Flipping Hell

Dunno about you but I spent Shrove Tuesday proving, as if it were necessary, that I can be a tosser sans pareil. Eschewing the standard advice to flip each pancake just the once, I did so repeatedly, matching each turn with its opposite and becoming increasingly giddy on the power of an accurate aim. And though the results were crepes, they tasted just fine.

Flipping has been much on my mind of late, not least because many of the teenagers I teach privately attend schools where ‘flipped learning’ is the new non-negotiable. Students (attempt to) master new material in their own time using resources such as online films – no more than twenty minutes long (so that’ll develop the attention span, nest-ce pas?) and, often, created and uploaded by their teachers. In theory, removing the mundane business of knowledge delivery from the classroom allows lesson time to be spent more productively, revising areas of difficulty and probing key concepts to a greater depth than hitherto possible. With the latter often addressed through tasks that, until now, would have been set as homework assignments, the nomenclature becomes clear: acquisition at home and application at school.

The cheerleaders for flipped learning are many, if not especially varied: its proponents emerged from American schools, where many of its most ardent advocates are currently located. And, as we’ve seen with academies, high-stakes testing and penalties, where America has led, education policy has, for the last two English governments, followed. As, indeed, it has with what Professor Yong Zhao of Oregon University’s College of Education calls “America’s Faustian bargain”: the “disrespect of teachers as professional colleagues” that has accompanied the prioritising of test results over all else by authoritarian leaders. Oh, and the concomitant institutionalisation of cheating.

If flipped learning’s pedigree doesn’t settle your stomach, perhaps the practice’s many alleged benefits will: a greater degree of personalised learning; more profound subject engagement; the encouragement of independence. Most compelling, if you like bingeing on metrics, are the claims of improved grades – which, presumably, explain the fact that flipped learning is spreading across UK schools like jam over a waffle. As with so many pedagogic fads, its introduction is often at the behest of leaders regurgitating half-digested ideas – a method of dissemination that, almost unerringly, yields two results: 1) the bowdlerisation, and consequent misapplication, of a potentially interesting theory; 2) communal eye-rolling, as experienced teachers realise, yet again, that the wine they’ve been serving according to occasion must now be consumed every day from a bottle bearing a different label.

Flipped learning is not without merit: I’ve used it myself, albeit – and this is crucial – as part of a range of methods, in which context it can provide a valuable counterpoint to other ways of learning. See undercooked culinary analogy in paragraph one. That doesn’t, however, necessitate uncritically ingesting all claims made in its promotion, nor swallowing the almost Manichean opposition of flipped and traditional classrooms, upon which the former’s elevation often depends. It’s hardly the first time that students have been given preliminary material to study in advance of a lesson. And setting the same short film as homework for an entire class isn’t dramatically more personal or less teacher-led than a lecture – even if it does permit more repetition than a struggling student may be able or willing to request in a classroom.

Indeed, when it comes to the struggling student, what if the problem is not the frequency with, or pace at, which material is reviewed but, rather, the nature of the explication itself? In that case, the number of (re)viewings is immaterial. Where does a film afford the opportunity, as a classroom full of, you know, real people does, to pose a point in a different, clearer way? I once, on the spot, added two hand gestures to an explanation (steady, now). The result was pennies dropping with the kind of clang that accompanies a win on the fruit machines.

One undiscussed consequence of flipped learning is that many students on its receiving end are inverting the practice by seeking out teachers, often in private capacities, to help smooth the ‘WTF?’ expressions from their scrambled faces. If my charges had been catatonically lazy, or raised on coffee spoons of learning delivered with aeroplane and choo-choo noises, the expectation that they’d teach themselves sizeable chunks of a curriculum would be as optimistic as the hope of finding the image of Mary Berry seared onto a tortilla. These are not the students I teach. On the contrary, they are conscientious, diligent and willing to give most ‘its’ a go. They are also genuinely lost, having been sent to navigate unfamiliar terrain with too infrequent a guiding hand. Which brings me to the point at which, hoping that I’m even more wrong, if no less conspiratorial, than usual, lemon juice starts to overpower any sugar…

I’ve yet to be convinced that the advancement of flipped learning, in some quarters, is driven primarily by the desire for a more challenging and richer learning experience. For, concealed within the folds of this pedagogic practice are, potentially, an ‘efficiency’ measure and a business opportunity. Pre-2010, when New Labour was still at the helm and the Khan Academy had set the flipping thing in motion, the reliably impressionable Jim Knight endorsed laptops as the means of personalised learning outside the classroom. He then advocated classes of seventy, which would be overseen by small numbers of teachers or teaching assistants who were, ominously, spoken of as if interchangeable. At the point where Knight’s lines of thinking converge, there is an enormous classroom, populated to maximum capacity by students learning personally on laptops, while assistants paid in chocolate coins supervise.

