Friday, 19 August 2011

Time for fixed boundaries

No - this isn't an article about the riots. But yes, I am going to go a little Tory-traditionalist on you and take the Telegraph point of view. I want the abolition of grade inflation at A-level and GCSE by the imposition of fixed boundaries of percentages of students for every grade. First set a fixed quality boundary for "minimum standard" and call below that U. Then take all the results above that and rank them. Top 5%: A*. Next 15%: A. And then in tranches of 20% each, the 4 remaining grades (B-E) below that. Here's why.

When you run a 100m, you do not get gold for a fixed time or a personal best. You get it for beating the others. When you get a job, you beat someone else to it. When you win an award, the others shortlisted have ended a grade lower than you. When you sell your goods, that customer bought them instead of a competing company's offer. This is competition and it is good, as long as it is fair (and as long as, alongside this, we make strenuous efforts at real social justice and social mobility, disproportionately supporting the disadvantaged to give them chance to compete fairly) and should exist in education. By this token, when you get GCSEs or A-levels, you are doing so in direct competition with others in your peer group. There do not need to be "objective" standards for grades: I'm no statistician, but when millions of students take these exams every year, at the same schools and taught by the same teachers as the year before, there really cannot be any meaningful variance that would mean wildly differing quality from one year to the next. The sheer volume of the system means an A* one year - being in the top 5% - will mean, to within a hair's-breadth-of-dammit, exactly the same standard of student as last year. Change in standards over time will be very long-term and gradual.

I am a supporter of students. I value and want to celebrate their achievements. But I do find myself having to apologetically point out to them that my A grades are actually a lot more elite than theirs. They look a bit confused when I explain "there was no A* in my day." I ask them how many times they use the letter "A*" in normal writing and they get it: it's an imposed nonsense to cover up the gradual landslip in grades. How has this happened?

It's partly artificially political - no government wants to be seen to preside over "falling standards" - but there is a myth of fixed political interference which is a nonsense. Rather it is a matter of the skill of the teaching profession: to really understand grade inflation, don't mock teachers but recognise just how much teaching has improved. Over a quarter of a century, we've moved to a strict competitive focus on these letter grades. Teachers have always been committed, innovative and motivated and they still are: it's just their focus has moved - we have lost some of the breadth, pastoral concerns and extra-curricularity to focus almost exclusively on academic outcomes, predictably thereby raising the quality of academic work; we have used IT and followed research on good learning better than ever in the last decade; and teachers are working harder than ever before (and making students do so as a result.) Can we really be surprised at quality of student attainment improving? Although I gently mock my students that my A grades are worth more than theirs, in a straight comparison of our work, they're not: I looked back recently at my GCSE English essays which got me A, and they'd only get a B now. This is a subtle point, in contradiction both to the (genuine) problem about "basic skills" (a D/E grade problem for a small percentage), to the more general politicised nonsense usually printed in the media about "what students don't know / can't do" and really needs to be made explicit: genuinely, standards have gone up -and YET, grades mean less. My own GCSE work was (on a straightforward qualitative comparison) weaker than that of my current students but I was, in percentage terms, higher up my cohort. I deserve the A that many of them - despite their better work - do not. Now that sounds unfair - but here's why it's not.

I can't say how well I'd have done in this day and age as a student. I rather suspect word-processors and Wikipedia would have saved me the "longhand copying of neat fourth drafts" that still, just about, marked my GCSEs; whether Call of Duty would have ruined my focus as it does for so many current students, I don't know. The point is you can't compare different generations against one another - and there is no value to doing so. Of course technology and the world moves on; of course resources change and develop; but for all these students as they go through life, the one thing they will be permanently in the company of is their peer cohort - and they'll be in competition with them. The 100m sprint to the university-entrance finishing line is a crystal-clear instanciation of this, but they will realistically be fighting for success against these same peers throughout most of their (early) working life. An NQT starting now is not that closely in competition for any post I apply for - we're a different proposition, with different costs. And by my level of experience it's my references and achievements in post, and no longer really my academic results, that have come to matter - the results bridge that gap-before-your-thirties before you have an in-depth career record to point to. So it is irrelevant if my students' work is better than mine on a like-for-like comparison basis: they never were and won't ever be in competition with me on the basis of these grades (though later, on the basis of workplace efficiency, they might be.) These grades will only ever be a competitve marker against their peers, and so it against those peers that they should be set in fixed bands. You don't promote seven sides from the Championship to the Premiership and only demote two because "this year Championship sides looked like they were playing better football than ever before" - that may be true, but the numbers in each division, in each band, are rightly fixed.

This call for fixed banding of grades is becoming increasingly dominant and hurrah for the Telegraph for taking the lead on this: they polled on it the other day, but also witness these two excellent articles from them this week: Dr Richard Cunningham's (who seems to agree with me about increasing effort and quality by teachers and students - and I agree with him that what we don't need is more universities, promoting yet more meaningless grade inflation) and the explicit call from Richard Cairns, with which I am siding, for fixed boundaries. These are both strong articles, but there are two mistakes here - firstly the Telegraph has two academics from independent schools write them, rather than seeking a centrist or leftist to support the call - is this just PR-posturing from the private sector? Or do they think there's no hope of achieving this change? Surely, Telegraph, if you genuinely want this happening, you need to build some consensus across the aisle? Well - here I am offering centre-leftist support. Come and talk to mainstream teachers - you'd be surprised how many of us agree.

