Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Profit Of Doom

I used to think the pentagram was the sign of the devil, but I’m prepared to consider the merits of the triangle – probably scalene, definitely un-Pythagorean.

The first point of this policy triangle (for it is she, again) is pay reform – the reason why several schools have had their applications to become academies returned, accompanied by letters of the ‘must do better’ variety. Helpfully, said letters have specified how to do better: unclasp the dead hand of existing pay structures that already give headteachers the power to award discretionary extra payments; that contain a performance-related element on the upper pay scale; that enshrine regional variation. In short, that already do what the government claims only their dismantling can achieve. Dammit, they can even buttress divide-and-rule management and the economic Darwinism (on which) it feeds, if required

The monstrous carbuncle on the face of this old friend is the absent concept of the pay cut, and only the zit cream of reform can smooth the bump – principally, by ‘freeing’ headteachers to pay employees significantly less than before, even if they perform well and take on extra responsibilities. This is, undoubtedly, the most telling innovation in a policy that has little to do with promoting educational standards and school autonomy, and a great deal more to do with the decimation of spending on public services. Gove-endorsed academy chains may appear to pay their staff a smidge above the national scales; but the increase in their directed time is such that, hour for hour, their salaries actually drop. And some of the areas for which extra incentive payments are available are best not looked at through anything other than a Vaseline-smeared lens.

While we’re about it, let’s not forget the vexatious topic of scale-point portability, which guarantees teachers parity of payment when moving between similar jobs. Typically, the perception of the issue is being shaped by erroneous contrasts with the private sector, which is presented as a realm in which employees habitually experience – and happily accept – salary levels that undulate like a paper boat on a turbulent sea. Is it really the case that, when switching between posts with the same weight of responsibility, private employees don’t seek comparable, if not better, pay? What about the possibility of schools operating like local salary-fixing cartels, thereby effectively forcing teachers seeking new jobs to shoulder a pay cut? But, just when it seems all doom and gloom, let’s at least remember that those currently not shortlisted for jobs, by dint of being on the upper pay scale, may suddenly become employable again, as their successful threshold applications count for squat. Provided they’re prepared to put in the same, or more, hours (i.e. very, very many) for significantly less, the world is their oyster. Or the oyster is their world: they might be eaten alive.

Michael Gove has stated, on the record, that he is happy to meet with the unions regarding concerns over pay and pension reform, but the “direction of travel”, he warns, will remain unaltered. A handy analogy, as the Education Secretary’s compass tends to point to the second point on the triangle: academisation – if necessary, by force. With DfE brokers now scouring the land like witchfinders, seeking out warty primary schools to toss into the Harris maw, increasing numbers of institutions are finding themselves poised for removal from local authority control. In its place, they are to be frog-marched into a meaningful relationship with the Education Secretary, with no chaperone or anything to check that all are behaving within the limits of decency. Schools that refuse to do as they are bid face a sharpened axe and a chopping block. By such means shall the taxpayer, that hapless object of perpetual teacherly hostility, be spared the burden of an education budget, and cataracts of wealth shall gush down upon him. But soft, what light through yonder brain cell breaks? ‘Tis the fact that every teacher IS a taxpayer.

Which blinding revelation brings us screeching to a halt at the third point of the triangle: the economical truths of the Education Secretary’s relationship to News Corp. The first-draft hagiography that Gove offered as evidence to the Leveson Enquiry, was a robust reminder to anyone who had forgotten that the Education Secretary was – and his wife still is – an employee of Rupert Murdoch. The bit that fell carelessly into the shredder was the proprietor’s interest in Wireless Generation, a News Corps acquisition that will allow HMS Murdoch, and some who sail in him, access to the profit-generating environment that the classroom must surely become. The company, under the leadership of Joel Klein, has identified billions of dollars-worth of potential business in American schools through selling digitised curricula (history via the medium of Fox News, anyone?), and is uberkeen to be involved in establishing charter schools there and academies here. A beast with two backs, indeed.

Of course, as Klein and co. have reminded those present at their sleepovers, computer-based lessons and resources mean that we have less need of flesh-and-blood teachers. Lest the Opposition gets too complacent at this point, please recall that something similar was championed by a New Labour Education Minister. Jim Knight nursed a day-glo vision of seventy children in a single class, tapping away at their individual keyboards and following their personalised curricula under the benign gaze of a remote teacher beaming out to thousands. The only other adults needed would be a couple of teaching assistants, who’d patrol the classroom and provide inspirational bon mots such as “You have switched it on, haven’t you?”.

