Tag Archives: staffing

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 crosses paths 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, 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.


The Nanny’s State

How times change while staying the same. In London’s leafier enclaves, where ranks of domestic staff are the norm and BritMilFit instructors outnumber the trees in the parks, moans about nannies’ unreasonable demands – pay and things like that – are as they ever were. But, where once t’was an unwritten law to employ twentysomethings from between the Balkans and the Baltics, there has been a small revolution. No longer shall Daddy hunger after the Hungarian au pair, as depicted not-entirely-unsympathetically in John Lanchester’s Capital. In place of Matya, meet Conchita – heavy of hip and middle of age, her implicitly-assumed undesirability reinforced by a skin more rich in melanin than her employer’s.

Over the years, I’ve had the good/mis*fortune to reside in some salubrious parts of London (*delete according to current state of social-economic-political outrage). Many households in these areas employ staff – often chosen, it would seem, in accordance with changing ethnic preferences. When I lived in west London, the commonplace sight of older Hispanic women with tow-haired toddlers made me marvel daftly at the sheer biological miraculousness of it all. Then I realised my mistake: these ladies may push the prams, but they do so in the way their spouses drive the cars. As chauffeurs. Dark-haired and tanning easily, I learned not to walk down the streets of Holland Park in my civvies, lest I be handed a bucket and told to do the front steps.

And so, parts of London come to resemble the Confederate States. It’s a hard nut to crack, what with the right to dispose of one’s income as one chooses being more or less sacrosanct. But we can, at least, rest assured that public institutions responsible for social education won’t be afraid to face such challenges head-on – can’t we? At an after-school staff meeting a couple of years ago, a trainee nearing the end of his course expressed incredulity that he was about to become a ‘proper’ teacher. Not because he was an incompetent (far from it) who’d fooled us all into believing otherwise. And not just because he’d survived being buried alive, Poe-style, under a mountain of paperwork with only his tell-tale edu-jargon to attest to a working pulse. No; he was amazed because he is black, and teaching seemed to him to be a white occupation.

That this belief is erroneous can be verified in any number of schools, where staffing is almost as diverse as pupil intake. Indeed, Sheldon, as I shall call him, admitted as much: he’d been on placements in other schools where he’d felt at ease being a teacher with black skin. There, to have a staff body that reflected the students’ ethnic variety was seen as a positive asset. Whether the presence of black teachers in overwhelmingly white schools is similarly valued remains debatable. An ex-colleague recalls being referred to as ‘the other one’ by both staff and students at a suburban high school. She was one of two non-white teachers in a staff body numbering around a hundred and twenty, and each was often confused with the other despite their differences in sex, build and subject. It was easier, apparently, to distinguish the Chuckle Brothers.

I digress. Back to Sheldon. His unease in his current placement did not surprise. The school, in inner London, had an overwhelmingly black intake – around 90%, comprising a wide range of ethnic groups – but not a single black teacher. The story differed in the ranks of poorly-paid support staff, where black outnumbered white by about four to one. The white support staff held positions of responsibility for which they were paid more, their lack of relevant qualifications being, it would appear, no barrier to career progression. Indeed, one might almost assume the reverse to be true: the sole staff member with the qualifications required by said posts was an Asian employee who had been appointed – and kept – at a significantly lower level, despite an excellent track record. Consequently, on every day that they were in school, children of all colours witnessed white people having the right to give orders and darker people being obliged to obey unquestioningly.

I’m ambivalent about quotas. On the down-side, they can hand bigots a rusty but usable tool with which to start chipping away at an appointee’s credibility. However, the imbalance in its staff, and the possible impact of this fact on its students’ self-perception, were among the first features to strike me when I entered the school, and I found myself looking more sympathetically at the idea. Then I noticed the ease with which white children, especially middle-class ones, were identified as gifted. By contrast, I had to fight tooth-and-nail to have one the most intellectually remarkable students I’ve ever taught – a black boy from a working-class, single-parent family – similarly designated. The recognition was, nearly always, accompanied by grudging ‘buts’ or compensatory emphasis on any errors he made – the kind that characterises its object as a buffoon.

Being struck so frequently by the status quo can leave a big bump on one’s forehead, that banging against brick walls only exacerbates; both the boy and I have left the place behind. I’m sure that few, if any, of the senior staff consider themselves prejudiced, and I know that many would – could? – counter such a claim by pointing out that they have chosen to work in a school with a very high proportion of black students. And it’s not inconceivable that the issues highlighted here are due more to failures of expertise and imagination than they are to malice – with, perhaps a little smug assumption of  self-rectitude thrown in.

Maybe things are on the up. I know that the school has recently appointed a couple of black teachers – or, to use the head teacher’s words, “a couple of them”. However, the proportion of white support staff has fallen, and those that there are continue to not only earn more, but also to be offered first dibs on opportunities to supplement their incomes. So my fear remains that children of an impressionable age will continue to see something akin to what I witnessed – and, as an adult, was able to anatomise – in Holland Park: car lots full of vehicles belonging to the better-paid, white and powerful, while the women and men who keep gravel raked and glasses sparkling make their long journeys on early trains and night buses.

Plus ca change.