Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.

A reminder that I’m not so young anymore

I was supporting a student in a year 7 English lesson today and we were given a new poem to study entitled “Hurricane hits England”. The poem, by Grace Nichols, was inspired by the great hurricane that hit our shores back in 1987.

As the teacher introduced the poem, she talked to the students about the 1987 hurricane and showed that famous footage of Michael Fish doing the weather forecast and assuring the viewers that there was no hurricane on the way. I laughed in remembrance and then found myself startled when I heard the teacher say that she was born shortly after this event. That made me sit up. How could it be that a grown up professional, a teacher for God’s sake, was too young to have even been alive in 1987?

Well of course, do the maths and it’s entirely possible. On an intellectual level, I have naturally been aware that I am older than many of the teachers in the school but I never felt it at the gut level like I did today. One of the challenges going into teaching at the ripe old age of 45 is the knowledge that I will most probably have to be taught or mentored by people who are a good deal younger than me.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, I need to be atuned to the fact that, regardless of age, my colleagues will know a lot more about the business of teaching than I do and that I will have to listen to their advice carefully. On the other hand, I clearly have a great deal of experience under my belt and already have formed my own (not intractable) views on educational matters. I will have to chart a course between genuinely opening my mind to new ideas and sticking to my guns when what is being spouted at me seems nonsensical. But most of all, I will have to learn real humility because teaching as a profession involves a daily admission that you still have a lot to learn yourself.

Going back to today’s lesson. The hurricane was being described as if it were a historical event beyond living memory and so of course I had to say out loud that I remembered it very well. All eyes turned to me. “How did I feel?”, “was I frightened?”, they asked with interest. There, my moment of fame came to a sad end as I had to admit the disappointing truth: I slept right through it.

 

How do we get teachers to teach rather than act as referees?

Friday afternoon and I finally head home, bruised and weary after yet another challenging week at my school. Half term seems like a distant memory already. I have had to deal with the usual rudeness, disrespect, rowdiness, chaos and aggression that characterises the behaviour here.  Yesterday I passed by one of the “problem” students on my way down the stairs to my next lesson and suddenly felt something cold and wet land on my hair. He had in his hand a cup of slushy iced drink with a little spoon inside and thought it would be funny to jettison some of that ice down onto my head.

I could go on with other examples of the kind of behaviour I have to deal with but I don’t think that would be necessary: you all get the general picture. The compounded effect of all this poor behaviour has me re-thinking my future. Do I really still want to train as a teacher? Can I work long term in a school like this? Maybe I should just stick with it long enough to get my QTS and then head for the halcyon hills of the private schooling sector.

The thing is, when I actually get to teach, it is still one of the most rewarding things to do ever. I work closely with two Syrian refugees, teaching them English 10 periods a week. They arrived in this country earlier this year with no English whatsoever; one is 11 years old and the other is 15. I have to work intensively with them and somehow get them to learn this tricky and complicated language well enough so that they are able to access the curriculum. I am having to do this task pretty much on my own. The head of the MFL department, who also heads the EAL in my school, is too busy to take this on. I was given a fairly useless ESOL textbook and the login to Linguascope and sent on my merry way. The rest was up to me.

After a few false starts, I decided to go back to basics. It helped that I have a seven year old son in primary school and that I have witnessed his journey into literacy. What do you do with someone who can barely read or write? Answer: phonics. I have been busily engaged teaching my Syrian girls to read using phonics. We read simple story books together every day and I also read more complex stories to them and translate as I go along. I get them to do reading comprehension exercises, modelling for them how to construct simple sentences and hammering into them the rules of punctuation. They already know to start all sentences and proper nouns with a capital letter and to end with a full stop, something even some year 10 students I work with forget to do. We do regular small stakes tests and quizzes, interleaving and repeating content learned in previous weeks. Words they get wrong in the weekly spelling test are tested again and again until they get them right. I make them practise their cursive handwriting which already looks much clearer and neater than the scrawl of the other students I see in school. We still have a very long journey ahead of us but we are making progress and it is gratifying to see.

