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July 7th: Preventing Radicalisation in Schools

In the staffroom of a 1960s built comprehensive in the heart of East London, the radio is on under single-glazed windows that let in the heat of a July day.  In itself, that isn’t unusual. I pass through without giving it a thought and without registering the looks on faces of teachers who are hearing something out of the ordinary.  The light streams into the room; I head to photocopy, anticipating the inevitable surliness of the reprographics technician who wants copying done in advance at all times, with no exceptions.  He isn’t there so I copy surreptitiously and sneak back out with a criminal lightness.

By lunchtime, I have taught all day and still have two lessons to teach until the blissful moment the school is empty and I can breathe.  My feet are complaining, so I head back to the staffroom to find more teachers gathered round the radio.  And now I know something is wrong.  The radio tells me.  It is surreal, I think, whilst trying to block out the insistent crying of a colleague whose partner works near Kings Cross.

I went through there this morning, I think. On autopilot, bus to Kings Cross, through the side entrance, down towards the Hammersmith and City Line going east.  It was early, 6.30am perhaps.  And it strikes me, in the way the unreal and the strange has a habit of doing so, that I can’t get home.  How am I going to get home?

In the end, after hushed chats and practical exchanges between colleagues, I climb into a car and am driven back to Finsbury Park.  I have never seen London in this way before.  The people walking strike me not as Londoners who have just experienced the horror of a terrorist attack, but of characters in a movie or a music video.  REM’s Everybody Hurts, when they all just get out and walk.  They just get out and walk.

Ten years later, and on the ten year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in which 52 people lost their lives, I can’t help but take a moment to examine whether we are a society have made any headway against extremism.  The Prevent Duty was published on July 1st this year, only a few days ago; it outlines a statutory duty for schools to spot signs of radicalisation in young people and build resilience to radicalisation through the promotion of FBV, the latest acronym to be presented to education professionals: Fundamental British Values, in case you are not aware.

The double edged sword that is asking teachers to spot potentially radicalised young people is already part and parcel of conversations I have held with colleagues and friends.  While in principle, the concept of being able to safeguard effectively is at the very heart of a teacher’s responsibility, we as experienced professionals know that if teachers were the final line in preventing harm to young people, we have not done brilliantly.  Not because we do not care – somewhere in our teaching histories, we have all been appalled to discover that a child we know, that we have taught, is on the child protection register.  We have been appalled to discover the sometimes horrific circumstances of our wards.  But also appalled that we did not see it.  That we were too busy marking, or making exam entries to have noticed. Or worse, that there was something that we could not possibly have seen.

And it is this that becomes the flaw.  Yes, we have the duty to enact the Prevent strategy in schools, but that does not mean we have the expertise.  Did I miss the training provided by experts on how to spot a potential terrorist in my classroom? Even as I type this, I wonder what that training would even look like.  Underneath the sincerity of such an ideal is a murky truth that I’m not sure we are ready to confront as a profession.

Do we suddenly look at our Muslim students more carefully now?  I am reminded of the discomfort of ordinary Muslim Londoners when they boarded trains and planes in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings.  The actions of a few people marked their experiences for a long time, in the same way that now, the fleeing of schoolgirls from a school in East London means that the movements of Muslim students suddenly becomes a matter of national debate.  How do I know if a child’s unformed thought is radicalisation or the product of the foolishness of the young that will be grown out of?

I cannot even think about the consequences of another terrorist attack on London and I am left bewildered by the dilemma of this situation. Does the quest to create a safe society necessitate the potential false criminalisation of the innocent?  I would hope that I would know the difference between a radicalised child that is dangerous to society and a misguided child who requires debate and dialogue, but I am left uneasy at the thought of having to make that decision – for the simple reason that we as teachers are standing on a line that marks society’s needs on one side and the needs of a possibly damaged child on the other.

I know I would make the sensible choice and follow the guidelines I have been given, but I worry about a ripple effect becoming a tidal wave.  Students need to trust their teachers; without this, the possibility for small, dangerous thoughts left unchecked and hidden increases the risk to us all.  We risk alienating the children that we are mandated to protect.  Nusrat Faizullah, a woman I had the privilege of knowing during my teacher training, has written about how we need to create dialogue between the communities.  She says: “What we need are approaches that are positive about people’s identities and that bring communities together, rather than drive them apart.”  Her whole article can found here.

