We gotta get out of this place

I see the Independent is reporting “staggeringly high” numbers of teachers wanting to quit.

As ever, the blame is put on workload. Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as that (though obviously having no time to see your friends and family, or to relax and have some “me-time”, is obviously not the best way to keep staff). Pay is also mentioned – and sure, everyone would always like a pay rise, but teaching is not horrendously badly paid these days.

Personally, I reckon the tendency towards micro-management, the lack of autonomy and the lack of respect are likely to be bigger issues.  There’s a big difference between working every hour God sends because you choose to, you enjoy it and are passionate about what you are doing, and putting those hours in because you are pressurised from above, or perpetually terrified about not being up to scratch.

Then there’s the relentless assessment focus.  Certainly in secondary schools, we know preparing kids for public exams comes into it, inevitably – but when there is a culture within our society that education is just about qualifications and getting a job, then there can be a feeling that we are just feeding the sausage factory, not sharing the joys of our subject or developing young people’s minds.

What is worse, to my mind, is that the cumulative effect of this attitude has produced some teachers who really only think about delivering lessons according to a set recipe, focusing only on attaining whatever targets have been set, and who actually feel lost without a didactic framework for what and how they should teach.

Take one of the classes I have. It’s an extension class – that means it is not for an exam or other assessment, it has no set curriculum, and the students are volunteers. To me, that is absolute heaven. Why wouldn’t anyone want to teach that?  But you won’t find that many who welcome that sort of opportunity.

Something else that sometimes comes in  – there can be a culture of “presentee-ism” among teachers – peer-pressure to work longer and longer hours to show you care enough. A teacher having a life is sometimes seen as a bit suspect, and symptomatic of lack of dedication.  If you have been around a long time like me, then you can get away with it – you are allowed to be a bit of a maverick, particularly if you have a decent record behind you. But I think a lot of teachers are guilt-tripped into working ridiculous hours – the fact that a slight improvement in the plan of a lesson is not worth it if it takes an additional 2 hours of your time and leaves you exhausted is probably obvious from outside, but often isn’t to the teacher concerned.

The politicians aren’t going to manage any sort of quick fix – though at least some of them admit there’s a problem, I guess.

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SATs and all that

Just read that the NUT conference supported the suggestion of a boycott on SATs in primary schools.

I am, of course, glad to see teachers making a stand on an educational matter, and prioritising pupils’ welfare.  I certainly agree with the quote from the General Secretary “”Drilling within a narrow set of disciplines and expectations is taking the joy out of learning and much of it is of questionable educational value.” There is a very great danger that the SATs focus leads to “valuing what we measure” and thus impoverishing the curriculum.

But I am also concerned about what on earth is going on that pupils are getting so ridiculously stressed.  Of course the DoE’s assertion that “tests should not be stressful” is a little unrealistic in the real world – it’s almost inevitable to be a little bit on edge if you feel you are being judged (and kids will encounter that in competitions, music exams – even a big football match).   But for them to be so uptight and tearful over something which, if we are honest, really will have no impact on their life, is just plain wrong.

And no, it’s not just that it’s an exam. You might get the impression from reading much of the commentary that children never used to sit exams in primary school before the era of SATs. Well, they did – we had exams every year at junior school, and my mother had them every term in her day! The exams in themselves didn’t reduce us all to nervous wrecks.

It seems to me that – setting aside for a moment the content of the SATs and whether the new required standards are even halfway reasonable – that either the children are unduly sensitive to doing something hard, or (or more likely “and”), there is too much emphasis – from school and home – on doing well in the SATs.

Now I know schools are judged by SATs – so there is going to be a very great temptation to drill those poor kids to get the highest grades they can, since having OFSTED come down on you like a ton of bricks if you go down a few percentage points is most definitely a thing to be avoided at all costs.  It must be hard to avoid passing that anxiety on to the kids, though I sincerely hope all my primary school colleagues try to.  I’d like to live in a word where teachers were all brave enough to say they valued education more than the results of a dubiously valid or reliable test and did their own thing – but that is not the world we are in. And that, of course, is down to the government – its ever-increasing focus on regarding data as the final judgement, its lack of awareness that education is not a one-size fits all matter and is not confined to what can be measured by tests, and its failure to trust the professionalism and good faith of teachers.

