I return from education blogging exile to post a little thing about work

See what I’m doing here? Yes, in this metaphor I am the exorcist

It’s surely only a matter of time before a senior politician at last joins the final dot in education policy and realises that our collective obsession with GCSE results is misplaced, and that in a world in which compulsory training or education till 18 is established, we should be obsessing on A Level results instead.

The measures introduced by Gove (Progress 8, the English Bacc, all that nonsense) focus on GCSEs. Every September, teachers return to school to learn the big news about how this year’s GCSE results stack up, locally and nationally. Sure, A Level results are mentioned, but 90% of the stress and pressure in schools is still focused on the latest Year 11 cohort and their outcomes.

And yet, we only require them to have five good passes at GCSE to qualify for 6th form. Also, they can often qualify to take an A Level in a subject with a grade 4 or 5. Sure, the government is still bashing schools over the head with GCSE statistics, but the reality of the world is that a student will be able to start an apprenticeship with 4s in English and Maths and not much more; or a college course with similar results. As far as I can see, nobody out there in real life is demanding eleven or twelve good GCSE passes, or even eight or nine.

Apart from everything else he wrought, the absolute worst achievement of Gove was the introduction of the new grades 1-9 at GCSE, with students achieving an 8 now made to feel like failures because it’s not a 9. And yet: 7, 8, 9: doesn’t matter. Any of those is going to get you to the next step. I’ll go further: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9: all the same, as far as qualifying for most of the next steps.

Are universities looking at GCSE results? Possibly, when deciding on what offers to make; but the other new reality is that many universities appear to be filling their courses on a first-come first-served basis. Gotta get those £9,250 fees, gotta pay for those new buildings. Anyway, there are a lot of universities, and just because a few of them self-appoint as élite institutions (step forward, so-called Russell Group) doesn’t mean they’re the best places to go for most people. I love pointing out that Jony Ive went to Newcastle Poly. Nobody really knows what is going to be the making of them. Universities are like William Goldman’s Hollywood in that respect: nobody knows.

As a teacher, I’m the equivalent of a priest who doesn’t really believe in supernatural beings or miracles. (In this metaphor, the Russell Group are supernatural beings.) I absolutely want to teach students about life, and empathy, and art and beauty, to impart to them some of the things I’ve found it useful or interesting or simply joyful to know. But I also want them to stop worrying about numbers. Because nobody knows. And I’m not here to help someone along the way to becoming the next Theresa May or Boris Johnson or – supernatural beings forbid – Michael Gove.

Returning to my initial point, then, it can surely be just around the corner, that moment when an Education Secretary realises that the stick they ought to be beating schools with is the A Level stick. More to the point, when are parents going to start looking up A Level results when deciding where to point their sharp elbows? The Guardian is on the case.

Apple and Education

Ibera - 4Apple held an education event last week at a ridiculously huge high school in Chicago. It was squarely aimed at what used to be one of their core (and most loyal) markets: K-12 schools in the United States. On this side of the pond, there have only been isolated areas where Apple gets a look-in. I used to be one of them, when I taught Media and Film Studies, but even then I didn’t have enough computers in the classroom for anything other than group work.

In these financially straitened times, Apple have been losing share to Google. Schools are starved of funds for ideological reasons, teacher salaries are rock bottom (also for ideological reasons), and Google offer both cheap computers (Chromebook) and a “free” suite of software that integrates with school systems.

Apple’s event introduced a new, cheaper iPad aimed at schools, which supports their (expensive) Pencil and has a suite of software aimed at school IT managers and teachers.

Now, if you take the iPad and consider what it can do, it’s great value. Whereas a Chromebook, like most cheap laptops, will fall apart within 3 years, an iPad will go on forever (as long as you don’t drop it). An iPad can be a still or video camera, and includes software to edit photos, create documents, and edit video or make music. Nothing in the Google suite of apps matches the quality of Apple’s software. Throw in the Pencil, and you can use the iPad across the curriculum. Which is not to mention the privacy concerns I’d have regarding Google and their “free” software.

