Category Archives: Uncategorized

Talk Of The Devil

A few years ago, I worked in a school where a pupil regularly engaged in sexual behaviour with unconsenting classmates. Like a bottle of M&S plonk, this was no ordinary child: this was the headteacher‘s child, whose appellation controlee meant that anyone who held him to account suffered kiboshed career progression, while those who looked the other way, or fabricated/destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, enjoyed the reciprocal backscratching of enhanced pay and plentiful opportunities. The entrenchment of these practices led some, sadly, to cross the floor.

When recollecting those on the opposite benches, I find it hard not to picture a scene from The Omen: the one in which Mrs Baylock, with her indeterminately yokel brogue, tells the devil’s offsprog to “Have no fear, little one, I am here to protect thee”. Damien, as I shall refer to him, has since moved to another school where, one can only hope, his parent’s professional status wields no exonerating influence. He took with him an unblemished record – the product (much like the licence afforded another powerful movie figure) of longstanding conspiracies of silence.

Nepotism isn’t the only reason that potentially criminal careers, like Damien’s, continue unabated. According to data released by 38 UK police forces, 2625 peer-on-peer assaults – including 225 rapes – were committed on school premises last year, with no consequent sanctions in the majority of cases. Though legally required to report abuse by adults to the police, schools are under no comparable obligation when the perpetrators are students. Instead, they must rely on their own safeguarding and disciplinary procedures.

Or not, it would appear, from those instances where alleged assailants have gone unpunished – even when witnessed harassing their victims – leaving the latter to find their own ways of escaping their abusers. According to Sarah Green, of the End Violence Against Women coalition, “In the worst cases, schools are worried about being seen to treat an ‘unproven’ allegation seriously, and girls commonly leave school.”

The DfE website helpfully reminds us that sexual assault is a crime, and that schools have safeguarding responsibilities. The Cameron government, however, refused to declare lessons in sex and relationships compulsory, despite the pleas of parents, staff and several cabinet members. Justine Greening has, to her credit, reversed this decision so that, from September 2019, they will be mandatory subjects in secondary schools. And why not, given that teachers and external specialists can now do a far better job of this than was the case Back Then, when my understanding of human reproduction was constructed largely around the procreative habits of rodents?

As our Biology teacher assured us, blushing and waving towards a chalk doodle of a mouse, that it was “a bit like that in humans”, thirty confused kids eyed each other’s – and their own – netherlands with an admixture of scepticism and terror. Similarly, the only wisdom we received on contraception was a teacher telling us, for the best part of an hour, nevereverever to have sex – counsel which, if followed to the letter, admittedly achieves the lesson’s purported objective. The same member of staff also considered ‘Nitrosomonas’ a suitable name for a child: one, presumably, born of ammonia, rather than concoctions of sperm and egg.

Shame on us, though, for allowing that fact to undermine our faith in her judgement. Her observations on the coercive power of language, and its impact on girls’ autonomy, should have a place in every school’s pastoral curriculum (assuming that it still has one: greater curricular freedoms have allowed many schools – academies, particularly – to jettison PSHE entirely). For, when sex is reduced to mere mechanics, with no mind paid to relationships and their ‘grammar’, the ignorance of – or, even worse, disregard for – consent comes as little surprise.

Credit again, then, to Greening: learning about healthy relationships will begin in primary schools and extend into the secondary sex-ed curriculum. Her proposals will, hopefully, address some of the damage caused by other, seemingly unrelated, examples of DfE tinkering, driven by her predecessors – policies that have helped to turn too many schools into environments where inertia is the preferred response to assault.

The rules around exclusion, for instance, when taken alongside the Department’s favoured structural policies, can act as a disincentive to action. Barring students from their premises for five days or less obliges schools to provide excludees with work for that period, beyond which alternative educational provision has to be arranged. In the past, the latter would have been managed with the assistance of Local Education Authorities. However, with heads having been urged to academise themselves out of LEA control, and the majority in the secondary sector having taken the bait, the same responsibility now rests more heavily on schools. Many find, in these less collegiate times, that others aren’t tripping over each other in the rush to welcome fledgling sex offenders. Nor are they obliged to do so, particularly if they, too, are academies or free schools, in which case the five-day prohibition may be as punitive as it can get.

Target-driven pressures to reduce exclusion can also deter schools from taking disciplinary action, as can the clearing of other statistical hurdles. Prioritising results above all else creates perverse incentives to keep assailants on site, lest they miss a valuable millisecond of rocket-boostingly interventionist additionality. This perceived imperative may explain the alacrity with which some schools will suspend a staff member for the flimsiest of nothing-to-do-with-refusing-to-cheat reasons, while displaying an equally vehement lethargy when a student oversteps the mark by a country mile.

