Monday, 21 March 2016

A Radical Power Shift

The measures set out in the Government's Educational Excellence Everywhere (EEE) white paper are not undemocratic. Regardless of the electoral turnout or the content of the pre-election manifesto, any elected executive in the UK's parliamentary democracy is mandated to put before both Houses whatever legislative programme it chooses.

Moreover, where legislation isn't necessary, the executive can impose any reform agenda it wants, provided its imposition isn't in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) or the Human Rights Act (1998), or likely to be subject to judicial review under ultra vires provisions, that is to say that its imposition could be ruled unreasonable or procedurally defective.

As little or no legislation is needed to effect the changes set out in the EEE white paper, and as its implementation is unlikely to be struck down by the judiciary, anyone who argues that it is undemocratic is obfuscating or thinking wishfully.

Alternatively, they are simply using the wrong word.

The EEE represents, unarguably, a substantial power grab from local to central government. Equally, it represents a substantial transfer of assets and public money to the private sector. In both cases, this could be argued to be anti-democratic.

What is democracy? Simply put, it is a governmental system which allows people to hold their political leaders to account. They do this at the ballot box, but, as my Year 10 reminded me today, in a myriad of other ways too: protest and demonstrations, petitions and letters, campaigns and advocacy, litigation, membership of parties and pressure groups, and most importantly, according to them (and this made me proud) by getting an education. Democracy thrives on tolerance of the expression of all these views, and on people's ability to effect change.

Cameron, D, A Radical Power Shift, in The Guardian, 17/02/2009

One of the key arguments against proportional representation in the UK is that it breaks the link between the constituency and their MP. Localism is seen as key to ensuring the legitimacy of representatives in Parliament. Yet the very advocates of this localism are the same who will gladly sacrifice it in the case of the coercive total academisation of schools in England.

Who will a parent turn to if an Academy Head of School proves unsatisfactory in their handling of a situation? The answer is an unelected board of trustees, the trustees of a (albeit not-for-profit) private legal entity. Where will its headquarters be? Well, anywhere they choose it to be. You may be lucky and it may be up the road, or you may be unlucky and it may be in another county. According to the white paper, it is intended that escalating complaints to the DfE will be streamlined. And an ombudsman put in place. Alternatively, there are RSCs and a NSC. In the case of financial irregularities, I can only assume the regulator will be the Charities Commission.

Is that any clearer than the byzantine machinery of local government? No. Which is no defence of that machinery, but a suggestion that a government truly committed to localism and democratic accountability might have focused their reform agenda on improving that, rather than undermining it.

And who will you be able to vote out when you are dissatisfied? Nobody. Nobody with any accountability for any of it. The only solution in the self-improving system is to spin the wheel of fortune and pray for a better outcome in the MAT stakes. Meanwhile, the idea that schools will become any less of a political football because of a more school-led system is entirely erroneous. Only one lever will be left for politicians, and they will use it at every opportunity: the curriculum. Show me the MAT that will allow its schools to opt out of league tables. Show me the consumer parent who will accept a product without a price tag. And who will continue to suffer from that?

The liberal economic thinking that underpins this reform agenda seems to dictate that removing opportunities for democratic accountability will make the electorate value those opportunities more. The opposite may be true: that demand for democracy is plummeting and supply is responding to that.

After all, it is all perfectly democratic. We voted for it.

May the odds be ever in your favour.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Teach Like A Champions League Telesales Rep

"Hello / Good morning / afternoon / evening,
"I'm calling on behalf of the Humanities Department because you're eligible for a special offer. We've teamed up with Pearson UK to bring you the best in History education, free to you for the next 38 weeks. This curriculum will teach you everything you need to know to pass the GCSE exam, and reassure your loved ones that your future is secure. Would you like to take advantage of this special offer?"
"I'm not interested."
"I understand, and that's why this curriculum is free to you for the next 38 weeks. You can receive the content for free and decide in your own time whether it is suitable for you and your family. There's no obligation, and if you decide it isn't, we have a variety of other products to support you through your exams."
"Look mate, I'm not interested."
"I sympathise with that, and that's why we have a variety of other products to suit your needs. You may consider Saturday interventions, holiday workshops, or internal isolation. We also offer all of these at no cost to you, because you are such a valued customer.
Complete call. Select option.
1. Call again.
2. Letter home.
3. Issue detention.
4. Invite to after-school character lessons.
5. Invite to Saturday/holiday interventions.
I value the skills I developed when I worked in telesales: using my voice as a persuasive tool, connecting with people through and despite the script, resilience in the face of a constant managerialism, solving the Telegraph's cryptic crossword hidden under my keyboard in between and during calls.

