Monthly Archives: May 2014

Blurred Lines

Many of my previous posts have detailed, in one way or another, conflicts of interest – most often, those between doing what is right for students and what is advantageous for schools. The outsider’s assumption that the two are synonymous should have been challenged, if not dispelled, by this insider’s revelations. Indeed, you will, quite possibly, have been bored beyond belief by my incessant moaning on this topic – the conversational equivalent of riding the Circle Line for a day, watching the same grotty stations slide past the windows again and again. Apologies for that. I‘ll stop it. Soon.

The recent case of Jo Shuter, former head teacher at Quintin Kynaston School and now barred from teaching, demonstrated how a lack of financial oversight in academies can allow conflicts of interest to proliferate like fungi. Private taxi rides, furniture purchases, birthday parties and jollies for the senior team were all funded by public money – misuses that Shuter has finally admitted. However, her demise was effected not only by greed, but also by nepotism: Shuter’s children were beneficiaries of their mother’s largesse with the public purse, as their mobile phone contracts were charged to the school; and Debbie Shuter’s documentary about her sister’s headship of Quintin Kynaston remains unbroadcast by the BBC, due to concerns about potential bias.

Still, the Venn-like overlap between public duty and private gain is hardly confined to this high-profile case. I certainly know of several instances in which costly acquisitions have appeared oh-so-suddenly in senior staff members’ homes, or large amounts of money have been transferred from school funds to private coffers. Take, for instance, a London school where the head employed a member of his immediate family as a temporary gardener. Four thousand pounds a week isn’t too bad a rate. Especially in a school without a garden. The amount, paid partly in ready cash from the safe and partly in sums small enough to not warrant governors’ approval, passed below the accountability radar. If only the head teacher had employed himself in this capacity, I could have referred to him as ‘Capability Procedures Brown’.

The most disturbing conflicts of interest, however, do not always involve money. Some revolve around other kinds of behavioural licence that border on – and, sometimes, become – serious causes for personal concern. I have worked in three schools attended by colleagues’ children, some of whom were taught by their parents. Only in one have I found myself under fleeting pressure to apply different rules to a child whose mother was a fellow teacher. The overwhelming majority of colleagues employed in their children’s schools have conducted themselves with commendable probity, in part because they’ve known that failing to exercise impartiality would get them into trouble with someone higher up the ladder.

But what happens when the staff member concerned isn’t accountable in quite the same way? What if s/he is the head teacher in a school whose board of governors is so gullible that its oversight of the principal’s activities exists in name only? The result, in one school, was the jeopardizing of other children’s personal safety, as well as their learning, in order to indulge, exonerate or cover up the activities of one pupil with an exceptionally influential parent. As this sorry case threatens to demonstrate, the pursuit of short-term benefits can often beget long-term disasters for all concerned. Not least, the apparently untouchable child.

Like many institutions, schools profess adherence to a strict code of conduct. Indeed, the capacity to be ethically self-regulating is one of the hallmarks of a profession, and a pillar of the trust invested in it by the public. A number, however, are governed by unwritten constitutions: practices that may not accord with the spirit or letter of the stated ethos but, nonetheless, become entrenched through fearful compliance and repetition. In one school, such circumstances have allowed Raven to develop patterns of behaviour that, in a couple of years, will be considered criminal. On the quiet, many of the staff believe that it’s only a matter of time before they see his face looking back at them from a newspaper for all the wrong reasons. Raven is the head teacher’s son.

His aberrant behaviour was first noted at the age of four, when an educational psychologist, brought in to observe another child, identified him as a timebomb. Her warnings were brushed aside and the majority of school staff maintained a judicious silence, having learned that the cost of doing otherwise would be relentless bullying by someone with the power to make life very difficult. Most knew that they were colluding in a distasteful situation, although a few managed to convince themselves that their complicity was a matter of free choice and/or pastoral realpolitik. For a chosen few, the connivance was made ‘worth their while’.

Four years on, Raven is habitually aggressive towards his peers, intimidating them by mental and physical – including sexual – means. If other children’s heads are hit by the weapons Raven brandishes with impunity, then that’s their fault for standing in his path. Or so the staff are told. The modus operandi of collusion has also developed: incidents are ignored or justified, or victims are told that they are holding the wrong end of the stick. A couple have questioned their sanity, as adult after adult insists that their experience is not of bullying – even if it looks, sounds and smells remarkably like it. A few have been removed from the school by parents who suspect that nothing will be done to curb Raven’s activities as long as his parent remains in charge.