As may the fact that managing student (mis)behaviour can be damned hard work. Hinted at but rarely explicated, the increase in peer-on-peer assaults suggests an alarming aversion, among some senior staff, to discharging that part of their duty –  especially (but not only) when it threatens the metrics on which careers are now built. These are often the cases in which leaders, including those with corroborating evidence of sexual misconduct, have preferred to advise victims that “this may not be the school for you”.

So forgive me if I accuse the DfE of having spoken with diabolically forked tongue. Thanks to its policies, education’s moral infrastructure has been so eroded that some school leaders now sport eyes even blinder than Father Spiletto’s, acting as if life-chances are more profoundly enhanced by a grade, than by learning that it’s both illegal and Just Plain Wrong to force oneself upon another. As long as it remains so, the devil’s children may just continue to enjoy the devil’s luck.

 

Advertisements

Things We Found In The Fire

It’s a sign of the times that, following a dearth of sombre posts, two should need to come along in succession. The last, written in the wake of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack is followed now – so very regrettably – by another, scribbled in the aftermath of the North Kensington inferno. Including such occurrences in a blog primarily concerned with education would feel like an exercise in tangential connection, were it not the case that significance sometimes exceeds its source, and at speed. So it is with Grenfell Tower, whose charred remains stand like an accusatory finger in a borough where wealth accumulates barely a stone’s throw away from worsening poverty.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea exemplifies, to an extreme degree, what can seem like the capital’s credo: despite reserves of almost £300 million, and enough for council tax rebates to those paying the top rate, RBKC saw fit to claw back a few thousand pounds from the refurbishment of a high-rise block housing some of its poorest residents. In recent years, it has also ‘boasted’ the most unaffordable rents and the greatest degree of benefit polarisation in London, the vast disparity between the ends of the economic spectrum being masked by its high average income. The spot in which the tower is located is both economically deprived and a prime location with considerable cultural cachet, the latter thanks to the famous post-Windrush Carnival and the more recent influx of celebrities to the south.

In the wake of the fire, the area’s schools have, in many ways, exemplified the generosity and defiance that has driven ‘ordinary’ people to fill the vacuum left by the local council’s inertia. It’s evident in their swift provision of counselling to those affected by the inferno. In the speed with which other schools absorbed students displaced from the academy next to the tower. Most touchingly, perhaps, in the young woman who, having escaped the blaze, sat her Chemistry GCSE a few hours later in her pyjamas – the only clothes left in her possession. I can think of few more humbling statements of belief in education’s value..

Beyond this, however, the appalling fate suffered by Grenfell’s residents should resonate with all of us who work in or use our public services. Social housing for those rendered homeless is scarce because much of this collective asset has been transferred to private hands. Just today, RBKC has been given sixty-eight flats by the Corporation of London, so that erstwhile Grenfell tenants – some of whom have been sleeping rough – can continue to be housed in the borough where they’ve made their lives. Being part of the affordable quota on a luxury development, the apartments would command considerably higher rents on the open market, although RBKC is bound, for the moment, to honour existing tenancy arrangements. Whether it remains obliged – or, more importantly, inclined – to do so is anyone’s guess.

Not least because whatever housing is still left in RBKC’s possession has already been eyed up for the rich pickings it could furnish: indeed, a senior councillor (describing himself as a developer who works for RBKC “in his spare time”) has purchased property in the borough’s less salubrious north, apparently anticipating a significant rise in its resale/rental value as the area becomes more gentrified. According to local action groups, this is the intended outcome of the council’s euphemistically-named “decant” policy, which will relocate social housing tenants to other boroughs so that regeneration work – purportedly planned with the same residents’ interests in mind – can be carried out.

However, in Grenfell Tower’s case, it would appear that the focus was less on regeneration than on a cosmetic quick-fix – one that would appease the aesthetic sensibilities of those who view social housing as an eyesore, rather than provide a habitable space to the people for whom these supposed blots on the landscape are home. Which is why, with disastrous results, the block’s exterior was deemed more important than the functionality of its infrastructure. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that tenants’ safety concerns were either dismissed repeatedly or silenced by threats of legal action. Both responses bespeak an alarming ease with fobbing off, rather than heeding, People Not Like Us.

All of the above demonstrates how prioritising the needs of the already wealthy over the poor, and profiteering over provision, can bequeath consequences of such life-limiting enormity that they oblige us to ask “What if…?” elsewhere. What if governments persist in hacking at the limbs of our health service? What if the restructuring and mis-funding of our schools continues apace? Thanks to the Mid-Staffordshire Trust scandal, we know how the NHS version might look. Let us imagine the education equivalent: an outwardly attractive structure serviced by inadequately qualified or temporary staff; apparently philanthropic sponsors and quasi-patrician leaders drowning the concerns of certain kinds of parents with claims that, comme noblesse oblige, they are acting in the best interests of the children; skewed consultations and misgivings silenced by menaces. Oh, hang on…

But imagine it we must, because the consequences of the above will be felt most starkly by society’s least advantaged, for whom there are no options other than what the state provides. Just as they were on the day when Grenfell burned.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Us And Us Only

Unusually for me, and a blessing for you, this post is almost entirely free of poor puns and flippancy. I struggled a little with the title, eventually (and unexpectedly) choosing one from a Charlatans’ album for reasons I think – hope – you’ll understand. The alternative had been an allusion to ‘Love After Love’ by the recently-deceased Derek Walcott – a poem that always calls to my mind Frantz Fanon’s delineation of colonial psy-ops, and the self-hatred they instil in the subjugated. Walcott emerges from the other side to offer a more uplifting coda: an invitation to his reader to “love again the stranger who was yourself…whom you ignored/For another”.