It seems, however, that Apple has a problem when it comes to implementing class sets and multiple log-ins. Their user-switching tools are reportedly clunky. I don’t think, personally, that this is unique to Apple. I’ve watched students log into networked (PC) computers and (especially if it’s the first time they’ve used that particular machine), it can take a ridiculously long time. I’ve had students in my lessons who’d been issued with a laptop because of special needs, and they have sat waiting for it to log in for an entire lesson.

But if I was in charge of a budget and had the power to make things happen, would I buy iPads?

I don’t think I would. I’d replace suites of Windows PC and Chromebook computers with Apple in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been sold on the iPad.

Here’s the thing. A computer is only as good as its software, and while Apple’s software may be good (the best, even), here in the real world, teachers don’t have time to learn it. It’s not just budgets and salaries that are constrained, but time. You offer me a class set of brand new iPads (or even a one-iPad-per-child policy), and I’m going to shrug my shoulders. Those iPads are going to stay locked away, or in the students’ bags. Not only do I not have time to get to grips with the software I’d be using to assign work and set homework, but I don’t have time to design lessons and activities, or the inevitable administrative tasks that go along with setting class and homework.

We already get pointed towards online services that can be used for homework and resources. “It’ll save you time in marking,” they say. “It’s all marked automatically.” But it’s not just the marking time I don’t have. I don’t have the setting time, the thinking time, or the time to deal with the students who don’t do the assigned tasks (because, when a student doesn’t do the homework, you’re supposed to do something about it).

You think I’m whining. I teach seven different sets of students. Outside the extra time I choose to put in, I get 21 minutes per week, per class to plan lessons, set work, mark books, and do the admin for that class. Obviously, that’s impossible, so the extra time I put in is dedicated to those basic tasks.

So you can hand me the greatest IT tools in the world, the most amazing hardware and software, but I still don’t have time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the students themselves had any IT savvy, but it’s a rare student indeed who knows how to do anything beyond the basics. I spent 10 years teaching students how to use Page Setup and calling out, “You’ve got caps lock on,” when their log-in “wasn’t working.” These days, not being able to do something on a computer has replaced the dog as the the most common reason homework isn’t done. I’ve decided that life’s too short to watch any more people accidentally lose all the work they did in an hour, or not know how to resize an image. 


A pile of steaming bullshit, yesterday

It’s time for one of those periodic I’m-not-one-to-blog-about-work-but… posts.

Teacher workload has been in the news, and I was just momentarily nonplussed by the reporting of a speech given by some empty suit to a head teacher’s conference. The reporting of this speech is along the lines of, this bloke promises not to introduce any major new reforms of examinations so that teachers can catch a breath.

Here’s a quote from the Graun’s coverage of the speech (which, to be fair to them, takes a different angle than the BBC’s straight parroting of whatever they were briefed to say):

Hinds had earlier earned applause when he said there would be no new tests imposed on primary schools and no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament, beyond those already announced.

So let’s unpack this. He said, no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament. Ha ha! So how long’s that? Does he mean current parliamentary session? In other words, no new reforms until, oh, at least until after the next summer holidays? So We have a whole seven months of respite? Or does he mean until there’s a general election? Which, given the state of this government, might be sooner than he thinks.

The sting in the tail of the Graun’s coverage of course was that phrase beyond those already announced. Because the inconvenient truth is that, with the exception of English and Maths, most subjects are only just starting to deal with the new back-to-the-50s specifications forced upon us by Gove. So teacher workload caused by new specifications isn’t going away for the remainder of the current parliament. It’s only just begun.

The other thing that bothered me about all this is that the audience, while they seemed fairly hostile to this particular Tory suit, were the people largely responsible for teacher workload: head teachers. They can pretend all they like that it’s the government who force all the shit upon teachers, but the truth is that the biggest problem in schools is school leaders who are susceptible to gimmicky ideas, don’t understand their own job, and cover up their ignorance with wave after wave of accountability nonsense as part of a target-drven culture of fear and conformity.