We cannot escape the reality of our times, but more than ever, we as teachers have not only the duty to ‘Prevent’ but to debate.  We go back to FBV here.  It is a Fundamental British Value to hold fair and open dialogue in a democratic society.  That is what we want to uphold.  That is how schools can change the frontline of education to one that does not stigmatise its charges, but encourages them to discuss, to hold our own version of truth and reconciliation.

When, on July 7th, ten years ago, 52 people died, I was teaching in a school that had a large population of Muslim staff and students.  I will never forget what one student said to me.  He expressed his sadness that a terrible tragedy had occurred.  But he turned his face to mine and asked: “Will they blame us for this?”

This week, it is our duty to remember those who died in the 7/7 bombings and think of their families’ loss.  After that, we have to go to work finding ways to debate our world and the place of religion and race within it so that child – that universal, fearful child – can turn to us, rather than away from us.  And that we as Londoners can feel safe in our lovely city.  That is the real meaning of ‘prevent’.

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The Minority Game: A BME Teacher’s Daily Life

I filled in a form recently that asked me for my ethnic background for the purposes of research; scanning the options, I was surprised that there were fewer options than I was used to seeing.  For the ‘Asian’ category, I had to choose between ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Bangladeshi’ and ‘Other’.  Considering I approach most tasks as if they are a test I have to pass, I hovered over the boxes, thinking I could probably answer this seemingly innocuous question by a process of elimination.  Ten minutes later I switched off my laptop in what can only be described as a huff. I was extraordinarily put out that a simple form had triggered in me an entirely unexpected crisis in identity.

Many years ago, in my formative years, I settled on being an ‘ethnic minority’ and would have ticked the conveniently neutral and all-encompassing ‘British Asian’ box.  But this form, this meddlesome piece of foolishness, was only allowing me to define as three things I am not or as ‘Other’.  Anyone with an English degree will understand the connotations of the word ‘Other’ and even if you don’t have an English degree, you can probably work out that the concept of ‘the Other’ does not carry with it the warm and fuzzies.  I wish I had the time to outline the many reasons why using countries to define ethnicity is, at best, terribly naive, and at worst, downright lazy. Sociological discourse on race, culture and ethnicity deserves more time than I have ever given to it and Mr Ballard is far better equipped than I to explain here.

“Go on then, angry brown person,” I hear you say, whilst wondering whether it is socially acceptable to call me brown. “How do you define yourself?”   I would define as British East African Asian.  And clearly, there isn’t a box for that on said form.  And now, I’m no longer an ‘ethnic minority’.  I’m BME.

When did I become an acronym?  Does it carry with it any special privileges, like tea with the Queen? Do I get to put the letters after my name?

Anyway, the form was a minor inconvenience and eventually I conceded defeat and ticked the ‘Other’.  There was no room to define any further.  But it did make me realise how many times in my life, I am made to feel ‘Other’, even in the relatively liberal sector that is education.

The Lazy (and Irritating) Assumption

Let’s imagine it has been a long week at a new school.  Let’s also imagine that the nicest thing in the world, after a day of teaching in a non-air-conditioned room, would be going to the pub and having an ice-cold beer and you are waiting for someone, anyone to say the immortal phrase: “Swift half, Miss?” whilst make the universal gesture for drinking an alcoholic beverage.  In this scenario, if your skin tone could be euphemistically defined as ‘olive-hued’ or ‘like milky coffee’, you might have to face the fact that your new colleagues don’t know whether they should ask you to the local.  Because, in the entire Asian diaspora as far as I am aware, only one religion (and I italicise pointedly as religion is not the same as race) expressly forbids the consumption of alcohol.  But, you know, brown equals probably Muslim, right?  Because there’s no possibly that I could be any of the other Asian religions, right?

What I should do in this scenario is just politely explain that I am a lapsed Hindu who drinks and has tattoos, but then someone always asks you to explain Hare Krishnas (see below – Pointless: The Exotic Edition).  I can’t help with that, sorry.  I don’t get it either.  Add this to kids asking you whether you are the sister of the other Asian teacher, whether you require Halal or Kosher (I know!) meals and you might get what I mean about a world of confusion.

The Actually A Little Bit Racist Assumption

Staying with assumptions, even though I’m exhausted just explaining this to you, I’m not easily offended and the situation above – whilst being mildly irritating – is actually just people’s faltering attempt not to offend, so I get it and thank you for trying.  What I can’t be down with are assumptions that are based on stereotypes.