The tension between self-perception and how others see us is a unifying experience, crossing time, space and culture. To be frank, it’s one on which I thought I’d given up, having decided, in the way of elderly curmudgeons, that life’s too short for it to remain an ongoing object of concern. However, the terror attack on Westminster Bridge, that has spattered blood over Wordsworth’s gilded vista, has brought it back to mind with some force…

…as has the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy that channels a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner scenario through The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Skin/White Masks and Macauley’s Minute. I also witnessed – again – what I call a Cameron Thayer moment, after a character in Paul Haggis’ Crash: an instance when a person of colour was reminded that, while identifications may be multiple, perception can still be determined by a single aspect of the totality. However s/he behaves, Fanon’s colonised wo/man remains visibly – and, therefore, primarily – black to others.

In less than a minute, three bystanders and their killer perished, followed a few days later by one of the hospitalised. It’s hard not feel somewhat connected: the victim killed on her way to collect her children was an administrator in the Westminster college where a friend’s husband teaches. Another of the dead lived in the same area as me. I know people who work in the hospital to which many of the injured were taken, and the bridge is walking distance from several of the places in which I work. So far, so proximate. More unnerving is my place – our places – in the bigger picture.

One of the most frequent questions posed since 22nd March has been “Who or what turned Adrian Elms into Khalid Masood?” It’s a question relevant to our profession, as teachers are statutorily obliged to protect students from extremist ideologies, and to do so with an urgency not deemed necessary in the 70s and 80s, when far-right groups sought to recruit schoolchildren. The dissemination of British values is now a matter on which educators can be held accountable, and rare is the school website that does not advertise its commitment to the above. But it’s a big ask, and one that we can ill-afford to leave to teachers alone.

Thanks to the convictions he’d amassed before embarking on his murderous drive, plenty of column inches have been spent on constructing Khalid Masood’s etiological narrative. Much of this, by focusing on his time in prison and in Saudi Arabia, is comfortably discomfiting: the villains are brown men with unruly beards who, between them, create another villain from an already unstable man. And therein lies the problem. For, by concentrating on these episodes alone, we risk mistaking the moment of Masood’s recruitment for that of his radicalisation. The latter will, almost certainly, have started much earlier, and be a collection of many moments that, together, rendered him vulnerable to malign influences disguising themselves as empowerment.

We now know that, at various times, Elms had been one of a tiny number of black (or, in his case, mixed) individuals in an otherwise white environment: at school in Kent where, three to four decades ago, he was the only black pupil; in the Sussex village where he shared a home with the mother of his two oldest children. According to several reports, an altercation that ended with Elms slashing a publican’s face bore “racial overtones”. Some also state that Elms himself had, previously, been knifed in the face following a racially-charged dispute in another pub – the point at which he began carrying blades as a matter of habit.

The story of Elms’ metamorphosis into Masood speaks of a man quick to perceive racial slights and rejections. The racism he may have experienced does not excuse him: few are the people who turn from victims into homicidal perpetrators. However, as Judge Charles Kemp observed when sentencing Masood afterthe Northiam knife attack, it is a significant part of the explanation. Claims that “we’ll never know” how he evolved into the man behind the wheel must, therefore, be critiqued according to whether they are offered in recognition of the complexities at work, or with disingenuous intent to protect white societies from scrutiny.

According to Ofsted, the “fundamental British values” it is our job to instil are “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith”. On all of these counts, Elms/Masood ended up un-Britishly wanting – by reactive choice, it would seem. Many of these values are common to several nationalities if, indeed, they need to be nationalised at all. Their characterisation as a means of in/exclusion risks creating a potentially corrosive them-and-us dynamic.

Because the truth is that assimilating said values does not guarantee that many British children won’t feel excluded from that category by other forces. Some may well be inside the home; others, without. The latter might include a history curriculum that, prioritising “our island story”, also attempted to whitewash the black from the Union Jack. Our pupils are connected far and wide, in acknowledgement of which we can choose to hashtag our tweets ‘Pray for Kano’ or ‘Pray for Peshawar’ as readily as we do ‘Pray for Paris/Brussels/Berlin’, when suicide bombers target black market-goers or gunmen slaughter brown schoolchildren. We can choose to tint our Instagram uploads with combinations other than red-white-blue or red-black-yellow..

