Monthly Archives: April 2014

It Was the Worst of Times; It was the Best of Times: Are Our Schools and Kids Awful?

In yesterday’s Daily Mail they ran the following headline:

The worst behaved pupils in the world? You’d better believe it: As a study says schools are even more anarchic than we thought, the shocking testimony of a once idealistic young teacher.” What followed was an article reflecting on a survey about how our pupils are rated amongst the worst behaved in the developed world. The article was written by Robert Peal, a person who I have a lot of time for and I think has a valuable contribution to make to our current debates. In the article he seems to put the blame on this classroom anarchy on the Sixties and the rise of “progressive education.” Robert quotes an earlier Daily Mail Headline from 1974: “Stop these trendies before they ruin ALL our children,” to which he adds the thought: “But the rot had already set in — and has endured.”

Just to put some cards on the table I was at school in a disastrous comprehensive school in 1974. It wasn’t disastrous because of trendies, in fact it was disastrous because those in charge of the previous Girl’s Grammar school (the fuddy duddys?) remained in charge of the new school and they had no idea how to cope with boys especially those of us who weren’t particularly respectful of authority. They hit us but couldn’t break us…

But that’s by the by… I couldn’t help reflecting on Robert’s article when I looked at headlines in yesterday’s Times that reported another survey, this time from the University of Cardiff’s Violence and Society Research Group, that comes to the conclusion that our young people are “far more sensible than their parents…” and that this, the adjoining article stated, is backed up by a number of other surveys stating that drug use continues to fall, binge drinking is down, incidents of violent crime are going down, and there is a rise in the number of young people who don’t drink alcohol at all. Added to this the Times reports that ‘Generation Zero’ (aged between 16-25) are: “…hard workers, ambitious and less materialistic…” than previous generations.

So who has not ruined the current generation? It can’t be, can it, those blooming progressive trendies that inhabit our schools, could it be that the chance to let off steam in an anarchic classroom does our young people good?

I think perhaps things are more complex than they seem. Somewhere along the line most teachers are probably doing a good job inhabiting a world that is probably far more traditional than some of the more lurid headlines suggest. Saying that, I do think what we teach and how we teach needs to be discussed openly and honestly and it is in this spirit that I welcome Robert’s book Progressively Worse and wish him good luck in his new school. We do need more teachers like Robert in our schools but I do wonder whether the way we introduce some young teachers to our profession, by throwing them into some of our more anarchic institutions is the best way to bring the best out of them.

Our bad schools need to be sorted out through good discipline policies and procedures in order to enable all to staff to develop their teaching (and children their learning) without the turmoil or even low level disruption that too many teachers are expected to tolerate.



To have done with the Judgement of Ofsted

In 1947 The mad French Surrealist Antonin Artaud produced a radio play called ‘To Have Done With the Judgement of God’. It involved some grunts, screams, cries and, literally, a ‘loud fart’. He died soon after…

In the piece Artaud wrote:

“It seems that, among the examinations or tests required of a child entering public school for the first time, there is the so-called seminal fluid or sperm test, which consists of asking this newly entering child for a small amount of his sperm so it can be placed in a jar…”

In England we do something similar: world weary old campaigners, old stalwarts and now new schools entering the public sphere for the first time, are all inspected by Ofsted and a small amount of spit and sinew is examined with the results placed not in a jar but on a website for all to scrutinise. The Ofsted ‘Experience’ is an experience which most of us in education have been exposed to and with differing results. I am not against the need to judge, I just wonder whether we need a more ‘polytheistic’ approach.

Harry Fletcher Wood has posted a very interesting blog about the Ofsted inspection at his school, Greenwich Free School in South East London. I live in Greenwich and am very interested in GFS and hope that both he and the school will do well. I am a veteran of 5 Ofsteds and I understand the trepidation beforehand and the feelings one goes through during and after the inspection. As the inspections have got shorter and cheaper over time they have become, paradoxically, more important. Parents take notice of them, as does the media, but also teachers looking for jobs look at the Ofsted report as a short cut to knowing what a school is like. Along with the headline figures for GCSEs A-C, Ofsted is essential. Yet, of course, the real world is more complex than either of these measures can really convey.

How to reflect this complexity? Well, perhaps we need more ways of celebrating our schools (or getting them to pull their socks up…) Why? Because every human system is flawed and the more power we give one system the more its distortions become apparent. This doesn’t mean replacing Ofsted with another quango or reforming Ofsted so that it still has the same influence but judges in a different way (though that is no reason not to look at it, this is not an argument for retaining apparent flaws if they can be addressed) It means having other credible measures also in place.

What other credible measures could be put in place? Well, a school could release data on staff CPD and improvement figures (e.g. ‘5’ staff achieved QTS, 3 an MA, 13 were judged outstanding through the school’s own appraisal procedures), and headline data of the school’s own self assessment and its areas of focus for improvement. L.A.s could inspect all the schools in their area especially if they are expected to have some sort of overseeing role, if not L.A.s then some other organisation and this data should be published in the same way as Ofsted publish their findings. The Good School’s Guide and other credible private providers could also have a role in similar processes, though I do think schools can get carried away by having a fetishistic collection of symbols on their letter headings. Some providers should be seen as more equal than others in a school’s assessment. These ‘headline’ figures could be viewed in the same way as nutritional information on food packaging. When I’m shopping I take notice of the traffic light ‘headlines’ of amounts linked to GDA’s though I am sure there are many flaws in this system they allow me to get an overview as well as take notice of the particular things I’m trying to get or avoid.

