Monthly Archives: September 2012

Outclassing The Opposition

The pleasure I take in watching Outnumbered is not simply the schadenfreude of the childless, sniggering as knackered parents pretend it was always part of The Grand Plan for their offspring to run rings around them. For, as well as being an object of pity/envy for fertile friends, who watch the programme through their fingers, I’m also a teacher. And in Outnumbered’s depiction of my profession, I think we have one of the most trenchant critiques of education policy around.

It all started innocuously enough in the first series, with Pete being forced to apologise (sorry, pen a “statement of regret”) for observing that a fat pupil was fat. A subplot that involves treading on linguistic eggsshells could be set in any number of professional environments. The asymmetry of power between young and less-young, however, is specific to schools, evoking a ‘safeguarding’ contract I and my colleagues were invited to sign, pledging to never, ever, use sarcasm – dark or otherwise – in the classroom. Unwilling to relinquish the key weapon in my disciplinary arsenal, I, for one, did not put my thumbprint on the dotted line.

The suspicion that Outnumbered’s writers were receiving secret dispatches from the interactive whiteboard was properly aroused by the next series, in which the headteacher (apologies again –“Senior Education Provider”) became an on-screen character, advocating “syllabus synchronicity” and “360 degree education”. Taking shots at the slavish mimicry of jargon is easy (mea culpa). It’s the programme’s willingness to poke its nose, while others pretend they can’t smell a thing, that has me snorting into the sofa cushions – at the school’s suggestion that young Ben take the day off school when the Ofsted inspectors were coming, for instance.

Cast your minds back to Pete’s interview for the Head of History post, at the end of which the Senior Education Provider invited him to demonstrate his commitment to the school, by removing “anomalous” (i.e. crap) Year 9 results from its prospectus. To the uninitiated viewer, this may have seemed like dramatic licence. But I can’t have been the only teacher to have seen in this a frighteningly accurate rendition of the smoke-and-mirrors tactics now practiced by schools cowering under relentless targets and league tabling. Not to mention headteacherly ambition. With courses available on (I quote) ‘Managing the Public Perception of Your School’, life is imitated by sit-com – not only its depiction of education’s creative accounting, but also the dark art of spin that has become an integral feature of school leadership.

Which brings me to the latest series’ revelations from the staffroom. We now find Pete sans travail, having: a) reported a junior colleague’s unprofessional conduct; b) issued the principal with a choice between  Pete-brand integrity and the colleague’s lack thereof; and c) found that the colleague’s lack thereof was vastly preferable. And so, Pete’s resignation is requested and accepted with almost unseemly haste. Here the writers have hit a particularly rich seam – one potentially replete with nuggets of which most non-teachers are unaware, and with which politicians have been oddly reluctant to engage.

As Pete has found to his cost, teachers are ill-advised to take on less-experienced colleagues these days. Not because the latter occupy higher ground, morally or intellectually; nor because it would be a shame to blight their nascent careers. The crucial point is that, by dint of having less experience, recently-qualified staff  are at lower points on the salary scale and, on the whole, more manipulable. Cheap and malleable is a devastatingly attractive combination to dangle before penny-wise-pound-foolish heads, under pressure to somehow produce continuous improvements in results, within increasingly limited budgets.. Hence the barely-reported phenomenon of teachers who are highly-qualified, highly experienced, highly professional… and virtually unemployable for the above reasons.

Take the case of Feroze, who used to head the Art department at a south London school. With an excellent track record, she was surprised to find that reporting a junior colleague, for passing off his own work as that of his students, resulted in her being placed on capability procedures by a senior education provider who was intensely relaxed with cheating his school to the top of the local league table. Promoting staff whose long, dark nights of the soul were similarly comparable to those in an Arctic summer was clearly the way to go. One cycle of capability procedures can be nerve-shredding; Feroze was subjected to four in succession. Broken by the experience, she resigned and was promptly replaced as departmental head by the junior colleague who thought ‘teach’ was an anagram. The kids get the grades, the school is praised and the head comes to the notice of whoever for presiding over its apparent transformation – and all at a rock-bottom price. What’s not to like?

The teachers needed to guide the recently-qualified, and be the steady hands steering the new breed of teaching schools Michael Gove favours, are precisely the experienced ones who have been left scrabbling around for morsels of supply work by such unscrupulous heads: teachers like Feroze and her sit-com counterpart, Pete Brockman. Meanwhile, the very green and noisily ambitious sail relatively untouched through the storms, rightly confident that they’ll be appointed to responsibility posts – including those requiring “substantial experience” – over their costlier competitors. If they graduate from the educational Sandhurst that is Teach First, they can expect to be fast-tracked to headship with minimal time having been spent at the front.