The worst thing they do is not acknowledge that each new initiative comes on top of the last new initiative. And because they would never admit that anything they introduced was a waste of time and effort, everything remains in place, festering away under the big pile of Things That Must Be Done. This pile of steaming bullshit, more than anything, is the source of workload pressure, and this is what’s driving teachers out of the profession. Every new school year begins with a long list of Things That Teachers Have To Do, and, from then on, new shit is piled on top of that on an almost weekly basis. These head teachers, let’s not forget, are all careerist bastard shitbirds.

Anyway, as Refusenik in Chief, I take pride in ignoring most of it. What you can’t get away with not doing, you learn to game. This has always been the main issue of Accountability Culture: everybody just games the fucking system to survive, so what’s the point?

If you switch your focus to self-preservation, you can survive teaching. Don’t be tricked into going the extra mile or bullshit about how to create inspiring lessons. Don’t take work home, don’t work more than 40 hours a week (stick to 35 unless there’s a parents’ evening) and never, ever volunteer for anything. And print this on a t-shirt: if their parents (and grandparents) cared, they wouldn’t vote Tory.

Kill All Humans

proxima-stephen-baxter-gollanczI’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s novel Proxima and its sequel Ultima. I’d been prevaricating about these for a while. I always quite like Baxter when I read him, but I don’t quite trust his prolificacy. Let’s take a chunk of time:

  • In 2006, he published Emperor, the first in the Time’s Tapestry sequence, following it with two sequels in 2007 and a third in 2008. Emperor came in at 368 pages, the first sequel 320, and the final two 336 pages each. So that’s 1360 pages in three years.
  • In 2007, he also published Firstborn, the third volume in the Time Odyssey trilogy, a collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, which was 388 pages. And a YA novel, H Bomb Girl, which was a mere 288 pages.
  • In 2008, he also published Flood, which was the first of two books dealing with catastrophic flooding caused by climate change. 548 pages.
  • In other words, between 2006 and 2008, he published works totalling over 2500 pages, and this period of time is not unusual; it’s fairly typical, in fact.

So I didn’t quite trust that these two novels would be any good, coming as they do amidst his multi-volume collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, the Long Earth series, which was concerned with the multiverse, or the idea that we live alongside multiple parallel universes.

At first, Proxima seems like it’s going to be a space colonisation narrative, with the twist that all the colonists have been press-ganged into participation. But there is a parallel narrative about a mysterious source of power (“kernels”) that appear on Mercury, which turns into a story about a mysterious Hatch that appears; and then all of a sudden we’re into Long Earth territory and alternate histories. Huh. Oh, and there are artificial intelligences, some of them robotic.

And it’s all perfectly readable and it rolls along, but it’s a bit of a mess, thematically, and you kind of get disappointed that the characters you invested in at the beginning never really get a chance to develop satisfactorily, or that other characters just appear and then disappear without really doing much.

So in the end, I was probably right to feel wary, but these were library loans, so never mind. This isn’t even a review, not really, but it made me think about some things.

Those robots, those AIs.

There’s a Cory Doctorow story that pokes fun at the idea that you would risk actual humans in human bodies in space exploration rather than constructing robot explorers or using AIs. Imagine: instead of having to develop cryogenics to enable human bodies to travel long distances, you send off a ship and then later on transmit (at the speed of light) an uploaded intelligence into an artificial body or robot in time for the exploration to take place.

Because it seems obvious by now that, where humans can be replaced by robots, they will be. Robots don’t need tea breaks, holidays, sleep, maternity leave, or regular pay rises in line with inflation.

So if you’re a human, and I’m assuming you are, you probably want to be in a profession in which you can’t possibly be replaced by a robot. But what is that, exactly? In Proxima, the colonists are aided by a robot/AI that can make soil, produce genetically engineered crops, offer medical treatments and assist in births. So it’s a farmer, a scientist, a doctor and a midwife. Oh, and it could teach children as well.