I lie. It was a soul-crushing experience, and what I actually learned was to game a system. There was no skill I used I didn't already possess and couldn't have honed elsewhere for a more worthwhile cause. I urge you to remember that whenever you get such a call. There's a human being there in what I can only describe as battery farm-like conditions, one whose ability to afford any joy in life is to secure a place in the Champions League for this month's performance-related pay at the expense of one of his colleagues.

Consider that human being, and perhaps also consider how many steps away you are from your own work resembling those conditions, how many have left because it already felt too much like that for them.

A tipping point is on the way. Or perhaps another swing of the pendulum.

On one side, there is the possibility that teaching could be reduced to a minimum-wage job, one you do for a couple of years after uni to pay the bills, and seldom longer, in which the only option for progression is to become one of the managers. A job reading a script, being judged on whether you strayed from it and whether you communicated it with enough tone. One in which your earnings are at the expense of someone else's.

On the other, there is the possibility of a true profession.

No matter which way the pendulum swings, the opposite is constantly pulling us back. I wish for the ride to stop. Let's move the pivot once and for all, and give the weight a rest over a new equilibrium point. Stop the pendulum. Get me out of the pits.

My hunch is that where that new equilibrium point ends up will be determined by who takes the initiative to move the pivot.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Traditional Authority

Every school has its motto, its emblem and its unique culture. Even schools without ethos have these. They exist. I've been to a few. In those schools, the emblem is a floating signifier, unanchored from its meaning; the motto, a vapid sentence that reflects no reality; the culture, shaped by the sheer will of the most powerful group to suit their own interests, be that the staff or the students.  

Without a common narrative of aims and aspirations, guided by common values and informed by each member of the community, ethos is a hollow husk of a word, and education is something to be feared, or resisted, or both. Never to be respected or revered.

Much of today's workload problems come from this simulacrum of school ethos. School leadership teams prioritise this year's results alone and chase Ofsted criteria without consideration for time constraints or anyone's health or happiness, including their own. Without ethos, short-termism replaces considered value judgments. 

That even such an idol of mine as John Tomsett has seen students and staff at his school get to such a point that he's chosen very publicly to make an ethos-based judgment gives a strong indication as to the challenges faced by leadership teams. Pity the less experienced, the more vulnerable. Pity the staff who work for the most career-driven, too.

But if all can't be put down to poor leadership (and John Tomsett's example shows it can't), then what is wrong with our national framework? Why are values always its first victim? Why, indeed, should I perceive it as having victims? Are policy-makers therefore aggressors? I'm an optimistic sort, and so I will start from the (sadly poorly evidenced) assumption that they are not.

What ethos underpins our education system? What values can we point to and say that these are the core principles of our ethos? And how might we ascertain that they are indeed core values? 

Teaching standards give the profession credibility. These are monitored and upheld at the school level through performance management and Ofsted inspections. 

Exam results give school leaders and politicians credibility. These are framed, monitored and upheld by qualifications authorities, exam boards and league tables.

The system's credibility depends wholly on these things: standards and exam results. These, in turn, imply two beliefs: The first, that teachers and school leaders should behave in proscribed ways; The second, that education has a purpose: to prepare young people for the competitive world of work. In other words, young people should be treated with respect and armed with knowledge and skills to be economically self-sufficient. So far, so ethical.

And yet, the picture is incomplete. Why, otherwise, do we need the addition of Fundamental British Values? Why do we need Prevent and SMSC? Why is Personal Development an aspect of Ofsted's judgments, and what does it mean? Why grit and resilience? Why soft skills, PSHE, SRE, Citizenship? What is missing from our education system that all these questions point to?