Consider, too, that Joel Klein, erstwhile schools commissioner for New York City, has only just been removed from the shortlist of contenders to succeed Sir Michael Wilshaw as Ofsted’s Chief Inspector. That he was considered seriously up to such an advanced stage in the appointment process may be related to his more recent position in News Corp’s education division. Alongside championing charter schools (the US equivalents of free schools in whose establishment Murdoch has expressed a rapacious philanthropic interest) he has also helped to drive News Corp’s acquisition of Wireless Generation (now Amplify), which is dedicated to turning the school classroom into a digital learning environment. One in which all that archived News Corp content is recyclable as curricular material for a tidy profit. And in which that outmoded specimen, the fully qualified subject expert, is no longer required, having been replaced by a set of pre-loaded laptops. And thus is enrichment transformed from an intellectual goal benefiting the student to a pecuniary one that fattens the provider’s wallet.

A final instance of the, ahem, currency of flipped learning is Britain’s shortlisted candidate for this year’s Global Teacher Prize – an example whose inclusion, I’m well aware, may seem churlish at first glance. Colin Hegarty created and uploaded hundreds of videos covering the maths syllabus that one of his students would have missed because of an unavoidable and lengthy period of absence. Hegarty’s actions were, without a doubt, driven by the most honourable and altruistic intentions. But, commendable as they are, his continued provision of flipped learning resources is, albeit inadvertently, entrenching a new orthodoxy that deems delivery in the classroom and on the spreadsheet insufficient to prove one’s teacherly chops: one must also deliver online.

So, just like all those minutely detailed lesson plans, electronically archived and ready to be implemented by the nearest casual support worker, the banks of filmed resources, to which so many staff are encouraged to add, further the impoverishment of education by justifying the supposed obsolescence of the teacher.

Enjoy the Mardi Gras: Lent’s on the way.

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Fads Army

One of the things to which I’m looking forward this year is Dad’s Army. Toby Jones as Cpt Mainwaring – aka Mr Bump(tious) – will, I hope, help to fill the space left by The Detectorists although his, surprisingly, is not the character to whom I’m most frequently likened. That dubious honour goes to Pvt Frazer, Walmington-on-Sea’s own memento mori, because looking on the dim side’s a hard habit to break. If you hear someone intoning “You see? YOU SEE?”, as Cassandra’s unheeded predictions of carnage are realised, it’s probably me. The template for my default facial expression was set by Munch. I have a hitherto unadmitted soft spot for The Audience’s ‘A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed’ – a title that is now the motto on my fantasy coat of arms (gules a chevron sable between three Eeyores rampant). So, with 2016 having, just about, emerged from its drunken New Year fug, now is the time to look through the bottom of a one-tenth-empty glass at what else it threatens.

First up is the possibility that more erstwhile acquaintances will receive Honours from ministers hiding in Big Lizzie’s skirt pleats. This is neither idle boast, nor daydream: only last year, a former colleague, who has spent more syllables than sense propping up the academisation programme, was ennobled for her efforts. A quick glance down the latest list of recipients reveals a disproportionate number of similar pedigree being ushered through the door marked ‘For Services To Education’, which looks not at all like the one whose plaque reads ‘For Services To Ideology/Party Coffers/ My Bank Balance’. Yes, Mr Cameron, rewarding their complicity altruism asserts – again – academies’ inherent superiority; but, when you’re considering a private education for your son, are you sure that’s wise, sir?

Next, the new Year 6 Maths tests, which will focus specifically on multiplication tables. As we know, prescriptivism is often inversely proportional to potential rigour: mark schemes, for instance, tend to be carved into stone tablets when those with little subject or teaching knowledge – and, by the by, attractively low price tags – are contracted to adjudicate on others’ exam performance. The evident assumption underlying the tests is that primary school staff do not, or cannot be trusted to, check understanding of basic concepts. And so it may be, if they have been delivered by a redeployed passer-by (“Vacancy…Milkman? Never mind.. .Aaand…Action!”), paid on the ‘unqualified’ scale, trained to follow another’s script and summarily hurled in front of a class. All those minutely detailed lesson plans, uploaded at 23.59 every Sunday by teachers “for monitoring”, were petards by which staff retention was hoist.