The above is an example of when my job purely involves teaching and not behaviour management. The Syrian girls are well behaved, serious and motivated. They are a joy to teach because they want to learn and they are not interested in disrupting my lesson. We can get on with the nitty gritty and get a lot done each session. Of course, that kind of attitude is rare to find in a whole class setting. Michaela school, which I have written about before, seems to be achieving this but in most other schools, an element of behaviour management will always be on the teacher’s agenda. The question is then, at what level does the balance tip in a lesson from one where the teacher is mainly teaching to one where the teacher is mainly trying to impose discipline? Some teachers, by their charismatic or strong personalities, can manage to sort out the behaviour and get on with teaching but many others will need to rely on the schools’ systems and culture to do so.

It is in this context that I believe school leaders have a particularly important role to play. There needs to be a clear vision, purpose and attention to detail. If they want to have a successful school, they need to enable their teachers to actually teach. Quite clearly, this is not happening at my school at the moment. I can tell that the leadership is exercised by this issue in the frequent new directives that arrive in my inbox. Two weeks ago we were told to issue 5 behaviour points to any student arriving at their lessons 5 minutes late and 10 behaviour points for those that are more than 5 minutes late. Last week, we were told that all teaching staff had to make their way down five minutes before the end of break and lunch to assist students with lining up and help them proceed into classes in a more orderly fashion. I also got an email last week “proposing that we only use the main stairs for the transition between lessons. This will mean easier supervision for staff and, hopefully, swifter transitions.” And so on and so forth… Lots of tinkering at the edges but not enough real vision.

Faced with these realities, what do I do? Well for starters, I am going to try to make sure whatever school I end up doing my schools direct training with has a better standard of behaviour than the one I work at presently. I am not exactly spoiled for choice as history is not one of the shortage subjects. Secondly, I will have to work on my own strategies for ensuring good behaviour in lessons. This involves on the one hand actively observing other teachers and reflecting on what seems to work and not work, as well as what style of teaching would be appropriate for me (for instance I do not have a booming voice or a big physical presence). On the other hand, I need to try to practise these strategies myself and refine my technique.

The only other time I get to teach on my own is during the enrichment club I take on Friday afternoons. We play the TV quiz “Countdown” using an online version of the game. Unlike my EAL lessons with the Syrian refugees, my Countdown club is made up of a hodge podge of students, many of which never actually signed up for the club but just got lumped with it because the ones they wanted were oversubscribed. Two boys in particular have definite behavioural issues and it has been a huge challenge to get them to play by the rules, without shouting out, getting up and walking about the room or arguing with each other. Often I have felt more like a referee than a teacher in these sessions.

Each week after the club, I reflect on what went wrong and what went right. I think of different strategies to try out. I wish I could tell you in this blog that I have nailed it, but I’m afraid it is work in progress. I will describe, however, the new strategy I adopted in the club yesterday.

I decided to try out a zero tolerance approach yesterday with a nice big carrot to reward them with. I started off by telling them that I was unhappy with their behaviour over the last few sessions and explaining to them again what I expected. No one was to leave their seats for any reason without my permission, no talking or calling out during the game, only speak after putting your hands up and being invited to do so by me. I then proceeded to write all their names down on the board and explained that if any of them broke these simple rules even once, their name would be rubbed off the board. At the end of the lesson, everyone was to put their mini whiteboards, pens and erasers away neatly and stand behind their chairs. All the students with their names still on the board would get a cupcake or a sweet of their choice from the bag I had with me. Did it work? Yes and no. One boy decided this was not for him and just walked out. One of the “problem” boys broke the rules within minutes of the start of the game, and also walked out of the classroom in a huff. The other “problem” boy actually managed to stay seated and quiet. Overall, the class was much quieter and we had a more productive session. I managed to buy their good behaviour through bribery, which might work once a week on a Friday enrichment club but would not be viable in a day-to-day setting. I also lost two students who walked out of the classroom.

There are no easy answers here although I would welcome any constructive advice from more experienced practitioners. I will just continue to reflect and try to learn my craft as best I can.

What’s this education lark all about?

I had my first teacher training interview last Friday. I’m not sure how I came across or whether I shall be invited back for the next stage in the recruitment process. One thing I was asked to do was to give a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my choice and after some deliberation, I decided to talk about my vision for education. I figured it was important to explain why I wanted to be a teacher and what kind of teacher I wanted to be. If my vision didn’t square with theirs, then we would not be a good fit either way.