The problem for rightists is that they have yoked together an ill-fitting pair of arguments: they have hamstringed the valuable argument for fixing grade boundaries with traditional, prejudicial nonsense about some subjects being worth more than others. This is pointless dogma that stops the genuinely worthwhile traditionalist desire for fixed boundaries (as I'm arguing for here, despite being no educational traditionalist) being debated properly: witness Willetts' article also in the Telegraph, arguing for this kind of formal bias. I rubbished this nonsense in a separate blogpost yesterday but it can be simply dismissed here for brevity: if a subject is an A-level it must be counted the same as all A-levels; if it isn't good enough for that, then stop it being an A-level. Duh. Willetts is bright, but gunning wrongly here: combine fixed boundaries and a slimmer list of A-level options, along with enhanced vocational offerings, and you would have a much better educational system than just confusing matters with "it's-a-qualification-it's-not-a-qualification." Have the courage of your convictions and stop fudging with prejudice. You people are in charge. Make the change. Notice that the Richard Cairns article referred above - sound throughout in all other aspects - also throws in the one-liner about soft subjects with the statement that "We must also shatter the myth that exists in the minds of too many pupils that a Media Studies A-level is in some way equivalent to an A-level in Mathematics." No grounds are provided for this claim, as usual. Cairns is headmaster of the very grand independent school Brighton College. You may wish to quietly note that the school's website lists departments in Dance, Photography and Sports Science. While I agree there is some over-proliferation, this nonsense about "appropriate subjects" is not only the same nonsense people used to talk about English in the 1920s, it's in direct contrast to the subjects these schools themselves run. Less prejudice and hypocrisy, please, and more on the real issue: standardising with fixed grade boundaries.

I can't see why there isn't more decisive action here from the Tories. This is a government of iconoclasts who enjoy wiping the etch-a-sketch historical slate clean with a vengence; but where's their appetite to do so, common-sensically, here? They did it with budgets, school league tables, benefits and more. Their modus operandi has clearly been one of detonation-to-make-a-point, and then fresh rebuilding to their totally new template. I'm not going to get drawn into which of these other revolutionary acts has worked and which has not - but since they have form here, why not do it now for results 2012 (GCSE) and 2013 (A-levels - so those just having achieved AS don't have an odd jump in their results)? Why don't Gove and Willetts co-declare, right now, fixed percentage grade boundaries for those forthcoming exams - fixed in perpetuity at those %s of the cohort each year - no matter what quality of results? ZIP! The instant end of the politicisation of "continual improvement in results"! Trust teachers and schools and students to still compete (what choice, in this economic climate, do they have? - the structure of the game makes them do so, even if they didn't want to - which I also think they do.) Trust the inspection process and the ongoing development of teacher training and professional accountability measures to keep teachers and schools working at the cutting edge of good practice; trust the market (whether in universities or jobs) to then select between the outcome students. The difference, if there even is one, between 2012's B grade and 2013's will be so infinitesimally tiny that reference and interview differences will make it pale into comparison.

Universities want to be able to choose the best clearly, without grade inflation. Employers want the same. Both would welcome fixed grade boundaries. Teachers would be in no way offended, with the change rightly explained to them; and parents and students, whilst they would have to adjust to a one-off step-change adjustment, would understand the purpose and meaning of grades more clearly, and know they were fixed and therefore more credible. Competition between students for those % thresholds would not cease - if anything, not knowing *quite* where the boundary for the next grade up leads most people to over-work to be sure of hitting it. We would have to drop the current nonsense about every student always knowing exactly what grade they are at - or least, be honest about the element of estimation always intrinsically built into that, which would be better. Fixing boundaries would not relax the pressure on teachers or schools - grade inflation is already an irrelevance to them compared to the effect of league tables. Not least of all we would be rid of the Maoist nonsense of continually improving figures belieing ongoing problems in practice. Perhaps a third of schools each would fall back, a third improve each year, (and, to boot, we could then have a meaningful discussion about context and value-added) as opposed to the weird sight every year at present of seven-in-ten improving and perhaps one-in-ten falling back. So what if standards change slightly over time? That's the real world. Apple don't measure themselves against the efficiency practices of the East India Company. Fix grades to tell employers and universities who to take on. Make students realise that competition is raw - it is between them and their peers - it will shape their life - there's no guarantees, and you must apply yourself. Teams don't sit in the dressing room before the Cup Final consulting a grade descriptors table and saying "Oh right, if my tackles are 'robust' we get a draw, but if they're 'robust and expertly-timed' we win." You win if you do better than those you are competing with.

Fix the grade boundaries and we fix the problem with the value of qualifications. And I'm speaking as a centre-leftist.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Soft subjects and soft thinking

I can't do it. I can't resist. I swore to myself I would stay out of A-level results day, what with having no A-level students this year. But I can't.

It started a couple of years back when murmurings began about top universities beginning to look down on certain kinds of subject. I confess a mild negative prejudice myself towards Media Studies and Travel & Tourism but the leaked list included Sociology - a fairly established subject - and my own degree, which I taught at A-level, Psychology, claiming it was not a rigorous or academic subject. This astonished me, as it was in direct despite of evidence that psychology graduates have better job prospects than almost any other grads. OK, so the list included Film Studies (I probably agree, having taught a bit of it) but it also included Theatre Studies - and having taught both that and A-level English, I can assure you of their equal difficulty and workload. Where were these classifications of "hard" and "easy" coming from, except the raw (and usually uninformed) prejudice of a handful of (traditionally-educated) people at top universities?

My stress on this topic intensified in February when the Russell Group of top universities published their list of preferred A-level subjects. The observant will note that it is, in essence, Gove's EBacc: English, Maths, pure sciences; two main humanities, a language. Quite who is puppeting whom is unclear, but the narrowness of this list of Victoriana is clear. At time of writing, I note that you get a 404 failure when you attempt to download the document, which also has spelling mistakes (here's the Indy's version of the detail if this error persists.) I am humoured by both these ironies, from the website of the country's most academic universities. Still.

Today, the Guardian ran an article on the gap between state and private sectors in the uptake of "hard" versus "soft" subjects. One is tempted to question why the Guardian, of all papers, is treating this as newsworthy, if it's having to put those words into inverted commas: "look, we know there's no evidence and that this is all about prejudice, but we're going to report on it anyway, and in misleading statistical terms that make the distinction sound quite scientific." Hmmm. Let's call it a contribution to debate and move on. But now I'm sounding all revolutionary and I'm not. I've always been a rigorously academic student and teacher myself. But this public muddle is hurting students at all levels and of all types of ability.