Small children, as we know, find bodies fascinating and amusing in a wee-poo-bum sort of way. However, Raven’s knowledge extends far beyond mere anatomical curiosity, having long been characterised by a precision and breadth of sexual awareness unbecoming his age. It was, therefore, no surprise that Bella, a teacher new to the school, was taken aback when, on being assigned to his class, she witnessed Raven’s behaviour: his repertoire then included instructing classmates in the adoption of outré sexual positions, and forcibly exploring girls’ bodies. Bella’s relative unfamiliarity with The Way Things Are Done Here led her to formally document her concerns and pass them on to the head teacher who is responsible for overseeing child protection issues. She took it for granted that the ensuing silence meant due process was being followed out of sight and earshot, with the requisite impartiality such situations demand.

Then came the biggie, when Raven was seen shoving his hands between the legs of a girl in his class, who had tried to repel him and was visibly distressed by his actions. Bella immediately invoked the school’s behaviour policy, reporting Raven’s actions through the assigned channels. She heard nothing more on the matter until the girl’s parents appeared in her classroom a couple of days later, demanding to know what was being done about the apparent assault on their daughter as their complaints to senior staff had, so far, been met with silence. When the head teacher told them that their child had confessed to lying about the incident, suspicions intensified: previous incidents, involving other children, had also been dismissed in the light of  similar confessions, all elicited under the head’s intent gaze.

Very soon, Bella began to hear whispers about her performance on a grapevine with roots in the head teacher’s office. Fearing that her professional prospects would be harmed by allegations of incompetence, she contacted her union. Apart from asking that it be recorded, she pursued the matter no further, having understood that silence would be the safest response – in the short term, at least. Within months, Bella was made deputy head and has not produced a single record of concern at Raven’s behaviour since. She does, however, regularly assure the other children that they have misinterpreted his benign intentions: the slaps, swearing and gropes really aren’t any of the above. Thus, within the space of a year, someone who could have been part of a solution has assimilated the preferability of being part of the problem.

The school in which these events have taken place has suffered manifold consequences, besides those documented above. Its behaviour policy has been ‘tweaked’ endlessly, to ensure that Raven’s conduct cannot be classified as sanctionable – which may be why his current favourite pastimes include mimicking cunnilingus and buggery, and trying to remove girls’ clothing without their consent. With the same degree of latitude extended to all pupils, the school is now one in which behaviour problems are spiralling, punishments are scant and staff are faced with a number of children who believe that they are immune from any form of prosecution. The education of Raven’s classmates has suffered due to his continued disruptiveness, and his teachers can expect scant support from senior leaders, when confronted with the consequences of such a regime.

Apart from changing the names of participants, all the details above are true, making this one of the most disturbing and distasteful posts I’ve written. I would apologise for its inclusion were it not the case that, in the meantime, head teachers remain the recipients of increasing powers from the Department of Education. Until their exercise is subjected to consistent scrutiny, some will continue running schools as personal fiefdoms, leaving avoidable casualties in their wakes and pressing others to hide the bodies.


Freakonomics

My friend’s father used to work as a chartered accountant – the antithesis, I thought, of being a teacher, with all of its vocational baggage. Counting beans is not, after all, the stuff of which callings are made. There were other stark differences, evident on the walls in his house, albeit not so much in the quality of the artwork; more in the absence of Pollock-style spatterings, created as the occupant exploded from stress. To widen the gap a little further, my friend’s dad earned a very comfortable salary, and was able to stuff enough financial mattresses to cushion the blow of retirement. Counterparts in education often fall hard; ye can spot them by their bruises.

And he must have been blaahdy bored, diligently counting legumes day after day after day, n’est-ce pas? No variety; no human folly; no…Well, no. Do remember that it was an accountancy firm that colluded with those dastardly Enron execs, enabling them to benefit from the company’s demise while the little people were shafted. And Arthur Andersen, as it was called back then, has hardly been alone in offering its hand in marriages of convenience with dubious partners. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems that I too have worked for an accountancy firm, despite never having been an accountant.

The big guns of the accountancy world have long been major recruiters of graduates, mopping up green talent on the ‘milk round’ each year. The TDA and assorted in-school training schemes are now fixtures on the same circuit, using much the same language (brisk, business-like, bristling with numbers) and imagery (suits, inspirational PowerPoint presentations, hand-gestures from the TV correspondents’ manual of superfluous non-verbal signs). And in both fields, one soon discovers that a talent for cooking the books is prized, even if the outcomes are a little hard to swallow.

Enron execs wanted to convince (aspiring) shareholders that the company’s stock was good and its finances buoyant. In common with other dodgy dossiers, Arthur Andersen ‘sexed up’ the company’s accounts, reporting healthy profits year-on-year when, in truth, things were nosediving. Any documents with the potential to deflate this inflated vision were shredded with alacrity. Not dissimilarly, governments have sought to convince the electorate that all is well in education – or, at least, a lot better – by reporting escalating pass rates, reductions in exclusions and improved attendance figures. The role of the accounting firms is taken by schools, churning out reams of spreadsheets that chart apparent progress.