Inclusion and its obverse require uncomfortable degrees of self-examination, and acknowledgement of the power asymmetries from which we, possibly, benefit. Liberals who believe them/ourselves to be without prejudice are not necessarily anti-racists; indeed, as Peele reminds us, educated folks wearing tolerance like sandwich-boards can, sometimes, be among the worst offenders. Addressing this is never more vital than when doing so remains as inconsequential for some as it can be life-determining for others.

It’s not enough to enjoy a curry, to listen to the blues, or to watch SNL skits sending up Trump. Or, indeed, to laugh at the Smug Family Armitage clod-hopping sinisterly through Get Out. Not if the only ‘others’ with whom we interact are on the far side of a counter or in service uniforms. Not if we squint in pre-emptive incomprehension when some people open their mouths, and then find that, by focusing so intently on how well they speak English, we’ve failed to register anything they’ve uttered. Not if, even with benign intent, we assume or attribute expertise – sport, dance or cooking – of our unimaginative, blinkered choosing.

And certainly not when we dismiss or pathologise awareness of the aforementioned as over-sensitivity. If people of colour carry as many chips on their shoulders as some would have us believe, we can only conclude that they must like potatoes as much as the Irish do.

Us and us only.


Back To The Tutor

Back in the days of dodgy dossiers and covert arms possession, I found myself seated near a cabinet minister at the theatre. With an official inquiry underway, and jobs – including his – on the line, most of the audience averted its eyes while hissing “It’s him!”. Against the susurration of whispering grass, R+J, The Splinter Group’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, rang true and clear: four schoolboys deploy their own secret weaponry, acting out Shakespeare’s play in their dormitory after discovering a copy concealed beneath the floorboards. The production opens with the pupils conjugating amare in the rote fashion demanded by their strict school. However, it’s through their private, unfettered immersion in the contraband text that the four leads learn what it is to love.

I was reminded of this a few years later when a parent, whose children I was tutoring, described me as the family’s “contraband secret”. How we laughed, as I surreptitiously checked for loose planks underfoot. Despite* being an erstwhile school governor, he had a keen sense of which way the policy winds were blowing, as well as a nose for distant pongs that could put Jo Malone out of business (*delete or not, depending on experience). With education becoming increasingly reductive in scope, he was convinced that more and more parents would seek out independent sources of ‘real’ learning. Walking home the other day, I was reminded of his witchy prescience by the number of tuition centres lining my route, some of which I’m not sure were there when I set out that morning.

Decked in the obligatory primary colours and not-at-all sinister pictures of smiling students, places offering supplementary education are proliferating like Fibonacci’s rabbits. Like the estate agencies whose names they often approximate, with their Primes, Premiers and Rights, they’re to be found in multiples on many a high street. And, like estate agencies, they all seem to be doing pretty well. No surprise, really, given that literacy and numeracy are fundamentals rather than decorative add-ons. It’s all ‘high-stakes’ these days, don’t you know; and, with everyone persuaded of the ills that befall those with less than top grades, additional help has become the sine qua non of getting ahead.

For long the commonplace of the privately educated, tutors have become even more necessary to the same, now that institutions previously accustomed to admitting students on a nepotistic nod and wink enforce more meritocratic entrance criteria (oligarchs excepted). However, it’s the demand for tutors among parents of far more modest means that is, perhaps, the most striking development – a tacit demonstration that, when schools replace departing staff with the cheapest option available, the lacunae of expertise that inevitably appear can only be addressed qualitatively and not, as the DfE’s numerically-obsessed refuseniks would have us believe, by quantity. Moreteachersthaneverbefore is no substitute for qualified, experienced staff who know their subjects inside out.

Assuming, of course, that leavers are replaced at all. With some schools simply distributing departees’ timetables between remainers, the concomitant growth in class sizes swallows up those in need of personalised attention, however differentiated the lesson content may be. So, whether offering a cut-price service at the kitchen table, boasting a website like that of a modelling agency or insisting, as some do, that only high-net-worth parents need apply, the promise of teaching that focuses on the individual virtually ensures some custom to all manners of tutor.

Not only is the change evident in demand; it’s also apparent in status. Once was the time that engaging a tutor was tantamount to insulting the teacher. Now, it’s a reason for staff to exhale in relief and/or send detailed notes about what the tutor should cover. In my experience, this often amounts to requests that substantial parts of the curriculum be delivered – for the first time or, even, solely – by the one-hour-a-week private operator. Resisting the urge to remind them that they can dictate to me when they pay me, I understand the temptation that some teachers in schools must experience, to offload onto a tutor – particularly when the losses they stand to incur, should they fail to make the grades, are as almost as onerous as those borne by their students. For, whatever is stated on paper, many members of staff are now employed on de facto temporary contracts, to be renewed only on clearance of every hoopla and hurdle.