Let's consider some apparently non-academic subjects - but I've tried to use ones which are nonetheless traditional in this example - ones that the private-schooled children of Telegraph readers might study. So here it is: I have profound respect for those who are good at Art and Music - I sure as hell am not one of them - but I can indeed see that those skills may not be ideal for a degree in Medicine. But there are two options here, and both should be applied: first, make non-academic subjects a different qualification group, rather than putting them in A-levels. I do not mean downgrade them - I am a champion and enthusiast for meaningful, rigorous, industry-devised qualifications in creative, media, and business areas. It will do everyone a favour to make A-level a narrowly academic qualification again. Universities with creative courses will be able to have parallel entry routes: these academic and / or these vocational routes into our courses; or, "this particular course is a purely vocational course and will only accept vocational qualifications from 18 year-olds" (or replace "vocational" with "academic" in said sentence.) This provides clarity for students from as early as 15 and, more importantly, the appropriate course type for different individual 16-18 year-olds - if the British can only get over their traditional (and internationally-unwarranted) prejudice against the vocational. Russell Group unis would be able to flag almost all their courses as "purely" academic at point of entry without students being confused by the apparent, but clearly false, equivalence of A-levels. This would be a formalisation of what they're already doing, but within an agreed national system. What's wrong about their current behaviour is not that some subjects are more suitable for some degrees than others, but that their broader-brushing tarring of the overall merit of many other subjects mean they are pulling against the rest of the boat when great lengths are gone-to to ensure A-levels are equal in rigour. Universities which specialise in rowing should know better. We are some distance down this road already, but the whole premise of "A-levels = academic only" needs to be clearer and formalised.

Secondly, and in balance with the above restriction on students, delimit universities' right to specify too many A-levels; this is muddying the waters of the simple "A-levels = academic" point. The Russell Group insists students can only have one subject not on their list - I did Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Theatre Studies, so ironically for a whinger, I'd be alright - but this is too narrow. Most students now study four AS levels (and those that don't, should, or should study a different qualification type, I think) but saying only one subject is free to choose is too narrow. A university is well within its rights to insist on half of what students study at AS being suitable to lead into any given degree, and of course to insisting on a good grade in one final A-level, directly relevant to the uni course proposed; but 16-18 is not merely a ramp into university - it should be part of an edifying, if increasingly specialising, period of education: you are past the "minimum threshold" stress of GCSE core subjects; you are learning in a more interesting and conducive environment with more enthusiastic students and fewer resentful trapped morons; you are working in more depth (GCSE to A-level is a bigger jump than A-level to degree, I strongly contend) and starting to really understand the relevance of options and subjects to your future; and let us not forget the personal development mountain young people have naturally to ascend at this age. By all means universities should be able to insist (1) on one excellent grade in the directly relevant subject AND (2) on the ("BBB") balance / points of grades overall and perhaps even (3) on a second "near-relevant" subject at AS, as one of four; but beyond this their narrowing insistence is landgrabbing beyond their remit or right. Leave young people some space to learn and choose who to be. The Russell Group guidance is clearly more restrictive than this. Their complaint that they're saying this to aid state school pupils may be honestly their intention, but the effect of their too-narrow pronouncement on subject validity is a great harm to educational breadth for huge numbers of students to whom their advice should be a practical irrelevance.

So what is it? Are A-levels all the same, or are they not? Is there a difference between academic subjects and non-academic? Do letter grades mean the same thing in different subjects? Does all this only apply to the very top universities anyway, and hence is relevant to only the top 15% of the cohort competing for those places, or should everyone else let themselves be poisoned by this prejudice too? I pity the poor saps caught in this whirlwind of contradiction. I mean, of course, our students (and perhaps, myself included, our Careers Advisors - both formal and informal.) There is an ugly brawl being played out in media public between traditionalists (who want only a narrow handful of academic subjects) and contextualists / futurists. Labour allowed the blooming of A-levels willy-nilly (I disapprove, as should be clear - there should have been more, and more profile for, vocational), and now the Tories want to smash this up - but (as depressingly usual) without a thoughtful philosophy beyond "What would Eton do?" Weirdly, everything's topsy-turvy here: at GCSE, with younger pupils who should be freer to choose, Gove imposes the EBacc (in effect, through the violent arm-twisting of league table placement); bad decision not because of the act of imposition, but because of the narrowness for that age of student (and because of the poisonous unwritten co-motivation - that it is to bash certain teachers and schools, not just to assess students.) At A-level, Willetts fails to take responsibility and impose a narrowing where it is much more appropriate age-wise, and instead lets / encourages small vested interest groups like the Russell Group publicise views which outright contradict a national system of supposedly equalised qualifications - and which are relevant to only a tiny percentage of achievers, but which have poisoned the whole debate. Good God. Both the baby and the bathwater are in the wrong place. How hard can this be?

If this were merely about academic rigour (as so often claimed), the above analysis points us to a solution which would rightly make student choices about relevance key, promote good vocational courses and still retain great breadth in academic courses at A-level, but it's worse than that: it's principled traditionalism-for-its-own-sake. Anyone that teaches these subjects (especially, I want to say, if like me you've taught multiple different A-levels) knows the narrow Russell list is simply not accurate, so let me say this clearly: bright as the Russell people may be, there are no grounds (note: no evidence presented!) for their heightened claims for the superiority of this tiny / narrow handful of subjects. I did Chemistry at A-level and I assure you it's no easier than Psychology, which I teach. Theatre Studies is at least equally hard as English as an A-level subject, having taught both. The Russell attempt to refer to the EBacc core as "facilitating subjects" at A-level is sinister: it smacks of traditional public-school greasing of the route to the ludicrously imbalanced corridors of certain institutions (private school sctudents are 7% of the population but nearly half of all Oxbridge places. Merit alone cannot justify or explain this.) You can narrow A-level carefully, and insist on relevant study and high-quality outcomes without destroying all educational variety and breadth of option.

