In 1977 I hope I go to heaven

Very rarely does anything I say impress anyone. My philosophy that the answer to everything is ‘balance’ (which is just a rehash of ‘moderation in all things’) is met at best with indifference. The only statement I make that has drawn a response on anything like a regular basis is the following:

‘I saw The Clash play live’

From a few people, I have received a sense of envy to the point where I feel quite proud even though all I did was buy a ticket and turn up. For the record, they were brilliant (and I’m not just saying that to increase the envy of others). I have seen many bands play all sorts of music but nothing has matched that performance. 

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of The Clash’s first album. The level of interest strikes me as incredible because the world is such a different place. 

The 1970s was a fairly horrible time. The energy and excitement of the 60s had long since disappeared. The industrial heartlands were in decline and the 50s housing estates no longer seemed the perfect answer to the slums they had replaced. Culturally, alongside a few gems (T-Rex, Bowie, first wave of ska, reggae, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going on?’) it was awful.

The Miners strike, the 3-day week, bombings, gangs. This was not a good place to grow up. 

And the country was bankrupt. 

The Clash seemed the perfect response: angry but with a deep rooted concern for people. Their music reflected and captured the experience of people in industrial cities in the 1970s. With the world changed beyond recognition over the last 40 years, it is surprising that they are still remembered 

Although not great musicians and with a singer who struggled to hold a tune, they produced excellent songs and had a fantastic appetite for developing themselves. They refused to mime on TOTP leaving the BBC having to get Pans People to dance to them. They released a triple album for the price of a single album leaving themselves in huge debt. They refused to release an album with the mantra “home taping is killing music” on the sleeve. They had integrity writ large. But it was all in the context of the end of the 70s so why the interest now? 

The answer for me is that the breadth of their music makes them very easy to listen to over and over again. Put the album Sandinista on a you have reggae, funk, folk, rock and first signs of Rap. They  were prophetic musically and lyrically. Joe Strummer wrote about global warming (London Calling) ten years before it was publically talked about. Across a number of songs, his commentary on politics can still apply  today: 

“All over, people changing their votes

Along with their overcoats

If Adolf Hitler were here today

They’d send a limousine….”

What The Clash saw was the world changing in front of them. They saw it because they went looking for the changes and in doing so changed themselves. They sang with anger and compassion about the situation people found themselves in. The speed of change keeps increasing and the poverty of existence remains. That’s why the Clash remain important today 40 years and a world away from 1977 

The blues of Gianfranco- a short football blogĀ 

Leadership of any organisation should aim to get the best out of staff. In work, people develop incrementally in reponse to clear, achievable expectations and a range of outside factors (health etc) over which there is little control. There are no shortcuts in creating sustainable improvement in any organisation just plenty of pitfalls.

Last December Gianfranco Zola was brought in to manage Birmingham City because his fame might attract players and take Birmingham City to the riches of the premier league. The decision was a gamble and an attempt to shortcut the club’s development. To say that the gamble failed would be an understatement: relegation beckons.
Zola took over a team of limited players who had worked in a system that allowed them to achieve above themselves. It was not great to watch but we were 7th with a team that included free transfers from the League 1. He immediately scrapped his predecessors blueprint and asked players to play an attractive, passing game that they were not capable of doing. As a leader you cannot ask your staff to adopt a new, more skilled way of working overnight. You have to know your staff and develop a culture that can instil confidence in both individuals and their shared fate. Blues’ players appear to have a little confidence and the club is now gripped by the fear of relegation. Like many charismatic or celebrity leaders, Zola’s stay  will be short-lived. His legacy may haunt us for a few years to come. 

The trouble with sheep and goats- behaviour, curriculum and assessment

With a new behaviour report launched on Friday, the focus of the education media is on recommendations for change.  All 76 pages of the report deserve attention as it is very well-written and gives a good account of the evidence-base.  

When reflecting on trends in behaviour it is important to consider the wider context of education. Current moves to a cheaper system of education are in danger of separating children at a young age and damning a significant proportion of each cohort to an early life of failing and being punished.

With a narrowing curriculum, driven by budget cuts and high stakes SATs/exams, increasing numbers of pupils are learning from a very young age that they are not good enough. Children are learning year after year that they do not match up to the expected standard in the only subjects that matter. Opportunities to discover that they have abilities in other subject areas are disappearing as the value given to the arts and humanities begins to fade not just in schools but in wider society. 