Never mind that they may have been directed to teach far beyond their specialisms; or that the CPD they were promised, to bring their subject knowledge up to scratch, has yet to materialise; or, indeed, that they may not have any qualifications beyond GCSE in subjects for which they are now held responsible. The post-factual fact in our ‘no excuses’ schools is that not knowing is no excuse for not doing and, preferably, not overdoing. Or something. A tutor may have been engaged to deliver an enrichment curriculum, unrelated to exam content; but that’s a matter that can end up neither here nor there in the face of an ever more common phenomenon: which is that many of the old farts now working independently – former occupants of the upper pay scales who were shown the exit door – really do know their alliums and, often, more thoroughly than their school-based counterparts. When jobs and pay rises hinge on results, the temptation to pass off others’ ease with exam syllabi as one’s own must be huge.

Percentages of students achieving 5 good GCSEs fall markedly in some schools when English and Maths are included. How much more would they do so if it were possible to discount the impact of tutors? As long as schools tacitly anticipate that parents will engage private teachers to make up the shortfalls created by questionable staffing practices, the latter will persist. In fact, they may even become official policy. Reform, a respected and non-partisan think tank, has recently suggested that graduate teachers are over-qualified to no good purpose, and that less educated apprentices would make for a more cost-effective labour force. Indeed, Reform goes further, mooting the possibility that the staffing crises currently faced by many schools are a consequence of arsey degree holders taking umbrage at poor conditions, rather than of the conditions themselves.

Thus, having established that it all comes down to a fit of pique, the problem is solved. No need to tackle the dissatisfactions that are leading Those Who Can to abandon this most indispensable of occupations, upon which so many others depend. No need to address what an educational researcher has termed “the proletarianisation of the teaching profession”. Just draft in staff who, with rectums free of their own heads and fewer prospects at their disposal, are unlikely to complain. Better still, hitch your cart to Lord Nash’s caravan of guff, and repeat after he: teachers do not need to be creative; they need to “embrace standardisation”. Or, as it is otherwise known, behave like the mindless factota he clearly thinks they are, delivering stuff created elsewhere.

So, back to the tutor. Whether problem or solution, you can be pretty sure that s/he’ll be Coming To A Cellar Near You.


You Say You Want A Resolution?

I’m not much good at resolutions, though it’s not for the want of trying. Almost every New Year’s Eve past, I’ve dribbled my forthcoming commitments to something or other, only to have interred all good intentions under a mountain of cake crumbs by, ooh, 2nd January. This year, I decided to eschew this annual folly. Which, admittedly, constitutes a resolution.

Silly timing, really, given that 2017 is already looking like the year in which resolve will be an absolute necessity. That picture of Keef, with his box-fresh teef and a placard reading “I survived 2016”, pretty much encapsulates twelve months during which pioneers departed in too-great numbers, while disbelief’s stunned politeness allowed the ranks of the rank to swell. Little could have been done to allay the former, cancer being what it is. However, when it comes to the latter, there are lessons in those valleys to the rear.

Initially, perhaps, we could have been forgiven for believing that political events on either side of the Atlantic exemplified our whip-smart appreciation of Swiftian satire, or the kind of collective mania whose incandescence guarantees its own destruction. The problem was persisting in those convictions, even as it became clearer that no post-truth petard would be sufficiently explosive to hoist its engineer. That, and not dealing the hard blow that alternative factuality demands. Going high does, admittedly, distance one from the opposition’s low; but it also makes it that bit harder to connect a fist to a mandible.

There are times when politeness is the only feasible response; indeed, when matched with an unswervingly no-nonsense turn of mind, it’s a formidable weapon. However, in its silent incarnation, it can simply oil the wheels of ‘business as usual’ – a fact of which educators are well aware and should continue to be keenly vigilant. Like fear, it allows everything to be normalised – DfE peccadillo, Ofsted edict and ‘good-will gesture’ of our own making – with breathtaking speed, integrating all into a basic job description that, growing exponentially, steals yet more time from the duties that really matter. At its worst, saying nothing leaves us with no-one able to speak truth to power.

I admit that I’m part of the problem. When faced with a headteacher who treated gross misconduct as one of his five-a-day, I tried, and failed, to find an authority willing to take the matter seriously. And so – too soon – I gave up. The absence of any suitable body was, itself, symptomatic of the voicelessness that blights education. Staff, who would gush concerns in private, were too Stockholmed, battle-weary or scared to articulate them anywhere else. I had little faith in a governing body whose tongue-tied refusal to address known misdeeds had only encouraged further offences. Union officers at various levels either counseled keeping schtum, or referred me to a local authority that, having struck a back-scratching deal with said manager some years earlier, simply ignored staff and parents who reported his challenging behaviours.