I’m sharing here some of what I said. Maybe you can have a better inkling than me whether it went down well or not. In any case, I found it a useful exercise to put into words what I believe education is about and what it should look like. It went a little like this…

Let me start by saying that education is very precious to me. It allowed me to be more thoughtful, analytical and philosophical. It opened many doors for me and I want to be able to pass that gift on to my students and help open doors for them too. I’ve seen the various educational debates that are raging at the moment between the “traditionalists” who emphasize a knowledge-led curriculum versus the “progressives” who want to focus more on creative thinking and problem solving skills. And I have to confess to being baffled by this dichotomy on offer. Why do we have to choose between one or the other?

I’ve always thought it was a given that a teacher’s job was to impart knowledge and that this knowledge would underpin creativity and problem solving. Let me give you an analogy which demonstrates my point, albeit not in an educational setting. My mother taught me how to make perfect, fluffy white rice. Over the years, I have taken her recipe and added a few tweaks of my own. My expertise in cooking rice gave me the confidence to play around with the recipe, to be creative with it. I hope to teach my son, when he is a bit older, how to cook rice both the way my mum made it and with my innovations. In due course, I expect he will go forth into the world with this knowledge and try out his own permutations of it. In this way knowledge gets passed on and improved upon from generation to generation.

I guess this means that I fall more into the “knowledge-led” camp. To be honest though, I think this is all a bit of a no brainer and that we need to look beyond this debate. What do we understand by a good education? Now it is beyond the scope of my 5 minutes to answer this question in any depth but let me give you, very briefly, my perspective on what encapsulates a good education, based on what I have read and observed in schools so far.

I’ve talked already about the importance of imparting knowledge and so I won’t go much more into that. Secondly, I believe in pitching things up and setting high expectations rather than pitching things down as is so often the case. For example, I am not in favour of giving students lots of handouts rather than expecting them to write their own notes and I’m not in favour of spoon feeding them with writing frames rather than encouraging them to formulate their own sentences. I have seen Year 10 history students carelessly copy down the writing frames on the white board and then cobble them together with what is written on their handouts, resulting in often incoherent sentences that make no grammatical sense. I think all this spoon feeding derives from a sense, not overtly articulated, that the students are just not able to work at that high a level and so we have to pitch things down for them. But then this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you want to raise standards you have to have high expectations. You can’t do it by just making things easier. Of course that’s much harder to do and much more challenging, but nothing worthwhile is ever achieved by taking the easy road.

When I think of a good education I also think of language skills and communication. If you can’t read, write or speak properly, you haven’t been well educated, full stop. I am able to sit here before you and speak articulately about this topic precisely because of my education.

And finally we come to what is, to my mind, one of the biggest issues of the day: behaviour management. If you are constantly having to manage even low level disruption, constantly having to stop what you’re saying because someone is talking over you, then you are not going to be able to teach very well. I see behaviour and discipline rather like the first building blocks in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to learn, I believe you need to be in classrooms where there is good behaviour. You can have a well behaved classroom where learning doesn’t happen, but not the other way around.

Those then are my five pillars of a good education: knowledge, pitching things up, language, communication and discipline. That’s what I think teaching is about and I hope most of what I have said chimes with your outlook on education.

[At this point, I was told I had about 30 seconds left, so I decided to squeeze in one last bit of the presentation I had prepared.]

Let me finish with this little vignette.

Many teachers will have had a light bulb moment when they realise teaching is the profession for them. Although I probably had been thinking about it sub-consciously for a while, I had such a moment when I received this note from my son’s teacher.

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When I tell you this note was written by no less than the deputy head of an Ofsted Outstanding school, you may get an idea of my level of frustration, disillusionment and ultimately my conviction that someone needs to step in and raise standards. I do believe that teachers have to be well educated themselves, to be masters of their subject, in order to pass that on to their students. When I saw this note I realised that here was an opportunity for me to do something of value. Or more simply, it made me feel needed. And so here I am, raring to go. Thank you for listening.

When did we lose our authority over our kids?

At the tail end of Friday I heard some of my colleagues discuss meeting up in the pub for a few drinks after work. My plans were rather different: pick up the kid from after school club, then home. I managed to get through dinner, homework and bedtime before collapsing into bed myself and sleeping for an unheard of 13 hours.

So what made my week so exhausting? I work as a learning support assistant though I do also teach EAL English to a few students who are refugees from Syria. This involves developing the curriculum, lesson planning and preparing an end of term 1 assessment for them, so one could say there is something of the teacher’s workload in my busy week. Still, I haven’t had to mark mountains of homework so that alone doesn’t go far enough towards explaining my fatigue.

