Singing Without Hope on the Boundary

OFSTED can bend reality
OFSTED. The acronym is enough to strike fear into even the most cynical and hardened of teacher's hearts. After all they are inspecting you and your ability to teach. If you don't tickle their fancy then you might find yourself slowly pushed out. Even if you don't agree with them or how they do their job and what they look at they can't be ignored, else you lose your job. As such OFSTED have the ability to bend reality to their whims.

I'm an NQT and part of the gig as an NQT is to be observed by your mentor and occasionally throughout the year by a member of senior management. My time is now and unfortunately for me this coincides with the Key Stage Three assessments for this term. What this means is for a few lessons the pupils in Year's 7-9 spend three-four lessons rehearsing performances that include the techniques or the conventions of the genre they've learned about in the previous half-term before performing it to their class. Now, upon learning about this one would assume that the Senior Teacher would either say "well this won't really show me what I want to see from your teaching so I'll postpone until you're teaching the pupils new things again" or "well I know you're involved in the assessment process so I will observe your ability to manage a classroom and assess the pupils." Common sense surely? Unfortunately common sense takes flight in the face of the omnipotent OFSTED.

For my observation I have been charged with producing an interesting and entertaining lesson which would score highly on the OFSTED standards (which means amazing starter activities, a learning objective on the board, clear progression throughout the lesson, students that are enthused and comfortable throughout along with a load of other things) as well as, and this is the kicker, not impacting on the rehearsal time for the assessments.

WHAT? This clearly makes no sense.

There are a few issues with this. Firstly the OFSTED criteria for every lesson you teach are way to prescriptive, although that's a post for another day. Secondly my head of department has created a system which has been approved by the school and seems to get results. That system means the first half-term and a bit of any given term is concerned with delivering the topic and the necessary skills to the pupils before the rest of the term is used for pupils to apply, in a more independent way, the skills learned. It's an okay system and it works. This means that at this time of the term the teacher takes on a backseat role in the lessons as pupils are allowed to experiment and create performances while he or she observes and assesses the pupils. So why do I have to change the method of delivery for this particular lesson because I am being observed? The answer to this question is OFSTED.

When I first raised reservations about an observation at this time of year I noted that because we were in the middle of the assessment process the lesson would not contain the particular things an observer of my teaching might like to see. I was told that a discussion had occurred between my Head of Department and the member of Senior Management about this but that I would have to change what I was doing and teach a "bells and whistles" lesson that would have OFSTED creaming themselves because OFSTED can visit at any time. The argument being that because OFSTED can visit at any time I should be prepared to be observed at any time. Flawless logic, you would think, until you begin to consider what is actually meant by this.

The Drama department in my school has a system that is effective and has worked since before I joined. If, however, OFSTED were suddenly to spring a visit on us during the assessment period we would all have to stop what we were doing and teach completely different lessons. We'd have to cram as many gimmicks in as possible and the assessment work would have to be forgotten because having one of those rehearsal lessons would not score you very high. How does this make sense? If the rehearsal process is part of what we do in the Drama department then changing it just because OFSTED turn up is surely dishonest. Why should how we teach all year round suddenly change just because HM inspectors turn up wanting to be entertained? Surely it is better for them to see what we actually do day in and day out. We have lesson plans and schemes of work to show them what learning has been taking place if they want to see it. Why should we then totally alter how we deliver lessons?

The problem is that the OFSTED criteria would not allow for us to pass with anything more than a satisfactory should they see one of the rehearsal lessons even though the lesson is a valid part of the way we deliver Drama. Instead we have to lie. We have to tell OFSTED what they want to hear. This cannot be right. How can OFSTED get a real picture of what is going on in the world of education when the schools are forced to change what they actually do in order to get a good mark? Something is desperately wrong when a valid method of teaching is considered to be inferior to a one off "bells and whistles" lesson that most pupils will forget weeks later and have little or no impact on their learning. For OFSTED it doesn't matter though, they obviously don't live in the real world and have the power to bend reality to their whims.

The worst thing about this is that teachers still need to be validated OFSTED and will do what they need to do to jump through their hoops. Who benefits? Surely not the kids, that is for certain.

Children like consistency. This axiom is drilled into us very early on in teacher training. If you're not consistent in your treatment, teaching or punishment of pupils then they will let you know straight away. "Sir that's not fair, you gave her a warning but you're giving me a detention," or "but he threw that before me and you didn't say anything to him."

