Monthly Archives: January 2015

Pedigree Chums

A friend of my mother used to have a pure-bred dog. I didn’t much care for him but, sure as eggs is both subject and predicate noun in an ungrammatical sentence, I felt sorry for the little beast on account of his physiognomy. With his flat nose and attendant respiratory problems, he looked as pissed off as I would if my every attempt at a surprise entrance was thwarted by the necessity of exhalation.

On the whole, inbreeding isn’t our friend. It’s often borne of unlovely motives, and it often births unfortunate forms – things, for instance, that look vegetable when they be animal. Just in case you’re feeling contrary, consider the evidence: some of the offspring of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s Nueva Germanica project; the hillbillies in Deliverance, with their crossbows and toothless gums and squealin’ pigs; even more alarming, generations of royals.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. Born within the city, it’s been impossible to spend 84% of my life there and not shudder a little at the contraction of its social ‘gene pool’. And not just in those central parts, where oligarchs keep their gardening tools in penthouses overlooking Her Madge’s potting shed. The creep of so-called gentrification into the unlikeliest corners continues to force to the outskirts almost anyone unable to afford extortionate rents or house prices that look as if a button on a calculator has been held down too long. Those in social housing, especially, are being removed to the outskirts of the outskirts.

As an illustration of the homogeneity in some London boroughs, consider my own circumstances. With a pretty solidly middle-class background (a slightly posh education and a trickle of money in the family) I’m still a bit of an anomaly in the area where I live. When I speak, I use consonants as well as vowels. By not installing plantation shutters, I have resisted pretending that the Empire still exists. And my name doesn’t end in ‘o’, like all the Ivos, Hugos and Jagos in the surrounding streets (‘Psycho’ not being eligible for consideration, apparently). None of this would have been remarkable, say, twenty years ago – but it’s becoming so.

Maybe it’s because I’m an educator. I worry about other, comparably diminishing ‘gene pools’ – professional ones, for instance – which are, sometimes, a consequence of the social apartheid outlined above. When I started this teaching malarkey, I was taken (but not aback) by the diversity of the workforce in schools. It was a mongrel profession, boasting the kind of vigorously heterogeneous constitution that prevented it from being congenitally boss-eyed. To be fair, that is still largely the case among the rank-and-file. What is less clear is whether it is so among the movers, shakers and policy-makers who, following intense training in a narrow set of pedagogic ideas, have been invited to help lay the path down which education is to skip.

Few classroom teachers are permitted a say in policy decisions, so I should welcome anything that reverses this dynamic. However, I cannot help but have misgivings when our frighteningly variegated government extends such opportunities only to those who entered teaching via certain routes, such as Teach First and Future Leaders, while withholding them from the overwhelming majority of the workforce – many of whom have a far wider, deeper bedrock of experience on which to mount their criticisms and suggestions. While no passage into the profession is devoid of ideological bias, it does appear that a particular weltanschauung is being promoted above all others.

The airtime given to this band of, no doubt well-intentioned, leader-followers exacerbates the problem. Some have become conference speakers and go-to talking heads within a year of achieving Qualified Teacher Status. Just last week, for instance, I read a piece of punditry in an online publication which, to ensure its anonymity, I shall call the Puffington Host. I recognised the author as a graduate of an ‘elite’ training programme and marvelled when, over the course of his article, he lauded KIPP, cheered on charter schools and admiringly name-checked a small coterie of individuals who, it turned out, were also graduates of the same scheme. Who’d-a-guessed?

So effusive was the writer’s enthusiasm for a particular free school that I was compelled to peruse its website, as a result of which I found that its teaching staff consisted, almost entirely, of the programme’s alumnae: shiny-white, neatly-scrubbed, very young graduates of a few universities that, perhaps, tend to attract those who, in addition to being bright, play by/perpetuate existing rules. One is married to a very young, neatly scrubbed and shiny-white head teacher at another school that is staffed, almost entirely, by more of the same. The effect was like that achieved in a room full of mirrors, with the same image repeated ad infinitum. I was subjected to such an experience while relieving myself in the looking-glass loos of a posh restaurant. Not recommended.

Lest such an accusation be levelled, m’lud, let the record show that my words are not the result of imbibing a cellarful of sour grapes. I have, in other posts, alluded immodestly to some rather good qualifications, and I remain unplagued by hankerings after glory in the guise of promotion – as amply corroborated/thwarted by other posts on this site. And, on no account, should whatever emerges when I’ve plonked at my laptop like Scott Joplin on a massive bender be seen as punditry (though it may be covered by the UN Convention against Torture). I’m just not sure that schools benefit much when their staff photos look like Osmonds album covers.

Or, to put it another away, the preceding paragraphs emerge from empirical knowledge that schools function at their best when populated by clever staff with a range of ideas and histories. They also emerge from concerns similar to those of, among others, Chris Bryant MoP and Dame Julie of Walters: that certain professions are so heavily dominated by a tiny and privileged sector of society as to be almost prohibitive to anyone else. Education leadership simply cannot afford to become another of those spheres, if only to ensure the (continued) existence of a capacity for debate, and the strength to occasionally ask itself some bloody awkward questions.