Computers don’t need to be paid, don’t get pregnant and don’t go on strike. Even better, they can’t come up with vivid, alternative explanations to help the student who doesn’t get it the first time round. They can’t follow the interesting tangent raised by a really clever question, and take the class on a journey that, ultimately, delivers them to their destination so much the richer. Because that is just irrelevant frippery. Best of all, as they don’t have opinions other than the ones you give them, they can’t contradict what you have decided will be the prevailing ideology.

A triangle, like I said. And not a right angle in sight.


Heed Your Morale Compass

Politicians live in a world apart from the rest of us, don’t they? They urge pay restraint for everyone else, while proposing salary hikes for themselves. Probity and social responsibility are supposed to govern our actions; yet, there they are, renting out duck houses to mallards at extortionate rates. It’s a whole other universe, I swear. There is, however, one government department whose culture seems remarkably resonant with that in the institutions it oversees. One in which the pace never lets up, where striving for greatness is a 27-hour-a day occupation, and where time and tide wait for no duck in the relentless bid to turn every bus shelter and manhole cover into an academy. Yes, it’s the DfE.

Over the last fortnight, it’s not only been revealed that a senior civil servant in the same department has been awarded £25,000, following claims of bullying by two of Michael Gove’s special advisers. The low morale uncovered by a recent survey of departmental staff has also been described as “a disaster situation” by a cross-party select committee:

“With four in five staff believing change to be managed poorly, and only half believing the department to be well run, this looks complacent…we recommend the department adopt a little more urgency in dealing with staff morale.”

Welcome to my world and, quite possibly, yours, given how applicable these words are to schools.

Morale’s a scarcity in education these days but, as our Chief Inspector has reminded us, its absence need not worry school leaders unduly: it’s a sign, apparently, that they’re doing their jobs well. How warming, then, to hear that the Education Secretary has taken these words to heart and based his managerial ethos on them. I hope it’s not spoiling the party to suggest that, however shiny it looks at the moment, viewed through those special shiny glasses, it’s a strategy with the potential to backfire rather spectacularly (pun entirely intended).

I can’t say that morale has never been lower in teaching because although I look antediluvian, I’ve only been alive for a few decades. I can, however, state with little fear of contradiction that morale is at its worst in the profession since I started teaching in the early nineties. The reasons are many and varied, although the general dynamic is, to my mind, summarised pretty accurately by the select committee’s words: poor change management, and a head-in-the-sand policy of denial that anything’s wrong.

Its virtually impossible to avoid piling some blame on the DfE’s doorstep, given the amount of change-management generated by its policies. However, the ham-fisted manner in which relentless change is implemented in schools goes a long way towards explaining the malaise that’s such a huge blight on the quality of education they can provide. And yet, and yet. One headteacher I worked for would bang his fist on the table and yell that morale had never been higher. The staff corps, meanwhile, looked like it had booked an all-inclusive break at Dignitas.

The last two schools in which I’ve worked have been beset by plummeting morale, brought about by the desire of their headteachers for personal glory and untold riches. Their quests have involved implementing every ill-conceived government policy to the nth degree, regardless of its – usually negative – impact on teachers’ ability to, um, plan lessons and teach them. Much of this was enabled by reducing the consultation process to one in which only senior managers had a say. Particularly the really quiet ones.

The inevitable upshot of all this is a high turnover of staff, many of whom leave trailing the whiff of disaffection behind them. When I say ‘high turnover’, I’m talking about a third to a half of staff leaving each year, for several years in succession. Governing bodies, fed endless stories about shorter journeys to new schools or promotional opportunities, do not always think to ask why teachers are leaving like hankies pulled from a magician’s sleeve. For, as most in the know know, the narratives spun around staff departures rarely, if ever, touch upon the place being left behind.

I’ve been part of such an exodus. With my unerring nose for a jolly jape, I handed in a resignation letter, in which I wished the head all the best and hoped the school would recover from “the crisis of morale that has beset it in recent years”. My attempt at a wake-up call was met with the kind of snarling beloved of uncastrated cats playing ‘I’ll name that tune after I’ve pissed on three doorsteps’. The caretaker, meanwhile, was surreptitiously trying to calculate whether the dinky foyer could accommodate a revolving door. He’s no longer there either.

Of course students, being more resilient than we often choose to imagine, can handle changes in school personnel. This does not, however, mean that schools should presume the inevitability or desirability of every departure, nor that continuity should be pathologised or dressed down as an indicator of atrophy. If Michael Gove is ignoring the question of morale in his department, he does so at his peril, as do headteachers everywhere. Because unhappy staff will move and, once out of earshot, may make a loud noise about why they did so. And if you have no staff willing to invest of themselves, you have no school or government department – the instrument with which you might get to tattoo your name onto the arse of history.

Pens really could prove mightier than swords.