It’s never a good start when you walk into a school reception for a senior leadership interview and you are asked if you are the Science supply teacher, when the non-BME woman in front of you sails into the interview holding-pen after receiving what feels like a deferential bow.  Why do people a) assume I teach Science, Maths or ICT and b) present themselves as being impressed when I say I teach English?  I know there are a large number of medical professionals and Science, Maths and ICT teachers who are of the Asian persuasion, however, it could be construed that people believe the ability to educate young people about language and literature must be confined to the ethnically British.  This is when I usually want to point out that I come from a culture that spawned Indo-European languages. Language and literature are an intrinsic part of my culture.

But of course, I haven’t pointed it out in this scenario.  Not when students assume the same, not even when a new acquaintance actually says: “I would never have guessed that you were an English teacher.”  At the risk of sounding like a teenager: what does that even mean? Is it that I am not wearing dangy enough earrings?  Should I be carrying my dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina?

Pointless: The BME Edition and ‘Other’ Games

I am not, nor have I ever been, a nominated expert in all things ethnic.  There is a lot of crossover here with The Lazy (and Irritating) Assumption.  On a daily basis, I am asked questions about people from ethnic backgrounds, about Asian religions and culture that I genuinely can’t answer.  The fact that I can’t answer the questions does not stop the curious from asking, I have learned this from bitter experience. And the questions can be extraordinarily obscure.  What’s the name of that Asian woman, who did that thing?  How many sections does the the Indian Holy Text have?  What do Muslim women do when they (insert overly intimate detail here)? Who was that God who defeated that other God?  Why are your Gods blue? What are the rules about that subgroup of that Asian country eating that particular food?  

This the game I like to to call Pointless: The BME Edition and it’s a game I never win.  There is a lot of playing games as a BME educator – another one I like to to play is Odd One Out.  Try walking into a paid for training session on Ofsted, breathless and later than everyone else, and realising that NO ONE LOOKS LIKE ME.  And the only chair is in the middle of the room, wedged between people with too much stuff.  Incidentally, the Ofsted training has a lot in common with the last Ben Howard concert I went to.  Both overly long and dull, both provide opportunities for rounds of ‘Spot the BME Person’.

I am facing the distinct possibility that I have worn you out with what appears to be my jaded and sarcastic approach to being a BME teacher.  The truth is: I am worn out.  The fact that there are not that many Asian women in senior leadership in teaching means that the ones who are here have to work harder to build cultural, ethnic and racial understanding.  But we field a range of assumptions on a daily basis and it is wearying having to constantly explain your identity.

To avoid this just sounding like a rant built on frustration, I’d like to challenge you to consider your assumptions when you meet someone who could be defined as a BME teacher.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions about them, but know that they do not represent the whole BME experience.  Consider whether your questions and actions are loaded with assumptions about racial, cultural and ethnic identity.

It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference to someone’s daily experience.  And I’m thanking you in advance, in the way that teachers do.  Sorry about that.

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Advice to Women in Teaching (Or Just Me?)

I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘How to Wind up a Fierce Woman’ but a) that’s clickbait for trolls and b) I didn’t want to be wholly responsible for my female colleagues being on the sharp end of well-meaning advice from people who take things too literally.  So I settled for something a little less likely to cause ructions between the male and female of the species.

The advice I outline here comes from a range of sources: male, female, internet and child.  I think the fact it comes from such a wide range of the human spectrum shows that something is ingrained in our consciousness about being female in the teaching profession.  I stress that the advice I have received from actual human beings, as opposed to advice from the uncontrollable behemoth that is Google, has always been well-intentioned and drawn from kindness. But, as the well-known saying goes: “The best advice is this: Don’t take advice and don’t give advice.” (Quote attributed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Chaka Zulu – who knows, right? It’s the Internet!)

No Advice More Important Than This

It started on a fairly sunny day in September when I walked into school for the first time as a fully-fledged, almost functional and not-at-all scared adult embarking on my unqualified year as a teacher. My mentor, grizzled and fierce (actually fierce, rather than F.I.E.R.C.E), told me in no uncertain terms that she was about to give me the best advice she had ever been given in her own career.   Clearly, I was about to receive manna from the Gods.  She pursed her lips and appraised me in that way people do when they think you’ll do. “No bellies, boobs or bums,” she said.  And that was that. I had been told. I looked at the male NQT next to me and he gave me an embarrassed half-smile. I wanted to pat his arm and tell him that the advice wasn’t meant for him.  Then I spent the next year wearing polo necks and loose-fitting trousers, despite working in a 1960s-built comprehensive school building without air-conditioning.

