The Future Fallacy

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Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. 
 Thomas More, Utopia

The future fallacy occurs when someone makes a comment about what the future will be like and then says: ‘therefore we should be doing (insert something here)…’

The 21st century skills argument is exactly this, ‘in the future people will need to collaborate more, be more creative and be prepared for change.’ This is a future fallacy because no-one knows what the future will be like, they can guess but they do not know.

The most bizarre aspect of this fallacy is the way that people lap it up, at education conferences I have heard so many people tell us what the future will be like in order to justify how we should be educating our kids in the present. The most absurd example is the oft repeated one that we should prepare children for the jobs that have yet to be invented, which, in itself is delightfully ridiculous, but when allied to the statement: therefore we should teach them 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. is even more surreal, it’s as if the speaker has a crystal ball but they refuse to tell us what the jobs will be like because, like the recipe for KFC, it has to be kept secret. Except even that chicken is now out of the bag.

Sugar Mitra sometimes falls into this trap:

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal…

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Next time you hear someone tell you what the future will be like, challenge them, for they are in cloud cuckoo land. The next time someone tells you what the future will be like and therefore we have to change what we are doing in schools point out, gently, that this is the full future fallacy in operation. If the speaker is unaware of how fallacious her argument is and she takes it for granted that what she is saying is true and makes it seem like common sense that we should therefore be doing things differently in our schools, beware, for she is basing her argument on the future fallacy but is unaware of this fact.

The only thing we can know is the past and, even that, is open to various interpretations, so arguments and disagreements are always going to be part of our discourse, and long may they be so. Just beware of the futurologists who try to shut down debate by telling you of tomorrow’s utopia and how we should prepare for it, for they know not what they say.

For Theresa May: On Grammar Schools and Private Education

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I offer the following as a ‘what if?’ A little train of thought to add to the grammar schools debate currently raging through the veins of the educational world. I offer it to Theresa May as I think it solves many of her problems with the policy as currently envisaged, however it also opens up a whole lot of new ones…

Our most famous schools have been around for centuries, some are fictional like Hogwarts others exist in collective folklore like Rugby with William Webb Ellis and Tom Brown. Whether you like them or not the famous independent schools and not so famous ones have a culture that is recognisable throughout the world.

Our Independent schools, also famously, seem to provide a vast number of recruits to the ‘top jobs’ in the UK. Whilst educating a meagre 7% of the population these schools provide 71% of the top military officers, 74% of high court judges, 51% of ‘print’ journalists, 32% of MPs, 61% of ‘top’ doctors, the list goes on… as the chair of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it:

Our research shows that your chances of reaching the top in so many areas of British life are very much greater if you went to an independent school… The key to improving social mobility at the top is to open up independent schools to all pupils based on merit not money … as well as support for highly able students in state schools.

For Theresa May looking at setting up more grammar schools this might offer an interesting quandary, if we are to take her at her word that she wants the UK to be “the great meritocracy of the world,” does she intend to ignore the great bastions of paid for privilege that the Independent sector undoubtedly is?  Over the past 25 years fees in this sector have increased by 553% meaning that those who once felt able to pay for this type of education have effectively been priced out. Therefore those who attend these schools are more likely to be ultra privileged than those in the past and an increasing number are from abroad, including the sons and daughters of Chinese and Russian oligarchs. Is this tolerable in May’s great meritocracy of the world?

At the 1953 Labour Conference Hugh Gaitskell pointed out that having 4 to 5% of Independent School places free would bring scant rewards, instead he proposed 50% of the places should be free; maybe this is something Theresa could consider, in fact she could go one step further and instead of imposing grammar schools onto the public sector, she could in one fell swoop prove that she means it when she states that the UK should be the world’s great meritocracy by turning our private Independent schools into her beloved state grammar schools.

This extremely radical move would be a highly interesting one for it would succeed in addressing a central point of her speech on grammar schools that the country wants change. And her Government is going to deliver it:

Everything we do will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices, the special interests, the greatest wealth or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those of ordinary, working class people…  

above all they want to believe that if they uphold their end of the deal – they do the right thing, they work hard, they pay their taxes – then tomorrow will be better than today and their children will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far as their talents will take them…  

I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege; where it is your talent and hard work that matter not where you were born, who your parents are or what your accent sounds like.