Basically (lazy word but bear with me here) if you ain't consistent then life is going to be tough for you as children start to think you're picking on them or that you hate them. Wither then the consistency higher up? On the next rung of the ladder? Why is it okay for Senior Management to pick and choose who they punish or how they deal with miscreants? Oh it's okay not to punish him because he has a tough home life (even though he is one of the more consistent offenders in school) or leave it with me and I'll sort it out... a day later you find out leaving it with them means saying "don't do it again Jiminy will you," and the kid is still running amok. Even worse is when they ask for consistency of teaching. Follow the lesson plan so all children get the same lesson. Okay in theory and then a couple of weeks of later you're asked to explain why you taught that particular lesson. Doesn't work they say. It's in the scheme of work I was asked to teach. Oh, but I don't teach that lesson...

Banging ones head against the wall seems to be the only sensible option. Consistency is important especially when dealing with a large number of people. Obviously the school system shouldn't be monolithic enough to completely disregard individual situations, but a consistent approach is largely key. Why oh why then is it not applied completely throughout? From the lowly teacher in the classroom to the Head in his office of ivory and leather? Why oh why then is it not? Is it because in this era of exam results being key and league tables it is every teacher for themselves?

It appears to be so. Already I'm only nine weeks in proper and I'm cynical. Every method necessary to make sure they get the pass? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.

Yes, I am back. Yes, I have been very slack with posting. Yes, life has slightly taken over. No, I'm still not sure of what is going on.

Yes, there will be more to follow

Punch and Judy Politics.
Back when Davey C was elected leader of the Conservative Party following the stake through the heart that Michel Howard received after the 2005 election he promised to end the Punch and Judy Politics of Westminster. Nearly four years on Punch and Judy politics found its denouement in the sliming of Peter Mandelson (and that link is in super slo mo for all you who can't get enough) by a protester from the group Plane Stupid. They're a nice enough bunch if you're not really into planes, although I could imagine conversations at Plane Stupid parties might get a little bit dull after a while, and they made the news back in December when they brought Stanstead Airport to a standstill. Back then they were mostly castigated by the British public, a few of whom were desperate for at least a glimmer of sun in December and found their plans to escape Blighty hampered, for their selfishness. Having learned from this negative reaction Leila Deen, the slimer-in-chief, said that she had no choice but to give Peter Mandelson the custard he had earned.

Now, people have (and it can be evidenced in the comments to Leila after her piece) had different reactions to Plane Stupid's green custard stunt. Some have outright supported her, some have outright condemned her but most seem to have thought the actions silly and childish and not conducive to debate while being able to understand why she had done it (while having a silly and childish giggle when seeing it happen, go on and click the link again if you want, I won't judge you for it). The problem with that line of reasoning is that this is a government that doesn't listen to debate. This is the type of government that creates gimmicks such as The Big Conversation (conversation means they can answer back and drown you out) and thinks it's enough. This is a government who had no qualms about lying to us about Iraq and still wants to muddy the waters as to why and how we went in. This is a government who has pushed to the forefront of their handling of a recession a man who has been disgraced and left the cabinet/office on more than one occasion, a man who hasn't been voted for by the public and a man who was less popular than a guy in a monkey suit in Hartlepool (and for those of you not in the know Hartlepool has a checkered history when it comes to monkeys). They are clearly not listening to us so how can we debate with them? That is part of Leila's argument and she is dead right and that is why people, even those who argued that it was silly and immature, found themselves taking some satisfaction of the sight of Mandelson getting his 'just desserts'.

This leads us nicely back to Punch and Judy politics because that's what we have in this country and even David decided he couldn't resist it anymore (an interesting allusion perhaps to his attitude towards election promises?). So we are left with PMQs, our big weekly look at what politicians are up to and how they feel about the important issues of the moment, having all the resonance of a poorly acted puppet show. We have daily spats in different columns and blogs with the each sids lobbing metaphorical custard at each other and a compliant media shoving it all out there because it sells damnit. Our political system over the last twelve years has devolved into a state where the public watch on as these ministers in their Westminster bubble play out their puppet show each day hitting each other over head with insults, back-biting and point scoring. We see our lives changing and not for the better and we can't even get through to any of you lot in Westminster because you've cut yourselves off from us. We see you're pointless school-yard game every Wednesday and we feel sick. We see you say one thing and do the other. We see you treat Government as some kind of circus and then you get surprised when somebody lobs some slime over you?