By having more ‘higher stake’ inspections and by publishing more data a school will deal with the stress of inspection far better, the more judgements there are, the less ‘shocking’ the experience. The more variety in the feedback helps the institution to become more ‘anti-fragile’. Currently far too much rests on Ofsted, a bad report can leave a school reeling.

On another matter I do think teachers need feedback on how they are doing; unfortunately there are few schools that get this right. Our schools are far too ‘time poor’ with people running about chasing paper and spending time with children in classrooms rather than investing in the adult human relationships that are so essential in healthy organisations. Often staff appraisal is put on the back burner whilst the school gets on with the day to day and this leads to a crisis of hurried formal ‘observations’ rather than the important informal conversations in and around each other’s classrooms. People who don’t work in schools have little idea of how few minutes are spent sharing ideas, giving feedback and support with one’s colleagues in a relaxed manner. Teachers spend too long at the ‘chalk face’ or are too busy planning, marking, trying to keep their family relationships from falling apart to develop properly professionally.

Which brings me to this point: if Government wants to improve schools and sustain improvement, instead of throwing money at, say, interactive whiteboards it would begin to invest more in giving teachers ‘space’ away from teaching. I think One and a Half school days minimum, per teacher, per week should just about do it. Oh, and no cover… and no endless, pointless meetings… and… ad infinitum…



Will drama turn to crisis? On The New Arts GCSEs and A Levels

The Government’s statement on the new arts GCSEs and A Levels is to be welcomed. It states that: “Students will be able to access high-quality, rigorous GCSEs…” and that: “These new A levels will ensure that students have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in demanding undergraduate courses.” This will come to a great relief to many teachers and students of the Arts who have been worried as to what the future might be for these subjects.

However, there could be a problem. Issues around science practicals, and the Speaking and Listening element in English GCSEs point to a problem, it is very difficult to assess practical exams fairly let alone ‘rigorously’. This has led to students in drama finding it more difficult to get the highest grades. In fact, in percentage terms it is easier to get the highest grades in Physics and Mathematics than it is in Drama. The fear is that drama might cease to be a practical exam and become an entirely written exam.

Practical Drama is an extraordinarily difficult subject to assess fairly, once performed all evidence is gone. It is not possible to have an objective view as an examiner. Each student has wildly different challenges depending on what they are performing and who they are performing with, so it makes sense to say that this part of the exam cannot be compared to the ‘rigour’ offered by a written exam where scrutiny and ‘more’ objectivity can be brought to bear. If we want to have an exam that stands shoulder to shoulder with the ‘humanities’ subjects then, by all means, turn it into a written exam but this would denigrate something essential in a performing art and that is performance. In the art of drama actors act, just as in their art painters paint. To take painting out of an art exam would be ridiculous (in fact I expect it will stay because paintings remain in some substantive form and can be judged on more than one occasion by more than one person, not so the ephemeral performing art of drama). Even a video of the best quality does not capture ‘live’ theatre; an idea of  how good a performance is in this subject will never be more than a subjective view, even if the examiner is an expert of some years standing. Drama teachers also teach students who are excessively talented as performers but can struggle in the written side, are we to tell these students that they can’t pursue the art at which they excel at school to the highest levels offered and tell them they can’t be examined in the theory of the form through practice?

How to solve this problem? I’m not sure, but perhaps the following might add to discussions:

Drama could be examined in two separate parts: Theory and Practical. The theory should cover History, Performance Theory, Text, Criticism, and ‘Appreciation’. This part could be entirely written exams. The other part of the exam could be practical and supported by a viva. The written exam could be graded 1-9 as other GCSEs, but the practical side would need to accept that it is more subjective so, to borrow from other practical exams, I would like to suggest that we adopt the following ‘grades’ that recognise the more ‘subjective’ nature of the assessment: Fail, Pass, Merit, Distinction. Both ‘papers’ could be a single or double award allowing a student to take drama as an entirely ‘written’ paper if they so wish or entirely practical in the same way. The viva would be videoed and used as evidence of the student’s working process and thoughts behind the performance element. The practical part of the exam would therefore recognise performance and theory but in an entirely practical way and if sanctioned and overseen by higher education institutions like RADA be of use to that sector re: practical abilities of potential recruits. It could also be used by the ‘entertainment industry’ as a standard for potential employees. The written side of the exam, perhaps overseen by institutions who run drama degrees, would have credibility alongside other qualifications at the same level allowing it to have a similar standing.

Therefore a student in drama could get a single award grade 9 with practical distinction, grade 7 double award with distinction, or grade 9 double award with a practical fail, a practical double award distinction, a double award Merit or even a double award grade 9 with a double award distinction.

It’s just a thought…