When my friend’s accountant dad took a principled stance with one company – refusing to fudge figures and, thereby, pull the wool over small shareholders’ eyes – his days were numbered. When Natasha did the same over her students’ progress reports, a similar fate befell her. Her class’ previous teacher had dealt with the requirement that students make two sub-levels of progress in the same way as his predecessors: by ensuring that the paperwork – data sheets, reports – said they had. So it must have been true. Natasha pointed out that the students’ abilities did not match their marks. Their work had been assessed too generously, leaving her to teach them skills it was claimed they already possessed.

Though unsuccessful in their attempts to convince her of the error of her judgements, senior managers still tried to persuade Natasha to sustain the narrative of steady progress. She, however, felt strongly that the best interests of all concerned lay in more honest reporting of the children’s achievements – even though it was a course she knew could upset some parents and result in her having to deflect bucketfuls of flak on someone else’s behalf. The management team realised how much of a wrongun it had on its hands, and set about reminding Natasha of her dispensability. She resigned just over a term later, teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Laurie, meanwhile, was relieved to move from a school riddled with behaviour problems to one that had been presented with an award for reducing its exclusion rate. Encouragingly, he was greeted on his first day with the words, “So, you fell for all the propaganda too?” A more direct inkling that something was amiss occurred when he witnessed behaviour pretty much anyone would recognise as sanction-worthy going unpunished. Repeatedly. A child firing a BB gun on school premises suffered no punitive consequences as “It wasn’t a rifle”.

Emphasising what hadn’t taken place seemed to be the modus operandi of choice, when explaining away the absence of any kind of sanction – including, obviously, exclusion. When two Year 10 students threatened him outside school with a thorough stabbing, Laurie knew that nothing would be done; after all, they hadn’t got around to delivering any blows yet. The school had not improved its students’ behaviour to achieve its award; it had, simply, stopped excluding them for acts that previously would have merited such a response. Ministerial back-slaps were the reward for comely figures and an underlying policy of negligence.

As this demonstrates, statistics – such as those documenting attendance – are an integral part of the jigsaw that proves the in/competence of a given government. The proposed hike in the school-leaving age to eighteen is, obviously, not a ploy to reduce the documented number of NEETs; it’s simply a wise extension of care, to prevent the untold damage that ensues when students are absent from classes. Many schools impose fines on families whose children miss school, as a way of encouraging attendance. Or, perhaps, deterring absence. Not quite the same thing, thinks I.

Clearly, habitual absences indulged on a whim will disrupt most students’ education, especially in subjects that are cumulative in nature. However, at points in the year when schools have begun winding down in anticipation of the holidays, one has to wonder about the nature and extent of the damage suffered by missing a couple of days at the end of term to take advantage of cheap flights bound for interesting – possibly educational – destinations. Not participating in the pre-vacation festival of food additives, or the ceremonial cutting of the birthday tray-bake is hardly conducive to benefits-reliance and extensive therapy in one’s adult years.

Attendance figures only record the presence of bodies in classrooms. In many – hopefully, most – cases, the pupils will be there through choice: because they are stimulated and energised by the learning opportunities at their disposal, by the brilliance of their teachers and by the different kinds of social interaction made possible in a safe environment. And because their families recognise how vital attendance is to their children’s all-round development – including, but not confined to, the ability to bag ‘a good job’ somewhere down the line.

However, the motivations for attending remain handily unarticulated in official records. The lay reader is left to assume that the statistics reflect a high level of engagement on the part of the students, brought about by high levels of provision within the schools. They do not record the numbers of fines issued, the badgering phone calls that tutors are forced to make when a pupil is genuinely ill or, even, bereaved. Or the dire warnings about how the children will suffer irreversibly if they drop half a percentage point below the school’s attendance target. And they certainly don’t record the fact that these figures make up a significant part of someone’s – headteacher’s/local authority’s/politician’s – performance management review.

The Enron scandal eventually led to the corporation’s bankruptcy, while Arthur Andersen, one of the five largest partnerships of its kind in the world, was effectively dissolved for its complicity in the biggest auditing scam in American history. Mendacious financial reporting enabled the corporation to hide the true nature of its failed projects, albeit not indefinitely. Unlike Enron’s shareholders, the electorate cannot file a forty-billion-dollar lawsuit against those who led it up a creek and then half-inched the paddles. It can, however, take a more critical attitude towards the platitudinous figures that politicians brandish, like quantitative shields against qualitative interrogation. It could even place its crosses elsewhere on the ballot paper.

My friend’s dad would respect that.