Something in Westminster needs to change soon otherwise more people are going to feel like they have nothing left to do but attack because the whole system we have now means nothing more than green slimey custard in a bowl. Of course they know a Summer of Rage is coming already, they know we're angry. They just don't need to change anything. They're fine...

A Good Scientist is Not Necessarily a Good Teacher...
Hot on the heels of yesterday's post about the headmaster who was a not a scientist today we find out that great scientists could be fast-tracked through teacher-training. That's correct with just six months of training  the brightest Mathematicians/Scientists/Historians could be teaching children in a classroom fully qualified, but unfortunately kids are not as easy to deal with as integers/elements/primary sources in Hebrew if you haven't the requisite skills or training to deal with them.

A PGCE crams a hell of a lot into just one year. Three essays (one of them dissertation length), Monday morning seminars, meetings at university and a full timetable to teach Tuesday to Friday. Add to that the lesson planning that you have to do thoroughly every night when you're a trainee, the making of resources to stimulate pupils and the observing teacher, all the extra-curricular stuff you have to do to boost your CV and even the most talented teacher (note the emphasis) is left feeling like the living dead come the end of the year. Ask most teachers and they'll tell you that their PGCE year was one of the toughest they've ever been through and even then it does not prepare you for everything. You usually get to go to two different schools during a PGCE placement but if those schools are similar then you are left without experience if you finally get a job in a school that is markedly different. While a PGCE may not be ideal in someways in others it's one of the best ways we have to train teachers and it's a busy year. Cramming that experience into six months? Come off it. Either the trainees will be dead by the end of those six months or you are cutting stuff out of the course in order to rush these great people through.

My main gripe though comes with this quote from rent-a-gob cabinet minister Liam Byrne:

"We know there are a lot of fantastic mathematicians, for example, who would have once perhaps gone into the City but now actually might be more interested in a career in teaching,"

"What we have to do is make sure the very best people are able to get into a classroom as quickly as possible."

Brilliant, just brilliant. I'll deal with the City bit in a moment but the first thing I'll do is talk about these fantastic mathematicians and the getting them into the classroom as quick as possible.

On a school placement I was on recently we had a new student come arrive who was indeed brilliant at his subject. He knew his maths (far me than me or the Senior Mentor at the school), his subject knowledge was not in question but he was struggling to teach it. Aside from the fact that the school was a quite a rough one so teaching anything to the kids was difficult at the best of times he was struggling to engage the pupils with the subject material. Why? Well after much discussion it turned out that he was struggling to break it down. Because complex calculations had become second nature to him he was finding it difficult to go right back to the beginning and break down even the most elementary things into something the pupils could understand. People who are brilliant at things often work on a different plain to us average Joes (and Joeseses), that's what makes them brilliant at what they do, unfortunately it doesn't mean that they are going to be good teachers. What does make a good teacher? Well subject knowledge is certainly one thing, but it isn't the only thing and it isn't even the main thing. I would argue that an ability to communicate information in an effective and oft-times interesting way is far more valuable to a teacher than raw subject knowledge, but then what do I know I've never worked in the City and I'm not a cabinet minister.

The problem is quite clear. A good scientist does not necessarily make a good teacher and I'm sure scientists would probably argue the reverse. Some might make good teachers but you certainly aren't going to find that out in a deeply truncated version of teacher-training and those who have taken the path are not going to find out whether they are suited to it in just six months either. This plan then is quite obviously bonkers.

The worst thing about this though is the way it smacks of giving out easy jobs to City folk who are losing out in this recession and this is for two reasons.

The first is that this government obviously has such a high opinion of teachers and education that it is willing to foist people who could very well be bad teachers onto children and schools with only six months of training. It has such a high opinion of teachers and education that it is now offering this opportunity to people as a make-do option because they've lost their job in the City. It has such a high opinion of teachers and education it knows exactly what makes a good teacher and is using that to lead this recruitment drive. Come over to teaching folks, I know it doesn't pay as well as the City, but you know you can make-do here until the inevitable boom time and then hotfoot it back to money time again. Sounds good doesn't it and I wonder who will have to pick up the pieces when they do.