According to Public Concern at Work, the last option for halting those who’ve gone rogue is the National College for Teaching and Leadership. NCTL’s responsibilities include investigations into alleged misconduct and, if proven, the issuing of prohibition orders. Only when the aforementioned channels have been exhausted might NCTL take a look, and only then if referral is from the teacher’s employer. Even had I been able to pursue the matter down this route, my bum may well have been covered in bite-marks by now: for it has recently come to light that NCTL routinely reveals whistleblowers’ names to the accused.

Much as I may feel that a sore ass is preferable to the sorry one I possess, I am appalled – if unsurprised – that NCTL’s disregard for confidentiality elicits neither concern nor condemnation from the DfE. A touching trust in the efficacy of self-regulation? Or another means of muffling from a government that keeps no records on schools’ use of gagging orders, actively shields MATs from scrutiny, and is, apparently, unconcerned to the point of inertia about widespread cheating – however much it casts itself as the defender of academic “rigour”? That’ll be ‘rigour mortis’ then, no?

So, thanks to the complicity of silence, the same individual has evaded disciplinary procedures and reinvented himself as an educational guru. One whose tweets on foreign affairs regularly condemn freewheeling embezzlement, suppressions of dissent by heavy-handed means, and administrations that run on cheating and nepotism. Combine his history with that of an erstwhile deputy head who, for similar reasons, has seamlessly transitioned from tyrannizing capable staff out of the door to running a sideline business running workshops on staff wellbeing and how to tackle bullying, and you’ll have enough irony to press the creases from a whole chiffarobe of dirty linen.

In stark contrast is the fate of Jane Porter, former executive head in Kent, and now…not.  Two points about this case strike with particular force, the first of which is the power of mass action: Porter’s removal was the result of a collective grievance proceeding. A meticulous record of incidents, documenting the scale of Porter’s misconduct, evinces the staff’s belief that all experiences of offence and intimidation matter, and that they must be spoken of with a single – loud – voice. The second point worth remarking is the seriousness with which NCTL regarded this litany of unprofessionalism which, while it makes for depressing reading, is commonplace enough in content. The shocked vehemence  of its response implies that similar misdeeds often go unreported and unheard.

Some kinds of hush are glorious: for instance, the quiet of amicable co-existence that descends on the Allardyce household, when my other half is engrossed in a book and I’m knitting socks for millipedes. However, the dumb-show of appeasement, and the muteness instilled by (fear of) defamation or toys flying out of prams are the types without which we can, and must, make do. Because silence emboldens, even when eyes still see. Locally, nationally and beyond.

Now, let me eat cake.

 


Exercising Your Agency

Yesterday, I received another call from another recruitment consultant based at another of the myriad agencies at which I’ve never signed on a dotted line – the reason why I spend so much time, these days, saying “Who are you? Who? Who? Who? WHO?” into the phone. These tiresomely frequent exchanges have, usually, been prompted by an ancient CV I retrieved from the floor of the litter tray, back when I worked as an in-school tutor under a (very effective and, therefore, now-defunct) government scheme. It appears that this centuries-out-of-date document was released into the etherspace at some point, without my permission, since when it has been ricocheting around like one of Tommy’s ballbearings. Why anyone would want to follow it home is beyond me but there’s nowt as strange as folk paid on commission.

 Just in case back-to-back phone calls are insufficient, my inbox is stuffed with similar missives: expressing disinterest in services offered via one medium apparently does little to shake the belief that you might fall for the same in another. In a tone of chummy familiarity, inversely proportional to my knowledge of who the billybobthornton is contacting me, most of these messages are garbled enough to suggest that their authors are primarily conversant with SPaG as an option at the local trattoria.

Displaying an impressive level of chutzpah/dearth of self-awareness, outstanding levels of literacy are demanded of candidates, so that they can work in allegedly outstanding schools for outstandingly poor remuneration. On a couple of occasions, a polite statement that no, thank you, I am not looking for work has been met with an aggressively-delivered “Why not?”. On others, volunteering that I do, indeed, still work in education, albeit through my own business, has led to sweaty-palmed attempts to determine whether I’ve set up a rival supply agency. When feeling wicked, the answer is a mendacious but amusing “Yes”.

A scan of the jobs pages in teachers’ publications suggests that vacancies are scarce. The wellest-worn line of argument is that staff, facing the straits of pay reform and managerial miserliness, are fearful of jumping ship, even when the vessel’s called Titanic Academy or somesuch. We also know that there are schools in which senior managers obviate the need to replace departing staff by distributing the abandoned timetable between those still aboard.

However, according to the agencies, such is the volume and variety of posts available that they positively pour from every, um, pore. Initially, I took this hyperbole as no more than a bait-shaped fib, duping punters into mistaking a couple of sorry-looking minnows in a puddle for Daltrey’s teeming lakes of trout (“Ah, ha! Y’are caught.”). But instead of persisting with this carp, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there’s something in the agencies’ claims of quantity. Only yesterday, Sir Clint Wilshaw stated on Today that the number of teacher vacancies has doubled over the last five years, so the opportunities really might be more big fish than little fish. Or cardboard box.

