‘Unqualified’ Teachers

Rubber StampWhen I started this blog, I decided to avoid party politics as much as possible. It is clear that there are people of all political persuasions who support a return to a rigorous, content-rich curriculum and firm discipline. In particular, there are many on the left who recognise, like Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, that political progressivism requires educational conservatism (see Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p7).

Yesterday, though, politics came to visit me in the shape of a hustings at my school, including the four main candidates in its constituency. And there was one issue raised which really made my blood boil: whether teachers in state schools should be forced to gain ‘qualified’ status.

Before I go any further, I should mention that I do indeed have ‘qualified’ status. I’ll blog at greater length some other time about the farcical hoops through which I had to jump and the rubbish I was taught on my way to receiving the rubber stamp from the government.

When the candidates were asked about their party’s approach to education, the Labour candidate launched straight in with the issue of ‘unqualified’ teachers, which makes it appear a central plank of Labour policy. She evidently expected us to be shocked to hear that 7000 pupils in our constituency are being taught by ‘unqualified’ teachers. She went on to mention other issues, but in her summing up, she reminded us that Labour are going to ‘make sure teachers are educated’.

I might have succeeded in maintaining diplomatic silence on this blog had it not been for that last comment. Make sure teachers are educated?!

Insisting on qualified teacher status does nothing to ensure that teachers are educated. Given the dogmatically progressive content of many teaching courses, it is more likely to ensure that they have been catechised in the defunct and dangerous ideology which has been creating an ever greater gulf between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Gramsci predicted in 1932 that the new ‘natural’ methods would have this effect: ‘The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallize them in Chinese complexities’ (quoted in Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p6).

There is also little to no focus on actual subject knowledge in teacher training, and typically no requirement to have a good honours degree in the subject to be taught. Why should there be such a requirement, when education is supposedly all about transferable twenty-first century skills?

If Labour were really serious about ensuring that teachers were well educated, wouldn’t they be insisting on a good honours degree as an entry requirement? This is the type of thing that independent schools care about. In the independent sector, there are many teachers without qualified status, who have been employed on the basis of their knowledge and skills, not on the basis of a piece of paper of doubtful value. Parents pay thousands of pounds, even tens of thousands, to have these ‘unqualified’ staff teach their children.

Why on earth are Labour making this a central plank of their policy? It feels like a step back to the seventies, and a trade union closed shop mentality. Could it be that there are teachers who feel threatened by the competition from those without the requisite bit of paper?

(Image from Wikimedia)

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In Praise of Prep Time

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We may not have rooms like this, but we can create a studious atmosphere

Traditionally, prep time is a period of one or two hours at the end of the school day when pupils work silently under supervision. It is a time for doing work set by teachers, but also for reading or studying independently.

When I worked at a boarding school, I supervised prep as part of evening boarding house duty. But it was not what it had been in former days. Pupils worked in their rooms and I patrolled around the boarding house. This of course meant that they were unsupervised most of the time, as there were many rooms to patrol. Many pupils had laptops, which were an enormous source of distraction. So the silent, focused time for work and reading no longer really existed.

Even for the very privileged, the privilege of silence had been removed.

Now more than ever we need to restore periods of silence during the school day. The noise of electronic gadgets has become ever more pervasive, and the affluent and poor alike are constantly assailed by it. Schools have a wonderful opportunity to establish periods of supervised silent working. This can be done within the extended days that many of the new academies and free schools have instituted. It’s not a complicated proposition: all it takes is will and manpower.

If such silent periods are firmly established, we can also help our pupils to develop the good habit of getting on with the work they have been set promptly, not leaving it until late on the night before it is due. And perhaps even more importantly, we can establish the principle of finishing work at work, so that there is time to spend with family in the evening: a healthy work-life balance. Of course we want our pupils to work hard, but work is not the only thing that matters. This is something that is rarely mentioned, but as a father of a young family, I often think of it. Do we really want to build the habit in our young people of working late into the night? Will that make them good husbands or fathers in the future?

(Image from Wikimedia)

The Curse of ‘Dead Poets’ Society’

Montgomery Bell Academy, the basis for the fictional boarding school in the film.

Montgomery Bell Academy, the basis for the fictional boarding school in the film.

I saw Dead Poets’ Society at the age of twelve, and it’s taken me a long time to recover from the experience.

It was enthralling. Here was a teacher liberating his pupils, offering them life in abundance and encouraging them to express themselves. Who could forget the scene where John Keating, played by Robin Williams, takes them to look at photos of old boys dead and gone, and whispers in their ears, ‘Seize the day boys, seize the day!’ Another similar moment which was engraved in my young memory was that of the boys lining up to kick a football as far as they could, while declaiming a line of poetry. One of them shouts ‘to truly be a god!’