Retention? Ah yes…I knew the word many years ago though, if it were to walk into the DfE now, it would almost certainly find itself being eyeballed like a Hun in a seaside town. Thanks to an increasingly unsustainable work-capability balance, supported by impossible targets and predetermined judgements, educators are jumping off every rung of the ladder and running for the exit like fugitives from mustard gas. Until recently, this may not have been an especially pressing cause for concern: a reasonable supply of student teachers, treated more as the latter than the former from the off, seemed guaranteed by the proliferation of on-the-job training routes. However, with many ITT providers failing to recruit in sufficient numbers (including the highly publicised but little-bothered-with Troops to Teachers scheme) we may yet be subjected to more emetic advertising campaigns starring future Dames and Sirs.

Still, every cloud has a colourful lining, even if it does consist largely of carcinogens: just think of the savings to be made. And so, to a final enticing prospect, as Nicky Morgan urges the STRB to endorse salary scale demotion. Already a reality for job-changers, thanks to the abolition of pay portability, this development would enable head teachers to cut, unilaterally and unaccountably, the salaries of existing staff – something that will, I suspect, become not uncommon, what with one person’s misery-monger being another’s soothsayer. A number of schools have even tried to convince retired ex-staff that teaching for no remuneration at all, under the guise of volunteering, may be a viable way to spend their twilight years: “Unpaid? Goodness, no; we call it ‘funpaid’ here.” Thankfully, responses so far have tended towards the sort that they really wouldn’t like up ‘em.

As education policy is driven almost entirely by the kind of cutbacks the Grim Reaper might undertake if paid by results, I have an idea. Let’s do away with salaries altogether and remodel teaching as a form of compulsory National Service. No more expensive recruitment campaigns or worries about teacher shortages. Less of that pesky red tape and workforce arsiness. Yes, staff would be unqualified, but don’t panic about that: it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind these days. Best of all, imagine the hours that could be spent playing with martial imagery. Oh, you’ve done that already.

My only concern is that it might never happen, so let’s suggest it to Nick Gibb who, I’m sure, will love the idea. Stupid boy.

 

 


Crisis? What Crisis?

If you’re thinking of joining the teaching profession, take a look at the DfE’s latest billboards, according to which new recruits can expect high levels of job satisfaction, salaries 2.5 times the national average and generous pensions. Which is great because, for experienced teachers, a rather different kind of writing’s been on the wall for some time. Initially, it looked like an idiosyncratic hand borne of a personal habit. As it spread, it became more stereotypical (in the original sense), reflecting an increasing uniformity of approach. Now upper case and blood-red, like the opening credits of Hammer House of Horror, its import is pretty clear. Run. Fast.

I’m not quite at the stage of decrepitude that requires a comb-over. However, being an occupant of the Upper Pay Scale, I know/of numerous managers who, guided by concerns such as freeing up cash for their own pay rises, would happily frame my face with a set of cross-hairs. I base this on neither conjecture nor the consumption of ergot but, rather, on the many instances I have witnessed of experienced teachers, hitherto regarded as highly competent, being revealed suddenly and by the miracle of managerial perspicacity as, in fact, beyond abysmal. Unprepared to spend any more of my days listening for the click of the sniper’s trigger, I have fled before I am shot.

I have, of course, thrown triplets out of the tub with the bathwater, the first being that I no longer get to experience the frisson accompanying the turn of the knob. Allow me to explain. Devoting time and energy to covering syllabus content thoroughly is fine. (Granted, I increasingly need a microscope to see it and not just because of failing eyesight.) And because an assistant head I worked under was asked to move along, dear, after teaching the wrong material again, it has to be a legitimate object of teacherly effort. The matter is more whether the syllabus is the alpha or the omega of what we teach; for, where the latter creed prevails, teachers are exhorted to spend any spare time clomping, yet again, across terrain already covered. The desire to explore other paths, to help students develop a richer sense of place, often forced me to shut my classroom door tightly and hope that no-one senior opened it (the knob referred to above) lest I was found, in flagrante, delivering material above and beyond. Now, I’m employed for the above and beyond. Happy days.

Second, I am no longer compelled to claim that my students’ successes are all their own, while their lack of the same is mine. Or, if you’re a senior manager, vice versa. In a travesty of good sense, I can perpetuate the fiction that no pupil is a blank sheet I can simply fold or doodle upon to create whatever is desired. If it were so, many would have long since turned into obese cats, origami helicopters or crude tumescences. Furthermore, and enjoying the support of my muddle-headed clients, I am able to enforce the idiocy that we go Dutch, requiring students to furnish fifty per cent of our collective effort.