Secondly there are a lot of hard-working and dedicated people out there who are training to be teachers. Doing the whole PGCE year after three years studying their subject at university. People who will become good teachers. I've been training for nearly four years myself to become a teacher and the thought that some guy who may have lost his job in the City lobbing peoples' money down the drain as he did could be teaching in a classroom next to me after six months of training makes me feel sick.

Once again New Labour makes a mockery out of the '97 slogan of Education, Education, Education because now we know what they really think education is. A stop-gap for City folks during a recession and nothing proves this more than cutting the time needed to train. After all that next boom might be just around the corner. I know Gordon's hoping so...


How not to Lend Credibility to Exams or Scientific Studies.
Some interesting discussion has surfaced over the last day or so after the headteacher of Monkseaton High School remarked that starting school at 11 significantly boosted the learning abilities of teenagers as their body clocks (apparently) are two hours behind the normal adults.

The research into this is not new (as far as I can see, any contemporary links would be greatly appreciated) and as someone who has had to gee up many a drama class first lesson of a morning the description of teenagers as zombies isn't far from the mark; however, as the list of reasons in the link given state it is difficult for schools to push back opening times for a variety of reasons to do with the LEA, parents and the teenagers themselves. The main problem here though is that we're taking away responsibility (again) from the individual. Doctor Kelley states that:

"Evidence had shown rousing teenagers from their beds early resulted in abrupt mood swings, increased irritability, depression, weight gain and reduced immunity to disease."

and yes that correlates with the research done into the effects of sleep deprivation on teenagers. The problem is this line:

"The research shows that we are making teenagers the way they are and that we need to do something about it."

We are making teenagers the way they are? I'm sorry? Are you saying that all the bad behavior in schools is down to us waking the little darlings to early? Now I know teenagers, I work with them and I was one not too long ago and the fact is I was late to bed an awful lot during my teenage years. Yes sleep deprivation may have those effects that have been stated, but are these kids getting to bed at a reasonable hour. Working in the school I was before Christmas I constantly heard talk about television programmes that had been watched the night before by kids as young as twelve that were on well after I had gone to bed and I am by no means an early to bed person. Quite clearly if twelve to fifteen year old kids are staying up to watch TV programmes well into the early hours on a school night they aren't getting to bed early enough. That has nothing to do with schools and kind of disproves Doctor Kelley's assertions that we teachers are the ones causing the problems and making teenagers the way they are. Where is the parental responsibility in this and the responsibility of the individual child? Once again we seem to be sending the message to kids that all their problems are our fault and we'll try and do better for you next time while allowing them to stay up till all hours and take no responsibility for themselves. Also if we take this kind of attitude who's to say that kids just won't stay up even later if they don't have to be in until eleven?

The annoying thing here is that there is an argument for maybe knocking school opening times back to around half nine but this is lost in the complete drivel that Doctor Kelley spouts. Surely there is a better spokesman than this available?

The amazing thing is though that it doesn't end there.

"Last year he carried out a trial that found pupils scored up to 90% in a GCSE science paper after one session involving three 20-minute bursts interspersed with 10-minute breaks for physical activity.

The pupils had not covered any part of the GCSE science syllabus before the lessons."

You what? That last line is amazing. They had one hour long lesson split up into three and had covered no part of the GCSE syllabus before the lesson yet some scored 90% in the exam? Excuse me for thinking scientifically here, after all we are dealing with a science paper so it is in keeping with the theme, but this can only lead me to two conclusions and neither of them are any good. My first conclusion is that you have completely proved that GCSE exams are in fact easier than a Sudoku puzzle with one blank square and that exams have been dumbed down to a point where it is difficult to fail or indeed just do badly. My second conclusion is that you handpicked the students that took the test so they would provide you with the outcome you required and if you did that I would postulate that these pupils maybe did know a bit more about science than you are letting on. Either way Doctor Kelley you lend no credibility to the study of sleep deprivation on teenagers and the debate surrounding school opening time, you lend no credibility to the debate about the difficulty of GCSE exams and you lend no credibility to the study of new timetabling methods and their effect on learning.

In conclusion then I would like to opine that Doctor Kelley is an arse. He has successfully, in one media hit, managed to destroy any credence his arguments may have had and come across as a typical "innovative" Headteacher who is more worried about public image, getting his face on the news and delivering "classy" soundbites than any real scientific accuracy or educational benefit these theories might have. Nice one mate.

