The Secret Life of the Cruelty of Competitive Schooling

Anyone who is watching Channel 4's 'experiment', their documentary series about the social development of children, will not fail to be enchanted by the children.  The headline grabbers from last evening's programme were, apparently, Jaja and George.  Their particular behaviours described; "Jaja is disappointed when a dance competition does not go her way and George starts the week on the sidelines", as the most compelling examples of what the Guardian says, "reveals small kids to be just as complex and neurotic as grownups".

Anyone reading this post, might have reflected on how it could be, should be, so different!

Far from revealing the children as mini-me(s) in the making, the programme exposes how our systems reproduce those complexities and neuroses through the very competition that the journalists, the teachers, and the psychologists in the programme condone.  The casual suggestion made in the preview of the programme about how the "two psychologists critique the children in a way that feels harsh, until you remember every parent at home is doing the same or worse", is startling - at best a libel; at worst an indictment. 

What we saw were the damaging teaching and learning methodologies imposed on our schools and our teachers, about what is appropriate for the healthy development of their bodies, their minds and their ultimate well-being.  Jaja's joy for expressive movement, for dance, was dented by the rather crass competition.  Whilst George resisted the temptations of 'team-work' against the best efforts of the adults, a premature intrusion on his individuality. 

Of course, Jaja will need to learn resilience, how to bounce back in the face of disappointment and George will benefit from being part of a community of peers.  But these truths are better discovered by the rhythms of life, supported in environments that watch out for the child's readiness for those lessons. 


The problem with partial data

A headline in this weekend's Guardian talks of 'Primary school attacks' and is followed by a long list of figures that add to our sense of alarm about exclusions at such a young age.  The article  explains that 240 pupils were permanently excluded in 2013-14 compared to only 210 the previous year.  Data is used to suggest a number of possible reasons for a sudden increase in both the violence and the draconian response. 

These include the idea that poor children are fairing badly in the government's school reforms, and to support this, we are told that sponsored academies and free schools are expelling pupils "at twice the rate of other state secondary schools". 

If you are Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, this is proof that head teachers have been empowered by government policies and are trusted to do the right thing for the school community.

If you are Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, you have to be careful that teachers'  protection is balanced by concern for student welfare; to, at one and the same time, claim your clients' precedence and oppose the change agenda that threatens them.

Whilst OFSTED's data dashboard has school leaders and their teachers attention on the raw data of attainment, progress and attendance, well-being is measured in the shadow of the negative outcomes of such a pressurized environment.

What, we ask, would happen if we measured a school's success by how many young people had had to visit a doctor? or what percentage of parents had participated in school events? Wouldn't the first tell us that all sorts of dietary and environmental considerations were effective within in the school, as well as sound relationships and organisational systems?  Wouldn't the second suggest that a genuine learning community had been established, where all members felt welcome and that they had a contribution to make? 

It's our contention that attainment, progress and attendance would look healthy too.

Teacher Training

Aside from the advice for how best to unwind for the summer, there are a couple of articles in this week's TES which refer to different approaches to teacher training and continuous professional development.  There is a worry expressed that "school-based training could kill off university courses" and a suspicion that university courses are being side-lined in favour of what is regarded are more pragmatic and sustainable Scitts programmes, where the school provides the education.   But it shouldn't really be about a competition, where there is a place and need for both. 

Alternative pedagogies, to which this site is dedicated, is a place for further research and exploration, and involves taking an academic perspective of learning, which all teachers should have awareness of, as they enter our classrooms.  But its in those classrooms their skills are honed and the crucial relationships with pupils formed.

Ark academies would seem to have an organic approach to teacher education, taking graduate teaching assistants for two years, prior to their teacher training, where they gain valuable experience before they go into the classroom and then a graduated support programme for NQT+1, as they call it, to make sure that the scaffold is not taken down before the teacher can properly stand alone. 