Third, I need no longer pretend that low expectations, malpractice and ill-supported pedadodgical fads are all in the students’ best interests. Working in faith schools taught me that God is most often invoked just before an instruction to do something immoral and, often, illegal. Similarly, claims that “It’s all about the students” are at their most frequent when “it’s” about everything but. I shan’t bang on about a workload that, like a coward, does not threaten to kill me at least twice a week; nor about the bizarrely proportionate relationship that now exists between the hours I work and the income I earn. The acquisition of neither drove my departure, though both are gratefully-received consequences of the same.

Were I prone to feel guilty about leaving school employment, I shouldn’t as there is, most emphatically, no problem with teacher supply. We know this because Nick Gibb assures us that an imminent rise in pupil numbers, under-recruitment of new trainees and the diarrhoea of experienced teachers from schools (my exit being but a Lilliputian stool in the effluence) constitute nothing more than a challenge. Feel free to extend the analogy to the institutions from whence said staff are discharged, too often by means of mendacity and force. And to those who, tacitly or otherwise, encourage the practice.

Still, Nick Gibb is a minister and not one of those scaremongering globules that comprise ‘The Blob’, so what he says must be true. And because he is told what to do and say by Nicky Morgan who, being a Secretary of State, refrains from using underhand tactics to misinform the public, it must be doubly the case. Far be it from me, then, to suggest that staff retention policies based on the overconsumption of laxatives could reduce reserves of expertise so far that whatever’s left ends up talking to itself, like a rumble echoing around an empty stomach.

Indeed, should the system start to feel faint, it could always implement the idea Jim Knight floated recently in the TES, of using Skype to fill staffing gaps. Not at all like eating tissues to stave off hunger, it’s a solution that’s bound to be amazingly innovative or some such: it’s Jim Knight, FFS! Unless the entire article was a Juvenalian satire – which it might have been, given that the Physics specialist featured, to exemplify the virtues of Knight’s proposal, was a “Mr Hanke”. You may, perhaps, recall a similarly-named talking poo in South Park.

So, with there being a sufficiency of teachers and, apparently, oodles more poised to arrive, this is an excellent time at which to leave a field that has been treated less as a profession than as a performing monkey having its organ ground. No s**t, the simple fact is that as long as good teachers remain in a broken system, the broken system will have little incentive to mend. Sometimes, it’s kinder all round to let it crash and burn or, even, to fan the flames so that, phoenix-like, it can rise anew.

S**t… fan.., I feel a sentence just waiting to happen.

 


Reality Bites

Several years ago, a friend was offered the option of a ‘Skilled Professional’s Mortgage’, on account of being titled ‘Dr’. When the broker realised that my acquaintance was not a medic but, rather, a teacher, the offer – along with the assumption of professionalism – was withdrawn immediately. The lender concerned has since reversed the policy, and the friend has removed most of the pins from the figurine he fashioned from his own earwax. However, the belief that teaching is not skilled work lingers like an autograph hunter at a studio door.

I’ve referred, in previous posts, to recent trainees and their respective paths into teaching. Most have managed to qualify and, not knowing whether I’d survive the regime myself these days, I doff my fedora to their indomitability: thorough research and the clear-sighted understanding that none of it’s the full story seem to pay off. Only one did a runner from the PGCE – unsurprisingly, as our fledgling had been drawn to the course largely by the prospect of being paid to train, and by the guest appearance of someone from Educating Essex at a recruitment fair. The realisation that one is not ready to teach within minutes, and that training involves criticism – some of it stinging enough to leave a welt across a tender face – can hit hard. As can the obsidian fact that schools are usually more about brass neck than televisual gold.

The queue of those eager to appear in the Educating strand grows longer, and I can see why. In its world, banter is the quotidian currency between adults and children, much of it good-natured and some of it genuinely funny. Staff form a cohesive unit, unriven by discrepancies of purpose and the steely blade of ‘restructuring’, as if capability procedures had never been invented. Impact – heck, change – is, apparently, possible in the most trying of circumstances. And the editing policy that misled a young (ex-)trainee has made fast-track candidates for beatification of many participants. Which, it has to be said, is a welcome change from being characterised as the bastard offspring of Kitty Farmer and the Child Catcher.