Other stats in the Guardian article worry too. As for the General Studies / Critical Thinking options, I am perfectly happy facing both ways on this: they are valuable, they do broaden educational thinking, they should be done by many students - but they should be thought of as an additional, and not a main, subject. Ideally, every school runs an enrichment programme giving students a choice between these kinds of options (and others like D of E, World Challenge etc), but making them use the block of time compulsorily for ONE of the options - perhaps for less time per week than real subjects, but to end in accreditation anyway. Doesn't that sound ideal? Of course, the problem is that in the Guardian's unusually reductive analysis, a state school doing something great like this would fuel the appearance of trivial subjects being taken. A distinction needs to be drawn between the inappropriate use of these subjects as main studies and their wise and edifying use as complementary, breadth-focused studies. Stats on these subjects merely re-affirm prejudices unless interrogated more skilfully.

We can fix all this. And it needs Tory decisiveness - there, I said it. We usually don't like dogma in education, and with good reason - but this ridiculous unclarity is wildly unacceptable. There must be a single, fair and clear system - even if we all have issues with some parts of it. To summarise, that central system needs these tenets:

1. If a subject isn't "good" or "rigorous" enough to count as an A-level, it shouldn't be permitted to exist as one. Boards should only be allowed to generate syllabi which have been pre-approved in principle. This decision is too important to be politicised under any given Secretary of State so, although they should have the final decision, an advisory board representing universities, employers, teachers, students, parents and political opposition should exist to contribute to these discussions, and their discussions reported publicly - woe betide the Secretary of State who goes against concensus opinion. Some subjects could be abolished on this basis - but see point 5.

2. Within the remit of this system, no UK university / group (however grand they think themselves) should be permitted to distinguish between the value of subjects in the same qualification, except for their direct relevance to the degree in question - and that for only ONE subject at A-level. Remember that the purpose of 16-18 education is broader than just being a feeder to your institution.

3. Once a subject is accepted as an A-level, we must accept that the (hugely complex and extensive) system of standardising difficulty between subjects and papers is effective, and trust professionals to arrange this for us. Politics, universities and employers' groups (which should all sit on the board in point 1) should commit to refrain from public statements calling into doubt the efficacy or politicisation of the significant number of hard-working, experienced teachers who (very effectively) achieve this standardisation.

4. Subjects that aren't academic can be qualified by other routes, and we should welcome and celebrate this. If this means more teenagers doing their study of vocational courses (and by this I might mean not just carpentry but also apparently intellectual subjects like Graphical Design and ICT) under Apprenticeship-type arrangements with real industry, that - IMHO - is greater, because the more relevant, kudos to those training routes. Bear in mind the rising evidence that employers want apprentices to mould, not graduates.

5. Making and publicising these repeated changes of educational direction arbitrarily is profoundly unfair to students whom you are asking to plan ahead by years. There should be cross-party agreement that, although a government of the day has the right to make any change within these points, there will be a minimum lag of three years before the new rules come into effect. This permits students to fairly make informed choices. It's all very well the Russell Group whinging about state school kids "restricting their options" - but when they've been studying their courses for two years and you only released this guidance five months ago, how can that be fair?

There's one final thing to dwell on why the transparency I'm calling for is so important: in desperate economic times, with sky-high youth unemployment and one final chance to get into universities before fees become crippling, it is no wonder today that the UCAS site crashed with a boggling four times the traffic of last year. The famous photograph of people pressing desperately to get onboard that last helicopter out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War come to mind. I do not envy this oppressed and embattled generation. We must do everything we can to make things right, clear, and fair for them - and those that follow.

And I'm not sure if that point I just made should be discussed in History, Media Studies, Philosophy or Critical Thinking. Bear that in mind.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

End the long summer holiday?

It's been an odd summer, having just finished in one post and preparing for a major move out to the Persian Gulf for a new teaching job. If you thought moving home in the UK was a task, you should try reducing your life to 70kg, selling any vehicles you own and arranging house lets - and all before coping with the well-meaning flurry of friends and family wishing to bid you farewell and notifying you misguidedly that no-one in Arab countries is allowed to do anything, ever. I'm exhausted despite having the long summer holidays to sort it all out in. I have a vague recollection from childhood of being bored as hell two weeks before the end of that holiday every year - but not any more. Either I've got much better at entertaining myself or have a hell of a lot more to do.

I'm a big fan of travelling and have developed a predictably dull teacher routine of one very long trip every summer holidays so setting aside my customary jaunt round Europe in order to be practical and responsible feels dismal. My feeling-hard-done-by is self-afflicted but none the less miserable for it. I keep trying to tell myself that I can use my new teaching base as a point to explore India or South-east Asia, which I've never been able to afford to get to before, again in equally long or longer holidays, but that's sparse consolation right now. I almost wish, perversely, that I only had a week to sort it in so I would be forced to make swift and brutal decisions. And so all this wallowing got me to thinking the unthinable - should we stop having a holiday of this length?

Ah - I can hear the hissing of teachers nationwide through strained teeth, like angry geese. Or perhaps something more aggressive than geese: threaten the long holiday and teachers turn positively lupine at you. If you're the Daily Mail this is because they are cossetted public sector spongers with no sense of what a real job looks like: witness this typically-poisonous article slyly tarring teachers for not wanting to work hard. Anyone in the industry knows otherwise. And yet many of us would confess that the fixed structure of (almost) nationally-identical term dates makes no sense at all. Isn't there some middle way in discussing this?