But – what on earth is going on with parents who prioritise it, or take kids in for extra cramming sessions for SATs? What on earth do they think they are achieving?
Now I know this is not new – when I was at school I saw parents taking a similar approach to the 11-plus. But – whilst I’d never condone the way a couple of my peers were treated in the name of trying to “get them through”, at least I could understand why the parents felt short-term pain was worth it for the long-term gain of avoiding the hell-hole of a local secondary modern that those kids were otherwise destined for. But with the SATs – there is no ambiguity! The parents need to be supporting education, their children’s well-being, and helping them deal with tackling hard material without crumbling, rather than focusing on results and upping the pressure. Of course many parents do exactly this – but what is up with those who don’t?

And as for the change in demand of the SATs… when will the powers that be actually get the idea that just saying you want “higher standards” does not actually mean that all children will now be able to achieve what the top 30% or so once achieved? It is as if it were decreed that we should all be at the standard of at least county-standard athletes, or of professional musicians. See, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it, and everyone can see that. But understanding the same thing works for academic disciplines appears to be beyond the powers that be. Of course no one wants poverty of aspiration limiting achievement – but that is not an excuse for a complete lack of appreciation of the spectrum of ability and attainment.


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“More maths teachers”

Although obviously the sheer horror of Betsy DeVos’s appointment in the US inevitably trumps anything home grown, I couldn’t help finding myself seriously incensed by this article:-


He wants the most selective maths degree courses to become less selective. Why? This means they are pretty well inevitably going to become less stretching for the top end – and yes, we do need our very top mathematicians. He fails to acknowledge that actually, teaching mathematicians is not the same as teaching historians.  And – perhaps most importantly – he is implicitly suggesting that the universities not right at the very top of the league tables are not worth considering. I’m sure all those departments, and graduates, will really appreciate that.

He wants to encourage the best mathematicians to become teachers. This makes me wonder if he as actually met many seriously good mathematicians. Guess what – I have. And the majority of them, I would never let near a classroom in a million years.
Also – why on earth would he assume that the best mathematicians are needed? Of course you need to know enough to inspire and stretch your pupils. But that is not the same as whether you got the top first in your year at university, now is it?

He wants us to structure our teaching to maximise those who will be ready to study maths at university. Now, I certainly wouldn’t wish to do anything that would put off people from studying maths at university, and certainly our teaching should always cater for, and stretch, those who wish to take the subject further.  But… if I were really to aim principally for maximising maths graduates, I would not be doing the majority of my class a service.

So what is my solution to addressing the shortage of maths teachers? Actually, pretty much the same as addressing the general shortage. Stop fiddling around with education. Stop regarding students’ grades as more the teacher’s responsibility than the student’s. Stop valuing what we measure, rather than measuring what we value. Stop guilt-tripping teachers and give them some trust and respect. Then, maybe, the profession won’t be losing so many new entrants so quickly. Then, maybe, it will become attractive in its own right because people will see it as a hugely exciting opportunity to work with and inspire young people, rather than as the express route to a nervous breakdown.


Posted in Educational Developments, Maths and Science, Opinions, Recruiting teachers, Working conditions | Leave a comment

So this is Christmas

Another term nearly over.

The school year is full of fixed annual rituals. For us, the last week of the autumn term brings the  girls’ highlight of the year, the so-called Karaoke, which in fact is a dance competition, for which all the forms prepare intensely, care about to the exclusion of almost all else and relish triumphs from years gone by. This is a ridiculously noisy and frantic event, endured with an indulgent tolerance or gritted teeth by frazzled staff. To me it is a good example of why a focus on control and orderliness at all times in school can miss the point. They have a wonderful time at the Karaoke and it brings forms together – and though they are noisy and apparently undisciplined, they do understand when to stop. Something more sedate really wouldn’t achieve the same.