Is this kind of thinking possible on a holistic level?  Perhaps as graduate teaching assistants, there is the opportunity to work within the 4 key stages, over the two years.  Transitions might be better understood.  Maybe the movement should be from individual students and then small groups and then see how whole class dynamics work.  Now that the SEND Code of Practice says that every teacher is a teacher of SEND we need to know how best to work with every child, however they present. 

Teachers need to keep the whole child in mind for the whole of their careers and however they learn to do it, they must be given the time for reflection and regeneration.  


We Can Sing a Rainbow

The editorial of this week’s TES uses the catch phrase from an American sitcom, ‘Frasier’ to illustrate how teachers are once again being side-lined in our centralised education system. Now headed up by Nicky Morgan, she promised, as Dr Crane did, “I’M LISTENING” - in contrast to her predecessor.  On this occasion, the issue is around how to replace the levels deemed flawed, to find a system of assessment of our children’s performance at end of key-stages.   Another broken promise, according to the piece, where the ‘teacher-led commission’ is not that at all. 

There are a couple of issues that are ‘elephants in this room’, for us.

The first is the fact that the three head teachers , from across three phases, are discounted as such, suggesting a distrust of their expertise as pedagogues; begging a number of questions about who it is they therefore serve.

The second implies a further separatist sensibility that our schools must find ways to reverse rather than entrench.  “Of course, secondary teachers are as poorly represented as their primary colleagues”, our editor tells us, “but for them the proposed changes are more of a tremor than the seismic shift they threaten to be in primary”. 

With Through-Schools increasing in number, it would seem that the profession is recognising that the need for a whole child/person perspective is a more productive learning environment.

The real problem of any such commission for us is that they are not listening to the most important people in this debate – our children – who are talking loud and clear, and being ignored.  We would ask whether the hot-housing of our children that has consistently failed to narrow gaps, should not be radically re-examined, to take account of what our children are saying?  You might need, as the song sings, to “listen with your ears, listen with your eyes”. 

In proliferating incidence of mental health problems; in increasing learning difficulties; children’s voices communicate things that we disregard to our cost – literally!

What our children are telling us is that we need to re-establish our vocation around their needs for emotional security that will support educational progress; theirs and our futures. And that we need to be united in this, led by people we trust because the work for what’s best for this as a priority.

And crucially; that economics must have no say in systems; politics must not determine curriculum; and the profession should take its place in shaping the culture, not aping it!

Cultural Capital

“Education became all about getting us ready for jobs.  Culture became a commodity that could be quantified by how much it fed into the economy”.  So says Armando Lannucci.

The TES report ; Performance measures  – ‘Creativity in peril as the arts are sidelined: Schools seek success in Progress 8 by focusing on academic GCSEs’ meanwhile, quotes the Warwick Commission to support its claim that the arts are being denigrated at the expense of the Ebac, which include subjects that have been unquestionably labelled ‘academic’.  Two questions arise for us in regard to this article.

Why do we accept this binary opposition between academic and creative learning?
How can educational leadership be ‘braver’, as well as, more creative, and challenge this human capital culture?

We believe that creativity is innate and that an individual’s expression of it is nurtured in a holistic learning environment that does not prioritise one subject over another; gives children opportunity to find their own specialism; support to develop it.  This means that creative subjects and ‘academic’ subjects are not mutually exclusive.

Let’s take Architecture, one of the disciplines that the Warwick Commission cites.  Any undergraduate course will be saturated with discussion about ‘vernacular’, relating to the local material available, that in turn is a feature of geographical formation and again determines traditional, historic styles of build.  The student who has not had a broad and balanced experience, is at a disadvantage in this creative industry.

The preferment and demotion of certain subjects, of academic versus vocational pathways in our education system has never really been resolved nor should it ever really have been an issue.  Are we not playing into the hands of further commodification by reinforcing these tired arguments?  And would it not now be ‘braver’ to reassert our vocation to teach the whole child, for the whole of their lives for the benefit of the whole society?

Why Wait for the Headlines?

For us, education is the core of a caring and civil society, as well as a universal, human need and entitlement.  The headlines however, emphasise the economics, first and foremost.