Maybe it’s because we are approaching half term but I do get the sense that behaviour has got a lot worse over the last week. I had to break up two fights in the corridor in the space of two days and on the last period on Friday, at the start of my enrichment club, a girl came into my classroom, said a few angry words to a boy there, punched him in the stomach and then strutted out before I had a chance to stop her getting away. I later had to try to sift through class photos on the SIMS system before I identified her and gave her a “red card” for “reckless behaviour” which will add 10 behaviour points to the 60 or so she had already, no big deal for her.

All week long, navigating a path to classrooms between each lesson has proved to be something of an obstacle course. Hordes of children moving about in a chaotic manner, sometimes just stopping in the middle of the staircase for a chat, sometimes having raging arguments, laughing or being rowdy – this is no orderly procession from class to class. Fighting my way through these hordes to get to my classroom has become something of a daily struggle. Yesterday after period 3, I finally reached the top floor, turned right towards my classroom only to hear a girl shouting out to another “I’m going to punch you for this”. I remonstrated with “this is not appropriate language to use at school” but the girl simply ignored me and walked off.

I also noticed something else which gave me pause for thought. Twice this week, I have been accused by students of being rude to them, both times in nearly identical circumstances. This is what happened. I was trying to make my way up the back staircase to go to my next lesson but got held up by a group of girls having a heated conversation on the half landing. I said to them in a stern voice “go to your classrooms now please”, when this had no effect I then raised my voice and said “get moving to your class now” and when that still had no effect I literally had to shout at them to “go on, get moving now”. What did I then get for my troubles? A pained, injured expression on their faces and the accusation that I had been rude to them.

When did it become ok for students to talk back at teachers and accuse them of being rude? When did we lose our authority over our children? Looking back at my years at school, I don’t think I could ever have spoken to my teachers the way these kids were talking to me. If a teacher had told me to go to my classroom, I would have obeyed. I don’t think I ever witnessed chairs being upended or threats of physical violence, something of a daily occurrence in my school. Let’s not forget, this is a school rated as “good” by Ofsted. I dread to think what goes on in the ones that require improvement.

I am not so old that I ever experienced corporal punishment in school but there was always an element of respectful fear of teachers, particularly senior staff. Both of my headmistresses, Mlle Dutouquet in primary and Miss Rudland in secondary were what one would call battleaxes. Rather strict and stern individuals you didn’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. If you happened to pass them in the corridor, you would unconsciously make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You did not want that eagle eye to fall on you.

Now I don’t want to come across as a traditionalist who views the past through gilded lenses. The kind of schools where teachers could behave like tyrants, ordering children about and imposing harsh punishments for misdemeanours obviously have no place in our modern world. Yet I do wonder if our efforts to empower children and to give them a voice have taken matters to the other extreme. Their empowerment has come at the expense of our authority. There is a happy medium somewhere but I have not seen it in any of the schools I have worked in, except perhaps the independent prep school I was with last year.

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the reports I read about Michaela free school in Wembley, the marmite school that has sharply divided opinion. Its head is Katharine Birbalsingh, the darling of the Tories and a champion of Michael Gove’s educational reforms. This on its own is enough to raise the hackles of the left leaning educational establishment. As I don’t belong to any of the two main political tribes of this country, I am not particularly bothered by the political hue of this school’s leadership. What interests me is what they seem to be achieving in terms of behaviour and educational attainment. I am told that students at Michaela walk the corridors in silence between lessons and that they are able to pack up their belongings, get to the next lesson and be ready to learn all in the space of 2 minutes. I hear that teachers are free to teach without having to constantly keep on top of behaviour management. I hear that they teach the children about gratitude and kindness. I’m intrigued.

On an impulse last week, I sent an email to the vice principal of my school who is also my line manager. I attached a link to Tom Benett’s blog about his visit to Michaela and asked whether anyone from our school had been to visit. If there were any plans to do so in the pipeline, please could I hitch a ride? When I next met up with her, she asked me about Michaela in a way that indicated she had never heard of this school before. I was surprised. I forgot that not everyone is in my twitter bubble. The long and short of it is that she would be happy for me to visit Michaela as part of my CPD though I did suggest that she accompany me there, as I feel it is important for a member of the leadership to see if there are any lessons we can learn from Michaela.