Which brings me to, what I’m told is, the phrase du jour: ‘the gig economy’. Contrary to first assumptions, this involves neither those chaps outside Brixton Station re-flogging marked-up tickets for the latest whoever, nor their friends doing the same online. Rather, it refers to a world of fixed-term contracts and independent workers – or, to put it another way, the mainstays of those supply agencies that oblige the poor sods on their books to set themselves up as self-employed operators. It’s not often that the education sector is ahead of the curve; on this occasion, I wish it wasn’t.

As its defenders maintain, the gig economy offers flexibilities that permanent employment does not. If you’re one of those teachers anxious to catch themselves some of that work-life balance stuff (that’ll be all of them, then), shorter-term contracts with fewer responsibilities can seem a viable way of achieving this. And there are other advantages: variety, as one moves from school to school; autonomy, as one exercises the right to refuse further bookings at Stonefish Community College; the opportunity to get the true measure of a school, without being shackled to its radiators first; the ability to take holidays during term time; the right to curtail bookings at short notice. Not so much a gig as a veritable festival of perks.

There are, of course, less boastworthy sides to all of this: no sick or holiday pay, no paid parental leave, no employers’ contributions to pension schemes and National Insurance – all facts to gladden the heart of the tighter-fisted school manager; the speed with which the non-committals of supply morph into expectations that all the responsibilities of a permanent employee will be shouldered for a fraction of the pay, as ever-heftier proportions of the agency’s fee slide into its, rather than your, coffers. Lest we forget, there’s also the commonplace requirement to accept the Swedish Derogation, obliging agency staff to forego the improved pay rates to which they’re entitled after twelve weeks’ employment; the pressure some consultants exert, to take every booking offered, by treating refusal as grounds for rustication; the fact that dismissal can occur at the same very short notice I cited as an advantage; and the embarrassingly disdainful behaviour of some permanent school staff towards their temporary counterparts…

…most of which demonstrate that, for the gig economy’s impresarios, education is primarily, if not only, a source of quick bucks for minimal input. I know of several schools in which supply teachers significantly outnumber permanent staff – the places where unbearable working practices, the forcing out of experienced personnel, and the plethora of WRS cases both of the above tend to generate have resulted in numerous vacancies. (So, no, Mr Wilshaw, the staffing crisis is not, as you claimed on Today, the fault of insufficiently enticing publicity campaigns; it’s an avoidance strategy, adopted by those who understand that teaching, in its present incarnation, is a job best avoided.)

Fishiest of all are those instances when erstwhile permanent teachers, deemed irrevocably incompetent before being dismissed or coerced into resigning, are snapped up once they become available on daily supply rates, without all those distracting on-costs. I’m waiting for the day when a school knowingly re-employs, through an agency, a teacher it previously ‘managed out’. Or perhaps that’s happened already? And it’s surely only a matter of time before we discover that some ubermensch at an academy chain is also a supply agency proprietor, signing up the same staff s/he shoved overboard as discards.

Its demands can make supply a tough gig. Dispensing with the middlemen enables those so inclined to offer their services directly to schools, thereby earning more while charging schools less. Not a win-win exactly, I’ll concede – many of the insecurities still apply – but closer to. And, if nothing else, you won’t get fooled again. Hopefully.


There’s Nothing Quite Like Grammar

Not so long ago, a former colleague was honoured by Her Madge for services to education, thereby joining the swelling ranks of similarly-lauded academy bosses. I remember my fellow faculty member from Back When as highly intelligent, thoughtful and measured. These days, she not only calls for the academisation of all state schools to be accelerated; she also would like her particular trust to be the “sole provider of education” in its part of the country. Perhaps these ambitions are the result of exercising the aforementioned thoughtfulness. Or, perhaps, they’re an indication that being a Head can do funny things to one’s, um, head.

Still, I’m relieved to see that my old workmate isn’t (yet) among the backers of Parents and Teachers for Excellence – a new campaign group dedicated, presumably, to stopping Parents and Teachers for Rubbish in its tracks. Founded by the absent-minded Rachel De Souza, whose unerring capacity to mislay important e-mails continues to demonstrate that there really is nothing like a Dame, PTE’s council consists largely of education’s Illuminati: those Blob-phobic advocates of academies and free schools whom I shall dub ‘The Plop’ (Perfectly legitimate over-payments) in a spirit of bantz-inspired reciprocity.

