Wednesday, 30 December 2009

'Tis the season to ..overindulge!

Oh dear, done it again, blown the diet! To start at the beginning; I've been on a diet for a while - well, I say 'a diet', I'm actually on two. You don't get enough to eat on one, do you?
And anyway, I figured that if you lose weight on one diet, you'd lose even more on two. One diet is an Atkins type thing where you can eat as much protein as you like. The other is a vegetarian diet where you eat loads of carrots and stuff. So, I've been sticking to my combined diets eating only meat, eggs, cheese and fish with lots of veg. It's been a struggle to stick to it, but it's been worth it; I lost two ounces last month.
Then along comes Christmas. Time to dust off The Blessed Delia's Christmas cookbook once again and get the mince pie production line rolling! First, make a list of all the Christmas necessities: sultanas, chocolate, raisins, chocolate, brandy, chocolate, currants and all the rest of the essentials, like chocolate. Now, strictly speaking, chocolate is not part of either diet; being neither protein nor veg. So I shouldn't be eating it. Then I thought 'soddit, it's Christmas' So I've put the diets on hold for a week or two. Best plan, eh?
Anyway, not in Mrs Admin's best books at the minute. She said she'd join me in doing the dieting thing. I told her no, no my love. You don't need to diet; you really suit chubby. Now she's taken the hump for some reason; I don't know, you can't even pay a woman a compliment these days! I tried to make it up by getting her a really nice Christmas present, but that just seemed to make her worse. Anyway, I give up; that's the last new ironing board she gets from me at Christmas!
Bah humbug!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Why can't kids be allowed to fail anymore?

Are we really doing our children a favour by not subjecting them to negative criticism nor allowing them to experience failure at school? Or are we just producing a generation of people who do not have the resilience to deal with knock-backs out there in the real world?

This old hobby horse of mine was resurrected when I read a thread on the TES website about the apocryphal story about banning of red pens for marking children's work. Red, you see, is AGGRESSIVE!! The argument is that a child can be demoralised by seeing their work covered in red ink, underlining every spelling mistake, grammatical error, miscalculation and so on. Well, I'd be pretty demoralised at that, whatever the bloody colour of ink! And anyway, any teacher who's got the time to underline every mistake in each piece of work for every child needs to a) get a life and b) get a life. There needs to be a balance when marking children's work; to tick everything and say "super, fab, great Pansy, keep it up!" to any old bit of tat handed in is both patronising and unhelpful. On the other hand nit-picking every littul speleing mistacke is demoralising and can put kids off a subject.

There is, however, a difference between being constantly criticised and being allowed to experience failure within a supportive and constructive environment. Poor Mrs Admin had all sorts of shenanigans with a particular A-level pupil when she was given an estimated D grade. The girl went to pieces and was quite unable to deal with it. The parent's complained "Well, she's always been told she's doing really well and anyway, she responds better to praise." Er, don't we all? And don't blame the poor A-level teacher, blame the school who nursed her through GCSEs, spoon-fed all the coursework, gave her uncritical feedback and generally set her up for failure at A-level by not instilling a proper work ethic nor helping her develop a sense of self-appraisal of her work.

Typical of this patronising attitude to pupils is the A* nonsense. I've even heard it suggested that now some universities are asking for A**, in order to separate out the brightest students. So, here's my suggestion for a revised grading system for GCSE:

A****
A***
A**
A*
A
Everyone's a winner! Everyone gets an A. Let's all go to uni!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Subject of selection raises its head again

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University this week called for schools to select its brightest pupils at age 14 to receive a more challenging curriculum.
The reform is needed, apparently, in order to increase the number of pupils choosing science, especially physics, at A-level. The question is, why are we in this country so hung up about the subject of selection by ability when it comes to our children? Other countries seem to manage this ok without all the agonising that we go through. We select on the basis of other skills quite happily; PE teachers select pupils to play on school teams on the basis of skill, drama teachers cast parts for school productions based on acting, singing or dancing ability and so on. Why, when it comes to academic ability, are we suddenly so completely averse to any sort of selection?
It strikes me that we are working to a whole middle class PC agenda when it comes to education, in which fairness and equality equate to the SAME for everyone.
Let's look at that point, that equality means the same treatment for all. No matter what your ability, disability, aptitude or skill level you will all go to the same school and be taught the same things in the same lesson by the same teachers. Imagine if the NHS worked on that principle; no matter what your illness or injury, we all received the same treatment: "Ah, yes, Mr Smithers; lets see 'compound fracture of the left femur', well here's you prescription for Statins and a month's supply of viagra. What's that? Well, I'm sorry, it's what everyone else gets; we can't be seen to be treating you differently from everyone else; that wouldn't be fair now, would it? Look on the bright side, at least you'll have lower cholesterol and be able to keep your pecker up!".