There are multiple good reasons for cutting the long holiday, and we can start by dividing them into (mostly) uncontenious reasons, which teachers wouldn't see as an attack on their rights or sanity, and the cultural assault reason propogated by opponents of the profession. To start with the uncontentious: (1) Teachers pay more for their holidays than anyone else because the fixed dates create a high-demand arrangement. Embittered, we have attempted to afflict all other parents with this same heightened cost, by insiting children can never, ever, ever be taken out of school on holiday in termtime - or they will fail everything, ever. Sane parents nod politely and remove the child anyway, not least when a summer in Rome or Paris is infinitely more educational, in the holistic sense, than grinding through those agonising last two weeks of exhausted term, filled with wasps, DVDs and French bingo lessons. (2) Half-terms are an astonishing waste of time. In my experience in every post I've ever taught in, there's a 50% chance I'll collapse into illness and exhaustion at the start of every holiday, and start to feel human again about 4-5 days in. This makes a half-term week-off effectively a protracted illness followed by a weekend too busy on the roads to go anywhere anyway. Half-terms have never ceased to irritate me in their worthlessness, and I had rather have a couple of long weekends scattered through a full term, and three weeks at Easter and Christmas instead. (3) The terms are woefully imbalanced. September to Christmas, descending into darkness and SAD despair (additionally fueled by commercial cynicism) is a Promethean torture; the period to Easter is comparatively sane at first, although grisly with failing resolutions, rising in panic towards exam season and then summer a confusion of testing and bizarrely shortened weeks trailing away into purposeless nothing. (4) The long summer holiday clearly harms most the prospects of more disadvantaged children, a well-documented phenomenon, nodded-to amongst wider points by Mick Waters in the TES recently. You might argue his article should be taken with a pinch of salt - the opening line is a give-away that here is a Labour-era educational guru repositing to apply for high favour under the Tories - but Waters has always been a credible champion of young people and his points are valid despite the kow-towing to the Gove line. Most importantly, he also hits: (5) teachers rise and fall in energy levels in unison, which cannot be good for a collective body or the institution it forms. Everyone in schools knows there's a tide in a term, and we all ride it together - ten thousand staff morning briefings around the country in the last week of each term are filled with headteachers wearily paraphrasing Henry V's "Once more unto the breach...", in varying levels of irony and sincerity - and we are indeed like a force-marched army grinding to a useless halt as the campaigning season runs out. Consider that students work much less hard than us (NB, please, Michael Gove) and keeping them at school more consistently would (a) be good for them and (b) be welcomed by most parents; the key to Waters' point is an implicit acknowledgement that you would need to keep teacher days at 190, while  students study more; teachers would take some of their holiday allowance in term-time. This has complications to which I'll return below. But at the very least you could change term dates to make more sense.

Sigh. Didn't we go through all this debate a decade and more ago? About five-term years? We did. In my (Gloucestershire) experience it got hijacked at the county level, with some dimlar jobsworth going "Yeah, five terms sounds like more learning than three. You know what's even better? SIX terms. And it's easier too, cos we can just split each of the three terms not into two half-terms but into two 'terms', that sounds more and better. Great. Master will be pleased with Igor. I don't have to work anything out, but I can relabel everything to confuse everyone. If no-one knows what to call the 'half-term holiday' anymore, because now it's between two 'terms', maybe the Daily Mail won't notice their existence. And I get to spend at least three weeks of 'work' giving seminars on this tokenistic change. Gosh, I hope the Tories don't win the next election and cut my valueless post." Six terms is a nonsense, but five might be worthwhile - two before Christmas and three after, and you'd need to ignore / railroad Easter (who really cares, now? Honestly?)

And now the insincere and inflammatory right-wing reason for cutting the holidays: (6) Teachers don't work hard enough and get "all these holidays." Witness the TES community rants on this fevered issue. The real answer is simpler: teacher stress levels are far too high compared with almost any other job reports the Guardian, while the equivalent Mail article blusters about "15,000 teachers go sick EVERY day" as if it were shifty-eyed workshy malevolence - that's 3.5% of the workforce, you moron, like in any other profession on any given day. Teachers are incredibly highly stressed; their mental illness and career dropouts rates are things of horror compared to any other graduate profession; we get the holidays because we need them. The Health & Safety Executive's (impartial) analysis, replicated graphically here by the NUT, is a nightmare to observe (please, click that link and spend a few minutes looking.) It is very overtly ironic that the main parental / right-wing press complaint about the holidays amounts to "Good God, [even with nanny / childcare / summercamp], I can't handle my 1/2/3 children for 6 weeks, please take them back as soon as possible" because the implied subtext is: "to add to the 25-30 you handle for 40 weeks." (See teacher Francis Gilbert make mincemeat of parent Barbara Ellen's illogic in this structured debate.) A walk round a tourist site on Saturday in August, or Asda on any Friday night, will affirm for most teachers the complete inability of people to handle even two children compared to what we do: the plea that teachers should work hard because they're slackers is a smokescreen covering parental desperation and incompetence. Well, tough: you chose childbirth, now take responsibility. Teachers are not babysitters and our termtime workload is insanity by the standards of any other profession: in what job do you have not ONE major hour-long meeting a day but FIVE, with no time to prepare for them, and that meeting is with 25 clients, who don't really understand what it's about, five of whom want to swear at you and provoke confrontation while another ten withhold most co-operation? Name me another industry that works under those parameters if you dare. In addition, bureaucratically, teachers work extremely hard in evenings and often weekends in term-time - personally I don't begrudge this that much - but need extensive breaks to balance this. Soldiers and oil rig workers have extended, high-intensity tours of duty followed by much lighter respite windows and the same rationale applies with teaching. I am two totally different people: a work robot in termtime, dedicated heavily, professionally, and continuously, but emotionally drained and physically exhausted - beyond what most jobs demand - and myself, free to recover and have the identity and hobbies most people in most jobs consider normal, in holidays. Teachers do not have "extra" time off versus other workers: rather, we condense our stress / workload and our free time where others spread it more evenly. This is partly a necessity, because good learning should be intense; partly an effect of the fact that classes over about 18 in number (half that if there are multiple learning or behavioural difficulties) really can't be taught with genuine individual support - yet our system is predicated on contact numbers double these. Having spent time in the tutorial / crammer sector, I can tell you that I could teach those small numbers year-round without holidays at all, by comparison with state-sector classes and workloads.