Thus does PTE enjoy close links with several Tory-endorsed MATs, one of which is probably coming to a school near you. Indeed, for a group that describes itself as “strictly non-partisan”, PTE is strikingly hand-in-G(l)ove with certain figures within the Gove-rning party. It is, therefore, unsurprising that, despite the organisation’s name, and with no discernible trace of irony, CEOs and erstwhile political aides significantly outnumber the parents and teachers on its advisory board. At several of the affiliated trusts, so I’m told, it takes thermal imaging and a ouija board to locate a parent or teacher at governors’ meetings.

PTE’s unique selling point is its Damascene focus on what happens in the classroom. Autonomy, knowledge, testing, culture and discipline are all name-checked, before being redefined as either dull-as-ditchwater metrics or Things That No-one In Education Ever Thought Of Before We Did. PTE also seeks our financial support. Indeed, pecuniary, rather than consultative, donation appears to be the main form of parent and teacher involvement envisaged. That and cheerleading – just like all those parent-governors who, having been relieved of their oversight roles by various trusts, have been invited to act as spin doctors local community liaison for the same.

Proclaiming its aversion to further structural change, PTE’s timing is telling, being launched so soon after the announcement that grammar schools are to be reintroduced. With the wisdom of this proposal already being critiqued across the political spectrum, the need for PTE to throw its weight behind the opposition is puzzling, until one considers that grammar schools – or the idea of them, anyway – could pose a serious threat to the unwritten tenets by which many academy trusts are run. Hence the strong whiff of fear emanating from between the lines of PTE’s manifesto.

It’s an open secret that many academy trusts select students covertly, accepting initially comprehensive intakes in the knowledge that problematic students can be managed out (with repeated encouragement to leave), or managed in (with a combination of industrial-strength cheating and blind eyes towards misdemeanours). Explicit selection by ability potentially narrows the intake of institutions that are not grammar schools, thereby leaving academies in this position with two options: to risk deleterious drops in results; or to step up the cheating and be vulnerable to exposure thereof. Academies do, admittedly, have considerable freedoms to rewrite contracts. Nonetheless, subjecting students, parents and staff to pre-emptive ‘confidentiality’ orders is an enormous, if not impossible, ask. A gag is a gag, even if available in the colours of the school uniform.

There is, of course, another possibility – one that converges with the fact that my first response to the grammar school proposal did not involve the usual concerns about late bloomers and the benefits of an academically-diverse student body. Nor did it focus on the issues May’s plans would need, but have yet, to address: the extent to which these schools would be under local authority control; how they would be funded; their place within an academisation programme, to whose continuation Justine Greening has already stated her commitment. Rather, it was a simple and practical question: who the Friar Tuck is going to work in these schools?

Supporters of grammars past cite their success as motors of social mobility, pointing to a generation of now-public figures whose educations enabled them to transcend modest origins. Why their schools were so apparently effective is a complex issue, but one factor may – must? – have been the calibre of teachers. If so, the extent to which new grammar schools will be served by current staffing policies is questionable. It has be when highly competent teachers, some of whom have worked their socks off to career-switch into education, decide that life is too short and precious to waste in environments hell-bent on breaking most of their occupants. And off they go, over the hills, with nary a backward glance.

In an ideal world, teachers would bristle with skills: excellent subject knowledge; pedagogic nous; that ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, between hard bark and heart-wood; humour; resilience; self-reflexivity; organisation; the magnanimity to see the human being within, even when it’s convincingly disguised as a gobby little ****; tenacity/stubbornness… On and on it goes – all of it, necessary; none, on its own, sufficient. If new grammar schools – heck, any schools – are to succeed, these are the employees they will need. But off they go, over the hills, etc. Because, if truth be told, we inhabit a time and place in which many education leaders regard essentials as optional extras, if not unjustifiably expensive fripperies. Just ask the historians reinventing themselves as physicists at a fortnight’s notice, or the caretakers now preparing to teach exam classes.

Certain academy chains have become well-known for misplacing experienced staff as deftly as De Souza does incriminating evidence, while affording unqualified, supply and overseas-trained teachers a hearty welcome. Or, at least, they do for as long as is convenient (i.e. up to the point when recruits think it might be reasonable to have a kip at night or, in the case of OTTs, when the £35,000-minimum-income rule for immigrants becomes law – whichever happens sooner). If aspiring grammar schools have to demonstrate quality and stability of staffing, many academy trusts will be found severely wanting. True, they have the option of establishing selective schools within their chains . But even that could involve diverting some of the loot currently under trustees’ unfettered command in the direction for which it was intended: away from expense accounts and ‘consultancy’ fees, and into the service of students’ education. That’ll be fewer plops, then.

And so, back to PTE – a campaign that is as much, if not more, against curbing any privileges and impunities currently enjoyed by academy trusts, as it is for…well…anything. Parents and Teachers for Excellence is, par excellence, Orwellian blackwhite in action, when what parents and teachers define as excellence is what trust overlords –  in whose service this organisation, in truth, exists – dismiss as so much nonsense and damned tomfoolery. Because, after all, what would parents and teachers know about education?

Brave new world.