So, Michaela school, I hope you are still welcoming visitors because I want to come and see for myself how you do the things you do. If you’ve managed to crack the behaviour thing, then I want to learn how you do it. Make no mistake. Behaviour is the single most important issue in education today. We need to sort it out for the children’s sake but also for our own sanity. Maybe then I won’t have to come home at the end of the week feeling as low as I did last Friday.

Wading ever so slightly into the grammar school debate

I have just completed my first week as a Learning Support Assistant at an inner London secondary academy. I took the job to gain experience in the state education sector before applying for teacher training. Prior to that, I had worked for a term as a teaching assistant at an independent prep school. It will come as no surprise if I say that my current school feels a million miles removed from my previous one.

The first and most obvious difference is in the pupil intake. This is a school with a very high percentage of children on free school meals and over 50% of them with English as an additional language. I had the opportunity to observe the new intake of year 7 students during their induction process. Comprehensive is the word that springs to mind when I think of these year 7s. At one end of the spectrum, a handful of very bright and engaged students immediately stood out. There was a solid number of students who seemed to be working within the expectations for their year group but also a fair few that seemed to be struggling with their reading and writing. Add to this mix a couple of students recently arrived in the country (one of them a Syrian refugee) with little or no English. And to complete the picture, the new intake also included a few disruptive students with serious behavioural issues.

Academies and free schools have been at the forefront of the government’s educational policies for the last few years and there have been some notable success stories, in London schools particularly. My school could be considered one of these successes. Rated “good” by Ofsted, it has a dedicated and motivated leadership and there is a palpable ethos of aspiration. Although budgets are always tight, the pupil premium accompanying a large number of the students has meant the school has been able to invest in a significant number of specialist and support staff, myself included. The school itself is housed in a state-of-the-art newly built campus. There are also some tremendously talented and inspirational teachers, the backbone surely of any good school.

The acid test for me, however, is this. My son currently attends the local state primary but before too long we will need to think about secondary schools for him. Would I want my own son to go to this school? The answer to that is a definite no. And the reason for that is a relatively simple one. Because the school is comprehensive, because there is no element of selection and because the school happens to be in a poorer part of the city, it is likely that my son would have to share his classroom with some very troubled and disruptive students. For me, that is the deal breaker. I have repeatedly observed lessons being derailed by poor behaviour. I have also noticed how, over time, the disruptive students exert a pull over others who would otherwise behave, and encourage them to misbehave too. To clarify things, although I have worked in an official capacity at this school for only a week, I also volunteered there last year for half a term. So I do know what I am talking about.

When it comes to the grammar school debate, I can understand many of the arguments against them. I can see that they do very little for social mobility and that they have a negative effect on the neighbouring schools by creaming off the most talented, effectively turning them into secondary moderns. I understand all this and yet, as a mother myself, I have sympathy for those other parents crying out for a grammar school to open in their area so they don’t have to send their precious child to a school like mine. They want an element of selection so their child can be in a classroom with pupils that will exert an upward pull on them, not a downward one.

And that element of selection is already there, though not officially so. Schools in expensive areas, such as the one in leafy Surrey that I volunteered at briefly, are comprehensive in name only. Other schools deal with the problem by aggressively streaming or setting the students in most subjects. An Ofsted Outstanding school I know of assesses the students at the start of the year and then separates them into seven ability groups. That is surely a grammar school system by the back door.

Let’s have a bit more honesty in the debate and talk about the real issue, which is that of poor behaviour and how that can damage the educational chances of others. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t think opening more grammar schools is the solution either. As for my son’s choice of secondary school, well we’re the lucky ones. If need be, we can afford to go private or move to a better catchment area. Others are not so lucky.

My thoughts on Chilcot and Blair

Thirteen years ago I went on my first and my last protest march. Up until then I had been content to watch events unfold from the safety of my couch but this, this was different. My adopted country was going to wage a pre-emptive war on a fellow Arab nation. While I had no love for the tyrant Saddam Hussein, it was obvious to me that he posed no serious threat to the security of the British people. It was equally obvious that many innocent Iraqi civilians were going to be caught in the crossfire. Their lives were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of some nebulous greater good.