We also have our annual Carol Service at a local church. Of course we do not force people to come if they have a religious objection, but in practice, despite the school being very multicultural, very few exercise that right. I’m an unapologetic atheist but I still love the Carol Service – the walk up there, the lovely old church, the readings from the King James Bible, the old carols (though I wish they’d pitch it a bit lower! I find myself fading out part way through). It’s a really good way to finish the term.

Individual classes may have their own rituals too. A lovely group I taught for five years (years 7 to 11) had a favourite kind-of mathematical game that we always played at the end of term (that involved noise and apparent anarchy too…spotting a pattern?). Some of them have requested that we have a class reunion (as they are now in the sixth form and so no longer together) and play it in a lunchtime next week!

Another feature of this time of year is the Oxford and Cambridge interviews. Whatever we say to counter this (and believe me, we do – we have way too much sense to believe an Oxbridge place is the be-all and end-all, or right for everyone), they have a ridiculous amount emotionally invested in this. A lot of them find it very hard to deal with the fact that the interviewers will be asking them things way outside their comfort zone where they have to figure it out rather than know it. For a number, not getting the place will be their first real experience of academic “failure”, and it can hit them hard; for all we may point out the excellence of their other choices, it is the one missed that dominates their feelings. And I hate to say it, but some parents really don’t help – you can understand a child being stressed if their parents regard going to somewhere that is third nationally for their subject as some sort of “failure”.

I know some of my colleagues will feel our pupils should be using the holidays to get some work done. With the sole exception of kids who feel they are floundering because they’ve got seriously behind – I don’t, I’m afraid. It’s a long and tiring term – they need the break, and to do the normal festive things of eating, drinking, relaxing, watching old films, and who knows, maybe talking to their nearest and dearest.

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Going off topic

I must confess to having committed what, in the eyes of some, are two major educational crimes today.

I didn’t stick to my lesson plans. And I discussed politics.

The kids in year 10 and above were absolutely desperate to talk about the American presidential election result. Should I have pressed on with hypothesis testing, with non-linear simultaneous equations, and whatever other treats lined up for today and ignored it? Maybe I should. But I didn’t.

I want young people to care what goes on in the world. And after all, if outrageous policies now impact right down the years (as I fear they will – a climate-change denier in the White House certainly doesn’t bode well) – then they have the longest to live with the consequences.  I want them to feel passionately that homophobia, islamophobia, racism and sexism are deeply wrong and a threat to us all. I want them to understand the dangers of political demagoguery.

So, we talked about it. We talked about parallels with other countries, other times. We talked about political systems and the issues of the electoral college and a first past the post system. We talked about media manipulation. We considered whether voting should be compulsory. We debated how far our own political inclinations are rational or just tribal, and how much altruism comes into our decision making.

And yes, I’m sorry, but I gave my own opinions. They asked me, and we were having a discussion – I wasn’t instructing them on what to believe. Being prepared to be honest was a gesture of respect.

I have come away no less depressed about Trump, but feeling very grateful to be working with young people who have tried to inform themselves on the issues, and who care so passionately about justice in the world.


Posted in Day to day school life, Opinions, Pupil relationships | 2 Comments

Education not training

The latest thing that provoked a rant – a complaint that school leavers “lack workplace skills”.

Well guess what, Mr/Ms Employer – we are here to educate, not to train. We are trying to broaden their minds, introduce them to the rich worlds of sciences, arts and humanities, help them learn to think, to aspire to change the world, and to play their part in our society.  We are not there to teach “business skills” or to produce little workers all ready to be fastened to their office chair.

Now in some areas I think we perhaps could do more to help children develop attributes and skills they’ll use in the big wide world. Here are a few:-

  • Thinking for themselves, not being passive consumers focused solely on regurgitation to order in examinations
  • Making their own decisions, not always looking for someone to tell them “the best thing to do”
  • Questioning everything
  • Being brave and taking risks
  • Taking responsibility for themselves

I am not convinced the average employer moaning about their school-leaver intake will necessarily welcome all of these. But as a society, we certainly should.

We really need a rethink about what we are achieving with education. It really isn’t just about passing exams (particularly as increasingly this is seen as a measure of the teacher’s success rather than the pupil’s).  It certainly isn’t about producing workplace-ready young people who will not inconvenience the employer by requiring training. An awful lot of what it’s about is pretty intangible, really, but that doesn’t make it any less important.