In order to compete with Singapore, exams in the core subjects have been made significantly harder. KS1 SATs look very similar to previous KS2 papers and it is difficult to see the difference between Y6 expectations and GCSEs.  

Children are finding out that the compliant who are good at memorising are deemed “intelligent” whilst everyone else sits in a category of “not good enough”. To an extent, this has always been the case but previously was mitigated by the breadth of the curriculum and the expertise of experienced teachers. 

The moral purpose underpinning education used to include the development of a child’s talents. With academies no longer having to teach a broad curriculum and some MATs introducing apprentice teachers,  the moral purpose of education has shifted through a need for a cheap model of delivery that drills  and crams for exams in a narrow range of subjects whilst generating financial resource for third parties and CEO pay.   

Children who struggle to memorise and those whose behaviour is not compliant are learning to fail and to be punished at a very young age. The cost to our future society of a significantly increased underclass is enormous (crime, lower tax revenues etc) and dwarves any benefits of a small proportion of pupils competing in a global labour market.  The cost to the individual child whose talents are wasted is far greater. The education system is being created to repeatedly tell some infant children that they have failed and/or are naughty. People are good at living up to labels. That’s why, in St Matthew’s gospel, the sheep and goats are separated at the end of time not in Year 1.  

Cuts, gigs and uber instructors – ripping the relationship out of education

There was a time when a teacher’s legal duty to act in loco parentis was a profound duty- our own version of the Hippocratic oath. In those days, children were parented. Not by two people but, for most children, by lots of adults who knew each other and knew them by name. The parenting relationship mostly but not entirely fulfilled by females was nurturing and educational. It was important to society that, in the classroom, teachers took on that parenting role in all its sobering reality. Education was founded on the most profound human relationship known. 

Nowadays children are parented by one or two people sometimes supported by a grandparent. By and large, they do a good job. Men spend more time with their children than previous generations although still nowhere near as much as women (and for a significant group of children there is no father).  What has changed significantly is that parenting as an activity has been devalued. Parenting is far too long-term and vocational to be of interest to those in power. For society, for the media and for policy-makers, being a consumer and being known and accessible  online are far more important aspects of an adult’s life than being a parent. If parenthood is not valued then neither is the teacher being in loco parentis. 

The term loco parentis speaks of a relationship of significant knowledge of the child. The problem is that the parenting relationship involved is expensive because it involves an investment in time and care over a period. This is the relationship that is partly responsible for primary schools looking like they always have done because it is a relationship that relies on a classteacher being with children for most of the time.  The dramatic cuts being imposed on schools over the next three years are designed not just to save the treasury money but also to free schools from the past by ending the reliance on one class teacher for 30(ish) children.  Why pay a qualified classteacher to get to know children when parenting is no longer a valued activity.  

Whereas I think the majority of parents do a remarkable job, policy makers see parents as both consumers and flexible workers for the service economy. These two roles are crucial. If parents reduce the money spent on goods, the post-industrial economy will fall into recession immediately. If parents do not undertake part time, flexible work, labour costs will hit company profits hard. This is why politicians do not criticise parents: there are too many of them who have a vote and are needed to fulfil key roles in consumption and employment. Teachers, on the other hand, are relatively few, tend to vote the same way whatever (in England) and are fair game for a good bashing.  In the past, teachers were blamed for a great deal of what had once been the parents’ responsibility. Now that politicians do not see the importance of parenting, they don’t see the need for teachers to play a significant role in children’s lives beyond giving knowledge that can be tested. Enter the uber instructor. Armed with a script and a smile from the customer service handbook, these unqualified staff will be summoned by app to deliver to children. Online feedback will rate both delivery and the school. Self-employed with no sick pay or pension, the uber instructors will save the treasury, and through the cost cutting MATs, a significant sum of money. 

In DfE documents the term ‘headteacher’ is increasingly replaced by ‘system leader’. Once again relationship is being removed. If headteachers focus on the systems which allow uber instructors to deliver knowledge, they will no longer need to get to know staff and maintain effective staff relationships. In the future, the interaction between system leader and instructor will be through the rating system of delivery and school. 

