Sunday 16 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Another week and another example of the sport I have come to call teacher-bashing. Teaching and non-teaching staff alike are the contemporary equivalent of a punch bag. Feeling frustrated? Blame teachers. Bang! Right hand hook. Your flat got broken into and your telly stolen? Education nowadays is the pits! Uppercut. The future looks grim because there are no job prospects for the next generation? Take it out on support staff? Come to think of it, what’s that. support staff? What do they do all day? And why do we need so many learning support assistants, teaching assistants, learning mentors and parent support advisors? Back in my day, it was just Mr or Mrs Smith with cane in hand. Argh! This country’s going to the dogs. Left hand jab. Hit the floor. Are you happy now? Is this country really going to the dogs because of teachers and support staff?

No, it isn’t. And as chance would have it I happen to belong to what they call support staff in a school. So, let me stand up for my colleagues, whether members of the teaching personnel or part of the work force that deals with vulnerable children and/or parents.

The latest lashing to leave an unwanted welt on the already swollen and bruised body of the teaching profession was given by none other than Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector. He reckons that pupils in comprehensive schools are not being challenged enough. For those who, like me, still struggle to understand the British education system, a comprehensive is a non-selective secondary school that provides an entitlement curriculum. It offers a wider range of subjects including vocational ones. The figure quoted by Michael Wilshaw this week in an interview on Radio 4 was 65%. That is approximately the percentage of pupils who fall way below the target they were set when they began their Year 7. To clarify matters more, a student labelled as “most able”, the category to which Mr Wilshaw referred, is the one who achieves a level 5 or above for both reading and maths in his/her Sats test at eleven years old. That is where the problem lies, in my opinion.

If I were to use my experience of education in Cuba when I was growing up, my conclusion would be that exams in primary school serve no purpose and cause unwanted – and unforeseen at the time of planning such exams – problems. And I write as someone who sat exams from Year 1 (or 1st Grade as others might know it) all the way through to Year 12 in college (or high school). Of course, I also had tests in university. Sometimes, when I look back on my student days all I remember is half-term tests and final exams.

Great formation, but is it good education?
Fast-forward to the present and every time my fifteen-year-old son has an exam now, he goes into panic mode. He knows the drill: you can go out with your mates for a couple of hours only after you revise. You have to be home by such and such time and continue to revise. And tomorrow, Sunday? Oh, well, you know the answer to that one. However, when his assessments consist of coursework which he has to complete managing his own time, coming up with his own resources and set as homework to be handed in in a week or two, he is more relaxed, motivated, and puts in the hours. This week, the Secretary of State for Education, another Michael, but Gove in this case, also made an announcement. He wants to overhaul the whole GCSE system, get rid of coursework and bring in the much-hated final test at the end of Year 10 (GCSE year).

Don’t they ever learn? Politicians, I mean? Especially those, like Mr Gove, with no classroom experience whatsoever? The current GCSE uses methods which, although still flawed, give a more realistic picture of where the student sits in the academic spectrum. Bringing back the traditional exam where students will sit silently in three or four rows and sweat it out for a couple of hours will backfire. For starters, that was the type of test I had to sit when I was younger and I always used to hit the books a couple of days before. So, no deep thinking and reasoning there. Secondly, it will affect the learning experience in the classroom (and there was silly me thinking that Mr Gove wanted to improve teaching, not ruin it), because teachers will be teaching with one thought in mind: out of these thirty souls, I need to have at least a good 70 or 75% passing rate. Because who would, in her/his right mind would like to offend Sir Michael (Wilshaw) with his 65%? And whilst we are on this 65% figure, would it also be possible to find out how many students who move up to secondary school without the required Level 4 go on to achieve good GCSE grades, please? Because that would be a good indicator of how good these students' teachers have been in working closely with them in order to bring them up to scratch. But then that wouldn't make good headlines. "Teachers in the UK are doing a good job! They are raising standards!" No, it's not a good headline. The other unwanted consequence of the 65% quote is that it cause a schism to appear between primary and secondary schools where the latter blame the former for not giving pupils the necessary academic foundation they will need later on. Primaries could well retort that in the case of "most able" children who then fail to get good GCSEs it's secondaries' fault for not working hard enough with students who already have had a good headstart. It would be like a never-ending cycle in which no one wins and the only loser is the students. Our children. Your children. Tomorrow's adults.