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been at least partly inspired to become an English teacher by this film. But what kind of English teacher? What kind of message does the film give about the purpose of education?

Our hero John Keating, as his name makes very obvious, has come to bring Romanticism writ large to a traditional fifties boarding school which insists on dutiful obedience and hard work. In contrast to the charismatic and sensitive Keating, the school’s headmaster is portrayed as tyrannical and sadistic. It’s a tale which continues to be told over and over again by Hollywood: following the rules and doing your duty is oppressive. Throw off the shackles and discover yourself!

The people who are among the most exposed to the consequences if this popular Romanticism are those who struggle to work and study in our state schools. Devotion to self-expression at any cost is the philosophy which underlies the barely contained chaos which is often to be found there.

At least the film makes the darker side of this message visible too, in the suicide of one of Keating’s disciples. He kills himself when it becomes clear that his father is firmly opposed to his plan to become an actor.

We don’t have to look too hard to find the darker underside of Hollywood’s sunny world of self-expression, including, of course, in the life and death of Robin Williams himself.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Who Profits from Rubbish Education?

Snake_oil_old_bottleSo many people have suffered from the educational chaos of the last fifty years, but it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. It’s worth asking ourselves who profits.

Traditional teaching methods are cheaper and more effective than progressive nonsense. So who benefits from the introduction of fad after fad? Box ticking bureaucrats who can wield ever greater power over their hapless victims, the rank and file teachers who use their experience and common sense and resist the latest madness.

Small schools are far more effective than huge ones, and yet we’ve seen ever more monstrously sized warehouses in the last few decades. Who has profited? Empire building managers, who can survey an ever larger realm under their power. Meanwhile, rank and file teachers and pupils suffer from the deteriorating behaviour which follows from increased anonymity.

There’s no scientific proof that handing out expensive, distracting technology to pupils helps them to learn, and centuries of experience to support the use of paper and ink, mind and voice. So who benefits from expensive initiatives which inflict this equipment on already overstimulated kids? The bureaucrats and managers who polish their CVs and get that promotion to the next grade in the civil service, as they tick the innovation box on their leadership competencies grid. Just using tried and trusted methods will never earn them that career boost.

And who benefits from ever increasing education spending to pay for whatever snake oil the pseudoscientists invent, or the technology companies produce? The bureaucrats who rule over an ever larger portfolio. They have no incentive to be efficient. After all, if they don’t spend their budget, it’ll be cut next year. But if they justify ever larger budgets, the prestige of their department grows and grows.

It’s commonplace to knock politicians, but I tend to admire their courage and determination, even when I disagree with their policies. It’s not an easy life, and it’s very insecure. We should also remember that politicians from Callaghan through Baker, Blunkett and Gove have been struggling to disperse the fog of progressive madness. Until Gove’s arrival, their intentions were subverted because they made the mistake of trusting the experts.

It’s not the politicians, but the comfortable office holders in the universities, government departments, local authorities, teaching unions and school management teams who have built their empires at the expense of state school pupils. Ever since the disaster of the Plowden report, we’ve seen a pernicious symbiotic relationship between fad-crazed intellectuals and ambitious bureaucrats, which has ruined countless lives. Just think how many comfortable and prestigious ivory towers would begin to totter if we saw a large scale triumph of cheap and effective traditional methods. It’s no wonder the knives came out for Gove.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Dutiful Obedience Builds Character

I wasn’t able to attend the Character vs Knowledge conference yesterday, but it’s been really interesting to see the debates it has sparked. It got me thinking about the vital role of traditional teaching methods themselves in building character.

When a teacher requires pupils to listen, to work, to persevere in difficult academic tasks and holds them to account when they fail to do any of these things, they are requiring dutiful obedience. And as pupils give this obedience, particularly when it runs counter to their own short term goals, they are building the habit of giving up their personal desires for the sake of some higher purpose. Teachers who work in this way are training their pupils in temperance (or self control) and fortitude (what has often recently been called ‘grit’).

This looks hard, but simultaneous equations take more 'grit' for most young lads.

This looks hard, but simultaneous equations take more ‘grit’ for most young lads.

There is simply no substitute for training, because the more we repeat an action, the easier it becomes. That action can be physical (a golf swing) or mental (resisting distraction and focusing on a task, however dull we find it). And character training is more likely to happen in a maths classroom than on a rugby pitch, because usually the people playing rugby want to be there and enjoy it. Sticking with the maths when you don’t enjoy it is a much better training in character, precisely because it lacks the excitement and glamour of sport.

