Monthly Archives: September 2014

The One Where Joey Goes A Bit Off-Message…

…but only a bit because, as many of my previous posts show, I’m happy to sing in tune with the majority most of the time: academies – worrying; bullying headteachers – boo; me – crap. I have no qualms, however, about striking bum notes or warbling a lonely and discordant descant when the topic demands it. So, let us move our chairs into a circle and adopt confessional tones. [Clears throat] My name is Joe. I am a pseudonymic conduit for otherwise-hidden events, and my confession is that… I’m sorry [begins to chew at knuckles – own, because the alternative is just weird]…it’s that, I think subject knowledge and qualifications really matter. There. Said it. May I exhale now?

I began teaching when the plague was rife, Eric Idle was a binman and, despite being a newly-qualified teacher, I did not have to start my working life on the bottom rung of the salary ladder. Because that’s how it was in the early Middle Ages: academic achievement – class of degree, postgraduate study – determined one’s position on the pay scale, and did so mandatorily. As I’d graduated with a first, at a time when the percentage doing so was still in single figures, my starting salary had to be at point 2 or above. By the time I’d been awarded my PhD, the link between academic achievement and pay had become discretionary and, to the horror of the professor who’d supervised my research, I received not a pfenning more than anyone else for my extra subject knowledge.

As soon as rewards become discretionary – and I’m almost certain that PRP will demonstrate this – they begin to take their dying breaths. (Or you do. If offered a hasty leg-up to the next scale point, cut to the chase by ramming a spout into your neck and draining the blood into a jug from which the school’s ubermenschen can sip daintily.) The reason for doing away with obligatory points for qualifications was, of course, governmental parsimony. Of course, it was dressed up to look like pedagogic sense. And, of course, person after person – teacher after teacher (we’re obedient like that) – has repeated this version to the point that it’s broken away from its moorings and become a free-floating cliche on the duckpond of the profession. As I have been told innumerable times, possession of a first-class degree does not guarantee that an individual can teach. Absolutely. Just as possession of a third-class degree is no guarantee of teaching ability. That point doesn’t seem to be made with anywhere near the frequency its counterpart enjoys.

So, where do we stand on the question of qualifications, riven as it is with internal contradictions? Do they matter or not? I assume that they do because a lot of people in teaching get extremely vexed about practices like employing unqualified staff and using classroom assistants as class teachers. Quite right too. In fact, one of the largest teaching unions is so opposed to the deployment of support staff in teaching roles, it refuses to allow them to join the ranks of its members. Qualified Teacher Status is regarded by most as a professional pre-requisite – one over which it’s worth striking, even if it sets its bar nowhere near high enough. So far, so clear: Qualifications Are Good.

Which brings us to the next point: does the level at which one passes a qualification matter? Well, according to every school, pulling every trick it can think of to elevate its students’ grades, it most certainly does. Fail to reach the levels specified in its floor targets, and one can kiss the world and its duck’s ass goodbye. Expect to be uneducable, and then unemployable. And don’t say you weren’t warned that you’d end up unlovable if you achieved anything less than a ____ [insert government-decreed mark]. So, let me repeat for clarification: The Levels Of One’s Qualifications Matter.

Unless you’re a teacher. Apparently.

We all know that international league tables can send politicos into foamy-mouthed pronouncements about trouncing the yellow peril (or, at least, that’s the subtext). However, many teachers point to the Nordic nations’ PISA rankings for proof that the absence of a punitive inspection regime, league tables and an ingrained societal disregard for teachers can work educational wonders. It’s also the case that there are certain countries – often, the ones that feature so frequently among the tables’ high-fliers, they’re accruing air miles – in which only the very best graduates are allowed to become teachers. And, for the record, I am aware of the difference between correlation and causation.

I don’t mind having my qualifications declared so much flim-flam. I note wryly that it’s never happened at the hands of someone comparably qualified, and that it says as much about my interlocutor as it does about me. And I have to quell a guffaw at the fact that my last head teacher, more than anyone else for whom I’ve worked, made a point of denigrating my academic qualifications while falsifying his own upwards on his Linkedin page. His judgement of my performance usually attributed my allegedly “outstanding practice” to the quality of my planning when, as I pointed out, the evidence he cited came as frequently from the unplanned parts of my lessons: the ones in which, spotting the potential in a student’s comment, I changed the course of the lesson while remaining all the while in control of the destination. The ones, in short, that depended on the depth of my subject knowledge and the confidence it bestowed.

Just for fun, go and sit in the classroom of a teacher without the requisite subject knowledge. Marvel at the abundance of factual errors and gasp with delight as s/he doesn’t, say, excavate the subtext of a poem to the depth that widens eyes and illuminates lightbulbs. Students can spot the teachers who really know their stuff and can communicate that fact. It’s evident in the respect they accord them, and the trust with which they will follow their apparently tangential leads, the scent of excitement and a little bit of wee piquing the air. Poor subject knowledge is to intellectual ambition what a bald man is to tonsorial experimentation.