Avoid Death By Shrillness

Training can be joyful, especially when lunch is provided and it is more than a foil tray of stale sandwiches and some sad looking grapes (if anyone knows why we get grapes at every training event, please do let me know. It’s bothering me).  In my early days as a qualified teaching professional, I attended many training events and quite frankly, not enough of these training courses understood my thing about the sandwiches and the grapes.  What they did manage to do was provide me, a relatively anxious person, with a complex about the pitch of my voice.  Because, as all women are told when they start to teach: all children hate shrillness and if your voice remotely resembles a tin-whistle on steroids, you will fail in the classroom.  I can’t remember how many times I heard that a deeper voice, the human equivalent to the humble double bass, a dulcet baritone in fact, would instantly mean that children of all genders would respond to the transmission of my instructions quicker than you can say Pavarotti.

In any case, I became hyper-conscious that my authority rested on the concealing of an inherently female characteristic – the higher pitch of my voice.  Anyone who has met me will tell you that I sound pretty average as far as pitch goes, but that didn’t stop me attempting to lower my tone by an octave or two.  I had to stop deliberately lowering my voice because I kept only remembering to change the pitch half way through sentences and the kids pointed out that it sounded like my voice was breaking.

To Get A Job, You Have to Smell Like a Man

When I decided to try my hand at some of the leadership malarky I had been diligently reading about (I dare you to shout “teacher’s pet” – I’m over that now), I was invited to several interviews.  The word ‘several’ indicates quite clearly that I did not get the first promotion I went for.  What does a Naughties twenty-something do when they need advice and they are too ashamed-slash-proud to ask their work colleagues? Ask the Internet! A quick google search using the term ‘job interview tips for women’ is like falling into a rabbit hole lined entirely with pages from Cosmopolitan. Ladies, if you are looking up golden nuggets to help you through an interview process, try not expect anything more than advice on the clothes you should (a mid-heel apparently) and should not wear (shock, horror: do not wear cargo pants). God forbid you might want advice on anything else.  So, on reviewing my wardrobe and referring almost exclusively to dubious advice websites for women seeking promotion, I came to the honest conclusion that my wardrobe was both traditional and conservative (see: No Advice More Important Than This). There was one piece of advice that baffled me which, oddly enough, did not prevent me from following it.

Women are more likely to get a job if they smell like a man. Of course, if it is on the internet, it must be true, even if it does sound like a headline from The Metro. Cue testing of my collection of half used bottles of perfume the night before my interview to see which one smells more ‘musky’.  I hate the fact I even wrote that word but it is the word the article used. A higher musk content smells more masculine and therefore, when you walk into an interview room and work out where the chair is without withering into a musk-wafting heap on the floor, the interview panel will take one sniff and be fooled into thinking, lo, this is not a woman with her own skills and intellect, but a man! And you will be hired forthwith.

I didn’t get that job the next day. Something about lack of preparation, said the nice lady on the phone and I nearly told her that I had spent three hours spraying myself and washing it off to do a dry run of perfume-trickery.

Don’t Be So Emotional, Dear. 

Fast forward a few years and I have managed to wheedle myself into a senior leadership position. I thought I was past the whole rubbish-advice-because-I’m-just-a-girl.  I had been fighting a running battle with some Year 10 boys on taking their trays in the dining hall.  Said Year 10 boys had decided that this was a hilarious game to play with the newbie SLT member and would pile their trays up in the middle of the table, wait until I had turned my head and then bolt for the door.  One day, in the midst of my lunch duty, I moved faster than they did and managed to speak to one of them.  He did surly well and walked away from me.  I caught up with him later and gave him an extensive telling off that included the possible consequences of not taking his tray (no tray = detention = wasted time = failure in all GCSE subjects = no college/university = no income =  no significant other = lonely forever all because of a tray).  Okay, so not all of that, but close.

A well-meaning colleague and this time, definitely male, colleague sidled up to me and said the immortal words and a smirk: “have you calmed down yet?” I responded with surprise, because, yes, I was surprised.  I had been feeling quite chipper. He then explained that he’d seen me shouting earlier and decided to stay away from me until I had simmered down. “You know, they respond much better when you are less emotional,” he continued.

I wish I could say that this is advice he gave to all those new to the post, but a withering part of me down in my soul knows that is not true.  The implication that my highly-strung emotional female self had escalated the situation stung like cheap tequila.