It is sometimes said that pupils will never behave unless they understand the reasons for good behaviour. While it is important to explain the rationale behind our insistence that pupils continue with a task even if they find it difficult or dull, explaining will never be enough, and will in fact be a very small part of how we build the temperance and fortitude of those in our care. Far more important is our insistence, over and over again, that pupils do in fact persevere, and our determination to do something about it when they don’t. Over time, it will become second nature to persevere. We might spend a few minutes occasionally explaining why fortitude is so important. But we will spend many hours insisting on it in our classes, and in the culture of our schools. That is the secret to making it a way of life, which will last for life.

On the other hand, if we design our lessons so that pupils are manipulated into doing things through games and we bribe them with prizes, they are learning that self-interest is at the heart of success, not self-sacrifice. Effectively, we are spoiling them en masse. I remember when I was an NQT in a grim and chaotic comprehensive, the management were urging us all to apply ‘what’s in it for me?’ as a central principle in our teaching. Pupils had to see an immediate benefit to themselves in everything we taught. I cannot think of any principle more calculated to create spineless, indifferent young people dedicated to short-term gratification and destined for long-term failure.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Teacher Dependence and Independent Learning

I remember those countless hours spent in group discussion during the years of my bog standard education. The lessons would meander on, until eventually the teacher finally paid us some attention, and we would have to share our findings with the other members of the class. But our findings usually had to be corrected, and it was usually clear that the teacher was much more interested in the findings of a few select members of the class.

These members of the class were the ones who had succeeded in reading the teacher’s mind. I became rather adept at this myself, and I would often spend the so-called discussion time explaining to the other group members what answer the teacher actually wanted.

But most of the class was left guessing for most of the lesson, if not all of it, or several lessons in a row if this was a more extended project. And then finally the teacher would give us the answer. Is it surprising that many pupils simply discussed football results or the latest school gossip for most of the lesson? They knew they were going to get the answer eventually, and they had no idea how to discover it. Just like the human race had done for millennia, they could watch an apple dropping any number of times without discovering the law of gravity.

A reputed descendant of Newton's apple tree, at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A reputed descendant of Newton’s apple tree, at Trinity College, Cambridge.

But if someone would explain the law of gravity to them, and then make them memorise it, and then test them on their knowledge to make sure it was really firm, then they would be empowered to understand the law behind the falling apple. They would have more knowledge and they would understand the world better.

The teacher did usually explain it in the end, but we were left with the impression that school was not about receiving knowledge, but about guessing what was in the teacher’s head, when they kept withholding that information from us. In the name of independent learning, we were being made ever more teacher dependent.

Why is it that leaving pupils in the fog of ignorance can be described as independent learning, when true independence is achieved through mastering knowledge? A malnourished person may appear to be apathetic and incapable, but start feeding him a rich diet and he will transform. A mind starved of knowledge through years of vague project work will lack energy and independence. Once you start feeding it with facts it will come alive.

Learning from the Masters

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New College, Oxford, which has the motto, ‘Manners maketh man’.

We’re rather good at applying one standard to the real world, and another to schools.

In Katharine Birbalsingh’s To Miss with Love, there is an episode when Snuffy is inspired by the sight of a young man who stops to pick up something she has dropped in the street. She is so impressed by his consideration, but then her husband points outs that such things are very normal outside the world of state schools.

Good manners are a very ordinary matter; it is their destruction which is extraordinary. And their destruction has been achieved by the establishment of a school culture based on self-expression at any cost.

When a world class ballet dancer is perfectly synchronised to the music as she glides across the stage, do we criticise her for merely following instructions? Do we think any less of her achievement because she has submitted to the authority of the composer of the ballet, or learned her steps by imitating master dancers older than herself? Of course not. We assume that to achieve such mastery, a long programme of self-disciplined submission to authority is needed.

To imitate and to submit are the normal ways of learning. And yet in school they are often scorned, when educationalists claim that what matters more is self-expression and independent learning. When we take away the models for pupils to follow, we shouldn’t be surprised at the low level of the work which results. One thinks of Robert Frost’s interior desolation in ‘Desert Places’, where he reaches the logical conclusion of rampant subjectivism: ‘No expression, nothing to express’.

Or as teachers, we might have been persuaded to think that establishing fixed rituals in the classroom somehow undermines our creativity as autonomous professionals. But we admire the discipline of a football team as they execute an attacking strategy to perfection. Did they achieve that without planning and repeated practice?

Good manners; graceful dancing; footballing glory: all of these are mastered by patient and repeated imitation of those who know better, who perform better than we do. When we synchronise our steps, we can leave behind the painful self-consciousness inaugurated by the melancholy, lonely Romantics, and embrace instead the joyful spirit of collaboration that produced the plays of Shakespeare.

(Image from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newcollege_gate_to_gardens.jpg)