This doesn't kill the argument about summer holidays. If we set aside the unreasonable argument, the good arguments for cutting it are still incredibly compelling by themselves. Why shouldn't every local council set slightly different term dates, spreading the holiday market and reducing prices for teachers and all parents alike? In light of the recent riots, differing term dates across regions would make universal dissatisfaction less widespread and enable police resources to be concentrated more easily. It would enable consultancy / cross-county support services / extended services offers to be spread more effectively for schools. This seems a non-brainer. Set your dates differently to adjacent counties and the benefits are obvious. I'm going to teach in the Gulf, where the climate dictates the calendar - only a couple of days at half-terms and a lot longer again than the UK in the summer, in order to flee the desert at its worst - but were this not an issue, or were I setting up a free school, I'd have five eight-week terms starting (like the Scots) before August ended, each with a long weekend "exeat" in the middle instead of a half-term, with 3 week breaks inbetween each and only slightly longer in summer - the same 190 days split sensibly. Christmas would be preserved but archaic dates like Easter and Whitsun provided only as bank holidays, not included in the structure of weeks off.

Mick Waters' more radical suggestions are tougher but worth a brief flight of fancy. Imagine (as I think Gove justifiably does, but sadly without doing his budgetary or teacher-workload maths) schools open 50 weeks a year, twelve hours a day. Imagine staff working the appropriate 190 days a year on rolling dates, booking their holidays to a central calendar and taking one another's classes in the same department while colleagues took their holidays, the school always having the right number of staff drawn from a pool Waters rightly identifies as needing to be 20% larger; imagine student total holidays being fewer (to the relief of parents) and with an understanding approach to parents removing students for culturally-valuable holidays in termtime. Don't baulk at the idea of leaving your class in a colleague's hands: in a good school, with good teachers (NB, ones that are not as tired as under the fixed-terms system!), and stability of (valued!) teachers to ensure students had positive relationships with all staff, there would be not only no loss but potentially a refreshing change for students in taking a module with a different staff member for 3 weeks; county groups, federations or academy groups would need to (at last) responsibly and sustainably source a pool of regular support / supply staff and cultivate them with better-than-the-current-ragged-treatment they receive; all but the smallest schools would be able to programme like this without difficulty. In other words - we'd function like normal business organisations with sensible depth of staffing capacity. Since total holidays were shorter for students, some of the (very valuable) Extended Schools provision in summer could be run alongside / integrated with normal schooling - an awkward divide at present. There is a difficulty of course, Mr. Gove - far from teachers not working hard enough, you currently have a system predicated on driving half a million skilled graduates to the verge of nervous collapse three times a year and effectively no effective staffing reserve in any school - so you currently have a term dates system structured as a prop to barely prevent that. If you want all the "Imagine" possiblities above, you'd need a 20% rise in education funding at a stroke, wouldn't you?

But at the very least - we could change to a sensible five-term year right now, without cost or difficulty, to the benefit of all. Still knee-deep in packing boxes after three weeks I may be, and with a fortnight of chaos yet to come - but even I see the sense in shorter summer holidays.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Teaching after the riots

A recurrent theme of this blog is the analogy between schools and society, teaching and government. This is no surprise: schools are our society writ small, with the same tensions, pressures, authorities, contradictions, and community issues. This week the link became stronger as many educators will have watched riots in UK city centres and known some of their own students will have been involved. Twitter has been full of heated debate between teachers, some with dogmatic positions and some (to their credit) later backing down and reconsidering - a sure sign of a skilled teacher and real role-model. How do we respond afterwards in our classrooms?

First, we need to remember that we are obliged to show patience and not entitled to outrage, as educators. We made that compact on entering this profession: to respond firmly, and to choose dialogue; to listen and consider, and to seek root causes; to forgive even while punishing and show young people that those are compatible - to maintain the relationship and enable it to move forward more strongly even when we are delivering consequences. The ancient Greek proverb, I believe, goes "After the war - make alliances." My suspicion and dislike of those who seemed in teaching to wield power because they could began strongly as a school student and continues in unbroken line today: it is not the primary role of our job to wish to punish, part of the role though it be. As such, it ill becomes an educator to use Twitter (tempting as it is in the instant in the pub or watching the fires on the news) to either rant about arresting / imprisoning / deporting / executing (yes, people said it) young people - even in the height of a riot - fine in the staff room, not fine on social media: "public faces on, please, children." Similarly, teachers will know they have a role to identify their students from pictures and sensitively address this issue with other authorities - but putting out calls on Twitter to commit to this role is a step too far: it has a clarion taste of collaboration in the negative sense, and the potential to massively damage relationships between the staff and student bodies in (especially difficult) schools.

You should have gathered by now that I disapprove of the riots - of course I do - but there is no need to become one-sided about this: you don't have to either condone or condemn - the obligation of an educator is softer in both cases, to both stand on principle against the riots, and yet to understand their root causes. To consider cause is not to condone violence, nor is anyone pretending the violence is other than just wanton criminality. But there must be a reason we got to here and it's not treachery to reflect on it. Doug Belshaw's superb short article addresses this, and I consider my article an extended unpacking of that initial plea for consideration and debate. No smoke without fire - very literally in this case.

Consider the following causes: (1) massive cuts to youth services and EMA, plus student fees rising massively - and wider cuts affecting many of the same families; (2) the youth Careers Service has effectively just been cut - at a time of record youth unemployment; (3) bankers bonuses are at £14Bn this year. On the last figure - note that the £100M repair bill the riots are likely to cause (cf Guardian) is equivalent to two and a half days of bankers' bonuses - the same cost to society, extracted in the same period of time. Both are damage to the social fabric as a result of wanton greed and selfishness - and the (apparent) invisibility of the theft-by-the-rich makes it, if anything, the more offensive. Did you realise that median banker salaries have doubled since the crash began, to nearly twenty times UK average income? It's perfectly possible to loathe the rape of our social fabric by the wanton at both ends of the income scale, and to loathe them together and equally. Ed Miliband has started to craft a narrative of this, but Labour predictably hasn't pushed properly yet on linking the riots to this.