I believe the answer lies in the word ethos itself. Ethos is originally one of the three modes of persuasion, one of the three ways of exercising power over others. It means to persuade by virtue of your character and emotions, and is distinguished from pathos, which means to persuade by stoking the emotions of others. Ethos is calm. Pathos, violent. Ethos is constant. Pathos, erratic. Ethos coopts. Pathos coerces.

I contend that our education system is driven by pathos. 

It is the only explanation for the fact that fundamental values of democracy, individual liberty, tolerance and respect for the rule of law are bolt-ons to our curriculum. Were they education's ethos, they would underpin the curriculum. Fundamental would not be a descriptor of the values themselves, but of their place at the heart of education.

It is the only explanation for the fact that even the strongest of school leaders abandon these values immediately when they succumb to short-term measures to achieve ever-shifting targets.

It is the only explanation for ever-shifting targets, and for the growing crisis in recruiting and retaining school leaders and teachers.

It is the only explanation for the fact that our system continues to fail so many children and to seem such an irrelevance to them and to their families.

Qualifications are a valid and valuable aim. Professional standards are a non-negotiable code of conduct. Without ethos, though, they are both simply subjects for the empty rhetoric of people for whom education is at best a political tool, and at worst a political liability. 

And where shall we find this ethos? 

Perhaps we might find it in democracy itself, with its values of individual liberty, tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Perhaps we should be thankful to Michael Gove for the after-thought. Perhaps it is time this became a true ethos in education from top to bottom, and perhaps the only way that will happen is from bottom to top. As T.S. Eliot, author of Tradition and the Individual wrote: "The general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behaviour of politicians."*

I suggest that if we chose such an ethos, we would rely less on the rational-legal authority of bureaucratic agencies and school structures, and less on the charismatic authority of school leaders, Ofsted chiefs and education ministers. Yes, then our shared values would be the foundation of a truly traditional authority.**

Eliot, T., (1940). The idea of a Christian society. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
** Weber, M. (1965). Politics as a vocation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Plafopod

Celebrating Dr Seuss's birthday.

The Plafopod

A Plafopod, you may know, is an odd sort of a creature,
Who stands out from others thanks to mostly one feature,
That in all of his wheelings and all of his dealings,
The Plafopod never goes anywhere but on ceilings.

As you may guess, a life spent upside down,
When each time you smile people think it's a frown
And each time that you frown someone gives you a smile,
Is quite, quite confusing and hardly worthwhile.

You've already worked out, because you're really quite clever, 
That a Plafopod going outside would not happen. Never.  
Indeed and in fact, just to mention the thought
Scares a Plafopod so hard he'll just cry on the spot.

Now we're speaking of Plafopods as though there are many,
But they're actually quite rare.  Have you seen any?
Well, I met one once, who was a little bit rude. 
(From being upside down? Or perhaps lack of food?)
I think it was grown-ups that brought down his mood!
I don't blame him, either! They can be a bit crude!

I met this odd Plafopod in a little old school,
Down a little old road in the old town of Woole,
Where the teachers are kind and the children are keen,
And the Plafopod's part of the whole learning scene.

There I met him and I straight-away knew
That I just had to know more and to learn something new!
So I asked him some questions in a polite sort of way,
But he just stood up (or down?) and he walked away.

I was puzzled, perplexed, bamboozled and lost.
What on Earth had I said to be met with such frost?
But I wouldn't give up - I would work for his trust.
I didn't know why but I felt that I must.

I learned from the children the Plafopod's name.
Bert seemed an odd name but it was his just the same.
He had no other - he was simply called Bert.
He was proud of it too, had it written on his shirt,
Which was always tucked in, so it wouldn't get caught
When the kids put their hands up to show they'd been taught.

The teachers taught me that Plafopods live forever
As long as they don't ever go outside. No, never!
No teacher could remember a time when they had
Worked at the school without their ceiling-bound lad.

And no teacher could say they'd really spoken to Bert.
It seemed that grown-ups made our Bert become curt.
Noone seemed to mind, though.  He was great with the pupils,
And when he was with them, smiles grew in quadruples.

I tried to learn more and went out to the playground.
I watched all their games and I asked around.
They all looked at me as if I was daft,
And the more that I asked, the more that they laughed.