Nicky Morgan has pronounced a ‘war on illiteracy’ and promised ‘good local schools for all’.  Tristram Hunt has promised to ‘double childcare places at Sure Start Centres’ and that the adults that teach will be fully qualified to do so.  These are familiar arguments and partial answers, it seems to us.

We would like to move the conversation on a bit, if we can.  This is an open letter to prospective education ministers, be they of a Conservative, Liberal Democratic, Labour or Green persuasion and we’d like you to add your own thoughts for a holistic education wish list.

Dear Minister,

Whilst you are thinking about the future and the way you might spend taxpayers’ money in the most important department of government, we wondered if you might consider taking a more humanist and holistic perspective for children and their carers; teachers and their careers.

We know that you are working to re-establish us as a world class system and that you currently look to Asiatic countries for excellence, according to the preferred data, but we would urge you to take an alternative perspective, which might begin with well-being measurements as significant indicators of schools’ effectiveness and community health.  Our preferred model, though no longer ahead of the competition, is Finland, whose education system has great merit.  Furthermore, whilst the UK government looks to China for example, China has a growing holistic education community.

Of course, it is commendable to offer early years education for all and to ensure resources are targeted on deprived communities in this matter.  BUT it is important to us that formal teaching and learning is not begun until the age of 6/7, as is European practice and as Scotland is considering.  We recommend you to:

It is our contention that illiteracy proliferates when children are hot-housed, socially and physically unprepared for formal learning at 3 or 4 or 5 – especially boys – and that the focus should be on the progress of their human capacities in these years; communication; resilience in community.  Why, we would ask, are we rushing our children at early years, when they are now going to be in learning and training until 18?

We find your determination that those people who will be charged with the education of succeeding generations should be qualified commendable.  Again though, it is surely time for a rethink, when our teachers’ retirement age is, at present, 67 years.  A new approach to support the kind of longevity that this suggests is an opportunity to revisit the continuous professional development arc, allowing for our teachers to take their place in the culture as the public intellectuals that they should be.  Once upon a time we imagined sabbaticals every decade; refreshing the parts other ‘training’ can’t reach.

Let’s re-engage our imaginations for all of our sakes - and let’s be part of the conversation!


Head teachers, academies and funding

This morning, the BBC reported in a major story that David Cameron and Nicky Morgan published a range of news regarding 'under-performing' schools, their management and their funding. These changes would only be instated should the conservative government be re-elected, but it is  important to understand how they would affect the education system of the UK.

* Funding for schools will not rise in time with inflation.
* Currently, 3,500 schools (1/4 of secondary and  1/8 of primary schools) are judged as 'requires improvement' by Ofsted. These schools 'would have new leaderships imposed - such as being taken over by academy trusts'. 'Only schools able to prove they have a "clear plan for rapid improvement" will remain under their existing leadership.'
* Academies and Free Schools which had been judged as  'requires improvement' might be handed over to existing academy chains.

These news are devastating for a number of reasons. Not only would they increase the pressure on headteachers to 'transform' schools in under-performing areas (or face being sacked), they also threaten to disrupt the culture of local schools and children's place in them. Head teachers and leadership teams shape the atmosphere and priorities of the schoolday and a disruptive 'rotation system' where a new head is introduced whenever the school falls short of Ofsted standards could lead to a disastrous increase of pressure and disruption of stability at a very important time in children's lives.

The 'requires improvement' label was introduced in 2012, describing schools which fall short of the top two categories Ofsted uses ('outstanding' and 'good') and is followed by 'inadequate'. Accordingly, half of the labels now describe schools which are 'failing' and need intervention from the government. Teachers, head and governors have felt under immense pressure to conform to this new regime, which is also coupled with 'no notice' inspections for schools which are at particular risk.

The irony of changing state schools into academies (schools run by private sponsors with their own independent rules) is that this move only passes on the responsibility of the state (educating its young people) to private companies- thus saving money which is normally invested in Local Education Authorities (which support state schools but not academies). So far there has been no research which confirms that academies raise academic achievement.