But this time, because I am in my mid-thirties, so the teaching equivalent of an aged steak, I did not change a thing.  I have learned my lesson over the years and learned to accept that the way I choose to present myself as a woman in teaching is no one’s business but my own (and now yours, reader). I no longer wear polo necks, I speak in my normal voice without worry and my perfume is just the right side of musky because I like it that way.  If I succeed in teaching, it is not despite the fact I am a woman.  It might have something to do with the fact I work quite hard and I’m still a big ol’ swot who wants to be the best at everything I do.  That might just be it.

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Teach Like a Woman

It has taken me two weeks to think this one through aEditnd not even remotely because it has been half term.  I woke up at two in the morning a few nights ago with the alarming thought that I was possibly stealing someone else’s title for this blogpost. Cue scrambling round for my phone on the bedside table and googling the phrase.  Well, it turns out that you can Teach Like a Champion (thanks Mr Lemov), and you can Teach Like a Girl (if you are a ‘gospel centred woman’) and Teach Like a Pirate (I didn’t check, which I now regret). But no one has really talked about what it means to Teach Like a Woman.

There are people reading this who are already starting to object.  I can see you now, that little vein in your temple has started to throb at the mere thought that teaching like a woman might be a thing.  It’s not a thing yet. I haven’t even started to define it. Before you hit the comment button, maybe just let me explore the idea, first? So the idea comes from a long forgotten tweet.  I read an article about the Swedish Foreign Minister’s intent to practice “feminist foreign policy” in the face of ‘Russian macho agression” – it can be read about here.  While my brain processed the concept, it did what it usually does: it tried to relate the concept of what it would look like in an educational context. 

Can one ‘teach like a woman’? What does that even mean

The concept is problematic because without careful examination, it contains unhelpful value judgements. Our tendency towards binary opposition means that immediately, we have to question whether to teach like a woman means not to teach like a man. Once we start to dichotomise in that way, we face a raft of stereotypes that are, quite frankly, offensive. The Swedish Foreign Minister has created an opposition – her policy is predicated in opposition to what she perceives to be a male characteristic – that of aggression.  It doesn’t sit well with me to start claiming that male teaching is, at its heart, aggressive. Whatever shouty, man-thrusty teaching style that is.  And that teaching like a woman is doing the opposite of that. Feminine qualities are often seen as ‘soft’.  I return, once again to Phillip Zimbardo in The Guardian who claims that boys are underperforming “moodles” (his word) because the education system is feminised. 

I’m reluctant to define it, understandably, because if teaching like a man involves brashness, machismo and banter, woman-teaching probably involves emotions, diary writing and telling people how you feel.  I can’t believe I actually wrote that down. See! The danger is clear. Stereotypes ahoy. I’m just doing what Zimbardo is doing. 

Can we please move away from the idea that teaching like a woman is somehow the teaching equivalent of a three-day old soggy teabag? We use, possibly inappropriately, the phrases ‘man up’ and ‘be a man’ to mean positive things.  We are conditioned to believe it means to be ‘better’.  Where is the female equivalent of these phrases? It is an act of reclaiming gender positivity and does not have to be used in opposition to masculinity.This article – ‘Why Women Talk Less’ – outlines reasons why women are not more confident in their field, but highlights the need to avoid constructed frameworks of gender expectation. 

In the sprawling ridiculousness of his thoughts, Zimbardo acknowledges something that strikes a chord with me – and believe me, this surprises me. It is rare that I am so irked by an article that I write about it twice.  He says of men in education and society: “Men are opting out and women are opting in. Women are working harder at jobs, they’re working harder in school, and they are achieving – last year women had more of every single category of degree, even engineering. This is data from around the world. Now in many colleges there’s a big gap as boys are dropping out of school and college.” 

It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, that he is pointing out a quality of women that is to be celebrated!  While he doesn’t celebrate it, I can.  It says to me that women have qualities of independence, confidence and determination. They work hard, they reach for careers that have not traditionally been accessible to them, they achieve their goals. 

When you think about ‘teaching like a woman’ in this way, all of a sudden you have reframed the concept. For me, it comes down to this idea of what it means to be a ‘fierce’ woman – a blog that has received such positive feedback from men and women alike. How do we turn the qualities of a fierce woman into a framework for outstanding professional practice? If, as @Miss_Wilsey says – ‘fierce’ translates to ‘formidable, independent, empowered, resilient, caring and equal’, those words sound like a pretty good starting point to define what it means to ‘teach like a woman’.

