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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Teachers Doing It Wrong Revisited

tsunamiAbout five years ago, I wrote a post suggesting that teachers needed to be lazier, look for shortcuts, and resist the pressure to work long hours.

Everybody ignored me, of course.

As we accelerate towards these new GCSEs, I’m being hit with a tsunami of resources created by other teachers: practice papers, posters, guides, crib sheets, tips, and so on. These are a godsend, bypassing as they do the commercial resources and foiling the government’s plan to help their friends the publishers make a killing on the new, ‘harder’ GCSEs and A Levels.

But every single one of these resources has been created by a teacher in his or her own time. None of us get time within the contracted hours to produce any of this stuff. I get two and a half hours per week planning, preparation and assessment time. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect a teacher to work for a few hours beyond the limits of the school day. But how much is reasonable?

For me, nobody should be working more than, say, 37 hours per week without overtime pay. 35 hours is a reasonable working week: 7 hours a day with an hour or so break/lunch, meaning you’re on site for somewhere over 8 hours a day. At a stretch, in a week with a parents’ evening or something, I might have to put up with a 40-hour week. But this is 2017, and nobody should really have to be working 40 hours a week. Only in some dystopian science fiction future would you be doing that.

But then you hear these horror stories about teachers working 60-hour weeks in order to stay on top of the marking and the planning, and to create all these resources. And you see TES and Guardian articles about teachers cracking up, or leaving the profession early, or otherwise crying out for respite.

A standard teacher (outside London) at the top of the upper pay scale, working a 60 hour week, is earning just over £16 per hour. That’s not particularly good, and even worse if that same teacher is doing any work at all in the school holidays, because I’ve divided the annual salary by 39, which is the number of weeks you work in a school year. The reality of course is that the holidays are paid, so dividing the year by 52 means that a 60-hour week is paid at £12.26 per hour. Twelve pounds and twenty six pence.

If, on the other hand, you limit yourself to a more reasonable working week (37 hours), you’re on about £19.88 per hour.

Laziness being the key, I thought I’d take a look at my own working hours by keeping a spreadsheet for a few weeks. Last week, a four-day week (bank holiday), I worked just over 30 hours, which would equate to a tad under 38 hours in a normal week.

Am I on top of all my marking? No. But how could I be? By working an extra 10-15 hours, maybe, but why should I do that? Fuck the marking.

Did I produce a bunch of whizzy resources and share them on the internet? No. But how could I, except by working an extra 10-15 hours? Fuck the resources.

I used to follow teachers on Twitter, but then for my own mental health, I stopped. I shouldn’t even be writing this, but I’m doing it as a public service, just to spell it out.

If you’re a teacher and you take work home, stop. Stop working weekends. Stop working holidays. Stop trying to stay on top of it. You’ll say you’re doing it for the students, but the best thing you can do for your students is be the best teacher you can be in the hours you are paid for being a teacher.

While we’re here, stop tweeting about teaching, stop reading shit about amazing new tips and techniques, stop spending all your waking hours thinking about your fucking job.

If their own parents cared about them, your students wouldn’t be enduring their education under a government run by privately educated millionaires. If their own parents aren’t willing to light some fucking fires under some fucking politicians, why are you staying up late into the night creating practice exam papers?

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

A book: Class War

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

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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 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.