Monthly Archives: September 2012

A Difference Of Degree

There aren’t many people who can pander to prejudices about teachers like Sir Michael Wilshaw can. Apparently, we suffer no stress; we bugger off at 3.00pm each day, to commune with the birdies and smell the prefects; and so, we deserve a bit of low morale. Or, even better, a bucketload. Give him a few more minutes, and I won’t ever have worked during the holidays.

It’s an illuminating repertoire that Sir Michael’s built up here: one that discloses not only Mr W.’s kinda-impressive ability to offend; but also, in his superhero guise as The Voice That Tells It Like It Is, one that underscores the discrepancies in how different parts of the public sector are viewed and treated.

I have to confess to a vested interest here. I come from a family that groans so loudly under the weight of medics, that I occasionally have to dab my joints with a little WD40. And it’s hard to not draw comparisons when their choice of profession is the stuff of collective ‘Ooh’-ing while mine elicits a ‘What the bloody hell did you do that for?’.

And so it is ever thus. It appears that I must now work more hours per day to justify a pay rise. As most of the teachers I know have to apply for unpaid leave to have a poo, I’m not sure where these extra hours are supposed to come from. (Perhaps we need a time and motion study.) When junior hospital doctors worked silly hours, there were concerns that fatigue might impair their decisive abilities, and the housemanship system was duly altered. However, as teachers are expected to answer immediately to e-mails sent at 2.00am, they need only hang inverted from the rafters for a ten-minute power nap and accompanying headrush, before pinging off a reply, doing a little more light paperwork, and then taking full responsibility for the safety of young people who can detect the scent of danger like bloodhounds.

The differences are apparent elsewhere. When it comes to teachers, it would seem that every penny has to be justified – so much so that, when New Labour introduced the upper pay scale, it thought better of itself and lopped off the two highest points. These were replaced by the ‘Excellent Teacher’ scheme, the application for which requires such balletic manoeuvres through flaming hoops that only three dozen hamsters who trained with the Rambert have been appointed to said posts nationwide.

My medic rellies, on the other hand, are being paid more to do less than before, while still being regarded as modern-day saints who will always merit every last groat. They also have something called ‘overtime’, which I’ve heard of but believed to be extinct. Furthermore, teachers will have to work until they’re 68 to claim a pension that might just hit five figures a year. My medic chums can expect a pension in excess of £50,000 a year, and a tax-free lump sum of a hundred grand plus, to keep them in ski holidays.

Teachers have unions that engage in negotiations with the government, just as medics have theirs. Theirs are taken seriously; ours may as well be onions, given the eye-watering sorrow or mirth with which our assumption, that we’re worthy of being listened to, is greeted. Medics are seen as experts in their fields and usually are treated as consultation partners when new policies are being aired. We, however, are factota, not partners. Headteachers may be consulted as educational everymen; but, as any phool nose, their agendae are pretty far removed these days from those of the teachers. Heck, we’re not even possessed of classroom expertise any more – hence the need to turn the running of schools over to carpet baggers…sorry, weavers, creationists and embezzlers.

My favourite discrepancy, however, is the one concerning incompetence. When a surgeon sews up a patient, having forgotten to remove medical instruments from whichever cavity, the problem is that medic’s and theirs alone, generally. Similarly, when a GP engages in malpractice, usually involving loads of money or ladies’ breasts, they’re regarded as a rogue operator. When a teacher fails in pretty much any capacity, the problem is represented as endemic to the whole profession.

Despite the foregoing spittle-flecked rant, I don’t actually despise medics their privileges. Granted, I find it funny when I hear the ones I know claiming publicly that everything they do, they do it for you, with no visible regard for the high salaries and kneejerk deference they often command. Much like headteachers, in fact. But some parity of respect, if not treatment, would be nice.

Especially when you consider that hardly anyone gets to medical school without the input of  teachers somewhere along the line.

Practice Could Be Perfect

Welcome to the Olympic afterglow. Inbetween the talk of engaging fat kids in beach dressage, and discussions about where The Incredible Disappearing Playing Fields went, someone halfway famous muttered something  about employing leading sports stars as teachers. This is a sweet idea in principle, but a daft one in reality. As going to the loo between 8.30am and 3.30pm is considered unprofessional, teachers must have above-average levels of bladder and bowel control (“So, Miss Radcliffe’s class will have a supply teacher today…”). Furthermore, one needs a little training in tangential subjects like the curriculum, how children learn and other such blah, even if – according to another person with too much power and a profound disrespect for pedagogic experience – they’re utterly irrelevant to being able to teach, if not actually inimical to promise.

