Tag Archives: DfE

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.

 

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One Day In May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come what(ever in) May.