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!

The Great British Bake Off/Teaching Mash-Up

The return of The Great British Bake Off is a welcome addition to my summer holiday. You can’t beat the unadulterated joy of watching complete strangers bake well. Or, indeed, bake badly. It’s safe to say I have missed the sight of grown men and women weeping disconsolately over a battenburg and I am relieved that there will now be something to tweet about other than English-related minutiae.

However, before GBBO takes over my Twitter feed entirely, I have had a thought. And of course, when I have a thought (it is occasional and should be marked by fireworks and bunting), inevitably there is a blog post of some sort. So, without further ado, it occurred to me, whilst watching the first show of the new season, that teaching is a lot like The Great British Bake Off.

In what way is this true, my dear? Well, teaching is as old as the hills – ask the teachers of Norman conquerors. They must have been in intervention for years, learning English grammar. Can you feel the Saxon frustration, folks? “I just cannot imagine how we are going to get a decent pass rate this year (1066). The influx of EAL students is of grave concern.” I tried to translate that into Old English, but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to imagine. Well, baking is also as old as the hills: “How are we going to bake good old-fashioned British fare when all these French ingredients are being drafted in? Pah!”

Maybe that’s why I know so many teachers who love GBBO; something in the process reminds them of what they face in the classroom and out.

We all start somewhere. Mixing the ingredients in GBBO reminds me of lesson planning. The recipe analogy is often used when lesson planning is discussed; ingredients, or parts of lessons, must be meticulously measured to ensure a perfect bake. After all, who wants to risk putting in too much flour (teacher talk) as it might dry out the sponge (engagement levels)? Of course, sometimes, you need more flour. It is (and I nod in deference to the traditionalists), a vital ingredient and far more important than all those frivolous cherries on top.

And we all have our Signature Bake, don’t we teachers? That lesson you roll out because you know it is spectacular and you’ve taught it before, so many times. The bake has been good, the students have made better than expected progress, there are no soggy bottoms (students coming in below a Level 4 have been more than catered for) and your sponge on this one is definitely not dry. You have engaged in whichever way is appropriate for your challenge.  Here, I feel it is my duty to point out that it’s not a good idea to turn students over to tap their bottoms to check progress. That’s not okay.

Moving swiftly on, you’ve definitely cracked the behaviour of the cake. Obsessive oven-watching is reminiscent of behaviour management in classrooms. You’ve set the temperature, you’ve established a time for baking. And now, when all is done, you are waiting (the equivalent of sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an oven door), waiting to that cake to rise – to expectations.

You’ve already dealt with ‘decoration’. You’ve definitely got a preference: Powerpoint, SmartBoard, Promethean, sturdy old chalk and slate, but your resources are prepared. Damn, that bake is going to look good after it has made progress. Like student books. Flawless icing on the cake.

Everyone hates the technical challenge. It’s the exam preparation of the Bake Off. It is the English Language controlled assessment of BBC One. No one knows what they are doing and they keep checking other tables to see if they’ve got it right. I despair.

The process needs Mel and Sue. Think of them as Bake Off Assistant Principals in charge of Teaching and Learning. They come round, on their ‘baking walks’, offering advice and support. You need them because they function as mocksted inspectors; it’s a formative evaluation of the bake/lesson, sampling your off-cuts, critiquing the decoration, asking about your soggy bottom.  They are never needed more than when you experience The Great Cake Drop – when a lesson goes wrong and it’s almost unsalvageable. Mel, Bake Off SLT with experience of this kind of thing, can offer consolation. Sue, a joke and some whisky, probably.

The show has its own form of Ofsted inspection in the quite glorious shapes of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. If you like, they are the summative inspectors – coming in with a day’s warning to prod your cake and raise a brow. Brought round to each ‘table’ by a nervous looking Mel and Sue, they impart their own wisdom. They’ve been doing it for years, don’t you know. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry: Cake Inspection Team. Never knowingly underbaked.

The question on everybody’s lips is whether we ought to grade that bake. Is it an outstanding bake? Does that word even work in teaching or baking? What does it mean? It is a good bake? Is it a bake that requires improvement? Will the baker go into special measures?

The show wouldn’t be complete as an analogy without its nod towards performance management. Star baker – give that person a TLR. Going home? Suggest that they find ‘employment’ elsewhere, out of sight of cake-trays and KitchenAids.

Ultimately, GBBO reminds me that I may have dropped my cake, made more than one dry sponge, had a few soggy bottoms and been harangued by the Paul Hollywood of Ofsted inspectors (actually not true – no one has those crinkly blue eyes on the Ofsted team), but sometimes – just sometimes – I make an amazing cake. And those students eat that cake right up. And I take my apron off, wipe my floury brow and know I am okay to bake another day.

Now where did I put my icing spatula?

Immigrants Do Want to Learn English: Where Is The Funding?

When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying.  His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague.  My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same.  Conceptually, it’s a great idea.

My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies.  My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging.  Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing  to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience.  I became an English teacher.  About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.

I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores.  In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters.  How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons?  I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right?  Right?  Dave, are you still listening?

So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness.  It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.

I teach English to London’s melting pot.  I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in.  Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.

Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers.  Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included.  I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents.  The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity.   It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered.  My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution.  You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.

What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple.  Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it?  While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be.  Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this.  As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate.  None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech.  What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free.   There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free.  Well, people, you can’t have it both ways.  I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.

There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK.  I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem.  Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children.  You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.

It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.

Tough Young Teachers: In Loco Parentis?

On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.

The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.

In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”

How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.

It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”

All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.

So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.

We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.

Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!

First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here

What is The Benefit of Benefits Street?

Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?

Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?

Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.

So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.

Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.

Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.

My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.

It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?

The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?

In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.