Dad Dancing Teachers

Dad Dancing Teachers

Straight jacket July 2015
(c) David Parfitt July 2015

When I left school on May 1st 1983, I was given a York revision booklet, a form tutor’s ‘Yorkshireman’s handshake’, an exam time table and warned against playing too much cricket.  The ensuing month was optimistically called “the exam study period”.  Schools in the 1980s were a very different place to the individualised, caring institutions of today where every child is supported and cared for, even if statistics follow every child, with acronyms and labels dogging all students! In 1983, I had an interesting French teacher who was also the union rep; all in his class, including myself, spectacularly failed our French GCE. This was partly due to Doncaster youths’ inverted snobbery against all things that were not from Yorkshire and partly due to his weekly absences caused by teacher strike action or his union business. Ten years later, all in his French GCSE class including my younger brother, once again spectacularly failed French; nothing appeared to have changed! I do not believe this would now be allowed to occur.  His apathy, poor lesson punctuality and lack of interest in student learning was startling, this was a teacher who would now, rightly, be challenged.  Much as I rage against data becoming overwhelming and taking too much priority, ‘students are so much more than a statistic’, the data does ensure teachers are now aware of all students’ ability and what their expected progress is, which when correctly overseen by headteachers can only be a benefit to learning. My lack of linguistic skill remains an embarrassment and is a challenge that I need to overcome, as is my fixed mind-set, developed in those turgid classes copying out of the infamous text book ‘les tricolours’ confirmed by my damning GCE D grade.

My leaving school allowed me a whole month prior to my GCEs to enjoy all aspects of being independent and be 16 in Doncaster in the 1980s. My cricket and courting skills improved immeasurably. Compare this to my year 11s who are allowed to leave on June 19th, the very last day of their GCSEs. Their intense individualised timetable full of exam preparation, revision and regular past papers has meant they are extremely well prepared for the vagaries of the GCSE exam.  However, for the students this has been a miserable month punctuated by a “potty” examination timetable, often with three or four GCSE examinations on one day; see earlier blog entitled ‘Drowning in Exams.’ The pressure of this month has clearly told on some students whose performance will be affected due to their panic attacks and overwhelming tiredness due to the demands the GCSE timetable places upon them. For the staff of 2015, it is a similarly stressful time with extra marking and the extra worry that their beloved “charges” will fail to reach their potential and will receive an examination grade that is an unfair judgement on their learning and the staff teaching. Therefore, the last school day for year 11 students does come as an all mighty relief with the now comforting established traditions of the last day; shirt signing, various selfies and the last assembly delivered to an expectant audience. The assembly is full of pasty faced staff and students, an assembly that is akin to a meeting of the walking dead, but there is a lovely atmosphere, with an impromptu round of applause given to Tom Sherrington’s ingenious assembly idea, “Can you get a straw through a potato?”@headguruteacher. This was followed by the latest staff dance performance! Last year we danced to Pharell Williams, “Happy,” this year “Uptown Funk” was rightly laughed at and put on YouTube before the end of the assembly.

Although I would never advocate the laissez faire approach (see I did learn some French) of my school days, I do worry that currently we are placing our students in a straitjacket, where independence and individual learning rarely surface; this is sufficient to ensure progress at GCSE but unlikely to equip learners for A level. Crucially, this system may ensure some exam success but I do not believe this is creating a happy school or a place where love of learning/lifelong learners will be established. Therefore, finding something to laugh at/enjoying a culture of happiness has to be important for every school even if this includes annual headteacher Dad dancing!