Let us not underestimate what it will take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges, tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been constructed over many years… there is no more important place to start than education… at the moment the school system works if you’re well off and can buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support if you’re from a disadvantaged family… I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something to offer to come forward and help… 

I want to encourage some of our biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise and resources to bear to help improve the quality and capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay.

This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools started out as the route by which poor boys could reach the professions. The nature of their intake may have changed today – indeed these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life. 

These are great schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged position to help all children.  

If working class children find themselves, on merit, being educated in our ‘top’ schools instead of the wealthy then that would be a sign that Theresa May was being serious. If ‘extending the reach’ of the Independent sector meant that they stop just educating people of wealth with a small number of bursaries and assisted places for poorer children, she could go the full Gaitskell and ask that they educate the children of ‘ordinary working parents’ by merit through opening up 50% of their places or she could go the whole hog and do a double Gaitskell and in one fell swoop abolish fee paying in the independent sector and bring them fully into the state sector as Independent Grammar Schools with the full rights for self governance that academies currently have.

This would mean that Theresa can have her cake and eat it, it would show that she is  serious about creating a meritocracy in which: “advantage is based on merit not privilege,” whilst at the same time disarming many of those who are arguing against her green paper. How many on the left would need to pause to contemplate the ramifications of such a policy before they argued against her abolishing private education?

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems with this scenario, for a start many involved in the independent sector might object but if the Government promised to pay the same for each child that these schools currently receive it might go some way to alleviate these concerns, though I have no idea how much it would impact on the Government’s coffers. There is talk that some private schools would welcome the possibility of becoming a state grammar school but there would be an ideological problem if all schools had to operate under the auspices of the State. Other objections might be along the lines of those that currently bedevil this debate, how would the children be selected, is there such a thing as a ‘tutor-proof test’, should we have a segregated education system at all? None of my proposals here address these very real concerns and objections, though neither would keeping things as they are.

 

Do You Want to be a Chartered Teacher?

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Some people are very excited about the new College of Teaching and, especially, its charter. This means that by accrediting various courses and other types of professional development it will be able to award (royal) chartered teacher status and thereby cement its role at the pinnacle of conferring the new ‘outstanding’ teacher status on the most deserving.

In Scotland a Chartered Teacher Programme which began in 2003 has been abolished, the Donaldson Report stated the following reasons:

The grade of chartered teacher was created with the intention of rewarding teachers who remained in the classroom and to simultaneously provide encouragement for main grade teachers at the top of their salary scale to engage in a robust, self-funded continuous professional development programme. The design intent was to recognise and reward excellence. To encourage participation in the Chartered Teacher Scheme two routes to chartered teacher status were created; one via accredited prior learning, the other on completion of twelve modules (for each two modules completed a salary increment is awarded).

As of May 2011, 1,216 teachers have attained chartered status and a further 2,800 are currently on the programme and have gained at least one module. Entry to the accreditation route to chartered status was ended in 2008.

While we received evidence that demonstrated the commitment and professionalism of many chartered teachers, the widely held view is that the existing cohort of chartered teachers does not singularly represent the best teachers in Scotland. The reasons for this are several; the means of entry to the scheme when it was first created and the self-selection process for entry did not provide a sufficiently robust means of screening applicants; also some of our very best teachers for a variety of reasons have not embarked on the route.

Until recently, self-selection without approval of a headteacher resulted in instances of headteachers not being aware that staff in their schools had applied for chartered teacher status. This has been revised recently and headteachers must now approve applications for staff to participate in the programme – albeit that this process is still rather light touch. Absence of specific duties attached to the role of chartered teacher means that in some instances, chartered teachers are paid more to undertake the same job they have always done with no improved outcomes for children and young people.

We heard evidence that there are barriers to participation in the Chartered Teacher Scheme in the form of finance and the time available to complete the modules. Thus some dedicated classroom teachers are unable to embark on the programme of study that would result in achieving chartered teacher status because of other commitments.