And so I marched. Thousands of others joined me that day on the “Stop the War” march. Our numbers were so great that I hoped politicians in Westminster would sit up and take notice. They didn’t. The war went ahead and it was more destructive and more bloodthirsty than even I had feared. The infrastructure of an entire nation was torn apart. People who once lived secure lives under a cruel dictator now lived in fear of their lives thanks to their benevolent rescuers. This is something that people in the West have long misunderstood. Such were the tales they heard of Saddam Hussein’s viciousness that they imagined a people living downtrodden, miserable lives. Surely then it was right to free them from the evil dictator and bestow on them that wonderful elixir called democracy.

As the daughter of a marriage between a Syrian and a Saudi Arabian, I know what life under dictators looks like. There is no freedom to express political views or to vote to change the leadership of your country. Corruption is rife and people in the high echelons of power can get away with murder, literally. But if you keep your head down under the radar, you can live secure and prosperous lives. Go to school, to university, to work. Enjoy wedding celebrations or dine out at a restaurant of your choice. Invite family or friends to dinner or go shopping for the latest fashions in the local mall. Such were the lives led by many ordinary Iraqis before the war. No doubt it would have been preferable to live in a free and democratic society under the rule of law but was the situation bad enough to justify the destructiveness of war?

Of course, we were told it was not just about getting rid of a cruel dictator and bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. There were those weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be mobilised within 45 minutes. There was the increased threat to the West from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – although no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with AlQaeda.

We know now that there were no WMD. Iraq today is a fractured country riddled with sectarian violence. And after seven long years in the making, we now have the Chilcot report into this sad episode in our history. So what have we learned? Well among many other things, we now know that:

  • The UK chose to invade Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted
  • The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
  • Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated and the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was inadequate.
  • The Americans were going to invade Iraq no matter what. The UK was powerless to stop them and had to decide whether to join them in this endeavour or to risk the special relationship by insisting on continuing with diplomacy and UN inspections.

I watched Tony Blair’s press conference today, in which he responded to the contents of the Chilcot report. It has been widely reported that he seemed a broken man as he apologised for mistakes made and took responsibility for them. What struck me, however, was his refusal to admit that the decision to go to war had been wrong in the first place. Indeed, he used the example of Syria to demonstrate the dangers of inaction. How much worse would the Arab spring have been with Saddam still in power? I found this unconvincing. One could equally argue that, had there been no Iraq invasion, there might have been more appetite for military action in Syria and that this might have taken the shape of a no-fly zone rather than all out regime change.

We’ll never know what the geopolitical situation in the Middle East would have been today had there been no invasion  of Iraq. What we do know is that thousands of people died in this conflict: civilians, British, American and Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps the most important lesson that needs to be learned by our politicians is this: human life is precious. Do not embark on war lightly, without thought for the consequences, and do not treat the lives of ordinary people as pawns in a game of politics.

School tests should be welcomed, not reviled

It’s May and school tests are in full swing all around me. I work as an assistant in a year 3 class at a London prep school and we are quite familiar with testing. Every week there are spelling, mental arithmetic and problem solving tests. This week is a little different however. In addition to the usual tests, the children have done assessment papers in maths and in creative writing. All these tests and assessments are used to check how well the children are learning and to spot any areas of weakness that can be improved. This is a great help to the teachers in writing their end of year reports for each child.

Although the class size is comparatively small and the teacher has gotten to know his pupils very well, tests are still necessary to get a more detailed picture of how much each child has learned. Despite knowing the children really well, the class teacher still gets a surprise or two when marking the tests. “Robert”, the boy who clowns around in class to hide his academic insecurities, has done surprisingly well in quite a difficult test. Confident and cocky “Percy” who usually sails through all his tests has found this particular one quite challenging.

Yesterday I was asked by the class teacher to pore through the test data for one particular pupil and to make a note of all the tests where that child scored below a certain mark, and then to list the topics of each of these tests in order to try to identify any pattern. With this information, the teacher hopes to get a better understanding of where the child is struggling and to be able to devise appropriate strategies for him.

Without all this test data the teacher would have to rely mainly on his own observation of the children in class, an imperfect way of assessing how much they are learning. Even with the best intentions in the world, teachers can fall into the trap of bias. It is human nature to make mental judgements about people and all subsequent assessment can easily fall prey to the influence of these initial judgements. This article by Daisy Christodolou explains teacher bias very well. Interestingly, it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most likely to be affected negatively by it.