It’s a neat reversal, given that teaching has long been an occasional refuge for resting actors. Nonetheless, I do wonder how much Educating advances the appreciation of teachers’ very specific and multiple areas of competence. I have heard of and from many who, having developed a formidable range of transferable skills, have found that the very idea of their re-employability is regarded as a hoot – not only by colleagues (a part of the unofficial job description), but also by those in other professions to which such skills are relevant. It’s a galling perception in general; for those trying to change career tracks, it’s an obstructive one too. To what extent does Educating Anywhere At All counter the misapprehensions that blight teachers’ chances of being taken seriously?

Though well-intentioned – and, indeed, the reason for many of its critical plaudits – the programme’s overwhelming focus on students in challenging circumstances arguably compounds the problem: rare is the episode in which we see lives enriched as much by subject learning as by pastoral support. Or in which teachers are not only de facto childminders but also experts in, and passionate advocates for, their specialisms. A vigilant pastoral system can, indeed, work wonders for some; but so, too, can a subject’s capacity to speak to a hitherto uninterested mind, especially when delivered with inspirational gusto. I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’m not alone.

In the hands of Educating’s editors, however, the curriculum is little more than the medium through which the ‘real’ business of schools, namely quasi-parenting, is conducted. Yes, yes, in loco parentis and all that. But it’s an approach that, while eliciting redemption narratives a-plenty, offers little to challenge the view – expectation, even – that a teacher is the same thing as a social worker, albeit untrained and even more badly dressed. The assumption is an insidious one, bemoaned by numerous teachers – including, perhaps, some of those who’ve been, or aspire to be, Educated.

We know that education is the current field of choice for really clever people, like SpAds, on the fast-track to ideological leadership. However, when the opportunity to engage in the sine qua non of actual, y’know, teaching is simultaneously extended to an ever-widening constituency that includes the unqualified, the bewildered and their imaginary friends, the conviction that the job requires no particular skill is reinforced. Centralised control, whether from government or head teacher, over what is taught and how, further reduces the teacher to a factotum: ecoutez et repetez après moi. Which may be why Cerebral, or whatever Caecilius’ dog was called, no longer est in horto. Perhaps someone should readmit him.

When other parts of the education sector collude, even implicitly, with the notion that effective teaching requires little skill, you know there’s a problem. A recent attendee at a university open day was surprised at the number of seminars and lectures delivered by postgraduate students. The GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant), a staple of American university faculties, is a relatively recent but increasingly popular import. A number of UK institutions now employ graduates to deliver front-line teaching which, at least, ensures a baseline of subject knowledge, unlike the use of teaching assistants to deliver whole-class lessons in schools. However, the GTAs’ preparation to teach varies widely: a few have the option of courses that span the academic year and result in formal certification; most receive a day or two of pre-Freshers’ Week instruction.

A few years ago, I abandoned a Masters degree because of its teaching standards. Penalised by the EQL rules for pursuing a qualification lower than one of those I already possessed, I was charged international-level fees for tuition whose quality was wildly inconsistent. Some of the professors were very competent teachers who had, clearly, spent time honing their pedagogy as well as their subject knowledge. Others had managed to reach exalted levels within the academic hierarchy delivering teaching that was, frankly, terrible. Perhaps, as a teacher myself, my expectations are less forgiving. But, had more stringent staff training and professional development been in place, I suspect that I may well have stayed the course.

It’s unlikely that the aforementioned aspiring student will apply to the institution she visited: her preference is for another that boasts a megastar academic. May it be that a single lecture per term is contact enough for those, like her, drawn to the university by its professor’s high profile. For, while he harnesses the power of popular media to disseminate a bit of knowledge and secure publicity for his employer, it’ll be the faculty’s graduate students, with a single day of training under their belts, who’ll be delivering the teaching load.


Cast No Shadow

Once a year, the good folks of Pennsylvania watch a woodchuck emerge from its burrow. If there’s enough cloud cover to prevent it seeing its own shadow, spring is imminent; otherwise, it returns to the hiber-hole, trailing in its wake the belief that winter will last for another six weeks.

To those who do not work in schools, Results Day is little more than a fixture in the calendar of Silly Seasonality. Press photographers cajole students into throwing their grades in the air, like they just do/n’t care. Middle-class blondes, refugees and twin geeks* are deemed equally telegenic for a day. (N.B: * must have spookily identical grades in the spookily identical subjects their schools/parents/schools, most probably, encouraged them to take, having caught the distant scent of publicity on the wind). Heads and ministers congratulate everyone on securing them their next pay rises or, as it’s publicly known, “a job well done”.