There is no inversely proportional relationship between academic achievement and ability to teach so, please, let’s stop almost-peddling that tired myth. Education is, quite simply, far too important to be left to anyone with less than excellent subject knowledge and top-notch teaching skills, both of which may be evinced by fantastic qualifications.

Last employer – how are you doin’?


Quality Street

Barely a Christmas has gone by, over the last two decades, when a pair of small hands hasn’t presented me with a box of foil-wrapped nuggets. Though usually repelled by the ‘sausage’ principal that decrees every leftover nose and bum be put to use, I am occasionally partial to this confection, which fashions sweepings from the factory floor into something halfway toothsome. Deep inside each cardboard-wafer shell, a lone nut lurks within a mighty dollop of more-ish gloop, like an existentialist in a sea of angst or an assassin in a book depository.

As aspirational marketing strategies go, those could, perhaps, do with a bit of work. Which is why a masterstroke of kitsch advertising has instead insisted, for years, that an item cheap enough to be piled into towers resembling Marge Simpson’s hair is the real, luxurious deal – a vital widget in the diplomatic toolbag of canny ambassadors, no less. Helped along by its golden packaging, the possessors of little hands are among those who have learned to agree – for which I and my dentist are, in different ways, grateful.

And so, a new crop of Future Leaders joins the profession, tipped out of the perspex box in which they were lined up in neat rows and clad in the appropriate garb. No gold lame wrappers, sadly, even though dressing like members of ABC could be justifiable in an educational context. Rather, dark suits to convey gravity of purpose. Like my own dental integrity, the extent to which you may find yourself toothless one day could depend on your consumption of the offerings from the Future Leaders conveyor belt.

I once worked in a school where the deputy head was in his mid-twenties. With the job description having been hastily rewritten to reduce the amount of experience required, we were assured that he was qualified for the post. Still, the damp patches behind his ears were hard to ignore as he clodhopped his way through his professional interactions, littering his wake with the alienated. It takes time, don’t you know, to develop the knack of communicating with all comers while inciting none to assemble a firing squad. I’ve heard of other places in which head teachers have been appointed to their posts before they’ve turned thirty. In some cases, they are still incumbent; in others, it took mere months for the introductory fanfare’s brassy blare to dwindle into a fly’s fart.

I’ve written about ageism in teaching before and yet here I am, guilty of the very same. Or am I? I would prefer to think of my grumps as experience-ism, if they didn’t create such a sibilant mouthful. Like others in my area, I could moan for England about the principal appointed to run a local free school, with barely half a dozen years in the profession under her belt. She was about 40 – not 27, like the unfortunate Anneliese Briggs – and a career-switcher who’d been fast-tracked into senior management after just a year of writing garbled learning objectives on a whiteboard.

These leadership programmes have lots of friends in loud places: ARK, E-Act, that nice Bert Wingnutz from Teach First Then Run Like A Demon’s Exploded Into Your Underpants. In short, the usual suspects, who happily catapult their charges into overseeing the welfare of entire institutions. Don’t get me wrong, here: I’m as partial as the next dolt to hurling myself at a trampoline in search of maximum elevation. I spent a significant portion of my youth (alleged adulthood, too) jumping up and down on parents’ and friends’ mattresses, only halting my quest for aerospatial glory after an incident involving a crack like the dad of all thunderclaps, a broken bedframe and my head jammed inside a pendant lightshade from Peter Jones. If nothing else, I learned that an excessively quick rise can be followed by a comparably swift plummet. And that Heals might be a better option for domestic sundries.

Why this desire, on the part of leadership training programmes, to so reduce the time spent at that most important location – the front line? Is it an attempt to conserve the vigour and zeal with which successful applicants embark on their mission, perhaps? Perhaps, perhaps. Or, maybe, a strategy to hone the skills of creating and implementing overarching policy? Or, possibly, a way of reducing the degree of identification – nay, solidarity – between leaders and the led: so much the easier to make idiotic demands of your staff and your students, while caring not a jot about the lasting consequences. Teaching has never, in my experience, been a non-hierarchical profession. But I don’t recall there being such a marked asymmetry of power within schools. Not in my looong lifetime.

I’ve heard it said that leadership is what one engages in with people; management, with tasks. If that’s true, an awful lot of educational leadership actually amounts to management, as the people on whom schools depend most are reduced to chattels fit only for programming. Leadership involves the vision to think big, and the practical and persuasive nous to realise ideas while minimizing the casualties along the way. With the vision bit now taken care of, after a fashion, in Great Smith Street, schools have become teetering pyramids of factota. I include the leaders in that fractal picture, even if they don’t include themselves.

So, no gold lame and, possibly, not the level of quality we are led to believe. Until you encourage your proteges to get in touch with their inner nuts, messieurs, you’ll really be spoiling us. Goodness, how my teeth hurt.