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“Coasting, my arse!” – Part 2

“Coasting, my arse!”- Part 2

(c) David Parfitt July 2015
(c) David Parfitt July 2015

A week has passed since Nicky Morgan’s emotive proclamation that she would be the standard bearer for educational progress and she cared about our vulnerable students.  This announcement about hundreds of unnamed ‘coasting schools’ was backed by sections of the gluttonous press as we had a week of teacher bashing led predictably by the headlines from the Daily Mail 29th June, “Hundreds of coasting schools force being turned into academies to shine a spotlight on complacency”, and The Daily Telegraph “Morgan takes on teachers’ unions with crackdown on coasting schools”, to even the normally rational Guardian aligning itself to the hysterical rhetoric with “Education Secretary raises the bar with the new coasting criteria”.  The result is that I continue to become more frustrated and angry at this new educational language that we as a profession seem to have blithely accepted; ‘coasting’ and ‘raising the bar’ are  ill-defined phrases that have little to do with the seven schools I worked in or the many leaders I meet and admire.  Why do we accept and allow the use of this language?  This is typical methodology of the school playground bully; sound bites, assumptions and stereotypes that they will struggle to quantify.  These spurious, unsubstantiated claims are simply to appease the masses; ‘lazy teachers’, ‘kids who haven’t the work skills’, etc.  As we are using playground rules where petty ‘tit for tat’ name calling abounds, I am fed-up of ‘workshy’, ‘dishonest’, ‘fraudulent’, ‘untrustworthy’ politicians.  This is no more a fair representation of politicians than the simple stereotype of ‘coasting, complacent schools’ and the ill-informed judgement of schools simply by their latest GCSE results or a brief inspection often undertaken by an inspectorate that has never run a school.

I am sure I am not the only one who is disappointed with the teaching profession’s gentle response.  I do recognise that individual headteachers such as John Tomsett ‘This much I know about… how truly great schools are not grown overnight’, @johntomsett, and Tom Sherrington ‘Nicky Morgan v The Bell Curve’, @headteacherguru, have eloquently dissected the difficulties of developing a British 21st century school and the absurdity of Morgan’s poor maths where good is always judged as children above average.  Their robust defence of running schools is appreciated but as a profession have we been too busy to respond with a united front?

My concern is how we have allowed this rhetoric to creep and seep into the profession.  Already, educational companies are badgering beleaguered headteachers with quick fix CPD to avoid the stigma of being labelled a coasting school.  The following email title typifies the incessant message of ‘coasting’ as a new educational verb and that the national average of 60% 5 A* – C including English and maths is now not good enough: ‘National Conference on How to Improve Coasting Schools’.  All this for the reduced bargain price of £149, a day conference with national educational speakers soon to be confirmed!  As a headteacher this concern with coasting is now suddenly a key ‘hoop’ to respond to, a national debate, a concern that is politically activated.

As Charlie Chaplin wryly observed, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot”.  Like Chaplin, I am trying to see the longer, bigger humorous picture, after all the Isle of Wight beckons; but I want my union ASCL to do more.  Their published strapline to attract new members is ‘Individually we are a drop, together we are an ocean’.  I would argue that currently a lot of their members are not waving but are drowning.  Their message to headteachers on page 6 in the July edition of their magazine proudly entitled ‘ASCL Influence’, the lowly fifth action point, is that they are going to the DfE to discuss/define ‘coasting’.  This is a timid response that does not appease this headteacher and I hope their claim to be able to directly influence policy is one they will be able to substantiate.

The next email in my inbox was from a new neighbouring headteacher who is struggling to fill science, business studies and art vacancies!  He has two weeks to avoid these classes being staffed by cover/supply teachers and I would suggest student progress will be limited unless he can fill these vacancies.  Therefore, my wish list for Nicky Morgan to raise standards is not ‘sexy’ and will not grab the headline makers as future vote winners but contains real issues that the current government could and should easily fix; after all they have a five year mandate to make a real educational difference.

  1. Tackle the ridiculous underfunding situation that is unequal and causing major hardship that means educational development is simply unable to occur.
  2. Stop the annual meddling with courses and their assessment.
  3. Tackle the teacher shortage that is now becoming a national crisis.

Finally, my weekly advice given in each blog is “stop bashing teachers”.  Now that could be a good headline for ASCL to deliver.