For teachers, however, it’s a day that divines and defines the character of the forthcoming school year. At a “rapidly improving” member of an esteemed chain, a department head, who received scarcely a word of thanks for overseeing a marked rise in results last year, was summoned to the Principal’s office as soon as it became clear that this year’s porky-pie-in-the-sky targets – drawn up, as the HoD had repeatedly emphasised to deaf ears, with no reference to the cohort’s ability – hadn’t been met. For students, too, the stakes are high. At the same institution, those with the loftiest grades were handed their results in envelopes a fetching shade of Camera Flash White; others were ushered through a side door and, like bit-part players in a Hal David lyric, instructed to carry on walking – a mere two weeks before the start of a new term. I guess “rapidly” is spelt with a ‘b’ in these parts?

We know about the prominence given to students with unbroken strings of top grades and places at approved universities. And, unless they’ve behaved disgustingly to all and sundry – a genuine rarity – no-one I’ve met begrudges them those moments of glory on the school website, during which they pretend to know who the head teacher is, while s/he pretends to give a damn. But most of us have, simultaneously, felt a stitch or two of guilt about the other students we’ve taught whose achievements are less enthusiastically vaunted but just as hard-won: the students who’ve worked their derrieres off to rise from predictions of G to actual grades of D, finding at the end of it that their efforts merit not a millimeter, never mind an inch, of a column.

In common with many teachers, I was every bit as proud of my ‘alternative curriculum’ students as I was of those in my concurrent top set. With their heady cocktail of social, behavioural and emotional needs, and target grades at the bottom of the scale, the former somehow emerged from two years of GCSE with a maturity that offset their humour and vivacity the way gold does the brilliance of diamonds. All of them achieved grades significantly above those predicted – several of them, the magic Cs – and not one failed to proceed to college for further qualifications.

That includes the student who was awarded the school prize for English Literature, and the one who agreed to be tutored by post in the months leading up to the exams, when her pregnancy took a turn for the difficult. As the head teacher rattled off pass-rate percentages to eight, congratulatory decimal places, our faculty was advised that the school was unbothered about the primigravid “and her like”, all of whom had been advised to seek other institutions in which to continue their education. Unsurprisingly, none of them made it onto the website – which is as predictably rum as yours truly after several mojitos and a Jean Harlow.

This year, however, it’s another group’s fate that’s proven vexatious: the GCSE candidates who all but burned themselves out, in their efforts to move to other sixth forms. Who’ve exceeded target grades and met the general entrance requirements but, having fallen slightly short of those for a proposed A level, have been prevented from taking the subject – even though their cases were easily explicable. One, for instance, who dropped a grade in Further Additional Science, had no subject teacher for Year 11 and resorted to teaching himself. (Indeed, with an entire class facing the same predicament, his school did as it knew best and renamed the problem. Thus was its uncanny ability to send staff fleeing for the antipodes no more: one person’s escape from a hell-hole of a job; another’s “independent learning opportunity”.) He’s opted, at the last minute, for a different sixth form altogether, where he’ll be able to take the subject he needs, and of which he is more than capable.

I’m not unsympathetic to the enforcement of entrance criteria. Not when I’ve worked in a school where senior staff held the door open to anyone who fancied a pop at a subject, regardless of their grades. With faculty heads banned from enrolment days, even prospective students who fell miles below minimum requirements were told that “It’ll be fine, I’m sure” by one bloody idiot or another. This might have been less of a problem if: a) faculties hadn’t been subject to 100% retention targets, with student losses resulting in financial penalties (that Merc isn’t going to pay for itself, you know); and b) all comers hadn’t been promised that, if their teachers were doing their jobs properly, passes at certain grades were guaranteed. This is, I believe, what’s known as the “Seat! Quick! Bum!” principle of recruitment. Or “Two bums”, if feeling ambitious.

However, so fearful have sixth forms now become at the prospect of anything less than assured outcomes, there’s little appetite for taking a punt on a promising student who, having had a scuppered year, landed a little wide of the required mark. With that and sparky originality deemed too risky, schools are, instead, admitting only those conscientious enough to write down and repeat almost every word their teachers utter. The folly of which becomes painfully apparent when coursework is submitted for marking, bearing phrases such as “toilet parts to fore and aft” divested of the inverted commas in which they were originally delivered.

Time will tell how accurate Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions were this year. Indeed, in only a few months, we’ll be ready for his next annual attempt at clairvoyancy, after which he’ll return to his abode in Gobbler’s Knob for another year. No inverted commas required.