It turns out it was simple to get Bert to talk,
Simplerer even than to learn how to walk.
The secret that for all grown-ups, as they grew up, grew dim
Was that asking him questions about him plain bored him.
When you ask a question of another, it's true,
You're not questioning him, you're questioning you.

So I went into school to find Bert on his ceiling,
And this time I went with a little more feeling,
I talked about me without any concealing
And found talking to Bert made me feel I was healing.

After he'd heard my long, boring tale
About growing up, growing old, and about growing stale,
The Plafopod opened his mouth with a squeak,
And the Plafopod stood and he started to speak.

And he told me his story from beginning to end:
How he'd once had a family in a town called Northend,
How he'd just magicked up one day over their heads,
Born from their dreams as they lay in their beds.

They'd all lived so happily in their house full of ceilings,
Full of dreams, and of screams, of love and of vegetable peelings,
Until each of the family had in turn moved away
To heaven, to college, to Bagoola-Ballay,
And he, Bert The Plafopod, had been left there to roam
The ceilings of a house that was no longer a home.

I listened attently as Bert told me all this,
And then of his rescue by a strange boy named Chris,
Who liked to explore, never tied up his laces,
And went nosing around in some very odd places.

Chris had crept into the derelict house
From where, Bert knew not, might as well have been Laos.
He pried and he snooped and he sniffed like a pup,
And Bert never thought he would ever look up.

Bert stood there quietly hoping not to be found
But the dust Chris stirred up made Bert sneeze and Chris bound!
The boy looked around for the source of the sneeze
Until he saw Bert and then dropped to his knees.

"My name's Chris," exclaimed Chris, "and I'm an explorer."
And that was how Chris won the Plafopod over.
He didn't ask Bert who he was, what, how or even why he was,
And that was the reason Bert could trust him because
If Chris had asked him a question instead
Bert would have known Chris wasn't right in his head.

Now we all know that Plafopods can't go outside.
Chris knew without asking because his mind was so wide,
But Chris also knew that this creature was lonely
He could have seen that if he'd had one eyeball only.

"My name is Bert," replied Bert, "and I'm here on my own.
I mean you no harm and I don't mean to moan,
But you're in my house and I didn't hear you knock,
And I don't get visitors and you gave me a shock."

"I'm sorry," said Chris. "I'll turn myself round
And explore somewhere else if you don't want to be found.
I tried very hard not to make any sound.
When I'm tracking treasure, I track like a hound."

"Oh, no," replied Bert. "Feel free to explore.
I have no idea what you'll find on that floor.
Nobody has stood there since the old days of yore,
And just looking down there starts my head feeling sore,
But please try not to stir the dust up any more.
It gets so up my nose I can't sleep for my snore."

So Chris kept exploring, to his very great pleasure,
And he kept coming back, though he knew that his treasure
Was up on the ceiling and not to be found
Among clutter and dust lying strewn on the ground.

The boy and the Plafopod were soon birds of a feather.
Chris kept coming back, no matter the weather,
But he simply knew of his newest best friend,
That his lonely long time in this house better end.

So it was that one night Chris thought as he went
Home to his Mother, his Father and small brother Brent
That there must be a way to help Bert to be free,
A way out of the house to which he would agree.

Chris thought of tunnels and an upside-down bridge.
He thought of carting his friend around in a fridge.
He had a million ideas for getting Bert out,
But of where to take Bert there could be no doubt.
School was so obviously the best place for Bert.
He would never get lonely. He would never get hurt.

Chris couldn't dig a big tunnel or build a long bridge,
And Bert flat-out refused to go around in a fridge,
So they were stuck. No idea was appealing
Until Chris thought up the portable ceiling.

So simple. So childish. So easy. It's true,
But only a friend could invent one for you,
And the Plafopod knew this. He was sure what to do.
He would go with the boy to explore somewhere new.

What a story I'd heard! What a tale he had told!
I felt brave. I felt bold. I felt not at all old.
I climbed onto a desk and I shook his small hand.
I thanked him and went off to explore my new land.

And Bert lives on happily, in that little old school
Down that little old road in the old town of Woole,
Where everyone's kind and there's only one rule
Which they learned from a Plafopod who could sometimes be cool
When he frown-smiled at you from his upside-down stool:
If you look with your mind, not your heart, you're a fool.