If women are succeeding, there is a reason why.   The aforementioned are qualities that translate directly into the ethos of a school, a year team, a department.  They are qualities that can be instilled into a difficult group.  They are qualities that mean that boys and girls can achieve equally.  But I am not actually defining it here.  That’s a job for us all, I think.  Perhaps a job for the @WomenEd Team… 

Inevitably, I know what criticisms I will face for writing this. I’m anticipating the response: why do those positive characteristics have to be specific to women? Men can be those things too, someone will say.  In the interest of saving some time, I agree wholeheartedly.  Someone will say that this article is, quite frankly, offensive, and if a man had written an article what it means to teach like a man – there would be outrage, I tell you.  Again, to save time, I suggest that it would be fascinating to see what that article would say.  I’ve been following the @GoodMenProject on Twitter and they have started many such conversations. Why can’t we start a conversation about teaching like a woman when the profession is dominated by women? Don’t laugh at the word ‘dominated’. I know you want to. 

Let me know what you think.

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A Conservative Vision: No Money, No Teachers

In November 2014, Tristram Hunt warned of the impending catastrophe in teacher recruitment. In an article in The Guardian, he pointed out the shortfall in meeting the targets for teachers entering the profession – an article that can be read here.  In March 2015, Mary Bousted of the ATL commented publicly on the numbers of teachers leaving the profession.  In April 2015, The Independent ran this article highlighting again the potential for crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We have been talking about a crisis on teacher recruitment for a while now.  Whereas once, it was passing conversation – odd drops in the number of applicants for once popular posts, gentle musings even, combined with a sense of optimism that things would pick up – perhaps it was a funny time time of year to be recruiting, perhaps people were just staying put – now, it seems that educators are staring with alarm at a growing hole in the teaching profession.  A growing hole in the shape of thousands of teachers we need, who just don’t appear to exist.  Only a few days ago, this appeared in the TES by Ann Mroz, highlighting again Nicky Morgan’s toughest challenge.  Getting teachers into the profession and getting them to stay.

As Mroz states, there are distinct and tangible reasons why teachers are in short supply.  An increase in demand for places due to population increases could be one huge factor in the need for a greater number of teachers.  However, combine that with the spreading thin of current teachers across an explosion of new free schools and academies and the lure of overseas teaching posts (with the almost opiate promise of tax free income and accommodation provided for free against the backdrop of austerity in the UK) and suddenly the maths doesn’t add up.  More institutions dilute the pool of teachers we already have.

And then we have the leavers.  Those who pack up their whiteboard markers with regret (for I have never met a teacher who left the profession without a wistful thought as to what could have been) and carry their stained coffee cups into the day to do other things.  Why would they stay?  One can only guess at the damage done to the teaching profession in the last five years by the Apollyonic Gove, dragging the profession through a valley of humiliation.  When the rhetoric is against the Blob, when the implication is that teachers are somehow lacking in the desire to improve – why would anyone be attracted into a one-way ticket to flagellation?  When the curriculum doesn’t stay still long enough to allow anyone to gather expertise, why would someone choose to place themselves into this educational Charybdis?  Even when there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Nicky Morgan, she chooses – on the day before the return to work – to announce her campaign against “coasting” schools.  The collective groan from my Twitter timeline cannot be ignored.

Her announcement today is offensive.  It implies that teachers and leaders are happy with average.  I have never worked with or in a leadership team where I heard the words: “Yes, I think our results will do just fine.  Let’s have the same results next year, in fact!”  If anything, decent results breed an intense pressure to increase in the following year a percentage pass rate that was hard won in the first place, particularly in inner city schools with challenging intakes.

We know we need more teachers.  It is undeniable that greater numbers of teachers are required in English, Maths and Science.  In 2003, the Labour government attempted to solve this shortage by introducing the Repayment of Teacher Loans Scheme.  It did not last long enough as an incentive and a study by Professor Coe of the University of Durham found that if teachers were leaving due to the pressures of workload and its adverse effect on personal well-being, the financial incentive to stay wasn’t great enough.

I absolutely believe that schools should pay to recruit outstanding teachers, but that can only happen without detrimental effect if there is a steady stream of talented people entering the profession.  As a senior leader in an inner city school, I have become increasingly aware of another consequence of the marketisation of education.  Now that we have schools able to set their own pay scales, the savvy teacher knows to negotiate.  Recruitment in shortage subjects has become an auction-process of staff going to the highest bidder.  How does a school, with no stream of private funding, compete with large chains who have salary points and incentives set above and beyond other schools in the local area? Experienced staff come at an absolute premium.  Unfortunately, that premium is out of reach for some schools.