Local authorities have no means of controlling the cost of the Chartered Teacher Scheme because it is essentially self-selecting. Additional salary is, in some instances, paid to staff for little tangible benefit, and indeed we heard evidence that some chartered teachers would prefer that it were not known within their schools that they had achieved the status, lest expectations would rise that they should contribute more. We also heard some evidence that the scheme is seen as mainly academic and did not sufficiently recognise good classroom practice.

The responses to the Review’s call for evidence clearly demonstrate that there are mixed feelings amongst the education community about chartered teachers. Thirty-eight per cent of respondents felt the scheme should be retained, 37% felt it should be amended and 25% felt it should be discontinued.

We are of the view that the Chartered Teacher Scheme, while laudable in its aims, has not delivered against its stated objectives. The available evidence does not show that the ‘best’ teachers have remained in the classroom rather than pursuing promoted posts – indeed promoted post holders have commented to us that theirs is a vital role and should not be equated with not wanting to teach or being inferior teachers. Furthermore, the overall contribution made to education in Scotland by chartered teachers does not represent a good investment, due mainly to the lack of any formal role post qualification.

Taking all the evidence into account, we believe that the Chartered Teacher Scheme should now be discontinued. Our view is that despite positive steps such as the introduction of the revised Standard by the GTCS and notwithstanding the excellent practice we are sure some chartered teachers bring to schools, the concept of chartered teacher has not worked successfully since it was introduced by the Teachers’ Agreement. The model by which individuals are able to enter the system without sufficient gate keeping regarding their appropriateness has damaged the credibility of the Chartered Teacher Scheme. Similarly the lack of clarity as to the role of chartered teachers has made it dif cult for both local authorities and the teachers themselves to make the most of their skills.

I am sure those involved in the setting up of the College are aware of these problems and will wish to address them as there are some clear questions that a teacher might want answers to before they commit to joining the College of Teaching:

If the existing cohort of chartered teachers does not singularly represent the best teachers in Scotland how will chartered status in England ensure that it does?

Will headteachers…  approve applications for staff to participate in the programme ? If so will Headteachers coerce staff into joining the College, if not, will there be much point in joining the college if the Headteacher doesn’t think you will achieve chartered status? If the Headteacher doesn’t want a teacher to apply for chartered status how much of their free time will a teacher have to devote to attaining chartered status?

Will there be specific duties attached to the role of chartered teacher?

If there are not specific duties will it mean that in some instances, chartered teachers are paid more to undertake the same job they have always done with no improved outcomes for children and young people?

What will be done to ensure there are no barriers to participation in the Chartered Teacher Scheme in the form of finance and the time available to complete the modules? 

How can dedicated classroom teachers [who] are unable to embark on the programme of study that would result in achieving chartered teacher status because of other commitments be sure of their future in the profession, or will they become looked down as second class teachers?

And as the overall contribution made to education in Scotland by chartered teachers does not represent a good investment, due mainly to the lack of any formal role post qualification.

What formal role, if any, will chartered teachers in England have? If so, is there any evidence that teachers want this role, if not will it be a good investment?

I look forward to seeing if any answers to these concerns are forthcoming.

 

Results Day Failure

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37 years ago today, or thereabouts I received my results for O levels and CSEs. I collected my envelopes and went away on my own, knowing that I wouldn’t have done very well. One of the worst things about failing is being around success, good to escape it. I looked at my results, I’d achieved an O level equivalent in Maths CSE, though not achieved it in O level… I passed O levels in Physics, Geography and English Lit and failed all the others… I had 4 O levels to my name.

Misery.

I retook English Language and History the following Autumn getting an A and a B respectively and I also reinforced my D in Art.

6 O levels to my name, in two sittings. No smiling pics of me clutching certificates…

By December I had left secondary school ‘by mutual consent’ and the chip on my shoulder has accompanied me ever since.

It wasn’t exams I failed, it was school. I didn’t apply myself and the school did little to truly educate me. The school worked for some, failed others, and for many in our cohort in 1979 there were worse stories than mine, that there were also better ones points at my responsibility to see myself through. Nowadays people call this needing grit, then I was simply lazy.