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A-levels, choice and market forces

There’s been discussion in the news of AQA’s decision to scrap A-level Art History. Inevitably, this brings out all sorts of comments concerning philistinism/ class issues/ your choice of pet hate.  There are even some who wilfully misinterpret the reasons for the decision (I can only assume they haven’t read AQA’s statement), assuming it’s about it being a “soft subject”. (Incidentally, I don’t recall anyone saying it was a soft subject in the past – that epithet is typically reserved for qualifications with the word “studies” in their name!)

I can understand the dismay of those outraged by the decision. I’ve felt the same when other things went in the past (for example, there were some fascinating options at O-level and/or A-level back in the 80s – eg Logic, Greek Literature in Translation…and more recently the removal of the AEAs was a great shame).

It doesn’t even appear to be just about it being a subject with few entries (though it is); exam boards maintain other minority subjects (inevitably cross-subsidising from the larger entry areas).  Apparently the issue is recruiting sufficient specialist examiners.

Now this does not surprise me. I have had four friends who’ve at various times been Chief or Senior Examiners – i.e. the people setting the papers and determining the markscheme. They put an awful lot of time and effort in, and the financial rewards are certainly not great.  Unless they have some sort of private income, they can’t do this as their sole occupation, but there will be very very busy times when it’s tough to do it alongside a “normal” job. It’s not a job in which popularity and appreciation come your way readily, either – how many candidates or their teachers will make a point of expressing their admiration for a well set paper on social media or to the awarding body? But needless to say, unpopular papers attract endless villification (and note I don’t say “bad” papers – some perfectly good ones attract completely unwarrented opprobrium simply for daring to require candidates to think for themselves rather than recall previous papers). Inevitably, anyone setting papers will have to grow a thick skin – I remember getting an amused message from a friend who’d set the paper for one January module, saying “Hey, result, I’ve just been called a bastard on Twitter!”.

I know far more who’ve been involved at the lower level – marking the exams (indeed, in the dim and distant past, I’ve done exam marking and external moderation of coursework myself).  It is not a fun job. You come home from your normal teaching job, and sitting in the corner of your room, there is a big pile of envelopes looking at you reproachfully.  You open the first one up – not one that’s too thick, as that’s scary – but even that medium sized one is going to occupy your attention for quite some time. You know you must give full attention to what you are doing – it’s someone’s future in your hands – but when it gets past midnight and only the matchsticks are holding your eyelids up, it is hard to feel positive about a semi-legible paper which uses all sorts of strange methods, and requires you to do a lot of checking for “follow through” marks because they are horrendously careless. To cap it all, you can almost guarantee there’ll be asterisks and arrows pointing you to where this question is continued elsewhere on the paper, so you’re endlesly flipping back and forth. So no, it wasn’t something I enjoyed, and it didn’t pay me enough to be worth doing it for the money. I did it because it helped my teaching, simple as that. That’s why I stopped – once I’d got what I wanted out of it, why put myself through all that again?

Under our current system, difficulties – I might even say a crisis  – in recruitment of examiners is inevitable. You are asking people to undertake a high-pressure role with inflexible deadlines at a rate of pay substantially below their normal one! Combining this role with their regular one will, in many cases, lead to working substantially more hours than the European Working TIme Directive would indicate to be appropriate.

If the awarding bodies started paying examiners more, this would result in increased costs to schools for exam entries.  If they offered payment to schools for cover for the teacher who is an examiner, to enable them to do the job in a slightly less rushed way, that would have the same effect.  The exam boards aren’t all run by profit-making companies (though Edexcel/Pearson is), but they are in a compettive market. Differences in costs to the school, unless they are very minor, will have consequences.


Given the government seems to think education is all about exams, you might hope they’d offer financial support to facilitate examining being done by competent, non-stressed, non-fatigued individuals …. Oh, I see something fat and pink winging its way past the window.  But if they want to offer a broad range of good, solid subjects, and get them marked reliably, they are going to need to put the investment in.


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