Back to school

It’s back to school week for thousands of British children and young people, as well as all the teachers and support staff who work in our 24,000 schools and colleges. Uniforms are being pulled out of bedroom corners. Folders are being dusted off.  The first hints of autumn are being carried in the air, even if we’re still being embraced by the longest, sunniest summer in a decade.

All of which makes it the right time to post this video of Ken Robinson speaking at the RSA earlier in the summer. I squeezed in right before they closed the doors. It was a delight to hear him saying that creativity should be embedded into every school – especially as that’s at the heart of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, where I’m proud to be a (relatively new) school governor.

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It’s worth watching the whole video, but here’s a taster of what he said.

Why, he asked, do we ‘do’ education? His answer came in four parts: economic, cultural, social and personal.

Education, he said, has powerful economic purpose, contributing to health, vitality and sustainability. We want to make our children economically independent – so what does industry want? An IBM report from 2011 of 1,800 leaders in 80 countries said they wanted adaptability and creativity.

The world is complicated and increasingly conflicted. Value systems are knocking against each other head on.  We need forms of education that respond to and reflect culture  – that allows you to see your own identity and to understand others’.

He points to evidence of political disengagement. It’s important we take part in civil engagement. You do this by having a culture of participation – and schools are a vital part of this.

And finally, it’s about people.  “Anything not nuanced to diversity will increase alienation.”

His belief is that change needs to come from the ground up. “We need policy makers to think differently. They appear to believe that you improve things by issuing directives. It’s a false consciousness of how education actually works. If we do something different, government will respond.”

“You cannot improve education,” he said, “by vilifying teachers.”

Too right!


Gove and why schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’

In the topsy-turvy, highly politicised world of British education, there are a dizzying array of contradictory accusations. Today, it’s Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that schools ‘fail’ two-thirds of the brightest pupils, which hovers awkwardly over his organisation’s own assertion that two thirds of schools in the UK are good or outstanding.

Ah well, so it goes as Kurt Vonnegut once said.

The detail of the current round of contradictory unpleasantness coming from the DfE and Ofsted is less interesting than the underlying idea revealed in the exchange between Gove and Dianne Abbott during the GCSE debate.

“No-one needs academic rigour more than working-class children,” said Abbott, writing the next day in The Guardian. “I owe everything in life to my string of A Grades and O- and A-Level and my Cambridge degree.”

The important word in that sentence is ‘I’.

Politicians seem incapable of seeing beyond their own individual experiences at school. They regularly confuse what worked for them with what might work for thousands of young people from an entirely different generation. “It worked for me” appears to be the basis of policy and responses to policy and it’s just not good enough.

I once heard an Assistant Head turned leadership coach explain this phenomenon. “Whenever any adult goes into schools, they bring their school bag with them. And their school bag is full of shit.”

For politicians, the shit is usually good shit. Most of them will have been successful at school, and will have felt the halo glow of achievement. Parents who don’t turn up to parents evening, or who kick off when they do come into school, are also responding to their school experiences, which were probably poor. And it’s the same for the rest of us. We can only put our own experiences into their rightful historic place by either spending a lot of time in schools (like teachers do) or by recognising the tidal emotional pull of our own school days.

School is intense and time-specific. The five years or so we all spent as pupils at secondary school will have contained a lifetimes-worth of friendships, fallings out, stress, comedy, drama and occasionally, the kind of teaching you remember for ever. Schools are huge, complex, emotional machines with many different moving parts that exert a lasting effect.

It’s powerful stuff. Michael Gove, for example, had a wonderful time at school. I once read a piece in which his mother described a teacher giving up and just letting him lead class. Gove himself even wrote an open letter of apology to his French teacher, saying that he cringes when he thinks of his ‘clever-dick questions’ and ‘pathetic showing-off’. The precocious schoolboy lingers in Gove’s pronouncements, and he needs to be replaced with a wiser adult who can survey the landscape without always allowing himself to be psychologically pinged back to his own experience at school.

To paraphrase Carson McCullers, schools are a ‘dragnet for lost feeling’. Politicians, however, should be able to get beyond that.

London Festival Of Education Report #2

I’m going to steal a literary device from Michael Rosen, who spoke at one of the final sessions at yesterday’s excellent London Festival of Education.