Schools have long invited guest speakers to deliver lessons about their chosen fields. It helps to be a posh school, if you want the invitation to be accepted, but there are a few pop-tarts who will, thankfully, lug their wares to Scuzzyville High. Their input is often part of a learning scheme devised by a teacher to develop specific skills and areas of knowledge; and, in my experience, guest speakers are appreciative of the focus this framework lends their sessions, as it stops them dying on their arses in front of a tough crowd. If you’ve ever witnessed the speed at which status-struck gawping elides into competitive farting when students, faced with a speaker ill-prepared for a school audience, try to liven up proceedings, you’ll know what I mean.

There is much to be said for students receiving the insights and wisdom of a practitioner, rather than a person at one remove:  been there, done that, catch this pearl. But another, complementary approach, may also be worth considering. How about (whisper this) teachers having the time to ‘do’ their subjects as well as teach them, which is impossible at the moment given the enormity of the workload that comes with the job? I’m not, for a second, advocating the Geography department attempting lunch-hour plate tectonics, or biology teachers coming over all Gunther von Hagen with a set of knives from Lakeland Plastics. But, with a reasonable workload, they might be able to keep up with key developments in their specialisms – a practice once known as listening to, reading and watching things about your subject.

Back in the day, I used to read books. Then I started sporting them as eye-masks, having managed about a paragraph in the small hours of the morning, after all the day’s marking and paperwork had been completed. Occasionally, I’d simply drop the volume on my head through exhaustion, rather than a sense of fun. (N.B. Avoid taking Don DeLillo’s Underworld to read in bed, unless you harbour a secret death-wish.)

You might imagine that reading books would be required of English teachers. But no. It would appear that all we need, by way of literary sustenance, is repeated gallops through Of Mice and Men to ensure a handsome crop of A*-C grades. Which is why we’re only given enough time off duty to be able to re-read a novel so overtaught that I can now quote it in its entirety when sleepwalking. I once narrowly missed being run over by a speeding bus on my way home from work, managing to leap out of its path just in time. Almost immediately, I regretted my actions, realising that hospitalisation would mean I might get a couple of days to myself, and some time to write or read.

One of the advantages of being incredibly old (which, in teaching, is what you are over 35) is that you may be on the upper pay scale. Admittedly, ascension to this giddy-making altitude also means that you will never be employed at another school again. So make the best of it and, if you can, use your greater earning power to make teaching part-time more feasible: you’ll end up closer to what most other professions consider a normal working week with, maybe, a couple of spare hours in which to do something else. And if you’re doomed to see out your twilight years in Hark All the Angels Academy, it may be the best way of keeping the marbles still in your possession. I did precisely this as soon as I could, with the result that I’m back to reading, rather than wearing, books – and a wider variety, at that. I’m writing again, and hugely enjoying this activity in which my participation had been reduced to commenting on other people’s participation. Best of all, it’s reinvigorated my teaching to the palpable benefit of my students, even if I did have to take a pay cut to achieve the oft-quoted but rarely-sighted Work-Life Balance.

So, as well as hoping that the greater and gooder might deign to teach for a fortnight, how about ensuring that teachers’ actual workloads (as opposed to the ones other people think they have) mean that there is some time in the week, if not the day, when they can rediscover their enjoyment of their subjects? Contrary to political opinion, the wellbeing of teachers does not entail the detriment of their students. Quite the reverse: a less frazzled, better informed, specialist workforce;  a better supported, more engaged student body. Unlike Olympic sports, this is a win-win situation, not a zero-sum game. Now, there’s a legacy worth pursuing.

Capability Blown

Martha is a supply teacher. She used to be a faculty head at a successful London school. Attempting to reverse an increasing budget deficit, caused by funding cuts and straightforward mismanagement, the school’s headteacher hit upon a plan: to ‘remove’ some of the school’s more experienced teachers, whose years in their profession meant that they were near the top of the pay scale. Teachers like Martha.

A letter of complaint soon arrived at the school, from a father whose child’s education had, allegedly, been jeopardised by Martha’s incompetence. Martha, who had never been the subject of a professional complaint before – indeed, she was regarded, and graded, as a highly competent practitioner – was never shown the letter whose claims the headteacher had decided not to interrogate. Instead, she was placed on capability procedures, with the option of resigning before their outcome was known. The head emphasised that, if Martha didn’t exercise that ‘choice’, he could ensure – if he were so inclined – that she never worked in schools again. Sticking to her guns and refusing to resign, Martha was forbidden from discussing her case with third parties – including the other staff from whom, she became aware, the headteacher was seeking comments that could be folded, origami-style, into incriminating ‘evidence’. Before her monitoring period was over, Martha had resigned.

Capability procedures were introduced under New Labour, to help teachers tackle (perceived) weaknesses in their practice. Areas for development were to be identified and monitored through observations, scrutiny of relevant paperwork and records of student achievement. A date for review was to be agreed at the outset and appropriate training provided. Implementation guidelines made it clear that the process should be undertaken in a supportive manner, with the teacher being given the opportunity to improve before any further stages were invoked.