If you don't like Harriet you're sexist
Harriet Harman did PMQs today if you didn't know. I did and listened with interest to the exchanges at lunchtime and it was as I listened to the empty rhetoric that spewed from her mouth, the same empty rhetoric we've been hearing for what seems like forever from this government that I realised that I probably didn't like her. Her answers were predictable, her tone dismissive and shrill, her scripted barbs delivered poorly, and her gaffes laughable, but I'm a fair guy and certainly not the type of person to dismiss someone after just thirty minutes. No indeed, I prefer to look at the rank hypocrisy that is displayed by her voting records. There it is all laid out for you: for ID cards; for the anti-terrorism legislation; for the Iraq war. The best wheeze is where she is for a transparent parliament but against an investigation into the Iraq war. The rub is that she is a party girl and not the type of party girl who turns up bladdered with a box of wine at the slightest hint of a gathering of people. She is New Labour through and through and hardly ever votes against her party. Reason enough to dislike her I guess. Well apparently that's not the reason. The reason: I'm sexist.

As I listened on after PMQs to the incisive "analysis" by Radio 5's political guru Simon Mayo and the three representatives of the main parties I was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn't like Harriet Harman I was sexist. That's right, I can try and hide behind all my arguments about her politics and her attitude but the real reason, the deep down subconscious reason I don't like Harriet is because she is a woman and worse still a successful woman. I, as a man, cannot deal with it and therefore seek to belittle her and mock her performance today.


This is insulting on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin, but begin I will so hold on to your hats.

Firstly this is a clear tactic that has been used many times before. If you can tar someone with a horrible label like sexist, racist, homophobic etc it puts you in a very powerful position. It's helpful for those who use it because no-one wants to be seen as one of those things so will immediately start to argue the point that they are not sexist/racist/homophobic. It is also helpful because you're arguments are then reduced to the value of Icelandic currency. "Yeah he may have a point about Harriet but he doesn't like her because he's sexist so..."

Secondly, they are saying that anyone who doesn't share a good opinion of dear Harri is fundamentally flawed. How dare they imply that because I don't like a woman that my character is fundamentally flawed and I should be ignored along with those who attacked her and ridiculed her at PMQs today. How dare they suggest that because I have formed my own opinion about a woman in a position of power I must have had that opinion informed by misogyny. It's okay though because I'm a bloke so it's got to be expected after all it's all about tits and arse and cars and beer innit? I'm stupid and backward and fink women are only good for a shag. All men are. Apparently.

Thirdly it is insulting to every woman who can't stand her. Obviously, due to all haters of Harriet being sexist, all women who dislike her for the many reasons they could and should are suddenly betrayers of the sisterhood and idiots for going along with the normal patriarchal attitudes that pervade parliament. Add to this the fact that an MP on the show actually invoked the sisterhood by saying that women liked her and had to like her because she's down to earth, she had a baby, she applied for a job when pregnant and blah blah blah. It's amazing. That's right women, you can't think for yourselves and dislike Harriet because she's a woman and you are too. Those dangerous opinions you have could endanger the women's movement so you better leave the thinking to us women at the top. How insulting, how fucking insulting to men, to women, to everyone.

Now it doesn't surprise me that somebody has said this shit, there is always somebody there somewhere who is going to label someone something when they don't agree with them. The fact that this was said on a national broadcaster, wasn't even challenged by the host and was supported by idiot members of the public is what really takes the biscuit. These attacks on people with different opinions to the accepted line have become so normalised that no-one even bats an eyelid anymore.

So I'm taking a stand here and now. I dislike Harriet Harman because she is useless, two-faced, manipulative, and a cheerleader and member for a malignant political party which is slowly eroding this country, not because I'm sexist and I will not allow those of you who would label me and others as such to belittle and denigrate our arguments. I know it's all you have left but we're growing in number, we're getting pissed off and sooner or later you will have to answer to the charges that are leveled against you and no amount of calling people sexist or anything else is going to prevent that.

Also she's a twat.

Where to start...
These things have to start somewhere. I don't know what made me decide to start, but something did.

There are no noble aspirations for this blog or any higher purpose. I just want things to make sense and they don't. Time to start making some sense then.

More later.


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