One major vein of poison-dripping criticism - often from well-informed leftists - is that there is "nothing political" in these riots. These young people don't want free education, better healthcare, youth centres or the vote - they want stolen TVs or, worse yet, just to smash stuff for the sake of it. This is a valid criticism but it mustn't censure comments about cause: it's a bit New Labour metropolitan elite to suggest that only middle-class disaffection is permitted in the streets. People keep twittering to the effect that "these riots are just criminal, they're not political" - but this is a nonsense. Yes, they're just criminal - but while they are not politically informed or activist, they are political because they are caused by political choice and social circumstance: political is from Greek -polis, meaning "of the city / the people", so it's political because what caused this has affected so many to make them do this. Criminality on this scale IS political: were there not disaffection, the seed would fall on dry ground; note that the riots have not been ethnic or gender-specific, and their sheer geographical spread indicates tinder disaffection in multiple locations, ready to spark. @aaronjohnpeters quotes the African proverb "if the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth" and points out that a year in jail costs the taxpayer £52k; he asks "surely housing, EMA and not introducing fees would have been easier?" It's controversial but a valid consideration: fixed principles of right and order start to look questionable when the overall cost of the aftermath of cuts is greater than the programmes that would have prevented them. In more judgemental balance, @iamDanMorris brilliantly twittered that "Only in the UK could rioters in £100 trainers organising things on £300 smartphones claim to be in poverty" but we also have to remember that prosperity or poverty is relative - to your own changing circumstances, and to others in your own country. When teens see their family income being scythed as costs rise, their opportunities disappearing and see headlines reporting ever-fatter gluttony by the richest, the compulsion to react is strong. Interesting and sometimes admirable "Red Tory" Philip Blond rightly talks about the "rentier society" of disenfranchisement that led us here, but no sooner has he done that than Housing Minister Grant Shapps tweets he'll back social landlords evicting any tenant involved in the criminality, without apparent respect for context or rights - deep Tory understanding followed immediately by Daily Mail knee-jerk gesture.

An apt if obscure comparison is with the Bagaudae of the collapsing late Roman Empire: as central authority fell apart in the face of falling prosperity due to increasing greed and rapacity by the monied super-wealthy, more and broader bands of the working poor found common cause in disdaining the state and joining together in unlikely alliance to function as brigands. Whole sections of Gaul and Hispania were at the mercy of this piracy for years. This is not to suggest the same is about to happen here - our policing and legal systems are too strong, our social fabric still too good despite this strain - but clearly an argument can be made that the same mechanism is underpinning this. Protesters don't have to have an explicit liberal cause - as any teacher will know, just feeling "hard done by" is the root cause of most "kicking off": note the Reuters analysis of comment from the street. Reports of the police and Housing Benefit reforms being used to convert everything inside the North Circular into one huge monied gated community are not true - yet. We may not admire violent reaction to violent injustice but teachers, more than most, should recognise it - should recognise its potential to spread - and should recognise that, amidst the selfishness and self-importance of it, there are other root causes to address as well if we wish to avoid such incidents in future. You can't just discipline: there's more of them than us so if we force them to be our enemies, woe betide us. Authority, at the point of conflict, is an illusion - teachers knew this already, even if society is shocked this week.

Leaving the socio-economic inequality issues aside, why don't young people feel more included in society in general? Well, we've narrowed the curriculum down to core subjects and even Citizenship has become dry bureaucratic fact-listing. This is all particularly familiar to me as a (now former) Citizenship teacher: two years ago the boards changed the syllabi to make Citizenship study much more overtly political and parliamentarian, and the damage to the subject for students at my not-very-highly attaining school was awful. We used to have students below the national average engaging in multiple interesting and socially-responsible, communitarian activities - fundraising, running charity days, hosting and catering events - for animal, medical and local charities. This was all shot to pieces by what I considered an excessively grammar-school-focused new model insisting the topics had to be overtly political: about historical development of rights, or representation or international issues - worthy subjects, to be sure, but a constraint that put off most of our pupils. Good practical action - D of E stuff - was replaced by endless letter writing to MPs and local councillors. The new model literally took a Big Society model of mass civic participation we had refined perfectly in a below-average school and destroyed it - because "political understanding and written expression" was more important in the eyes of a metropolitan leftist elite. Our students were demoralised massively. Plus they wondered openly what the hell the point was in peaceful protest anyway. If you want to know why these riots weren't "political" - ask how much effect protests against the Iraq war or Student Fee Rises had. Add in the Met's grossly inept and immoral handling of the Ian Tomlinson case and you have a generation whose explicit view is: you say you'll listen to us - you don't - you take the p*** using authority to suppress all protest anyway - everyone in power is minted and getting richer and it's only those at the bottom who suffer - f*** your politics, we're gonna smash some stuff. The risk of this line of (flawed, if grounded) logic gaining momentum is massive. The riots are not the end point but a step en route. Be warned.

Also important is for schools to take some responsibility for a missed opportunity a few months ago: it's not like we couldn't have channelled this disaffection much better. There was much press coverage of schools' dilemma in responding to under-16s wishing to take part in student tuition fee / EMA cancellation protests but it was depressingly one-sided: the combined force of media pressure for conformity and order, school threats of sanction and teacher social conservatism meant most schools banned students from protest and punished those who did. But we can't have it both ways: we can't say now we want young people involved in meaningful political protest instead of mindless violence - they asked for our support and approval for doing exactly that last year and we said no - no wonder they stopped asking us or bothering to inform us. Deny a moderate request and you may get worse. Consider my plea back in January (not on this blog, for reasons of anonymity-at-the-time - I have since changed jobs) for us to not only permit but empower young people's right to protest over important political issues. We didn't let them engage in debate - we weren't co-operative - so no we face the less co-operative response. Reap what you sow and all that...