However, the way in which capability procedures are used in many schools is anything but supportive. Instead, numerous headteachers treat them as a means by which competent staff who have, for whatever reason, become undesirable may be hounded out of their posts. Experienced teachers are among the most frequent targets, almost invariably being replaced by cheaper staff. So, too, are those deemed members of ‘the awkward squad’ – a title it takes surprisingly little awkwardness to earn. With the power to initiate proceedings – and to decide whether teachers  have passed them – in the hands of principals alone, capability procedures are ripe for misuse.

For these reasons, there is concern within the profession at Michael Gove’s introduction, this September, of a new, fast-track procedure – one that will allow allegedly incompetent staff to be removed from schools within a term. The idea is not completely without merits: there are teachers whose performance leaves much to be desired but who manage to cling on to their posts, to the detriment of their students and of the other staff who have to compensate for their inadequacies. It would be in their interests, as well as everyone else’s, to remove them as swiftly as possible.

However, it is one of the ironies of education that, while almost every school has an anti-bullying policy to protect pupils, teaching repeatedly ranks among the top three professions for workplace bullying. The perpetrators are often the very heads that politicians and much of the wider public assume to be models of probity. A teacher, who witnessed colleagues being placed on capability procedures, described the process as one of “leperisation”: other staff, fearing that they would be next, distanced themselves from the victims or did nothing in their defence. Many will recognise these dynamics from the playground bully’s repertoire. Yet, it is into such hands that the government is delivering increasing managerial autonomy in schools. Congruently, a current employee at the Department for Education claims that its own culture is characterised by “a lot of fear…Staff feel that if they put their heads above the parapet, they will be seen as an awkward character who could be got rid of”. A rare example of a minister willing to do as he implicitly says?

The insidiousness of such practices lies in the ease with which headteachers, so inclined, can preserve – even, enhance – their altruistic credentials (they are, after all, only doing it for the kids) while knowingly distorting the reputations of competent teachers to such degrees that they are, effectively, unemployable in other schools. Union representatives have often failed to make any headway on such cases, being unwittingly lied to themselves, or because the principal concerned has been careful to avoid leaving a trail of culpability. Rather than spend time pursuing the matter through the courts, unions are generally more likely to steer members towards accepting ‘compromise agreements’ that often impose gagging orders on those forced out of their posts. With the compression of capability procedures, the chances of successful union intervention are reduced even further.

Assuming he is not aware of them already – or, even, tacitly approving of them – the Education Secretary must contemplate the misuses to which headteachers’ disciplinary powers can be put. The introduction of a fast-track dismissal system should not enable principals alone to act as accusers, judges and executioners. Rather, a rigorous procedure is needed that allows for the removal of genuinely incompetent staff, but that also holds heads to stringent account for their decisions. As long as so much power continues to be entrusted to what can be dubious hands, Martha’s case will be, as it is, far from exceptional.

Rock Of Ageism

Excuse me a moment while I oil my creaking knees. Well, I would if I could remember where I left them.

I’m prone to such senior moments with alarming frequency. Obviously: I am, after all, on the other side of forty. It’s probably a symptom of having the wrong digit in the ‘tens’ column that I find it a little difficult to judge the significance of my advanced years. On one hand, I’m led to believe that forty is the new black, or some such thing, and that people of this age and beyond enjoy hitherto unknown levels of physical and mental capability. We are, so the story goes, younger than forty-pluses in earlier generations. On the other hand, I work in education, where most people of my age who are not senior managers or headteachers are regarded as borderline demented or worthy of the exit door, if not both.

It seems that I look quite a lot younger than my age, judging by my students’ comments. (I do not state this with any degree of self-congratulation. It’s just a fact of my genetic inheritance;  and I’m sure that when everything does start going south, it won’t just be for the winter, and it will be with the momentum of an avalanche.) My response to such remarks tends to be “Oh, do I?”, rather than “Why, thank you”.  I understand that they’re meant as compliments, and that these should be accepted with grace. But I also feel an itch to challenge the notion that youth – or the appearance of it – is the only valid state.

And so I should. My job is not only to develop my students’ academic capabilities; it’s also (I believe) to help them to think for themselves, and that may entail questioning the prevailing assumptions by which many of us live. So the conversation often unfolds with me asking why it is A Good Thing that I look younger. It may move on to the way in which we use ‘old’ as a derogatory intensifier: so much worse to be ‘an old fool’ rather than merely ‘a fool’. Then, perhaps, we’ll talk about feelings for grandparents (adoration is touchingly frequent),  and how unfair it seems that grandma and grandpa may be regarded as lesser beings because of their age, worthy of patronisation and ‘Do not resuscitate’ notices.

This is, then, the other curriculum we teach, the one about attitudes towards people possibly different from ourselves. We routinely, and rightly, assert the unacceptability of sexism, racism and homophobia. Ageism, however, retains a sturdy foothold in schools – not least in the actions, and sometimes the words, of the adults entrusted with children’s social development.