I’m a teacher. One of the key pieces of jargon in the profession these days is the word consistency. We all need to be doing the same thing. Managing behaviour in the same ways. Following the same classroom routines, setting homework on the same days, issuing sanctions and rewards. It’s easy to dismiss all this as Emerson’s “foolish consistency” that is “the hobgoblin of little minds”, but of course the agenda is far more sinister.

The latest aspect of the hobgoblin is the idea that, within departments, we should all be teaching the same stuff at the same time. A manager on a tour should be able to visit the classrooms while, say, Year 9 are being taught, and find the same lesson being taught by all the teachers. So as well as following the marking policy and the behaviour policy, we’re all expected to subsume our individuality as teachers and just follow the scheme of work… or the textbook… or whatever piece of courseware the corporate education publishers produce.

The first step is, can we replace expensive qualified teachers with cheap unqualified teachers? That’s easier to do if you have a bunch of pre-made lesson plans and schemes of work. But of course, the end game is, can we replace the warm body in the room with a robot and some software?


So: raise a glass to inconsistency, to unpredictability, to not planning, to winging it, to charisma, to the messy, disorganised, impossible to programme, human being in the room.

A book: Class War

class war coverUpdate: fellow blogger Rashbre has put up a review of Class War, which has some interesting insights. 


I need to write a better blurb for it, but: it’s about Dave Coote, a teacher who’s struggling along in an academy school and facing up to the fact that the job is becoming impossible because of creeping privatisation, corruption, and management bullshit.

There’s other stuff happening, too: a former student who drops in to ask a favour and turns his life upside down. And then there’s the evidence of financial mismanagement Coote comes across and what he decides to do about it.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and published under a pseudonym because: reasons.

It’s a quick read: 68,000 words. Available for Kindle and Kindle Apps:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Canadia

Amazon Oz

Amazon India


The Big Paranoid Picture

2089388_custom-be9a4e571a632807e169ce224da8a410379d85d4-s6-c30I’ve a simple philosophy when it comes to understanding what’s going on in the world. For example, if a survey shows that staff morale in the NHS is at an all-time low, I tend to think that’s how the government and managers want it to be. Apart from the fact that there’s a certain breed of manager who actually thinks people ought to feel pressure and stress (if they don’t they’re not working hard enough), the project to drive the cost of every public service as low as possible always takes priority. Why? Because they want all the money.

Take this story about the disgraceful industrial relations on Europe’s biggest construction project, Crossrail:

Leaked documents reveal a crisis in the £15bn Crossrail project, Europe’s largest construction site, with industrial relations close to collapse and workers too scared to report injuries for fear of being sacked. Crossrail’s managers are accused of photographing or videoing contractors’ staff who may be in danger and emailing it to others “with unmasked glee”.

There’s a certain group of people who want all the wealth, that’s the big picture. And the reason they want all the wealth is obvious, if you pull your paranoid camera eye back for a view of the entire planet.

But let’s start small, with my profession, which is edukashon. It’s safe to say that morale among teecherz is at an all-time low. There are many jobs you might call “burn out” professions. Policing. Nursing. Soldiering. Teaching. A burn-out profession sucks the gumption out of you until you can’t go on. I think it used to be the case that 30 years of teaching was enough to see you done. So you might start in your early 20s, and by your early 50s, you needed to retire. When my wife started teaching, it was common for people to jack it in at around 55, something you could do in those days, and the pension (relative to the cost of living) was decent enough for you to do that. If you don’t get out early, I think, you probably won’t live for long after you retire.

I work with lots of people who are around my age and a little older, who have been teaching 30+ years, and they’re ready to finish. Problem is, it’s more punitive to retire early, and the relative value of your pension is worse. For younger teachers, the prospects of a long career and a comfortable retirement seem vanishingly small. In fact, the kind of pressure that teachers are now under means that “burn-out” is happening earlier and earlier.