Along with the teaching script, the key system in the school of the future will be ‘exclusion’ in order to quickly remove misbehaving pupils. Unless the system to remove those children who misbehave is slick, the instructor will not complete the script and the rating given on both sides of the interaction will suffer. 

The problem with removing relationship from schools is that it changes the basis of education and also leaves a significant number of children excluded from learning. 

My view is biased by my faith, my upbringing and my experience. Relationship is key to my concept of learning but is not in itself always good. As I grew up, my friends and I spent most of our spare time out of our houses learning about the world through petty crime and some fairly antisocial behaviours. These experiences were part of our relationships. Now people spend most of their time inside, crime has fallen and relationships have changed.  The problem is that the adults (neighbours, shopkeepers, police) in my childhood who kept us in some sort of check and dealt with us  when we got into trouble have no online equivalent today. Both those friends and the adults we knew outside of the home played a role in nurturing and teaching us. As we are confronted with a significant increase in attachment disorders among children, stripping relationship out of primary pedagogy is another step to removing the structures through which people have always learned and which offer all children including the most vulnerable hope of future opportunities. Uber instructors and system leaders will only meet the needs of those who are compliant and able to memorise easily. I may be wrong (and I hope I am) but the low cost education of the near-future may see a much larger proportion of pupils consigned to the underclass. 

Reliving the past

Storm Doris blew in but the pall bearers managed the coffin well in the exposed consecrated ground of Quinton cemetery. We laid my mum to rest amidst tears but also with thanks for her life. It was a day of talking about the past. 

Born in the depression in the industrial Black Country, my mum’s life was not untypical for women of her generation in being at times very tough.  This blog is not about her (“I don’t want eulogies when I die”) but about her experience of education. 

She was taught in a large school room sectioned off for three age groups up to 14  year olds. Children sat in rows. The headteacher sat on a raised platform in the central sectioned so she could see across the whole room. Behaviour was good and children were drilled in a range of subjects. My mum was happy at school. As she got older she was given more responsibility and rose to it. On Fridays she would collect the dinner money for the week and walk to the bank on Oldbury High Street. Educationally she did not thrive at school because memorisation of the facts did not come as easily to her as other children. From school, she went on to the technical college to learn to type. Her experience left her not realising how intelligent she was, and she really was. She appreciated beauty and music (stolen from her when she became profoundly hard of hearing later in life) in remarkable ways; she understood meaning at a deep level; she found wonderful ways to support and nurture people within her wide circle of family and friends. But she grew up in the era of the 11 plus and the sheep being separated from the goats so she learned early  to think of herself as not academic. 

While the world changed at an astonishing rate during her life time, the educational direction of travel is now heading back to replicate much of what my mum experienced. Large classes with children in rows facing the front to memorise knowledge and then be tested in order to establish worthiness. I think direct instruction and rote learning are very important elements of teaching but pedagogy was extended because a proportion of children did not have their needs met or their intelligence recognised. My mum was fortunate to be brought up in a large family within a tight knit community that nurtured her as a child. The world has changed and fragmented communities no longer play the nurturing role. Far from being supported many young people are isolated by the technology they use to try and connect to the world. To simplify education in a way that mimics the distant past in order to cut costs is to deliberately fail to meet some children’s needs and to lessen humanity. 

Vocations – balance and the art of happinessĀ 

A brief discussion with Kieran Dhunna Halliwell prompted me to think further on work/home balance in context of vocation. The development of my thinking is also indebted to a presentation I saw Daniel Eglin deliver at Newman University in Birmingham as part of his doctoral study. 

Despite talk of the gig economy, uber teachers and millennials, I still see evidence of vocation in people entering the teaching profession.  Although I am a Catholic who sees vocation as a higher calling that brings someone into a closer relationship with God through specific service, I am writing this in a secular sense of being brought into teaching through a commitment to broadening the life opportunities of young people. To me that means that there is a fundamentally moral motivation to teach to the best of my ability.  Morality is not something I usually feel comfortable with for fear of hypocrisy but in teaching, I can see and talk about moral purpose because it runs through all effective practice. 

In conversation with Kieran, I thought further at the extent to which the moral vocation of the teacher  is exploited by policy makers and, closer to home, SLT to the detriment of the teacher and teaching. 