Last term, our school advertised for a classroom teacher to lead a key stage. The shortlisted candidates were, for the most part, in the first or second year of teaching, with one token oldie thrown in for diversity or comedy value – I’m not sure which. It was depressing to hear that the older candidate would be less able to relate to the students, less able to make tasks interesting, less able to assess quickly – and all before he’d had the opportunity to show what he could do. In the event, he proved to be a very capable classroom practitioner, although – predictably, perhaps – the job was offered to one of the other applicants. Frankly, a fruitbat stood a better chance of landing the gig. The saddest part of this too-edifying spectacle (not bifocal, unfortunately: myopia seemed to have the upper hand) was the frequency with which the candidate was pre-judged by those of comparable age. Nor were such assumptions confined to those with vested interests in appointing a relatively inexperienced applicant. Support staff and other teachers were quick to voice similar, low expectations.

So, what chance of a cultural shift on this matter, when it seems to be endorsed by those with some power to mould perceptions? Ofsted’s Michael Wilshaw has, on more than one occasion, pointed out that most of his staff at Mossbourne Academy were in their twenties and thirties, implying that this was intrinsic to the school’s success. Where do his remarks leave Sir Michael himself, in his mid-sixties? Or do they simply underscore what an exceptional sort he is? His statements about teachers’ morale and stress haven’t exactly endeared him to many in the profession; responses have been swift and impassioned. And yet, his age-related comments – or their implications, at least – appear to have passed under the radar of criticism.

Consider, too, the protests mounted by teachers against mooted changes to their pensions, including raising the retirement age to sixty-eight. My interest here is not so much in the reasoning behind these changes, as in the way some teachers have challenged their proposal. Teaching can be a mentally, emotionally and physically demanding job – more so than many outside, and occasionally inside, the profession imagine. Some decide to cut their losses and run for the hills; others stick it out, rising to the challenges even when they border on the unsustainable. So it’s a fair retort, in my view, to point out how exhausting it would be to have to teach until the suggested retirement age. (The possibility that the government wants teachers to retire early, or remove themselves entirely from the pension scheme is a discussion I’ll save for my next session at Conspiracy Theorists Are Us.) My concern is that, in some quarters, the campaign has shifted from “Who would want to teach until they’re 68?” to “Who would want a 68-year-old teaching their child?”. So near; and yet so far.

There are, of course, situations in which having spent sixty-eight years on the planet is a tangible disadvantage. Twinkly looks from flirtatious parents at school open evenings, for instance, tend to be bestowed upon staff who look young enough to be police constables. Oh, woe is me, left on the sidelines like a dessicated husk while Eros runs amok. However, sixty-eight years on the planet, in and of themselves, are insufficient to justify the kind of stereotyping and discrediting that, in other contexts, we’d abhor.  There are, to be fair, a couple of circumstances in which age may be immaterial: if offering one’s services gratis; or if a recent career-changer, in which case a candidate may be rich in experience, while financially cheap. Those who fall outside these categories, be warned.

Sexism, I cackle in your face. Racism, begone and take your bags with you. Homophobia, schmomophobia.

Ageism? The prejudice that, in education, dares to speak its name.

Speaking In Tongues

Way back when, I would use estate agents’ copy to teach my students about euphemism. They’d laugh, with mild shock, at language so elastic that ‘bijou’ denoted a space big enough for your nose hairs to tickle the walls, and ‘characterful’ meant that the local wino had been an unofficial tenant for the past decade. My students would then make up their own examples, recasting a property with broken windows as “possessing a comprehensive system of ventilation ducts”, and another, infested with rats, as “sympathetic to the local ecosystem”. However, I no longer rely on estate agents for stimulus materials because I have some new toys. Stuffed to the seams with code, adverts for teaching jobs are my current favourites.

Pretty much all the schools I see advertising for staff have been found to be outstanding. This could point to several things. Perhaps ‘outstanding’ means something really obvious that I’ve only just twigged, like ‘standing outside’. Which lots of school buildings do, to be fair. Or perhaps outstanding schools tend to have higher staff turnovers: maybe, those working in outstanding schools develop professionally at such speed that they are ready to take on management posts within, ooh, minutes. Or, maybe, outstanding schools are horrible places in which to work, and tend to lose burnt-out staff like a haemophiliac loses blood. I know which one I’d go for.

So, now that there’s nowt outstanding about being outstanding, let’s turn to the other honeyed phrases with which schools try to lure applicants. Boasting about which percentile of the country’s ‘most improved’ they occupy seems to be the latest fad…and, encouragingly, they’re all way up near the top! Now, how did they get there, and what does it take to work in a school like that?