Just Enough For The City

Once were schools with reputations so parlous, they made national headlines. Some were intent on reviving the ancient sports of tossing the chalk/desk/teacher out of the window. Others were the sorts of places locals would pass at speed, bags and briefcases clutched a little closer. And then there were catchment areas in which GPs regularly issued scan referrals, lest a patient’s internal organs had been pick-pocketed during a moment of distraction near the school gates.

Once the stuff of undercover-documentary dreams, a number of these schools have managed to reverse their fortunes – some so comprehensively that they are now the institutions of choice for those whose parents would rather have lived in discarded crisp packets, than send their offspring there. One infamously riotous establishment is now a national beacon of behaviour management, and rightly so: unambiguous boundaries; systems of rewards and sanctions; and, crucially, their swift and consistent application. Nothing revolutionary here, but teeming kite-marks fly from its turrets.

In common with other schools of its ilk, this one is located in an inner-city area and serves a relatively deprived local population. For their ability to support their intake through behavioural challenges, I have no qualms about recommending several of these places. So too for their dedication to picking up those who have fallen behind, and helping them to make up some of the lost ground. In fact, my only real reservation is that phrases like ‘inner-city kids’, often bandied around schools with benign intentions, sometimes translate into a paucity of expectation.

About two years ago, an ex-colleague applied for a job at an institution that had remade itself impressively, its head extracting it from its own arson attack. She’d already visited the school, observed lessons and helped Year 9 students to engage with some literary techniques to a depth not addressed in their lessons. Lightbulbs were illuminated over young heads and the students she’d worked with were genuinely grateful. On the night before the interview, Emily was sent details of the lesson she was to deliver: an introduction to a new author for a Year 8 class. A Powerpoint display was obligatory, and technicians would be on hand to help with any other techno whizz-bangery she’d like to use.

Emily didn’t get the job, and is the first to admit the correctness of that decision. By mid-morning on interview day, she believed strongly that another candidate, already filling a very similar post in her current workplace, was the best fit for both the position and the school. Despite her earlier visit, Emily’s visceral sense, that the place was not for her, grew throughout the day. Regardless, she found herself in the last two, cacking herself at the prospect of being offered the job and envying the candidates who had already been sent home. She sucked in her cheeks and tried not to look relieved when told that she’d been unsuccessful.

The main bar to her employment (or the one that could be admitted) was the lesson Emily delivered which, she was regretfully informed, had been “somewhat challenging”. No shit, Sherlock: that does tend to happen when teaching something unfamiliar. Or worth knowing. I’d looked at her lesson plan and resources before the interview: fifty minutes on inference, starting with visual texts, progressing to a grippingly elliptical opening chapter and finishing with the production of a piece of writing. The students gave her a round of applause at the end of her lesson. If they’d found it challenging, it hadn’t, apparently, been off-puttingly so – not least because of her careful monitoring and prompt intervention. The coda to the lesson feedback was that “These are inner-city kids”, with no further elaboration of the statement’s significance.

Syntax is important here: there are young people who live in inner-city areas; and there are inner-city children, spoken of as if who they are is determined by the place from which they come. I’d like to dismiss Emily’s experience as a one-off. Direct experience, including the euphemisms of colleagues and line-managers, tells me I can’t: “We don’t mention ___ – this is an urban school…”; ” We don’t teach ____ – these kids are from a council estate…”; “ We don’t think it’s appropriate, given our catchment area…”. Little wonder, then, that Jack, a fiercely bright young man, also had one of the most astonishingly high truancy rates I’ve ever encountered. I shan’t deny that a couple of issues at home had an impact on his absences. But not one of those was alleviated or addressed by boring an intelligent student out of his wits at school.

Jack’s situation is, perhaps, a predictable consequence of well-meaning but misguided assumptions about home cultures. In our desire to evince our understanding of their circumstances, we sometimes run the risk of impeding our students’ life chances in the fullest sense of that phrase. When allied with the hoop-jumping and hurdle-clearing that now shape almost everything about contemporary schools, the outcomes may be statistically desirable but epistemologically toxic. Removing students from courses they find interesting, that may be relevant to their career aspirations, and forcing them to spend extra time on core subjects in which they are already achieving well, is more about number-crunching than it is about their best interests. ‘Value added’ achieved by removing value, if you will.

The school where Emily was interviewed only allowed top-set students to take GCSE English Literature. It did, however, foster a culture of reading among all students, with staff-nominated texts ranging from War Horse to the backs of the crisp packets that local grandparents once inhabited. Lest the challenge send the students down the path known to Spinal Tap’s drummers, it was deemed safest to stick with what you knew they knew. In an act of genuine grace, Emily was told that she’d be welcome, if she wanted to, to spend some time in the school, observing its workings.

So that she could learn more about inner-city kids.