“Coasting, my arse!”- Paraphrase, Jim Royle , The Royle Family

So the latest edict from the ‘Ministry of Magic’ by the newest EducationBoyShrugging-Lo Secretary Nicky Morgan, is a predictable, provocative, pompous politician’s waffle.  She is, she says, “unapologetic about shining a spotlight on complacency”. This lady would appear to want to promote herself as being all about pupil progress, her barbed implication being that schools have failed in the past to stretch ‘every pupil to unlock their potential’. She goes on to state that a number of “coasting schools, many in leafy areas, have fallen beneath the radar”.  Her interesting definition of ‘coasting’ will be a school that fails to achieve the magical 60% 5 A*-C (the national average), including English and maths, in their 2016 GCSE results. The too gentle response from the headteacher union that this was a ‘muddled and unfair’ statement, I’d go for “bonkers and insane”, is yet another example of the bemusing, confrontational relationship numerous education secretaries continue to have with schools and school headteachers, always characterised by emotive, ill thought out statements that lead with tired, ridiculous rhetoric that politicians use to hide behind when they have not got a ‘cunning’ plan. Predictably, Morgan’s language was all about ‘progress, potential, challenge’, and that old chestnut: ‘standards’ with schools measured and judged by the o so reliable GCSE examination results. A system that has been annually changed and is regulated by examination boards that seek profits, struggles to find  adequate reliable markers, and who have once again produced an examination timetable that after eleven years of education tests only the resilience of the students, not their learning.

As a headteacher of a so called ‘coasting school’ overlooking the leafy lovely Worcester cathedral, I do feel under immense pressure with the next set of GCSE results being crucial to the school, flawed judgements made purely on GCSE results will decide our future.  Let’s remember, school funding comes with student numbers, therefore our reputation and types of student who attend and ultimately for some, results will cost headteachers their jobs. Stigmatising numerous schools as coasting is not just a simple politician being misguided, it is an attack on state education, by the Education Secretary! Who is also backed by the now non-independent inspectorate Ofsted. For the poor students, stressed under pressure, schools become unhappy places and the value of love of learning is at serious risk of being lost. Furthermore, the simplistic return to the view that a ‘C’ GCSE is good and a ‘D’ grade is bad is a contradiction of the previous twelve months where students making progress from their starting point was the key judgement. And let’s not forget that ‘B’ is about to become the new ‘C’.  I am rather like my favourite character Edmund Black Adder, who, on being sent into battle by the idiotic World War 1 generals, sadly mused “I’ll be chopped to pieces”. My arms will end up in Essex, my torso in Norfolk, and my genitalia stuck up in a tree somewhere in Rutland.’ This is how headteachers must feel on receiving the latest GCSE results.  August used to be such an optimistic month.

On getting her job Nicky Morgan had one positive; she was not her predecessor, the Dark Lord, the educational zealot, Michael Gove whose privatisation of academies and promotion of free schools and his use of Ofsted as his tool of mass destruction, robbed the profession of so many good people. Was he ‘coasting’ in the last five years as Education Secretary in allowing these hundreds of schools to drift? Morgan was already a controversial appointment, an equalities minister who voted against gay marriage, not (thankfully) because of her convictions! But she defensively argued because “a lot of constituents asked me to vote in this particular way”. Following on from this flawed logic, a politician who listens, I would hope that the Education Secretary would have consulted with headteachers; what they want I believe, is important. Therefore in this vain fantasy I have perhaps a foolish hope that Nicky Morgan would listen to a frustrated headteacher of twelve years, in a dreadfully underfunded authority, whose recruitment policy is in tatters due to recruits not wanting to join this beleaguered profession, (have you tried to get a maths or science teacher?). With the teaching staff morale at an all-time low and where the pressure of a headteacher is immense, where the laws of the game change annually, always with judgement on the GCSE results, I would humbly request that she:

  • Produce a fair budget for all schools.
  • Stop the pick and mix approach to national educational policies (44 in my last 12 years as headteacher).
  • Uses statistics to inform, not to insult or score political points.
  • Recognise vocational subjects as essential qualifications for some young people.
  • Chooses her language carefully.
  • Works with the teaching profession. She may find this a more rewarding relationship than the simplistic target practise that currently exists.

This is what I would write if I felt she would listen. But cynically, I fear these emotive statements were cowardly and were produced at a time when we were in shock at the Tunisian tragedy.  It’s another politician hiding bad news so I will revert to the bard, the politicians’ playwright of choice:

“The fool doth think he is wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.  As You Like It.