First up, make sure that you’re ‘data-driven’ as in “we are looking for a data-driven candidate who is also an outstanding teacher”. Blimey. You mean there are teachers out there making decisions on the basis of no info whatsoever? I made a point of learning the names of all my students (eventually). Does that make me data driven too? Probably not. It’s numbers they mean – hefty figures called targets that often bear little relation to the actual abilities of the students around whose necks they are hung. And, because they are The Law Before Which We All Genuflect, you, oh applicant, would do well to regard the students in your care as statistics unhappily trapped inside human bodies, and desperate to be liberated. So, cajole them, plead with them, bribe them and, if that fails, do the work for them. Anything less is, frankly, unprofessional and not what’s expected of a “team player”. You may not have known it, but you’ve been training for Mendacity United, and your call-up from the subs’ bench may be imminent.

The ads also tell us that many schools are on “a journey of year-on-year improvement”, so that en route at least 267.5% of their students will leave bearing teetering stacks of GCSEs. You can tell these places are on the move, because they always seem to be seeking candidates “willing to go the extra mile” (who knew that nomadism was so ‘in’ this season?). This is a little misleading. As you will discover, what with Oz always being a further mile away, you will have to (deep breath) cajole your students plead with them bribe them and if that fails do the work for them. Anything less is unprofessional. Plus, you did tell them that you’re a team player and you may have nodded eagerly when they spoke about their culture of “additionality” (eh?). Some schools, however, may be a little more blatant about their expectations, requiring candidates to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that The Law Before Which We All Genuflect is not broken.

So, finally, we come to my favourite: the school with a “no excuses culture”. I have no real idea what this means. For whom, pray, are there no excuses? I know that in some schools, students have no recourse to excuses – which is why one who had been thrown out of home and had been sleeping on park benches was excluded for missing an assignment deadline.  But staff may also have to abide by the new rules – perhaps in schools where there is no excuse not to cajolethempleadwiththembribethemandifthatfailsdotheworkforthem. Or, indeed, to simply cut out the middlemen and go straight to the ‘do the work for them’ bit. I’m still confused. Although I do understand that ‘no excuses’ is an excuse.

Anyhow, I no longer need worry about this stuff. Ascending to the deoxygenated heights of the upper pay scale banged some monster-sized nails into the coffin of my future employability; so I’m staying put where I am, until such time as it becomes intolerable, or I am deemed sackable. Whichever happens first. But for aspiring and viable employees, forewarned may be forearmed: dishonesty has been normalised in schools, so those of you able to turn a blind eye, swallow your moral qualms or perform other feats that will rearrange your organs are well-placed to thrive. Independent learning be hanged: guaranteed short cuts to fab grades are part of the cultural weft. I just wonder when the edges will start to fray.

Happy job-hunting.

Teach When?

Here’s a thing. Two university graduates I know have just been offered places on PGCE courses. They researched current educational issues; prepared presentations; discussed the effectiveness of teaching they’d observed, and took part in literacy tests, numeracy tests and on-the-spot analyses of recorded lessons. Good. When I applied for the same course at one of the country’s most reputable institutions, I only needed to know when chucking-out time was at the local sink school to be accepted. Neither applicant was eligible for the £20,000 bursary being dangled in front of graduate noses by the TDA, and a fine job it is too. They might become accustomed to earning that much.

Education policy can be a little like one of those magic-eye images that were all the rage a couple of decades ago. You remember them? You squinted at a canvas that looked like it had been spattered with cubist vomit, and if you did so for long enough, an arcing dolphin or a leaping gazelle emerged from the spew. I was crap at decoding magic-eye pictures: boss-eyed for an eternity, I’d have only the mother of all migraines to show for my efforts. With current policy, however, the latent picture is often so clear that a) I don’t need to make like there’s a bee on the end of my nose to see what’s going on and, so, b) it’s not…um…that latent. The barfing artist is plain to see.

However you assemble the mosaic pieces – abolishing national pay scales, favouring in-school training routes (Troops to Teachers, Teach First, Schools Direct) over college-based courses, or academies being able to employ any old cubist as a teacher – the picture seems to be the same: a few, handsomely-paid management positions for fast-track People Like Us; and the cheapest possible body of teaching staff, preferably payable on the unqualified scale and replaceable as soon as they become anything close to expensive, sassily knowledgeable or harder to manipulate. As these labels are acquired pretty quickly, the unacknowledged employment crisis among qualified teachers may be about to get a whole lot worse.

Once upon a time, experience made you employable: you were worth paying for because you’d learned how to do a difficult job well. Then, in the eyes of headteachers, it made you expensive, even though you’d be shortlisted for interviews so that the schools appeared to be complying with equal ops legislation. On the sly, ‘highly experienced’ was redefined to mean ‘survived the first year’ and the jobs were offered to cheap candidates. With schools simply looking for the lowest-cost appointments possible, even shortlisting doesn’t happen now. It would seem that only the newly qualified haven’t priced themselves out of the market. Until now.