There is also the notion that what is desired by the middle classes must also be what the working classes necessarily aspire to. This is reflected neatly in the Labour party's ambition to have 50% of all young people go to university. First of all, where has the figure of 50% come from? Why not 45% or 60%? Implicit in this are the assumptions that a) at least half of all young people actually want to go to university and that b) going to uni is somehow a 'better' option than not. This policy has been dreamt up by people who are, by definition, upper and middle class. They assume in their arrogance that because that is what they aspire to for their own children, it must also be same for everyone else. Well, guess what? Not everyone wants to go to uni! Some people actually CHOOSE not to. Not because they are poor, or thick, or lazy or anything; they'd just rather do something else. The problem then, of course, is the attitude that whatever else you choose is somehow second best. There is a general feeling in this country that academic success is somehow superior to other form of success (except celebrity, of course! Shallow as we are). I have seen inordinate pressure put on good A-level students by the school to apply for Oxbridge. WHY? Because it will look good in next year's prospectus? Poor lad wants to go to Leeds because that's where they do the course he want's to do, and anyway his aunty Pam lives there and she can his washing and cooking for him.

In this country we do tend to judge people by what they do, rather than by how well they do whatever it is they have chosen to do. Let's take the pressure off kids to go to uni. I'd rather have a first class joiner (plumber, carpenter, electrician, car mechanic, shop manager) than yet another third class graduate in football studies.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

What is the purpose behind an Ofsted inspection?

What is the purpose of an Ofsted inspection ; to help a school improve or catch them out?
This question arises out of a couple of things that have come my way recently: one was Mansell's article in TES about Ofsted being more interested in its image than anything else (Really? Well knock me down with a feather!). The other was a recent LA inspection by Ofsted trained inspectors at Mrs Admin's school. The LA was to provide a 'pre-Ofsted' inspection for the school under Ofsted conditions and using Ofsted registered inspectors; the idea being to help staff prepare for the next real inspection, which is due any time in the near future. Ok, well, good intention - and anyway, you can never have too many inspections, can you?
Well, the chap inspecting Mrs Admin's department made his intentions clear as soon as he walked in: "Now, no need to worry. I'm not here to catch you out, I'm here to help you improve and look at all the good things you're doing in this department". And he was, indeed, as good as his word. Some excellent lessons were observed and very positive feedback given. Points for improvement were delivered in positive and encouraging language, all the time referring back to what was good in the department. Result? One motivated and happy set of teachers, pleased that their efforts had been appreciated. That department is now up for the challenge.
Sadly, the story was not repeated in other departments seen by different inspectors. The general feeling was that the inspectors were looking to catch the teachers out. Feedback tended to concentrate on the negative. Result? A demoralised and unhappy set of teachers with an increased cynicism regarding both the value and purpose of inspection.
It's my feeling, and indeed experience in the classroom, that too many Ofsted inspectors fall into the latter category and that often a decision is made even before the on-site inspection, based on the exam results (no, don't get me started!).
I was at Mrs Admin's school last weekend for the Christmas fair. It was packed. Huge parental support, lots of kids there helping out and, best of all, Christmas music provided by the junior band - then the senior band - then the school orchestra - then the swing band! And where was Ofsted when all that was going on, eh? There's more to a school than exam results and four-part lessons.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Adrian Elliott - debunking myths

In the series of TES articles 'De-bunking education myths' Adrian Elliott claims that behaviour now is no worse than it ever has been; really? Well, that all depends on what you mean by bad behaviour.

When I was at school, many years ago now, yes there was some very bad behaviour. I remember the music teacher staggering out of his room with blood pouring from his nose having been thumped by a local tough. Teacher being thumped was not a particularly remarkable event. And, yes, we did get up to some pretty awful stuff that I, as a teacher, don't see these days... BUT! - and as buts go, this is big! (no, really, it's big!) - we could all sit quietly and work when required to do so. We could, and would, be quiet when told to be so. These days, I personally don't see the more extreme extreme behaviour like the teacher thumping of my youth. However, this has been replaced by the drip, drip, drip of constant, low-level off-task behaviour; constant chatting, turning round, can't stay in seat, inability to concentrate for more than three or four minutes at time. Dealing with this 5 periods per day, 5 days a week is draining. As soon as you stop speaking, they start chatting. They deem it unreasonable and against their human rights to be required to sit still for 10 minutes. Just the simple, everyday lack of cooperation, having to constantly repeat requests, having kids argue and answer back, even to the most simple and reasonable of requests, is exasperating.