Crime And Punishment

The tea-tray on which I began my descent of the slippery slope (at the bottom of which we now lie) was a detention a friend and I received for damaging institutional property. So record-breakingly long was it by our school’s standards that, on running out of cruel and unusual curricular punishments, the deputy head resorted to lobbing dusters at us, along with instructions on how to clean the bookcases in the panelled library. The topmost shelves were out of reach and, though our last grains of social responsibility howled “Nooooo” at the order to do so, we realised we had no option but to remove our shoes and stand on chairs.

And what of that? Well, in order to identify the most disgusting of our number, several of us childebeests had spent the preceding weeks competitively wearing unwashed socks. Indeed, with laurels not yet bestowed, some of us (fellow detainee and myself included) remained actively involved in this medically-inadvisable research. There are people for whom revenge, carefully planned and executed, tastes sweet; for us, it was unintended and smelled horrific. As we loosened our laces, a stench filled the air – the olfactory equivalent of a time-lapse movie charting the decomposition of a rat’s corpse. Those hitherto ignorant of our co-curricular efforts didn’t remain so for long, and the library was cleared long before it was cleaned.

Obviously, this occurred in so other a time that it may as well have been another place. Shoe removal would, today, be considered a paltry nod indeed towards Health and Safety; without an embarrassment of carabiners and the kind of immovable wedgie that can only a hyper-enthusiastic belay can achieve, it Just Wouldn’t Happen Now. Nor is a sock war, to the best of my knowledge, among the challenges in which young people of a competitive bent engage these days. Those, I am told, consist largely of death threats even greater than an acquaintanceship with my hosiery, delivered via etherweb and comprising punctuation, misspelling and smiley faces. LOLZ :o>

What dates this tale more than anything, however, is that it harks to an age of sanctions, also known as the Mesozoic era. Back then, doing something wrong resulted in punishment. The foolishness. As schools now concern themselves primarily with headline figures, things would be much easier for my teenage self in the current climate. I detach a page from a textbook weighing half a Zeppelin; my target grades, and proximity thereto, are established; staff are obliged to prove that they have done everything in their powers to ensure that I am ‘realising my potential’.

And thus is my act of vandalism transformed from a clear example of Selfish Little Shittery that fancies itself an ingenious solution to a carriage problem, into a symptom of disaffection induced by teacher incompetence. For, in the way of things like sunrises, the teachers’ efforts, however assiduous, will be deemed insufficient. As copping-out management goes, this is great, being equally applicable to the naughty-lazy daft, the naughty-lazy bright and their distant lazy-naughty cousins. Those cries for help, cunningly disguised as igniting each other’s hair extensions for fun, are just waiting to happen when Miss and Sir fail so comprehensively to meet their students’ needs.

We know that poor behaviour is one of the reasons for which teachers often leave their jobs – nay, profession. We know this because departing teachers tell us so, though they often go unheeded. Having created the category of ‘low-level disruption’ for the purpose of calibration, we now find that it is tantamount to an excuse, enabling senior staff so inclined to pile all responsibility for behaviour management onto the shoulders of classroom teachers, whose requests for help are re-interpreted as admissions of incompetence and logged in big, black folders of evidence.

The construction of improbable façades also leads many schools to believe they can ill-afford the appearance of any crack. Misdemeanours may go unpunished to ensure that no paper trail attests to behaviour issues. Line managers, rather than supporting staff by tackling the miscreants who prevent others from learning, hide in alcoves or barricade themselves inside meeting rooms. So dedicated are some to replicating those awful ‘living statues’ in Trafalgar Square that I’d have a fair chance of scot-freeing my way through fashioning a Camberwell Carrot from a textbook, lighting it off a classmate’s hair and partaking of its vapours in the playground.

Or, proving that the Yoda garb is nothing but a costume, some turn what should be opportunities for behavioural sanctions into rocket-booster sessions in which – defying fripperies like exam board regulations and gravity – grades already achieved may be…erm…revisited. So, yet more lunchtimes/after-school hours/weekends/holidays are given over to catch-up (or copying, as it’s also known) for those not yet hitting the mark; or, for those who’ve already done so, an expectation of “stretch and challenge” only achievable, in truth, on the rack.

As Meatloaf, junior lecturer in the Life Lessons Faculty, almost said, one out of two ain’t bad. My sock drawer may still smell apocalyptic but, in the light of the punishment inflicted upon me, I’ve not defaced a book since.