Over the past fifteen months, I’ve come across scores of teachers who qualified last year and, having yet to secure jobs, are tiding themselves over with scraps of supply work. Many left successful careers in other fields to retrain, having been led to believe that employment as a teacher would be enjoyable, fulfilling and…likely. I know that my window of employability was banged shut some time ago; and, with first-year teachers now being regarded, in some schools, as legitimate appointees to Head of Department posts, so be it. (Here, at least, the ad campaigns are correct: you can expect to become a manager more quickly than in other professions.) However, not only is the class of 2011 competing with this year’s PGCE graduates; it’s also up against the financial allure of unqualified trainees and, as of next academic year, former soldiers taking on substantial ‘training’ timetables for the princely sum of £15,000 a year. That’s about £12,000 less than a newly-qualified teacher in London commands.

Let’s hope that I’m wrong, and that those embarking on PGCEs find a buoyant employment market, with long-term prospects and decent pensions, awaiting them when they graduate. Let’s hope that the seemingly ingrained habits of headteachers, to prioritise ‘cheap’ over ‘effective’ (or to see the two as synonymous), are broken and that the balance between new blood and experience is restored. Because, with the rise of in-house cover supervisors, payable on the support staff scale, the supply market has dried up and the only way to secure employment may be to offer your services for bottom dollar in a brave and unregulated new world: one in which local pay bargaining is introduced (even though we already have regional salary scales); and in which headteachers are given the freedom to offer higher salaries to recruit the best staff (even though they already possess – rarely exercised – discretionary powers for exactly this purpose). What heads will not have enjoyed until now is the right to ignore the salaries a national scale guarantees. So, will we see the situation posited by policy wonks, in which sought-after teachers shop around in search of the most lucrative deal? Or will teachers be pitted against one other, to undercut their competitors’ salary expectations?

“Work a seventy-hour week for effing buttons”. There’s a slogan you don’t see on the TDA posters which, as ever, testify to a  governmental obsession with incentivising recruitment. Retention, meanwhile, has been carted away in a wooden box.

A League Of Their Own

I don’t believe I’ve ever registered on the Richter scale, but I’ve come close. It was a first-aid course, and my mandible had hit the floor with such force that I looked like a real medical emergency to Jim, my resuscitation partner. Being teachers (secondary in my case, primary in his) we’d been discussing reading recovery: you know, that doohickey schools are supposed to provide when they find that students’ reading abilities are markedly lower than most in their age group. A recent career-changer into education, Jim had done a lot of research on reading recovery programmes and enthused about one in particular, before telling me that his school would not be investing in it. Prohibitively expensive, I assumed.

No and yes. Financially, the scheme was affordable. However, Jim’s headteacher had decided not to buy the programme because of one, overriding fact: eleven year olds need not be entered for the SATs exams that mark the end of their primary education, if they are working below National Curriculum Level 2. A primary school’s position in the league tables rests, to a considerable extent, on how its Year 6 students fare in these tests, and the government’s expectation is that they will have reached Level 4 when they take them.

Children working above Level 2, but unlikely to reach Level 4 by the time the SATs come round – those who have fallen behind in reading, for instance – are, therefore, potential blots on their schools’ statistics. Safer, then, to ensure that they do not reach that crucial Level 2 threshold, and can be excluded from the number-crunching altogether. To put it more succinctly, league tabling led Jim’s headteacher to actively deny the most needy students additional support. This was the point at which half of my teeth declared independence from the rest of my face. In his first year, Jim is already regretting his career switch.

Looking across the Atlantic, we should have seen this coming. In 1996, the Chicago Public School system introduced its ‘high-stakes’ testing regime, under which schools with low reading scores would face probation or closure – naming and shaming with the added oomph of imminent unemployment. Data gathered from Chicago schools showed a marked surge in cheating around 1996, particularly by teachers with low-scoring classes. With the passage of 2002’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ laws, the pressure on American schools to produce results increased. And so too did the frequency and variety of staff malpractice.

In response to a comparably punitive regime of floor targets, league tables and politicised Ofsted inspections, many British schools now boast huge and rapid leaps in pass rates, and confidently commit themselves to “year-on-year improvement”. A cursory glance may suggest that accountability measures are achieving the intended results; a closer look, and a few awkward questions on how some schools manage these extraordinary turnarounds, may not. Are these apparent successes really due to the saintly ministrations of ‘superheads’ and the efforts of inexhaustibly boingy teachers, happily working ever-longer days, weeks and terms? And what do the methods employed in pursuit of improved results bequeath to other parts of the education system, and beyond?

Imagine a staffroom populated by cadavers one year, and live teachers with discernible pulses and functioning respiratory systems the next. In such a case, an astounding reversal of fortunes might not stretch credulity so thin. But, having worked in several secondary schools known for their fantastic exam results, I’ve developed a nose for the scent of rat. Following the first-aid course and Jim’s revelations, I switched to working in the primary sector – driven to do so by curiosity about the gap between the gleaming SATs levels with which increasing numbers of Year 7 pupils arrive at secondary school, and their demonstrably more modest abilities. Suffice it to say that I detected a familiar odour.