It is this constant low-level misbehaviour that gradually wears you down, wastes time in lessons and which lower the quality of the teaching and learning experience.

So, Mr Elliott, in one way I would agree with you; certain aspects of pupil behaviour are no worse than they have been in the past and indeed have probably improved; certainly violence against teachers has reduced since the abolition of the cane. But what has got worse, much worse, is the constant arguing, chatting, answering back, failure to follow instructions and general lack of respect and lack of discipline of today's pupils. Add to this the pressure of written lesson plans, Ofsted, etc etc etc and it all adds up to an intolerable level of stress for classroom teachers.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Are schools now going to stop recording incidence of poor behaviour?

The outline guidance for inspectors regarding the assessment of pupil behaviour states that "Inspectors should take account of documentary evidence about pupils’ behaviour, including records of: racist and bullying incidents; the use of any ‘on-call’ system; the use of ‘remove’ or ‘seclusion’ rooms; and the types of incidents which occur at break, lunchtime and social times"
It also says "Where records or observations indicate that behaviour disrupts learning or threatens well-being more than very occasionally, it is likely that behaviour will be judged inadequate overall". Correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be much scope here for schools shooting themselves in the foot; inspectors will want to see records of poor behaviour. If the records show that the misbehaviour occurs "more than very occasionally" (whatever THAT means!) then you're graded 4 (inadequate). So, a school which rigorously pursues good behaviour and diligently records all incidences of misbehaviour is clearly lighting the petard fuse well before it's time to run. On the other hand, St Mayhem's High School down the road cunningly only records a fraction of the misbehaviour and thereby gets a glowing report. Here's a cautionary tale in a similar vein:
Remember when we had half an inch of snow last winter and the country ground to a halt? One school near me lost no time in closing down to give the head a few days extra holiday. Another school struggled valiantly on with teachers arriving by dog sled and skis to keep the school open - for the 15 kids who actually turned up. As the school was open, all the absences were counted against the school stats, putting them near he bottom of the LA league table for attendance. But Closedown High School however, being closed, did not have any absences counted. The head told me, as he scanned the skies for signs of snow, that in future he will close at the first available opportunity, which I thought was being rather optimistic, it being the middle of June.
So the message is clear; play the game by your own rules. Given that 27.6% of all statistics are made up on the spot anyway, why should any school return the correct numbers, and get thrashed for it, when they can simply ...er ... cheat? Answers on a postcard ...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Is it now impossible for a school to get an 'outstanding' rating for behaviour?

If you've not yet had a peek at the new Ofsted inspection schedule, then you may still be blissfully unaware of the guidance given to inspectors for assessing behaviour in schools.

As of last September pupil behaviour will, for the first time, be assessed formally. This extract from the evaluation schedule provides outline guidance and grade descriptors for the judgements that inspectors will report on when inspecting schools under section 5 of the Education Act 2005 from September 2009:

"Outstanding(1) - Pupils’ consistently thoughtful behaviour is an outstanding factor in their successful learning and creates an extremely positive school ethos. Pupils are highly considerate and very supportive of each other in lessons. Behaviour for all groups around the school is exemplary and pupils encourage others to conduct themselves well. There is no evidence of disruptive behaviour."

Scuse me? "There is no evidence of disruptive behaviour". Let's just unpick that a bit. Does 'no evidence' mean literally that; none, nix, zero, nothing - not even a little teeny, weeny bit? Or are we in Queen of Hearts territory where "When I use a word it means whatever I want it to mean!"? And what constitutes 'disruptive behaviour'? What guidance (if any) is given to inspectors in order to ensure at least the semblance of consistency in this area? Say, for example, school A is inspected by Mr Floggem Hardy, goose-stepping down the corridor shouting "Mein Gott..." (ooops, no, sorry, stop there. Bit of cheap unfounded national stereotyping with xenophobic overtones there. I'll start that again..) "My god, did you see that? That child just dropped a sweet wrapper! What terrible behaviour!".
School B, on the other hand, is inspected by child of the 60's Amanda Do-goody; "Oh, how nice that pupils here are able to critique the quality of the lesson and teaching style in in such an open and uninhibited way.." as yet another teacher is told his lesson is shit.
Now consider this bit:"Behaviour for all groups around the school is exemplary and pupils encourage others to conduct themselves well". ALL groups? Exemplary? Well, I certainly hope that doesn't include the staff!
Ah, hang on.."Pupils are highly considerate and very supportive of each other in lessons." I think I may be ok here. Danielle spent most of my lesson supporting Francheska who would otherwise have slid off her seat, having been at the vodka and Lucozade all break.

Anybody out there working in a school rated 1 for behaviour? Let me know.