When the unions report that hundreds of teachers are being driven out of the profession, it gives you pause. What is Gove thinking when he reads about that? I’ll tell you. He’s thinking, “Good.”

Why? Think about this. Accept for the moment that the wealthy elites who educate their children privately don’t care about public education: they just want it to be as cheap as possible, like the NHS and Crossrail, and repairing the roads. Why is it good to drive teachers out of teaching early? Because it’s cheaper. If a teaching career is 10 years or less, the salary costs are lower (people early in their careers earn less) and the pension costs are insignificant. Fill the gap of lost experience with courseware and textbooks published by the private sector, and it’s win-win. Teaching is no longer a long-term career option. The first two years are horrible. Then you find your feet, but then the goalposts keep moving, and the pressure becomes unremitting, and it’s just not rewarding enough, in any way, to want to continue.

So what’s the vastly bigger picture? Why do they want all the money? Pull the paranoid camera back and look at the planet. The planet is fucked. Climate change is real, and yet it still seems as if our powerful elites are in the business of either denying that it exists or actually making it worse (fracking, cutting funding for renewable energy projects). Meanwhile, the wealth of these powerful elites is growing, and inequality is also growing, and their response to dissent is growing ever more aggressive.

Do they really think climate change isn’t real? No. But they think if they have all the money then they as a group will survive the coming catastrophe. That’s the plan. These powerful elites really have swallowed all that Ayn Rand bollocks wholesale, and they’re putting the plan into action. This is what they think:

If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.

The Great Gove Mystery

ImageIt’s a mystery that he’s still in his job. It’s fair to say that most teachers hate Gove. It’s even fair to say that most teachers have no intention of voting for the Conservative party at forthcoming elections. Communications from my union indicate that teacher morale is low, low, low.

But let’s not be fooled into thinking that this is about personalities. Things would not be any better with a different education secretary, including one from the Labour party. The various weasels in the Shadow Cabinet are too busy pandering to the Daily Mail to listen to teachers. Sure, I hate Gove too. He’s a snivelling weasel of a man from whose lips lies drip like pus. But the fact that he’s still in his role in spite of his various underhand practices, and the scandals already attached to his so-called Free Schools policy, and the corruption and dishonesty attached to academy chains and their links to OFSTED contractors; the fact that he’s still in post in spite of all that shows that he is only doing what he has been tasked to do. In the eyes of the Prime Minister and his brutal  and destructive minority government, Gove is doing all right.

It’s ironic that, having voted for “no overall control”, the British electorate seem to have ended up with a government of wild-eyed ideologues whose macho posturing and determination not to compromise seems more extreme than the Thatcher government of 1979.

The damage being done to state education is deliberate and systematic. Into the vacuum left by the current bulldozing of exams and Maoist permanent revolution will step the freeloading private sector, with its cost-cutting and profit-skimming greed. That teachers are unhappy and leaving the profession is all part of the plan. As I’ve said before, we’re being deprofessionalised.

It’s already happening. Applied for a mortgage lately? Lenders no longer see teaching as one of the professions, and nor do insurers. It’s been happening in the USA, and it’s happening in the UK. Yeah, the more they talk about professional standards (Labour, too), the further they are from treating teachers as professionals. Everything’s the opposite of what it is.

How can they get away with this? They don’t care that teachers might not vote Tory – because they know they probably won’t vote at all. They also know that the voting system is so rigged with rotten boroughs that only the marginals matter. Democracy can’t help you now, especially if you vote Labour.

So don’t waste your energy hating Gove. Getting rid of him won’t help. Support your union, they’re your best hope. This weasel government has u-turned at least 45 times since 2010. They’re not strong, they’re weak: hence the macho posturing. If teachers stood up, as one, and brought the fucking country to a halt, we would win. And why we don’t do that is the greatest mystery of all.