As with secondary schools, senior managers and local authority figures are most willing to play the targets game – largely to enhance their career prospects and the likelihood of being noticed by those who stride down the corridors of power. Where members of the headship team invigilate Year 6 exams, they often do so in order to tell the students the answers, with unsurprisingly spectacular results. This practice, witnessed in a London school, is not an anomaly: in spirit, it’s no different from that in a West Country primary school, where Year 6 ‘lessons’ start an hour earlier than usual on the days of the tests, so that the headteacher can spend this time going through the exam papers with the class and telling pupils the correct answers in advance of the official start times. It’s also just a step away from establishments not unlike Jim’s school, where less able students are given the day off when the SATs circus comes to town. Whichever form of ‘statistical management’ is employed, its impressive outcomes are reported as the fruits of honest toil and visionary leadership.

The conjoined twin of cheating is buck-passing. Inflated grades at the end of Key Stage 2 become a weighty burden to secondary schools, whose competence is judged by the progress made from these fabricated benchmarks. Even secondary heads who know these figures to be little more than misleading toot will cite them as gospel truths when expedient. Because it really doesn’t matter whether league tables record simple grades or ‘value-added’ ones that take account of contextual factors and their potential effect on academic performance: the incentive remains for schools to reach for the highest outcomes available, so that they can appear to be more successful at meeting – or, preferably, exceeding – targets than the rest.

Leaving nothing to chance, the head of a school in which I worked for several years routinely created his own target grades. Sure enough, the pupils sat independent predictive tests, against whose judgements progress was supposedly measured. However, those judgements were then secretly adjusted by senior managers using a special formula: “Think of a number, treble it, add a zero to the end, then divide it by one”, I believe it was. Toned and buffed, the revised target grades would be delivered to those charged with their achievement – students, teachers and parents – as if they were the real thing. Progress was rigorously monitored against these criteria, as was the competence of the teachers for whom these fictitious grades became the standards against which they would be appraised.

Students trying their damnedest to meet these expectations (which, at this school, they were required to do a year before taking their GCSEs ) were told that they were lazy underachievers if they fell short of the mark. Capable teachers were labelled as incompetent, as they tried to lead befuddled mites through the syllabus by both hands and, possibly, a leg or two, in pursuit of grades far beyond their abilities. Should the fictional grade still prove elusive, the teacher would face considerable pressure to do the work for the student. Literally. As in “Write the essay, but submit it as if it’s the student’s work”.

Pupils suffering chronic inertia in the face of schoolwork had, therefore, little to fear. Their carefully structured support programme consisted of telling them – correctly, this time – that they were lazy underachievers, and then forcing teachers to write the essays for them. Step two, involving hands and feet, was removed to ensure that the support programme was personalised in accordance with the students’ needs. The stagnating waters of staff morale were rendered even more odorous by the threat of the sack, if the teacher failed to reach those attainment targets.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough that what I am describing is not fiction. It is common, if covert, practice in a number of schools, including some that have been garlanded with the highest plaudits – occasionally, by no less a figure than an education secretary. In such institutions, ‘revision sessions’ and ‘booster classes’ are code for various forms of malpractice – most often, intervening in the production of work to an extent that most would recognise as cheating. Nor is the introduction of controlled assessments, written under supervision in school, a guarantee of honest practice as they only exclude the possibility of assistance from parents and private tutors. As is the case at an outstanding high school in London, they don’t prevent headteachers from instructing staff to ignore any – in some cases, every – control within which assessments should be produced.

At best, cheating is that to which the principal turns a blind eye, relieved that staff are demonstrating the “whatever it takes” specified in so many job adverts to help the school appear to meet its targets. At worst, it is an institutional norm or, indeed, expectation. None of the teachers I know agrees with such practices, although many feel forced to collude by silence, fearing dismissal from their posts. Little wonder, then, that employers and tertiary teachers, like their secondary counterparts, find significant gaps between the knowledge and competence promised by impressive grades, and the actual capabilities of those bearing them.

A system based on insufficiently demanding work, that teachers are pressurised into all but typing for the students, bodes and does ill: significant numbers are leaving school with fistfuls of good grades and some appalling life-lessons under their belts. If the workshy believe that someone else will (be forced to) fill the effort gap they have left, it’s a lesson that many will have learned at school. ‘A’ level students and undergraduates passing off the work of others as their own have been encouraged to do exactly this with their teachers’ ‘interventions’. Are they really to blame if they see plagiarism as an offence of degree, not of kind? Others have never been permitted an accurate picture of their abilities because of the ‘support’ they’ve received, only discovering that higher education is not for them several thousand pounds later, when expected to produce work entirely by themselves.