And this is another gift of Conservative policy: increased pressure on school budgets.  Changes to Post-16 funding, changes to criteria in funding for pupil premium students, a commitment to only ‘maintaining’ year-on year funding overall – in real terms a reduction in per pupil funding – and changes to pension contributions have meant that schools face serious financial challenges.  How, in that context, does a school compete to recruit the best teachers and keep them?  One solution is in increase in pupil numbers.  Do we want schools to be busting at the seams with more students than the building can safely hold?  Some school buildings are not fit for the numbers as it is, especially in inner city areas.  Catering for more pupils becomes a Sisyphean task – more teachers needed to teach, bigger buildings needed to accommodate, more resources and still, in the heart and soul of this – not enough money.

The end result is not sustainable for a country that wants to compete internationally for educational acclaim.  To save money, you recruit (where you can) young, expendable and cheap staff that you can wear out with increased responsibility on top of teaching load.  These teachers have a life span of four or five years, which again, is fine and dandy if you have en endless supply of new teachers.  But we don’t.  And I don’t believe teacher burn out is an acceptable side-effect of poor funding policy.

It takes a brave government to step in and deal with the burgeoning issue of teacher recruitment and challenges to education funding.  I look at this Conservative government, as I did here in 2011, and I am not sure they are up to that task.

 

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Women in Education: 5 Things Fierce Women Don’t Say

I have worked with some brilliant women in the years of being first a classroom teacher, then a middle leader and now a senior leader. Having met women in education who have both inspired and supported me, in turn, I have tried to impart some of their knowledge and wisdom on to teachers I have mentored.  And yet, the recurring theme in conversations with female teachers I have mentored and indeed, with my female friends in education worries me. I am not good enough. I can’t do that job. I will be ‘found out’. I can’t manage that situation. 

For me, It has been a week of reading and reacting to blogs and articles that have examined the role of gender in education, for students and teachers. Steve Adcock blogged his thoughts on women in education leadership here and highlighted the statistics on women in headship. His take was on the barriers that women might face in reaching the highest positions in educational settings, including the inflexibility of schools in allowing women to take on senior roles in a part time capacity if they so wish, in order to look after their children. There followed a lengthy debate on Twitter about whether this was an issue for men and women or whether it disproportionately affected women.  My instinct is to question who won that debate, but I think the real winner was reasoned debate between professionals. 

Then something slightly different came my way and I couldn’t decide how I felt about it and I’m not sure I have entirely reconciled my thoughts.  In The Guardian was a confident and detailed opinion about the issues that boys face in schools from psychologist Philip Zimbardo – in its entirety here.  I struggled because I recognised some of what Zimbardo is stating is true – boys do need male roles models, for example.  What I objected to was his apparent rejection if what he calls a “feminised” school system. The section I found most problematic reads as follows: “In the US, he says, 90% of elementary school teachers are women, while in the UK one in five teachers is a man. “Female teachers can be wonderful but they model skills that girls are good at – fine motor tuning rather than big physical activity. They don’t like boys running around. And, with funding shortages, they’re eliminating gym classes so boys don’t have the time to do physical activity.” He cites schoolchildren being assigned to write diaries as a compositional task. “Boys don’t write diaries! The worst thing I can imagine giving a boy as a present is a diary.” (The Guardian, 9th May). 

This reads as being deeply unhelpful in a world that strives for gender equality. Is the suggestion that diary writing is the sole preserve of women and physical activity the sole preserve of men? Tell that to Samuel Pepys and Serena Williams. It’s hard to read this as a female teacher and not feel a little stung by the implicit. The prevalence of female teachers is responsible for a crisis in masculinity? We teach in a overtly female way and that’s why boys don’t do well in school?  

It’s not surprising then that women in education may be suffering from their own crisis – one of confidence. This isn’t a new phenomenon but one that requires a gentle nudge towards examination. To me, it requires a discussion of how we as women in education approach our day to day experiences that mean we are confident enough to take on senior roles in education leadership. This discussion has to begin with the way we speak about ourselves and situations we find difficult. And believe me, what I write here is not borne out of a lofty superiority. I think I have probably said all of these things at some point and have certainly heard them from women in teaching I have worked with. 

Behaviour in this classroom would be much better if I had a male learning support assistant.