My year 3 class is not alone in getting tested this week. Throughout the country, year 2 and year 6 children are doing their SATs tests. There has been an outcry against these tests in certain quarters, with some parents going as far as stopping their children from going to school in a protest “strike”. My son is in year 2 and he too will be sitting SATs tests next week at his school. I initially had misgivings about the tests. Now I welcome them and here’s why.

My son is a bright boy and doing well at school. His teachers are satisfied that he is achieving what he needs to for his age and are not, in my observation, particularly motivated to stretch him any further. I suspect he could be doing a lot better. Out of curiosity, last week I downloaded sample SATs papers and sat him down at home to do them. He scored to level 2a (the top end of what is expected for his age) but struggled a bit in the level 3 paper. We went through this paper together and I made a note of the main areas of difficulty.

Every day for the past week, we have practised together for no more than 20 minutes some of the level 3 types of questions. Yesterday, my son made my day when he exclaimed: “I really enjoy these maths questions now!”. He has noticed that he finds maths a lot easier now and I no longer hear him say he is rubbish at it. In the space of one week, he has improved noticeably. I will give him another level 3 paper at the weekend and I suspect that this time, he will find himself much more capable of doing it. We have achieved all this progress in the space of one week because of a test. This supposedly stressful test has boosted my son’s confidence. It allowed us to identify his areas of difficulty and to target them successfully.

If this kind of improvement can be achieved with other pupils at the national level through testing, then we should be welcoming SATs tests, not reviling them. In fact, I would go further and say there should be more frequent testing in schools. It should become a normal, common thing to do. The more often children have tests, the more familiar they become with the process and the less likely they are to be stressed by them. A one-off big test can loom high in some sensitive children’s minds but a low threat, high challenge set of regular tests would be a less scary proposition. There is a further advantage to testing. Research has shown that tests are a better way of retaining knowledge than studying. By giving regular tests, we can help ensure that whatever the children learn gets remembered and not forgotten. Win win all round.

The dangers of signing things on your doorstep

Yesterday on a whim I decided to Google my name to see what would show up in the results. Here’s what I found.

The top result was a link to the various videos I have uploaded on YouTube over the past few years. These are mainly videos of my son that I have wanted to share with family or videos of my son’s trains which he likes to film. There’s also a sweet little clip of him singing Boney M’s “Brown girl in the ring” which I had totally forgotten about.

Then there’s links to my Twitter page and my Linked in profile (which must be very out of date as I have not looked at it in years). The rest of the first page of results gives links to various sites that provide information on company directorships. I have been a director of two companies in the past and so it is not surprising that my name comes up in relation to these on a web search.

So far so good. I then clicked to see the second page of results. To my surprise, I saw my name on a PDF document on the Lambeth council website. What could this be? I clicked to open it and saw that it was a list of the candidates for the last local council elections, together with the names of “proposer, seconder and assenters”. To my shock, I found my name listed as the “assenter” of the Ukip candidate. Impossible! How could this be?

I thought back and remembered answering the doorbell one day to an Afro-Caribbean man who said he wanted to put his name forward as a candidate for the local council elections and that he needed to get a certain number of signatures from local residents in order to get his name on the ballot paper. He sounded very humble and sincere. I remember asking him what kind of policies he would put forward as a candidate and what he stood for. I don’t recall exactly what he said in response but it all sounded very worthy and commendable. No mention of immigration, no mention of the EU, and certainly no mention of Ukip. It would have been churlish to have refused his request so I signed and wished him luck, then I promptly forgot about the matter until yesterday. One of my neighbours was similarly conned as I saw her name on the list of “assenters” too.

And so now I have my name officially on record as a Ukip supporter. Anyone who knows me knows just how far from Ukip my political views are. I am, after all, an immigrant to this country. My worry is that potential future employers might do a quick Google search on me and find this incriminating document. What to do?

Should I write to Lambeth council to complain about this and ask for my name to be removed? I doubt if it is possible to change public records after the fact. Someone suggested I should contact Google and ask them to remove the link. Again, I am not sure that Google would remove a link to a bona fide public record published by a government body.

My solution to the problem is to write this blog in the hope that it will show up first in any Google search of my name and act as a rebuttal. May this also act as a warning to all of you not to sign any documents from strangers on your doorstep!