So, bad news for those inheriting students who aren’t what they were led to believe. And, most of all, bad news for the students themselves. But what about the genuinely able? Surely their chances can’t be scuppered by their schools’ complicity with league table tyranny? I could blather on about the use of ‘equivalent’ qualifications to boost GCSE points, but you probably know about this already. Instead, let’s put a face to the practice: a student of well above-average ability, at a school run by an academy chain that Michael Gove idolises. With forgivable pride, the student’s mother believed that her child had achieved fourteen GCSEs, because that’s what the school told her.

Closer inspection revealed that the student did not have a single bona fide GCSE: all of the passes were in equivalent qualifications. As many of these count as multiple GCSEs, they can inflate the numbers of students deemed to have cleared the high-jump of five passes – hence the school’s policy of entering pupils for them wherever possible. The student concerned is now at a college, taking real GCSEs at the time when A levels should have been on the cards. Meanwhile the problem of equivalents persists. A recent report showed that, in many schools, learners are still being shooed towards poorly-regarded and inappropriate courses, if they are conducive to the appearance that more GCSEs have been passed.

As knowing as the electorate can be about the motives of politicians, the fact that the combined effects of targets, league tabling and Ofsted inspections are so rarely the objects of cogent debate testifies to the power of political platitude and the collusion of the press. Rather, all three accountability measures are represented as guarantees of institutional probity and educational quality. For those on the inside, bearing daily witness to how they distort schools’ priorities and erode their integrity, matters are somewhat different. Replace claims of transparency with the fact of opacity and we may be able to talk.

Like many of my colleagues, I’d hoped that some truth would trickle out when The Daily Telegraph devoted page after page, day after day, to the ‘help’ exam boards give their client schools. No such luck. A few scattered observations about the pernicious effects of targets were outnumbered by miss-the-point analyses that blamed examiners for desperately courting customers. Certainly, the laws of the marketplace have something to do with what The Telegraph uncovered: those pesky varmint exam boards are in fierce competition with each other to secure and retain the custom of schools.

As a result, they are, arguably, the third element in our unholy trinity, alongside governments and headteachers. Examiners’ reports often lament the uniformity of coursework produced by highly prescriptive and narrow teaching-to-the-essay-title. However, they do so in general terms, with little active challenge to such practices at local level.  When a headteacher of an outstanding school in London instructed staff to engage in malpractice, she was reported to the relevant exam boards. Their response? Leaflets on correct procedure, sent to the whistle-blowing teachers. Nothing else. If neglect is tantamount to complicity, it’s unsurprising that Mick Waters, a former director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, described the exam system in 2010 as “diseased” and “almost corrupt”.

Enticing the buyer with promises of undemanding syllabi, tip-offs about upcoming exam questions and blind-eye policies towards malpractice are not habits that emerged unbidden. They are direct responses to customer demand; and customer demand has been shaped by a knowing fidelity, in political circles, to league tables and targets. It’s a loyalty that seems to be as tenacious as ever. Even Katherine Birbalsingh, poster girl for Tory education policies (when she remembers to be), characterised targets and tables as obstacles to education in her rapturously-received 2010 conference speech.  Cheating may have been an unintended consequence when league tables were introduced but, two decades on, I doubt we can still be so disingenuous. What are we to make of those who still profess faith in this flawed measure?

Without tables and targets, teachers will kick off their shoes and leave the kids to watch Cbeebies or Celebrity Big Brother until the bell goes. Or so we are led to believe. I entered teaching before the introduction of league tabling, and I didn’t notice staffrooms heaving with lazy curmudgeons, concerned only with bumming fags and knitting elbow patches for each other’s jackets (and, contrary to what some would have you believe, nor was the wallpaper designed by Socialist Worker). I recall being mentored by teachers who made sure I cared that my students were intellectually stretched, that they acquired knowledge, skills, responsible attitudes and – crucially – the ability to think for themselves. Surely the sine qua non of any education system?

So, let’s be wildly fanciful for a moment and imagine a Britain in which there are no education league tables. A robust and supportive inspection system, certainly, but no league tables. How might that look? A richer curriculum? Topics included because they stimulate and challenge? No more “You don’t need to know that, it’s not tested in the exam”? Vocationally-minded students with a choice of proper vocational courses, rather than bowdlerised equivalents? Fewer teachers leaving the profession demoralised, patronised, bored out their skulls (and skills), and half-dead from a seventy-plus-hour working week? It’s a frightening prospect, I know.

League tables serve no student’s best interests. They do, however, serve Whitehall, furnishing it with the figures it needs to dupe us into believing that all is well under the watch of the (insert name) party. They also serve ambitious headteachers, for whom impressive numbers equal fat salaries, more executive power and ministerial gratitude. Our children, in short, have ceased to be people; they’re now simply pound signs and statistics waiting to happen.

“You don’t have to be morally elastic to work here, but it helps.” Has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?