I’m surprised that I have heard this a lot and mainly from women new to teaching. It has to be said that the implication is that only men are capable of controlling children’s behaviours and that is simply not true. It is an odd throwback to a ‘you wait until your father gets home’ mentality and lends credence to a Jungian Father = Rule of Law philosophy. We should know that in the classroom, being assertive and consistent overrides gender – and in particular, overrides physical characteristics. Having a potentially physically strong male in the room doesn’t compensate for effective strategies and building of respectful relationships. The fiercest teacher I know is about 4ft 10 and I wouldn’t mess with her. What she does is establish respect irrespective of her gender and physical appearance, in both boys and girls. Though she be but little, she is fierce. Thanks Shakespeare.  

They don’t respect me because I am a woman

This one, I’m afraid, is tied up in cultural stereotypes as it often used when talking about boys from particular ethnic backgrounds. The assumption underlying is that even if a child comes from a family in which dad wields more power than mum, that child will replicate that in the classroom. Respect is respect and children adapt to new cultural contexts.  Isnt it our job to educate them? Also, try telling this to some of the fierce Asian mothers I know, including my own. 

I can’t apply for that job because there’s one bullet point on the job description I can’t do. 

My favourite fierce woman said to me, amongst many other wise things: “Women see one thing on a job description that they can’t do and don’t apply, thinking they don’t have the experience. What they should be thinking is, I can’t do that yet.”  I think she got that from one of her fierce women. We have to stop thinking that one gap means wholesale failure or inability. We talk about growth mindset for children, this one is about having a growth mindset as a woman. 

I’m worried they will find out I’m a fraud. 

It is ridiculously common to hear this from the most fierce of women. In coaching conversations, in passing chat, I hear women who do a good job worrying they may be exposed as a fraud. It is well documented that more women than men feel this way. You can read more here. You are not alone. 

I can’t do this job when I have a family.

More and more, I worry that the narrative has changed on whether, for women, teaching can be balanced with a happy family life. I am in no doubt that it is difficult and that women, for reasons as old as time, feel guilty for choosing to work and raise children at the same time. Indeed, that somehow wanted to work full time and raise a child makes them too fierce for their own and others’ comfort. But the case remains that women who have reached the highest echelons of educational leadership in many cases manage both – not without fears, doubts or regrets, but still – they have reached the peak of their careers not because they chose between family and work, but because they allowed the possibility of how hard it might be. Maybe this one is not a case of I can’t, and more a consideration of do I want to?

This week, find the fierce women in your life and ask them if they’ve ever said or thought the five things above. The beauty of starting the conversation is realising, in all probability, we have thought them or said them or both. I hope that somewhere in that conversation, you find yourself feeling a little more fierce. 

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The Last Battle: What do we do on the morning of an exam?

So tomorrow sees the first iGCSE exam. It’s an early one as far as exams go and marks the kick off for exam season 2015.

Take a moment to say good morning and good luck to your English team tomorrow first thing. If they have students sitting the exam, chances are they have spent months preparing them and so much rests on this moment, for them and for the school.

How do schools prepare for the PM exam? I have Year 11 students off timetable periods 1-4 tomorrow and I know there is nothing new to be said. Some argue there is no point, that now it is up to them. I disagree. Having the students all in one room, looking at past papers and working together on questions triggers memories of the classroom, allows talk to be centred on the process of the exam and prevents silent panickers from squirrelling themselves away to catastrophise.

We have allocated staff to particular ‘groups’ of students: the weaker inferrers, the wafflers, the miss-the-pointers. It isn’t an intervention, it is a setting of direction and a direct addressing of mistakes common to those individuals. It is a round table working party on questions they find difficult.

I have measured out this exam in analogies – ones I have mentioned before in my blogging – particularly in language analysis questions. We are looking for ‘ticking time bombs’ in the text – words and phrases that contribute to meaning. The analogy comes from film making. An image of a ticking time bomb is juxtaposed with an image of the whole building. Why? The ticking time bomb is needed to inform us about that building. It is in danger. Specific words and phrases are used to inform us about a whole text. They are the markers of meaning.

Tomorrow, I will be going back over the concept of sponge vs stone. ‘Stone’ words are words and phases that you cannot squeeze meaning out of. ‘Sponge’ is what you are looking for. Full of meaning that can be wrung out.

The point of sitting with my students tomorrow is to assure them that what we have taught is good and real. Give them breakfast, provide water. To create a sense of collective responsibility. This is what good schools do.

I am looking for the wobblers, I am looking for the over-confident. Having them there together means we can catch the shaky. But most of all I am going to be able to look them in the eye and tell them they have done well to get this far, but now is the time.

Good luck to English teams for tomorrow!