Increasingly, as local council services are cut, we are acting out a role of society’s safety net because families have nowhere else to turn. The educational support services we need to access for our children are overwhelmed and so our vocation leads us to stretch ourselves ever further. Tanya Byron, in an excellent presentation to the new Chartered College, twice said that teachers should not be doing the work of psychologists but we are increasingly dealing with children who are not safe and whom society will not provide the necessary resources.  

The low retention rate of primary school teachers (a third are now under thirty) is driven by workload. However strong your vocation, exhaustion is a physical reality.  Exhaustion made worse by pernicious accountability systems that create top down pressures that overwhelm individuals even those with strong networks. OfSTED has improved its work significantly in the last two frameworks but we still have previously successful, experienced staff with a strong sense of vocation forced out in response to inspection. An important development to support the vocation to teaching has been the teacher wellbeing networks especially from Jenna Lucas and Kerry Mcfarlane. 

We long ago reached the point where those with a vocation to teaching, think twice before applying for a course. Anecdotes suggest that whilst many entering initial teacher education still have a vocation, there are many who do not and are filling a short gap in life. 

To work in teaching without a sense of personal vocation risks the key elements of: being motivated to continuing to develop professionally; maintaining an open mind and investing time in the depth of reflection that underpins effective classroom practice. 

In talking about work/life or work/home balance we need to think of having a range of vocations rather than the one to our classroom. The vocation to teaching needs to be balanced to our vocation to our family and our vocation to ourselves. Vocation to family means spending crucial time with our children, siblings and, for some, parents. Vocation to ourselves is played out not in a selfish sense but by keeping active and healthy.

 When we lose the balance between our vocations, our families suffer (my children have repeatedly), we suffer as individuals and our teaching suffers to the detriment of the children whose lives are influenced by the quality of our work. 

This half term, I know I need to reflect deeper on how my vocations can be held in balance and how I can model that for others. As a Catholic, I see vocation rather than material consumption as providing happiness in my life. As a teacher, I believe that vocation gives a deep moral meaning to my work. That at times over the years, I have failed miserably, is because I only saw one vocation not many that are interrelated. 

PISA league tables and the cuts – on the road to nowhere

In 2011, Michael Gove declared Andreas Schleicher, head of education research at the OECD to be “the most important man in English education”.  The PISA data published every three years is all our politicians need to determine policy. At over 400 pages long, the report is almost biblical in allowing people to chose the parts that support their beliefs.

For politicians, the key paragraph in the 2016 PISA report states that science teachers’ qualifications do not impact on science attainment but the method of teaching does. This single paragraph explains why politicians are happy that headteachers are complaining so loudly about cuts. The evidence to last week’s Commons Select Committee was about schools making key staff redundant. If you are politician, large scale school redundancies will be evidence that expensive teachers whose qualifications apparently make no difference are being replaced with cheaper unqualified staff and apprentices who can follow the “how to teach” script. If you are a politician, you will be pleased.
The only factor that could dent a politician’s happiness would be loss of the parental vote in key constituencies. Despite the policy constraints of a small majority, the government are riding high in the opinion polls and appear to have little to fear from headteachers setting out the impact of the cuts in letters to parents. As a society, we are seeing patients on hospital trollies, reading about record prison suicides, walking past homeless people in shop doorways and collectively shrugging our shoulders. I think we can predict that school redundancies and broken PE equipment will receive the same response. It feels as if, in a post-public service society, only a rise in mortgage rates will impact on a government’s popularity. Having enjoyed the benefits of well funded public institutions and home ownership, my generation seem happy to deny those things to our children. 

The problem with using Schleicher and his PISA tables as the sole rationale for the current policy is that the OECD is an economic organisation. Economically, the basic skills tested by PISA are very important to both humans accessing life experiences and also to companies’ profits. Educationally, basic skills rightly receive a significant focus but there is far more to human development. By cutting subjects and expert staff, we are in grave of danger of failing a large proportion of children who will be condemned to have little part in the economic, cultural and political life of society and all because we want to be higher up the global education league tables. Our society and our education system cannot be Singapore or South Korea because the variables are too great. The economics of PISA, focused on company productivity, will increase inequality not social mobility in the UK and will create a far larger underclass. We have been here before in our history and it really wasn’t that great.