Looking back I can see what the school could have done for me that would have enabled me a fair shot at passing more than I did. For myself, I could have worked, I didn’t… I was extremely cynical about my school, the schooling and the whole point. Loud, argumentative, I was probably ‘difficult to teach’, and it is this that would prove in the years to come an asset when in a round about way I found myself back in the classroom as a teacher, vowing to be the teacher I needed when I was at school.

Those who celebrate failure as a precursor to success, seem to do it with alarming self-assuredness. Whether it be Jeremy Clarkson boasting about how he didn’t need his exams to become a rich celebrity or a teacher on twitter encouraging growth mindset, it seems as if failure is a virtue; it isn’t.

For all the pictures of successful students jumping into the air with big smiles on their faces, there are many more skulking away in the background, it might be because they were taught badly, have behavioural issues, are lazy, are not academic, whatever the reason, it still hurts.

“So what,” I’d say, “I don’t care…” and I got more and more bitter…

Exam results do matter but a good education matters more. No-one dragged me through exams, which I am thankful for, but on the way no-one really spotted I could be taught well either. What to do with the kids who won’t learn unless you teach them well?

Great teaching requires a teacher to instil discipline, focus, ensure great content, a curriculum that connects, the use of argument and challenging ideas, teachers should teach pupils how to write, speak and debate, and yes, they need to be passionate about what they are teaching too…

Ultimately  the responsibility for good results should lie with the child and not the school. Teachers should make sure their pupils know this and provide them with the knowledge and the tools by which children can ensure they do their best. If a child is dragged through tests and exams they will have no idea what real failure looks like until it hits them hard when they least expect it. If a child is let down by a school they will always have someone else to blame.

At least I expected to fail.

I still do; this is no bad thing, but it doesn’t ever feel like one step nearer to success. It won’t if I can still blame the school rather than thinking about my own responsibility towards my failure.

The Importance of Debate in Schools

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Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.

 

On Independent School Education for Pupil Premium Children

 

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In this morning’s Daily Telegraph Shaun Fenton the headmaster of Reigate Grammar School writes that:

We should increase social mobility by using state funding to open access to independent schools. Independent schools should be challenged to educate even more disadvantaged young people… My proposition is that the partial state funding should be for those who qualify for the Pupil Premium.

Fenton points out that this could only ever be a small part of the educational jigsaw, I wonder if his idea could make a difference to educational disadvantage and/or social mobility? He thinks these schools will need to expand to take an increase in numbers and it is this that makes the argument interesting.

Are our ‘great’ independent schools scaleable? Have they got the staff and indeed the facilities to accept, say, twice as many pupils? Many have the grounds in which they could build… Do they have the funds necessary to subsidise what, comparatively little, money they would get from the state?

Would it increase social mobility? If it did, what does that say about our education system? Is it the quality of education or more about ‘the old school tie’? Clearly it would be something that could annoy some of the middle classes, priced out of private schools by ever higher fees, and not poor enough to qualify for these new places. Would they not also be annoyed to see the establishment to be still drawn from the same schools but involving just the super rich and the poor?

Is it the quality of school that makes the difference to social mobility or is it down to the social capital of the parents and their networks that makes the most difference? In other words are these schools truly great or are they the beneficiaries of truly ‘great’ dynastic intakes that know how the establishment works and ensure it replicates itself? Would the ‘poorer intake’ in great numbers become socially mobile or would they lack the contacts necessary to make this a possibility?

Would the pupil premium intake be chosen via academic selection? If so, who would ensure they had the pre-education to pass the common entrance exam etc?

And finally…

What would happen to one of these schools if it expanded exponentially to include a majority of pupil premium kids, say 75%, would the school be the same? Would well-to-do parents want their darling offspring to mix with the hoi-poloi especially those who have chosen the independent sector deliberately to ensure that their kids don’t mix with the poor and certainly not in such large numbers?

 

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove

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The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.

 

Pokémon Go! Must We be Servants of the Present Moment?