 

It’s not so bad but there’s still lots to do

In January this year, I decided I wanted to get into teaching. The first step in becoming a teacher is gaining relevant experience in schools. With this in mind, I started volunteering in a secondary academy in London at the start of February. I also visited two other schools for a day of observation, as well as volunteered with the charity IntoUniversity, one evening a week, helping secondary school children with their homework.

It’s fair to say I have learned a lot in the last two months. What has struck me though is the utter disparity between what I have observed in the schools I have been to, and what I read in the newspapers (ok, in the Guardian) about the dire state of education in this country. First of all, a disclaimer. I know that having visited three secondary schools in London does not qualify me to make a judgement on the overall picture of education in the country. All I am doing is sharing my experience in schools so far and noting that it does not seem to bear any relation to what is described in some of the “our education system is in crisis” articles I read in the Guardian (particularly in the secret teacher column).

So what are my impressions so far?

Academies versus local authority run schools

Two of the schools I have volunteered at are academies and one of them is a comprehensive run by its local authority. The comprehensive school seems to me to have a more traditional ethos, a more established feel to it whereas both of the academies, different as they are, seem to be in the process of establishing their culture and defining who and what they are. That’s not to say though that one is any worse than the other. A common thread in all three schools is the dedicated teachers I saw working with the core purpose of improving the minds of their students. I have heard lots of claims in recent days about academies being cynical market driven institutions – the labour leader has gone as far as to claim that academisation is asset stripping the education system –  but what I have seen of academies bears no relation to that.

I’m not sure forcing well performing schools into becoming academies is a particularly good idea and the whole government policy smacks of dogmatic fervour. By the same token I don’t feel that converting schools to academies is going to cause as much doom as some people are claiming.

The teaching profession in crisis

The story goes like this. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and leaving the profession in droves. What I have observed goes like this. Teachers are very busy and work long hours. The more experienced teachers tend to be able to organise their time effectively so that they don’t have to take schoolwork home with them. It’s not an easy job and some people struggle with it while others seem to thrive. Yes there is a teacher shortage, particularly in stem subjects and languages, but this has just as much to do with population growth and the setting up of new schools which has meant there is a need for a lot more teachers than before and those needs have not adequately been matched up with the number of people being trained as teachers. This problem is being addressed – there are lots of incentives to encourage graduates into teaching – but it will take time to get the desired effect.

The other thing that often gets forgotten in this whole debate is this: teaching is a privilege. It may be hard work, challenging, stressful but it is a privilege. I have only spent two months in a school but already I have got to know the personalities of some of the children and begun to build a rapport with them. When I said goodbye to everyone on the last day of term, I felt a pang. I’m going to miss those kids. It has been a privilege to work with them.

Closing the attainment gap

One of the reasons I wanted to get into teaching was that I wanted to “do my bit” towards closing the attainment gap between poor children and their wealthier counterparts. This is the big challenge in education. How do you raise standards? How do you make sure that someone off an estate in Peckham has just as much chance of going to a good university as someone at a private school? These are the big questions which should be on our minds, not the merits or demerits of academies.

From what I have experienced in schools so far, there is still a long way to go before we are even near to closing that attainment gap. There is so much work to be done. I am not an expert educator yet but here are the three key areas that I would tackle.

  1. Discipline: little or no effective teaching can take place in a disruptive classroom. Behaviour management using consistent and clear rules and sanctions should be one of the pillars of an education system. This should not be up to individual teachers to enforce but something that is embraced at all levels of the school.
  2. High expectations: you cannot achieve great things without high expectations. Be ambitious about what you want your students to do. As Tom Sherrington describes brilliantly in this post, pitch it up, aim high, expect excellence.
  3. Expert teachers: this one is a little more difficult to do but is nevertheless critical to raising the standard of education. Teachers must be experts in their field, they must have great depth and breadth of knowledge. I have been struck by the lack of mastery of the English language displayed by my son’s primary teachers over the last few years (in an Outstanding school no less). Letters to parents are often littered with spelling or grammatical errors, apostrophes in the wrong place and poor punctuation. Even the executive head of the school shows poor use of language in his yearly letter to the students. In the secondary schools too, I have noticed some teachers use very simplistic language to explain things to their students. For example, in a recent history lesson I heard a teacher ask this question “Was King John a good or a bad king?” when there was an opportunity to use much more sophisticated language than that.

So these are my first impressions based on my experience so far. Next term I start working as a teaching assistant in a prep school. It will be interesting to see how things are done in the independent sector and to compare.