Because, without those qualities, we’re purdy much on our way to the dawgs.


One Day In May

“Let’s have a College of Teaching.” When I hear words to this effect from the mouths of PM and his trusty sidekick, EdSec, I imagine them delivered in the voice of Mrs Merton heralding the start of a heated debate. The palpable delight in their doing-somethingness is almost endearing.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t there a College of Teachers some time back? I certainly remember a head teacher for whom I worked enrolling all of his staff onto one of its courses, before telling them he’d done so. And then claiming attached funding that he had no intention of spending on the designated areas. And then terminating our enrolments – again, without letting us know – once he realised that no extra moolah would be forthcoming as everyone else had tried to claim it as well. Oh, how we laughed!

In fact, doesn’t the College of Teachers still exist as an online entity, offering qualifications and publications? I’ve certainly seen ‘FCollT’ lurking among the head teacher’s post-nominals at more than one school. Unless his/her life is even more of a lava lamp of debauchery than I already imagine, I assume it doesn’t stand for ‘frilly collar and tux’.

The establishment of a college of teaching is Nicky Morgan’s and David Laws’ Big Idea along with the, almost tautological, Workload Challenge – both, key parts of the government’s strategy to engage with the teachers Ms Morgan describes as “heroes”. Michael Gove liked that word too. He applied it to chaps and chapels who’d selflessly dedicated themselves to improving the lot of the deprivedinnercitynotlikeus child. And who, rather often, ended up in the news for, hmm let’s see, paying themselves massive salaries, awarding their own companies lucrative contracts and cheating at exams. Still, never mind the quality; just feel that width.

So, it appears that some attempt is being made to begin a dialogue between the DfE and the rank-and-file of the profession. If you are a teacher, this may be hard to envisage, so infrequent have such interactions been. Politicians have, generally, tended to commune with sponsors and head teachers only. Whether as a simplistic efficiency measure, or on account of the more fragrant vapours that undoubtedly emanate from those who are no longer groundlings, I’m not sure. What I do know is that a misguided belief has prevailed, according to which a conversation with a head is tantamount to a conversation with an entire school and, by extension, a profession. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

For, despite occupying the same buildings and, supposedly, working for the same end result, there can be much – possibly more – that divides rather than unites the classroom teacher and the head. One principal under whom I worked admitted as much: in his view, all of the senior team would have been wise to forego membership of teaching unions and join an organisation for school leaders only, on the grounds that the interests of the parties were fundamentally different. A rare moment of honesty, I thought – especially as the description of the staff as ‘plebs’ fell from his mouth.

Those removed from the classroom seem to find it much easier to rationalise away a number of issues that regularly exercise teachers. Issues like whether we should be encouraging independent, critical thinking; whether we are educating our children to the best of our abilities if we allow them to be taught by non-specialists who are only a page ahead of their charges in subject knowledge; whether students should be held to account over their conduct and, possibly, allowed to achieve less than a ‘C’ grade if they have done no work this side of forever. For the teacher, the bottom line is likely to be what is best for the student – in the long run, even if it hurts a little and especially if the student is ambling about miles away from his/her best interests. Actually, let’s be frank here: at the risk of portraying teachers as a collective case of chronic Munchausen’s, our ultimate concern is the welfare of society.

Whereas the bottom line for a head teacher is, often, a simpler and more immediate chain of concerns: appearing to meet or surpass floor targets – by hook, crook and act of dog, if need be; besting other schools in league tables; appearing to meet this year’s performance management targets; securing another payrise; securing an executive headship; securing the right to do whatsoever with the school budget; managing the budget so that there’s plenty available for fact-finding missions with one’s family and chums to Shanghai, Finland, the Maldives, Harvey Nicks and e-bay.

I know which of these callings I’d rather was heeded.

Which is why a College of Teaching, if such a thing is to be resurrected, has to honour its name and serve those whose principal professional activity is teaching. Not leading, managing or engaging in that hallucinatory ‘vision thing’ in the warmest office in the commonly-occupied building. No, teaching and its quotidian concomitants. In doing so, the college would be drawing upon a vast reservoir of – too often, untapped – classroom expertise and taking its lead from a body of practitioners amply capable of identifying the kind of valuable pedagogic development it needs, rather than chasing after today’s mythical Ofsted butterfly using a net with gigantic holes. In short, a profession that cares more about being at the top of its game than at the top of a table.

I hope that Morgan’s and Laws’ claimed commitment to raising the profession’s status is evident not only in words but also in actions, which may have to include dismantling some of the structures within which schools and teachers currently operate. Re-establishing education as the extraordinarily important, demanding and privileged field it should be – but emphatically isn’t, at the moment – is far too important a matter to be treated as a partisan affair.

Come what(ever in) May.