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Think how useless a teacher’s greatest labours are now, when he tries to lead one single student back to the infinitely distant and elusive Hellenic world, the true homeland of our culture, and an hour later that same student reaches for a newspaper or popular novel or one of those scholarly books whose style bears the repulsive mark of today’s educational barbarism!  Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1872 this was Nietzsche’s view, I wonder what it would be now? The teacher might wish to lead a student back to a time when they reach for a newspaper, a popular novel or even a ‘popular science or self help book’…

Or the teacher might have given up on even this meagre hope. Nietzsche has it in for journalists and describes newspapers as epitomising today’s [then] educational system with both as ‘servants of the present moment‘, taking the place of

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages

That is some teaching and learning policy, though he meant it more as a gifted and talented policy, I like to think of it as an aim for all…

I can only think a reincarnated Nietzsche would stare in horror at teaching as entirely a servant of the present moment as argued for by some who wish to ‘engage’ pupils in anything that will occupy their time at school rather than uncover their inner genius. Yet servants of the present delight in keeping up to date rather than exploring the ‘true homeland of our culture’, as one can witness with a cursory glance towards the latest ‘craze’ to hit the nation’s classrooms.

Pokémon Go is pushing Minecraft to the back of the class, Edtech magazine states there are ‘3 Ways Pokémon GO Can Create Meaningful Learning Opportunities‘ these are that it can ‘promote data literacy skills’, allow children to ‘explore the natural world’ and ‘inspire digital storytelling’. That what follows each of these is rather thin gruel seems not to worry the writer of the article. In fact in all three cases the game seems to lessen the activity rather than add to it.

Will it “help students start to become familiar with the data literacy skills of data processing, data manipulation, data presentation and data analysis”? How often will they have to play the game in order for this to occur? How many hours? Are there better ways of achieving these aims, and in more depth? In many ways this is its most obvious use, and maybe I could be persuaded but it seems little more than a passing activity. It could be argued that for autistic children it will help “research habitats that relate to where Pokémon can be found in your local area, as well as learning how to observe in a natural habitat and sketch the living creatures that you find there.” But will it get in the way of observation of the natural habitat, would the painstaking exploration of our natural environment take a backseat because of a fight in a Pokémon Gym? And finally, it might: “…fuel students’ creativity and promote language, research and technology skills by asking students to write stories around the Pokémon they capture in the game.” Or it might be a lesser way of doing that than approaching the same aim by grappling with great literature; is it better to play Pokémon Go or to read Lysistrata or the Oresteia in order to fuel creativity and promote language and research skills? As for technology, I am sure working on a production of a piece of Greek theatre will offer all sorts of opportunities for use of cutting edge technology if one would wish to really ‘Go’ for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed seeing my daughter play the game, we have had fun exploring and noticing things but none of this is in the detail or depth I would call educational, nor is it edutainment, it is play, and that is fine as far as it goes; I love play. But I pity my little ‘un if she has to go back to school and comes across an enthusiastic teacher who has come up with a term’s work based on Pokémon Go in order to engage her interest, it will more likely enrage her to disinterest.

In the classroom, instead of Pokémon Go, can we have Pokémon No?!! And, instead educate for:

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages…

 

Theresa May Went to my School

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In her foreword to the book School Songs and Gymslips Theresa May née Brasier wrote:

I went to Holton Park Grammar School in the 1970s and during my time there it changed from a girl’s grammar school to a co-educational comprehensive…

By the time I arrived, in 1975, Theresa May was at Oxford University and the school was now called, ‘Wheatley Park Comprehensive’. I started in the second year (year 8) at the old Secondary Modern site of the Shotover School in Wheatley, which had merged with the grammar in 1971. Later, as a fourth year, I moved to what was known as the Upper Site, mainly in the new build near the entrance of the school and some nissen huts from an old US military hospital in the grounds of Holton Park. There was a moat and a manor house, where the old grammar school had been based (pictured above). For a comprehensive school the grounds were abundant, on both sites, we could run and hide and run and hide we did.