“A few fragments,” he said, starting his short talk on memorable teachers before bringing to life a handful of characters: the teacher who bombarded them with dramatically-performed French literature; Ms Pope, the biology teacher who made them always find a new way to tell their partner what they’d just learned; and his father who gave him the same advice Karl Marx gave his daughter – ‘be curious’.

My fragments, then.

Michael Wilshire arriving with two men carrying attaché cases, and coming across very well indeed. This is despite fact he still clearly believes in an old-fashioned top-down view of excellence: that only leaders can inspire and that it is the job of leaders to make everyone else obey.

Bill Lucas‘ instructive workshop on how parental engagement helps improve schools. “Parental engagement is forgotten territory,” he says, pointing out that 80% of waking hours are spent out of school, and that parental engagement helps raise achievement unequivocally. It has positive social impact and helps shape children’s learning character. “There are two games in town: exams and learning dispositions. You can do both, and if you focus on learning dispositions, your exam results go up.”

The Rebel Teachers workshop: “Make a nuisance of yourself” (Mike Kent); “The government are desperate for solutions. We have to stand up and speak out.” (Martin Latham); “Heads have power. They should speak out, and not be afraid of speaking out.” (Kenny Frederick)

The session on breaking down the achievement gap between middle class and ‘disadvantaged’ young people, with head of Generating Genius, Tony Sewell, speaking persuasively about ignoring class, race and gender to ‘provide young people with a ladder to the moon’.

Remarkable head Bushra Nasir outlining how her school had got 74% of her students achieving at least five A-Cs at GCSE, which including spending £50K on textbooks for GCSE students. Teach First alumni James Toop who is now CEO of Teaching Leaders, suggesting that schools should rename rooms after the universities teachers attended, and that caps and gowns could inspire students to aim for top universities (to be fair, he gallantly expanded on this when I collared him afterwards to find out how this might work, and he said it could help break the cycle of deprivation by helping inspire individuals from families where no-one’s been to university.)

Camila Batmaghelidjh describing how hard it was to receive SEN teaching – and how one teacher recognised what she could do, and worked with her abilities not her disabilities.

Poet (and part of the extended LIVE Magazine family) Bridget Minamore, reading a poem about her favourite teachers – and the one who stopped her writing for a year and a half.

And Michael Rosen, again, to bring us back to the start…

“The fundamental basis of education is talk.”

Michael Gove’s EBacc

I can’t help but wonder what the unintended consequences of Michael Gove’s EBacc will be. I suspect these will be legion and that it will be students who suffer.

There are a couple of problems as I see it, from a laypersons point of view. Firstly, the EBacc is extremely restrictive and doesn’t include any arts, social sciences, IT or RE, and given the global importance of the creative economy, this is a strange anomaly. But hey, I can hear you say, surely kids will able to do cool and fun stuff around their EBacc?

Well, maybe not. Seeing as schools will be judged on their EBacc successes, you can be sure that heads will focus on these subjects in an absolutely ruthless fashion. An anecdotal example should give you a flavour of what’s to come: when my friend asked the new head of a local primary why the school wasn’t celebrating the Jubilee earlier this summer, he said quite simply “it’s not on the curriculum.”

One unexpectedly helpful side-effect might be impact on league tables, the removal of which would be the single most important thing you could do in education – allowing the focus to go back to students and what they want and need rather than an appearance of success which serves mostly to benefit heads and local authorities. In my local schools in south east London only around 20% of students would have got the EBacc this year round and it’s hard to see how this will be turned around by the time the new EBacc cohort start in 2015. I can’t imagine schools will be dying to show off results like that – although I guess it’s one way of dealing with what the government charmingly calls ‘grade inflation’ and what successful GCSE candidates probably saw as the result of a huge amount of hard work.

The above is particularly true of the language component, and whilst I absolutely support the notion that everyone in the UK should learn a second language, I imagine there will need to be significant investment in language teaching at primary and secondary in order to get enough young people both up to speed and engaged with languages.

It’s a shame that no-one’s actually asking what education is for – and building ideas for change that would actually empower and educate future generations in a way that will allow them to navigate the huge challenges in front of them.

It’s probably best I refrain from commenting on the faux indignation in Gove and Clegg’s Evening Standard article, which raged against those who hold back disadvantaged young people, and it’s probably not worth asking why a government that introduced free schools in order to liberate schools would attempt to centralise education in such a sweeping way. Instead, I’ll just point out that teachers are not the enemy of teaching and that the single most important things politicians could do for education would be to back right off.

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