Forget Waterloo Road, which is about as penetrating of education policy as a sponge needle. Look instead, perhaps, to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which J.K. Rowling lampoons New Labour’s obsession with centralised diktat through the odious Dolores Umbridge. But, most of all, look to Outnumbered which has, arguably, provided us with the opposition that The Opposition fails to provide.

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It’s All Academic

The main political parties agree: academies and free schools represent the future of education. So it’s particularly welcome, amid this cockle-warming unanimity, to hear a voice daring to suggest that it ain’t necessarily so. Melissa Benn’s School Wars:The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso, 2011) is a timely intervention into an extraordinarily dissentless debate, and a much-needed reminder that the expansion of the academy programme may create as many problems as its advocates claim it will solve.

It needs to be said that Benn does not approach her subject from an unbiased position. As a leading member of the Local Schools Network, she has already nailed her colours firmly to the anti-academies mast. Nor, perhaps, do her views stray far from the path expected of such recognisable political provenance (her parents are Tony Benn and the late Caroline De Camp – the latter, especially, an ardent champion of comprehensive education). However, objectivity is hardly a defining feature of the offerings from the pro-academies contingent. Take, for example, ‘Academies and the Future of State Education’ (Astle and Ryan, 2008) from Centre Forum, the think tank that directs much Lib-Dem policy and has been spoken of warmly by Michael Gove. Contributors include Andrew Adonis (architect of New Labour’s academy programme), Dan Moynihan (Executive Director of the Harris Academies Federation)  and Sir Michael Wilshaw (recently-appointed Ofsted head, whose previous positions included Principal of  Mossbourne Academy and Director of Education for the Ark Academies federation). Care for a vested interest, anyone?

What marks out Benn’s tome is the breadth of its research. Nick Clegg’s damascene conversion to the academies cause appears to be the result of a wet afternoon spent perusing a flagship school’s edited highlights, and an expertly-administered Chinese burn from Tory High Command. Benn, however, bolsters her case with evidence gleaned from a range of sources, including schools that are applying for, or have converted to, academy status, and a number in Sweden (from whose model Gove claims to derive much inspiration for his expansion of free schools). School Wars traces the evolution of comprehensive education in Britain and its systematic denigration. It also presents the likely consequences of the ConDems’ fervent pursuit of policies driven less by pragmatism than ideology (despite the alacrity with which Michael Gove labels opponents of academies “ideologues”): a competitive ethos that will entrench, rather than relieve, the unenviable status of sink schools, and the reductive application of the profit motive through the intervention of private stakeholders.

The government claims that its education policies are driven by a commitment to closing the achievement gap between the most and least advantaged. This, apparently, justifies the combination of tooth-rotting lollies and thumps behind the bikesheds employed to effectively force schools down the route to academy conversion. When the argument is entangled with populist button-pushers such as discipline, results and parent power, it is, it has to be said, one that finds a sympathetic ear in large sections of an electorate that is being encouraged to see academies and free schools as the only possible breeding grounds for educational success.

However, as Benn points out, the schools inspectorate in Sweden has found that social segregation is more marked in areas in which free schools dominate. Furthermore, the principal beneficiaries of these quasi-private institutions are the children of the educated middle classes – not the socially disadvantaged youngsters that two successive governments have now cited as the raisons d’etre for their policies. Aye, there’s the rub. Tellingly, a 2011 survey of civil servants in the Department of Education elicited palpable and growing unease that current government policy has little evidence to justify its implementation.

With over half of the country’s secondary schools now academies, and primary schools starting to be identified as ripe for conversion,  there is scant let-up in the momentum with which the Department of Education is encouraging and approving plans for the establishment of free schools. Careful manipulation of, for example, published data (academies, until recently, did not have to reveal whether pupils take the ‘equivalent’ qualifications that an outraged Gove claims LEA schools use to bolster their GCSE headline figures) ensures the self-fulfilling nature of government prophecy. As does the requirement that any newly-created schools must conform to the academy model.

Benn is, perhaps, too apt to cite uncritically the statistics with which New Labour argued the success of its education policies; one is reminded at such points that, impassioned as she is, she writes as one who does not know the system from the inside, and the manipulation to which it has been exposed. Still, it is vital in the interests of thorough, critical debate that we heed her plea to not go gently into what we are told is a good night from which there need be no return.