It’s Not A Messiah Complex; It’s That Naughty Russell Brand

Despicable old me. Being stupid, I love earwigging the conversations of the clever, so I enjoyed a recent exchange between several people whom, I’m pretty sure, most would consider significantly above average in intelligence. With each of them holding at least two degrees, the discussion spiralled around the universities they’d attended – all reputable and established and, strikingly, only one a member of the original Russell Group. The remainder belonged to the, now dissolved, 1994 Group.

‘Russell Group’ has become the phrase du jour on the lips of ambitious sixth-formers, many of whom believe that the world affords a warmer welcome to the chronically flatulent than it does to non-RG graduates. And why wouldn’t they? Mindful that league tables record numbers of RG-bound leavers, plenty of schools have taken to scaring the bejaysus out of their students with tales of the manifold woes that will be heaped upon those who apply elsewhere. And thus are mythologies, engendered as much by the imaginative deficiencies of politicians as they are by reality, sustained – stories that, in part, explain why four of the ex-1994 Group universities attended by my acquaintances have, within the last couple of years, paid very sizeable membership fees to join t’other club.

As educators, we vaunt the importance of fact over prejudice, in the classroom and in policy-making. So, a couple of facts on the founding of the Russell Group. Named after the Hotel Russell, and not Great Uncle Bertrand, this self-selecting group only admitted members that were: a) research-led; b) affiliated with a medical school; and c) above a certain size.

And that, pretty much, was it.

A number of very credible, research-intensive universities that one might assume to have been pillars of the Russell Group were, in fact, not so: not because they lacked the academic chops but because of their student numbers and/or range of faculties. And, lo, the 1994 Group was born. Most British universities, incidentally, have belonged to neither association.

However, the belief persists that the Russell Group comprises top-flight universities only: the most leading institutions as opposed to just, well, leading ones. That’s certainly the public perception, the belief of all those students summarily dismissing (some superb) non-RG institutions as domains of the no-hoper, and the view of a political class that self-effacingly assumes the almae matres that spawned their own good selves to be bywords for excellence.

Two or three RG universities do, indeed, score consistently highly in national and global rankings, achieving top-ten places within both. The other member institutions, however, are largely within the top 200 globally – the top 350 in a couple of cases. As those experienced in the decorative crafts can attest, glitter migrates easily; rubbing shoulders with the scintillating is a pretty reliable way of embellishing one’s own lapels. Although I’m sure their mothers love them dearly, would it be entirely wide of the mark to suggest that some of the Russell Group’s universities have benefited from the branding-by-association that membership confers?

So, if it’s not necessarily a collection of the toppermost, what is the Russell Group? In short, it’s a protectionist body, whose other attraction is the clout it wields in lobbying for research funds. And, it has to be said, it is very successful at this, as most of the UK’s research grants end up in its hands. In a distribution of resources reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa, the 15% of UK universities that comprise the group are awarded roughly 75% of available funding. No surprise, then, that “68% of the UK’s very best (‘world leading’) research takes place in the Russell Group’s 24 universities”. That’s not just a pre-requisite for membership; it’s a consequence thereof.

Given these statistics, one could, perhaps, see the fervour with which some schools shepherd their students toward RG destinations as in the latter’s best interests. (Throw some industrial-strength cheating into the mix, amass the choicest teachers to write the applicants’ personal statements for them, and watch the offers roll in.) But the case remains that, in doing so, they also pander to, and perpetuate some, ill-informed prejudices: for, as unlikely as it may seem at times, parents and students often follow where schools lead.

At one end of the spectrum, this results in sixth-formers being actively discouraged from applying to excellent universities outside the group, even though these may be better attuned to their choices of degree subject and career aspirations. At the other end, we have situations such as that experienced by a former colleague at an ‘outstanding’ school. In charge of the careers curriculum, he was asked to ensure that the sixth-form destinations documented in the forthcoming school prospectus contained minimum proportions of Russell Group universities and entrants reading medicine or law. Or, to put it another way, he was asked to lie. He refused, the list appeared anyway and my colleague decided to become an ex-colleague.

Having taught in some highly-regarded schools, both state and private, I would have been delighted to hear of the very brightest students applying to fantastic universities outside the Russell Group. And, I was, often, because back then many of them did – having made their decisions with reference to subjects and relevant faculties, rather than to more nebulous notions of reputation or group affiliation. Just imagine the pattern trickling down: parents actively seeking out schools in the PiXL Club (‘Partners in eXceLlence’, apparently), assuming all of its members to be, well, eXceLlent. What else would they be?

So, blessed are those who get to be geeks. I’m glad they’re getting something: they have a hell of a time…