In her book about Holton Park Girls, Marilyn Yurdan, wrote that a 1955 report made by the Ministry of Education described:

…the catchment area from which the pupils came from as ‘a sparsely populated rural area’ extending a dozen or so miles to the foot of the Chilterns and about 4 miles to the north and west. Pupils came from about twenty-five different primary schools. Over 80% came to school by bus, the furthest away having a journey of more than 14 miles…

The report also made the following salient point:

‘The area does not produce a large number of pupils of Grammar School calibre… if the school is to remain full it is necessary to admit a proportion of girls with relatively little academic ability’.

Not all grammar schools cream off the creme de la creme!

By the time I arrived twenty years later the school was in chaos. The Headteacher and senior leaders from the grammar school had remained in charge and the teaching for the top sets was mainly done by old grammar school staff. That we all were being brought up in an area in which there were few of grammar school calibre makes one wonder what it is about rural peasant stock that even a comprehensive school couldn’t sort out. Little aspiration, little hope, we certainly didn’t dream of the spires of Oxford that were just along the A40. Theresa would have been protected from the chaos due to her being educated away from the oiks, across the moat in the old manor, with the same staff and grammar school mores she had become used to. As the school was full of children of ‘little academic ability’ she had also seen herself rise meteorically, being moved up a year and was therefore untainted by the ‘comprehensivisation’.

In Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse the period 1969-1979 is given the subtitle ‘Riot’, and a more suitable word I cannot think of. That the riot was fed by a huge amount of apathy on both pupils and teachers behalf might give you a feel for how it came across. Anarchy today? Nah, just a bit of passive resistance; the next day motorbikes in the school corridor and a teacher’s car turned over onto its roof. Discipline was attempted by some stronger Secondary Modern teachers, the cane, the ruler, the slipper, the detention and lines and a scary deputy head who was entrenched in the Lower School.

We were streamed and in sets and in the top sets copying out of books and/or copying off boards, was the order of the day. An over reliance on text books or worksheets or reading Macbeth out loud in class for weeks on end might have worked for the girls of Holton Park with “little academic ability” but for us many boys full of hormones and 1970’s angst it really didn’t nor did it work for many of the new girls, hormones and angst would have been a good name for a punk band; a few of my friends did reasonably well is one thing, knowing how much more they could’ve done is another.

A new teacher arrived and he gave us a vote as to whether we should call him sir or by his first name ‘Alan’, we voted to call him ‘sir’… He was the most progressive teacher I can remember and he taught us in rows… but he wrote a musical and I was in it, and we were in the national press, this got me interested in theatre which I will always thank him for… but my overriding memory of school is one of never working very hard, hardly ever being stretched and, having moved from bottom sets to top sets in languages and Maths after a term or two of starting the school, with no catch up lessons, I spent those lessons being totally confused as to what was going on.

It wasn’t progressive teaching that did for me, it was bad teaching, ill thought through curricula, bad or irregular discipline and very low expectations. I wonder how much grammar school education got away with being poor due to a placid intake? There was a malaise on behalf of the teachers and also a lack of ambition in us rural types. The problem was lazy traditionalism: talk and chalk, text book, copy, sometimes marked with a tick, a C+ and a ‘good’. Even if this had been allied with good discipline it would have failed many of us.

Many of those around education who might look back on their school days as hours of boredom, might wish for edutainment approaches but thinking children should all be taught in groups via discovery learning techniques or being educated through ‘Minecraft’ or Pokémon Go does not address the issue. I can see how some teachers have ended up putting an emphasis on the need to motivate and engage pupils, especially boys, and why they sometimes talk about texts not being for ‘our kids’ but none of these things allay the problem of poor teaching.

What I was crying out for was great texts, high expectations, teachers responding to my confusion, knowing what I didn’t know and explaining it to me. I was crying out for great classroom dialogue, stretching me, questioning me, not ignoring me… My cheekiness was probably a cry of “Help! Educate me please!!” Looking back over my exercise books what strikes me is how empty they were, as was my mind, and even the hours of copying from the board resulted in little being copied down, because in the most tedious of lessons we rioted. If only there had been an expectation of us useless idiots producing some great quality work, then more of us might have done!

