for Policy Exchange. Ergo Blake’s enthusiasm for outsourcing lesson planning which, he argues, will compensate for the additional time spent on unicorn-coloured marking policies and every which way of data collection.

Uniformity of content could, admittedly, ease transitions inter and intra key stages. It’s also only fair to acknowledge that, according to studies conducted in the US and UK, the use of pre-scripted lessons seems to have helped primary-age pupils at risk of falling behind (though it’s made no appreciable difference to the rest). However, as the conditions within which the stragglers’ difficulties began/worsened are unclear, so too is the context of the ready-scripted lessons’ subsequent efficacy. Who planned and delivered the sessions during which the problems set in? Experienced, qualified teachers? A succession of agency staff? Fledglings? Students? The possibilities are endless. Unfortunately.

The fact that pre-scripted planning serves Policy Exchange’s established preferences is, one assumes, entirely coincidental. There’s money to be saved, when it ballasts the idea that pretty much anyone can front a lesson: ask the trainees and TAs pushed, with indecent haste, into whole-class teaching by managers who regard such resources as magic bullets. There’s also money to be made. Quondam, teachers were trained to design lessons, schemes of work and curricula as part of The Job; encouraging reliance on pre-packaged equivalents creates another opportunity for someone to flog schools something. Control over content (and its ideological leanings?) also becomes more feasible if, as is mooted, providers will need DfE approval to sell their resources.

Enforcing the use of pre-written lesson plans is a dubious way of saving time, given that sifting through materials, in search of a better fit, can take as long as creating one’s own from scratch. Plus, knowing the DfE’s fondness for such larks, it’s entirely conceivable that any hours gained by removing planning from teachers’ duties will be taken up with government directives to document this happy fact, and its undoubtedly positive impact on student outcomes. Most teachers I know would rather spend more time crafting lessons appropriate to their classes’ specific needs, and a whole lot less on extraneous tasks that encroach to no good effect.

Workloads are not just quantitative entities; how onerous they are is also determined by the quality of the duties involved. Planning actively embeds and develops subject knowledge, exposing teachers and pupils to more perspectives than the passive use of bought-in schemes can. The ensuing sense of ownership fosters the kind of engagement on which teaching and learning thrive. Crucially, designing and resourcing one’s own lessons allows skilled staff to remain so, being just about the last area in which they can exercise the creativity and judgement now deemed surplus-to-requirements elsewhere. Blake’s proposal risks driving another nail into the coffin lid beneath which trust in teachers’ professionalism lies mouldering.

Mindful of this perception, he pre-empts it by claiming that “the highly respected teachers of Finland and Singapore are no less professional because of their regular utilisation of externally-created textbooks”. It’s a canny choice of comparison, in some ways, but one that avoids addressing a key fact: Finnish and Singaporean teachers choose when to make use of said resources, and can do so because – unlike their British counterparts – they are routinely treated as professionals. Habitual public denigration, prompted and egged on by government, is as unfamiliar to them as is being bent out of shape by the kind of guilty-til-proven-innocent accountability measures Policy Exchange endorses.

With even the young, free and single staggering beneath overloaded timetables and exponentially-increasing ‘requirements’, UK teachers are obliged to burn the middle of the candle, as well as both of its ends, just to keep up. In Finland, Singapore and other educational powerhouses, sensible class allocations ensure that many of the hours teachers need for monitoring progress, reflecting upon practice, broadening subject and pedagogic knowledge and, yes, planning lessons are incorporated into their timetables. Because all of the above are not just conceived of as interrelated elements; they are treated as such.

So, nota bene. Because, until the powers-that-are do the same, manducamus, dormimus et cacamus school.















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 thanks to 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.

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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 focus 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, one imagines, 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 other 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, or deciding to do so to avoid 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, aided by the canny application of misnomers. 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 desperate need of post-capability references, the ease with which ‘mug-off’ can be disguised as ‘vocation’ is even greater. It’s a process most evident when employers recruiting through agencies (ones that are adept at keeping mum) get around to revealing 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…

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, oddly, 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 the provision of references until such time as suits the Sith Order their SLTs or trustee boards.

Today’s CPD task is to draft the interviewee’s response. Pay attention to the context in which this dialogue occurs, and ensure, if possible, that the 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 his judgement. His observations on the coercive power of language 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 individual 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.