General Election 2017- pulling up the ladder behind us- a few sweeping generalisations about politics

Tomorrow morning, The Conservative Party will have an increased majority and people will either be pleased or disappointed. I am confident of the outcome partly because of the polls but mainly because, despite vast societal change, voting patterns in my lifetime have not changed. A significant proportion of middle class people who, because of demographics, determine tne outcome of elections, vote for the party that poses least short-term economic risk to people like them. Education, health, Brexit and security are all important issues but nothing compared to perceptions of competence to manage the economy in my immediate interests. In this period of low global and national economic growth, our risk aversion has increased which is why, despite a poor campaign, the conservative vote held up.

Part of our economic insecurity includes not wanting to share what we have with others. This sense of competition over limited resource is what drives dislike of migration. It also feeds passive support for policies that cut provision for those more vulnerable than ourselves despite the altruism that is clearly part of people’s lives. It is less economically risky to buy a charity single than to seek a political solution that prevents social issues occuring. While individuals are appalled by homelessness, hospital waiting lists, school cuts, our collective response is to shrug because the solutions pose too great a risk to our ability to choose how we consume material goods, holidays etc. Brexit, which was portrayed as an economic risk in the referendum, was voted for by 52% of the country who saw their own financial security served better outside globalized markets of goods, money and people  over which they had no apparent control.

 We should pause before castigating or criticising people for protecting their own short-term position. Such behaviour can be seen as part of a shared human weakness that often drives humanity forward. Behaviour is not a simple choice between the ethical or unethical but instead on a spectrum between the two extremes of right and wrong. It is not just a middle-class phenomena. Some of the poorest vote to pull up the ladder that they fear can give migrants access to the scant resources available in their community.

The Labour Party comes out of the election having given a voice for younger people in cities. It has provided a populist alternative which has connected with a third of the population. At least, the election has been made more interesting by their policies. Unlike the last 5 elections, we have not been asked to choose between 3 versions of neo-liberalism. Although the current Labour Party is more a protest movement than an alternative government, they now offer a voice to those who do not share the dominant values of society. Corbyn is a politician of unusual integrity (his very low and scrupulously honest expenses claims over many years told us that) whose weakness is filling positions with friends rather than seeking a broader base for opposition. The party is stuck with him and needs to get used to it but he needs to reach out beyond his friends if he is to provide an effective opposition that goes beyond mass rallies and social media. 

The Conservative Party may have the majority that protects their legislative  programmes from House of Commons’ rebellions but they have as many problems as Labour. If Brexit leads to recession, May will not survive. She is a politician that people like the idea of rather than the reality.  As soon as she speaks on TV or in the Commons, her weaknesses are exposed. She is neither a good  debater in the Commons nor a charismatic provider of soundbites. Making the election about her (from the battlebus slogan to the repetition of ‘strong and stable’) means that if things go wrong, the Conservative Party are likely to remove her more quickly than previous leaders. Despite the increased majority, she is in many ways in a more precarious position from which to negotiate Brexit than she was before. 

The Liberal Democrats are in the difficult position of being ignored. The public and media are quite happy with the narrative of a political two horse race. In many ways, it’s Liberal Democrat problems in getting publicity that means Labour’s successful campaign has not affected the result. It does not matter how well Labour does in the big cities, if Lib Dems do not challenge Tory seats in the South and South West. They need to reconsider how they can operate an increasingly divided country. If Brexit is a disaster, there will be little political capital in being the party that says, “We told you so”.

Being selfish,  my thoughts are also on the impact of the election on schools. The anger over education, expressed during the election, may give the government pause for thought but the cuts will continue. Education is being transformed by the Treasury rather the DfE. The cuts to staff and resources leave primary schools focussed on literacy and numeracy skills with little in the budget for anything else. Large academy chains will continue to grow with high staff turnover, low wages and increased testing. The long term impact will be an increasingly excluded underclass feeding divisions in society. 

The greatest issue highlighted by the election is how much more divided we now are than before the financial crash in 2008. Income and wealth inequalities have increased as every section of society pulls up the ladder behind it. We are divided by age in a way that has never happened before. Brexit split the country in two. There is a far greater difference than before between the values of those who live in big cities compared to the rest of the coumtry. We may have voted to limit economic risk to people “like us” but this high level of division and insecurity are a threat to all our futures in a world where the population is growing, natural resources are being used up and, as a result, war,  conflict and terrorism are increasing. 

Waving not drowning: how the teaching of swimming can illustrate the importance of pedagogical breadth and balance in primary schools

This short piece has been prompted by, and is indebted to, a humorous tweet by @tombennett, blog posts by @suecowley @ChrisChivers2 and a conversation with @ezzymoon. 

The teaching of swimming can illustrate a belief in the importance of a broad and balanced pedagogical approach in all subjects. 

Most of my experience is with key stage 2 pupils who have never been swimming before (due to the closure of municipal pools since 1990)  Whereas teaching other subjects badly reduces life opportunities, getting the teaching of swimming wrong would mean either a child drowning in the lesson or being unable to survive falling in water at some point in the future. The stakes are quite high. 

For some children, the best approach is to lower themselves into the deep end in the first lesson and set off towards the shallow end near but not touching the side. Whilst I have found this approach to be effective, it is rarely used in primary schools because children do end up spending most of the precious half hour lesson stood on the side. Some people would argue that my continued belief in this method despite the limited time in the pool makes me a traditional teacher focused on direct instruction of technique. I’m used to being labelled by others so that’s ok.

The problem with the label is that during lessons I also give children time in the shallow end to learn through playing around. This is important for some children, but not all, in order to develop confidence. Arm bands and floats also support (literally) some learners. Judging when to remove the aids requires expert assessment of development. Children develop confidence at different rates for a wide range of complex and inter-related reasons. I seek to engage children from their own starting point. I scaffold the learning- with a long pole in the deep end which I hold in a physical zone of proximal development (about two inches beyond the child’s reach) This leads some people to label me progressive which is also ok if it suits them.  I have fished a child out of a pool on more than one occasion. If they were to drown, I would blame my teaching not the child’s failure to listen to instruction. 

When I teach swimming, I cannot afford to teach to an ideology. Every child needs both confidence and technique. The question is not whether my teaching should be influenced by the similarities between children or the differences but how I acknowledge and adapt to both the similarities and the differences. I am not developing Olympic swimmers (but if it happened i’d take the credit) but people who can choose to enjoy the benefits of swimming all their lives. Therefore, this is not about 10000 hours of deliberate practice but the contribution of swimming to the overall development of the child. If the children spend all their time with their feet on the floor, they will never learn to swim. If children’s experience is restricted to swimming lengths, some will never choose to get in the water. There is a pedagogical balance that works. The balance varies depending on the child. As a primary teacher, my expertise lies in finding that balance. 

For 10 years,  I have spent one evening a week as a diving instructor with teenagers and young adults. The importance of a broad pedagogical approach is just as important for this level of expertise as it is with year 3 non-swimmers. Alongside the teaching of technical diving expertise, our trainees play lots of games to develop both confidence and stamina. 

Every subject is unique and determined by specific knowledge, skills and understanding. For every subject there is a broad and balanced pedagogical approach that reflects the uniqueness of the subject and adapts to both the similarities and the differences between those learning.  Unlike in swimming, in other subjects, lives may not depend on finding the breadth and the balance, but the principle is always the same. 

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.