As for Theresa, the Wheatley Vicar’s daughter, she certainly got out in time but I suspect even for her the secondary school could have done so much more and I wonder if she had attended a better school whether she would have got a better degree than a second class honours at Oxford.

 

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My Worst Job Interview

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I was running late, grabbed some toast, said goodbye “good luck!” came the reply and with that I set off, no worries I thought, the school will offer me coffee…

I arrived at the school on a drizzly summer day and pressed the buzzer, the door opened and in I went. Reception was packed with kids being dealt with, I was at the back of the queue, fifteen minutes later I was able to sign in and taken to a small, stuffy, room in which there were 12 chairs. I had been the first to arrive at 8am, my allotted time, I was told the others would be arriving at half hourly intervals and, yes, there were to be twelve of us. By 9am, gasping for a coffee, I and my two fellow interviewees asked whether there was any chance of a cup? No, we were told, but there was water. Grateful for anything we accepted. Water it was.

One of my fellow interviewees had stayed over in a hotel the night before and the other had come by train, that morning, from Bristol to London. Another arrived, newly flown in via London City airport from Scotland, it was 9.30 am and we were shown around the school by a couple of year 9 pupils who didn’t think much of the school.

When we got back from our travels we were handed a timetable for the day and my main interview, because my surname was R and there were no Smiths or Taylors, would not be until the end of the day.

We condemned interviewees sat in our stuffy room, chatting, wondering what to do and a new applicant arrived with the news that they had heard there was an internal candidate. A deputy head arrived to take someone up for interview, a candidate who had yet to have the inspirational look around the school, we asked whether it was true and we were told yes it was true and that he currently had the role on an ‘acting’ basis, he had had the role for the year and he was applying for the permanent position. At that point the person from Scotland withdrew and looked mightily relieved.

My tummy was rumbling, the others went off for dinner but it was time for me to do ‘the test’, I was taken to the library, given a ‘test paper’ with various questions about what I would do if…. The test was timed, I was hungry, pleased with my answers… But hungry…

I returned from the test and was immediately taken along to the dreaded pupil panel. This consisted of eight year 9 pupils who asked a variety of pertinent questions if they had been asked by adults, they were probably penned with the help of adults, but elicited awkward responses from me as I felt nervous about divulging personal details about my life and experiences to a group of thirteen year olds. I had to stop myself for asking for some chewing gum that most of them clearly had access to…

Beyond hunger I returned to the ‘room’, others talked about the poor quality lunch and I asked the receptionist when I could have mine, only to be informed I had missed it. I enquired as to whether there was a shop nearby and she informed me it was half an hour’s walk away and that my presentation ‘preparation’ time began in twenty minutes. I felt imprisoned by some bizarre regime whose job was to torture me in a variety of ingenious ways.

I asked for some water.

I watched as a plate of sandwiches were taken in to the main ‘interview room’.

Why did I stay? God knows.

I prepared a presentation on a given topic in my allotted half hour and was told to wait until the panel were ready.

Then, finally, it was my time to be interviewed. There were twelve people on the panel and a rather unassuming person introduced themselves as the Head teacher but only after the student voice rep had introduced herself, a parent governor, a teacher governor, assorted deputies of this and that and the other, a union official, and an interested parent observer and a couple of heads of department.

They had empty plates in front of them, coffee cups…

I did a great presentation but as the interview progressed I began to fall apart, hungry, feeling like an idiot for not withdrawing, upset with the way I had been treated, I felt angry and tearful. I didn’t want to show it, but my answers became more and more wild and ill considered, I was past caring.

But I still cared, I needed a job.

That evening I was rung up by the Head who told me I hadn’t got the job. I asked him who had, he said they had decided to offer the job to the internal candidate and had decided they didn’t need to interview him. I was apoplectic I gave the Head teacher a piece of my mind about how awful the whole day had been and how he could improve the whole process coffee and food featured highly in my feedback. He said he didn’t have to listen to this and put the phone down on me.

At the end of the following Autumn term I heard that the Head had been dismissed, suddenly, for unknown reasons. This gave me the opportunity for a wry smile, I wonder what had gone wrong?