The Twitter remedies for the curriculum are coming thick and fast now too. @josepicardo / @lauradoggett say that more PSHE is not the answer - but is more core maths and English, producing yet higher levels of disaffection with school / authority / the adult world going to help? In a week where research showed that half of all intelligence is genetically determined (i.e. the non-academic may not be able to do anything about that), is the narrowly-academic EBacc going to increase the self-esteem and opportunities of our neglected vocational learners? Or will they just go and steal some TVs instead of doing yet more desk-based study? Note David Price's excellent final paragraph about the bright-leftist delusion that all poor kids can be lawyers. This is in the same week that we learned that streaming harms less academic pupils' self-esteem (apparently, the Pope is Catholic etc) - and yet we plough on doing more and more of it. We need more vocational opportuinities, more PE for the ethos and mutuality it promotes, more D of E, much much more student voice (and more meaningful), and a wider sense of communal social education which would entail valuing participation, practical action, shared moral values (NOT imposed ones) - and this would HAVE TO mean a relaxation of focus on narrow grades and tables: it's a zero-sum game between these two value sets. Twenty years ago we started cannibalising pastoral and holistic for skeletal core academic and this is a fundamental root cause underpinning the outcome of a generation that feels no moral obligation or sense of community. I massively respect @josepicardo but his statement ""More PSHE is not the answer. Society wide acceptance of responsibility is" is akin to saying - "Driving there is not the answer. All of us being on the beach in Southern France is" - you need a mechanism as well as an outcome. We do need more, and more discursive / participatory (not imposed, political, bureaucratic) Citizenship and PSHE - that's exactly what we need - and skilled debate leaders in our classrooms - a skill that is dying out because lesson standards are killing circle discussions in favour of rushed, snippeted multi-activities.

Teachers: don't rant thoughlessly about the riots - even though you disapprove. Don't publicly lead the identification of suspects - even though you will engage with that process in some form where needed. Mindless criminality it may be, but don't dismiss it as groundless simply because of that. Most of all, don't keep letting yourself and your school continue on the slow drift towards drily academic, grade-focused learning: get back to morals, and character (you might find these models or these CPD resources from the TDA-funded The Ethos Project of use) in education, get back to social action and the social compact. As teachers we aren't responsible for either the unacceptable riots in our streets, or the gross and rising inequality which is a substantial cause, nor for the generation of poor parenting that has failed in the bridge between youth and social order - but it is not a chore that we, more than any other group in society (comfortably more, after the dust settles, than the police or politicians), will have most work to do, to ensure healing and progress - it is an opportunity, and I embrace it - moderately, reasonably, open-mindedly, and always aiming to resist dogma, entrenchment and stigmatisation. I encourage you to do so as well. This is where we can make an impact, and this is what we want to educate young people for - to make a difference. Come with me. And in the interests of salvaging social cohesion, I'll say that to them, too.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Reporting the badly behaved

Teachers are familiar with reporting the badly-behaved (moot point as to what difference it makes when they do...) - so it's entertaining to read in today's Guardian that the police want us, in our communities, dobbing those around us in if we think they're anarchists. This is all part of a creeping system of social "telling on" - universities have been told to report extremists for some time, though the emphasis of those first efforts was on Islamic extremism, whereas this police plea is about anarchism, specifically (one presumes) at the masked members of recent London protests. The analogy with teaching is neat enough: when a group of students get out of hand and something serious happens, teachers tell assemblies that it hurts everyone, no-one should protect the culprits, you can tell us in secret - and so forth.

The question is how many teachers do care about most such instances, or actually do want anything reported. You're tempted to say that most feel they have to adopt that position while hoping fervently that no-one says anything more. Nobody wants justice or social peace and order more than teachers, but quite often dobbing - particularly the state-sanctioned and -fueled sort - brings out the absolute worst in people: over-exaggeration, unreasonable pleas to minority status, self-defeating victim behaviour, and outright lies quite often; and that's without the moments where authority is applied ineffectively or too heavy-handedly (yes, we've all done it.) I confess to a sneaking admiration for that boarding school phenomenon of groups of students refusing to dob on anyone and all accepting the punishment for wrongdoing together even though only one or two did whatever was done: it shows collectiveness, solidarity, and mutual sacrifice - it's surprisingly leftist, in fact. Everyone can just take the point and move on. The social fabric stretched, but didn't rip - a principle worth preserving, and which an encouragement to tittle-tattling can undermine permanently.

And so back to the police, who want us dobbing in anyone with a black balaclava (as a motorcyclist, I'm in trouble) or who follows UKUncut on Twitter. New Labour social policing wanted us going through our neighbour's bins for fear of bomb-making and now the Tories want us going through their wardrobes as well - in search of a giveaway circled-A hoodie.

Let's not get serious. This sort of nonsense (as the Guardian article points out) is fatuous and designed (like the aformentioned teachers' assemblies after anonymous or collective damage in schools) to be a public posture, not meant for real reply. Anyone who's ever phoned their local constabulary at 2am while a full-on domestic violence scene has occured in the road outside their house, only to be told, in essence, that the police aren't interested - you will laugh yourself silly at the idea of the police taking it seriously when you ring up saying "I think my neighbour's an anarchist." So, in the spirit of pointless satire which presumably underpins the police announcement, I wrote back to the Guardian letters page with the following. Enjoy:

Dear Met Police,
(cc The Guardian Letters page)

Further to your request to report anarchists formally to you (Guardian, 1st August) I would like to report a dangerous person living in my community in central London.

Your definition in the police guidance is that “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy.” You encourage citizens to notify police of any such individuals immediately. Under these terms, I would like to report a Mr. George Osborne of 11 Downing Street. I am uncertain of the exact motivations for his actions, or indeed the detail of many of them, as (like most extremists) his political philosophy appears piecemeal, dated, self-contradictory and an odd fusion of dogma, prejudice and fantasy.

My suspicions about his behaviour include: an intention to destroy all public services in the UK; to trigger a national and possibly international economic collapse; to eliminate all legislation relating to protecting workers or the environment; to cease the effective functioning of any branch of government; to reduce people to a state of fending for themselves in a stateless society; and to allow an anarchic free-for-all in labour markets, pensions, and commodities. Whilst I am aware that you will be shocked by this violent and wide-ranging programme for total social disaster, I assure you that a raid on 11 Downing Street will secure detailed documents supporting all my suspicions in this regard.

As a concerned citizen and active member of the “Big Society” promoted by his neighbour David at number 10, I write to inform you of the serious risk to Britain posed by this extremist individual. I urge you to take swift action – as I will urge my fellow concerned citizens to continue to ring your helpline to back up my reporting of this vile man.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Drennan,
address withheld (but probably not for very long after this letter.)