Is that the type of education we want? I work with professionals who love teaching and working with children. They motivate them, guide them, and mentor them. Yes, you get the occasional bad apple in the bag that spoils the reputation of the others. But isn’t that the same with almost any other profession? I have never met a parent in my line of work who hasn’t wanted her/his child to do well. Never. Maybe they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps they had a traumatic experience in school. Yet, parents ALWAYS want their children to do well.

If I have an advice for Gove and co. is: find out what it is that makes some people go into education. Is it the money? Is it the holidays? It could be for some, I am not saying it is not. But the majority of education professionals I have met in my life (and I have met more than Gove surely has. I WAS ONCE A PROPER TEACHER!) seriously believe that they have the capacity to teach the next generation. They trust their abilities and life experience to educate children regardless of background, race or nationality or anything else. They are not perfect; they are human and make mistakes as a result. But I don’t think I am alone in thinking that they would welcome more praise than condemnation, especially from those who should be supportive. If, however, Gove and Wilshaw can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the excellent teaching that exists in this country, then, maybe a reworking of Pink Floyd’s famous Another Brick on the Wall will have to do the trick: We don’t need no confrontation/We don’t need no Gove control/Your dark sarcasm is not wanted/Michaels, leave teachers alone/Hey! Michaels, leave teachers alone/Otherwise we will put you both up against the wall/ Otherwise we will put you both up against the wall. Sometimes punch bags need to talk back, don’t you think?

© 2013

Image taken from

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 19th June at 11:59 (GMT)


  1. Well said! From a fellow teacher!

  2. clap clap clap...i work in education...and i am a collab special ed teacher so i would fall into support staff as well i guess...and its a mess...and here you are measured each year by the standardized tests...and what is so frustrating is that the test makers concoct these questions to try and fool the kids and it becomes not a measure of what you know....ugh...we do take the lumps man...i love the kids though...

  3. Such a pain indeed, as they go and try to plant some seed. Trying to make it seem like one can't read because they throw in crap that seems to float up like a weed.

  4. Agreed! Instead of trying to pigeonhole kids, we should be encouraging their different-ness and creativity.

    Exams have nothing to do with real life.

  5. Creo que es una preocupación parental hoy en día la educación, no estoy muy al día con ello, pero por tu escrito me hago cargo.
    Un feliz domingo

  6. Well said!
    Everyone wants children to succeed; but not everyone wants the responsibility of providing opportunities so children can succeed. We want to wash our hands and blame somebody, usually the people who are already doing their utmost.

  7. Much of the same is going on here in the United States, too, -- the blaming of teachers, the overuse of the standardized tests -- ugh.

    The governor of Mississippi, one of the least enlightened states, recently announced that the reason why education is so abysmal is because women are in the workforce.

  8. Absolutely agree with this. Applause applause - another version of Brian's comment - so many fads in education and decisions made by people with no experience of either teaching or the real world - plus people expect teachers and school to make up for all kinds of differences in homes and economics, etc. etc. and their answer is just more tests! Crazy. Thanks. k.

  9. I believe that teaching is one of the most important jobs. Here at least it is significantly underpaid, under-resourced and under-respected. Hiss and spit.

  10. Every politician is convinced s/he knows all about schools because s/he went to one once.

    But it isn't just politicians. Ask most (?) parents: if their child is doing well it's because s/he is brilliant. If not, it's because the teaching is poor.

  11. I hate that the teachers here have to teach how to take the tests....something needs to be done ~ just let teachers be good teachers. I know that we are in for some changes here in testing and it is really frustrating for the teachers, Wish we could just let them teach!!! ugh!!

  12. Thanks for your comments. It seems that all over the world teachers are seen through the prism of failure and disappointment. Yet, teaching is the most important profession ever.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Have a great week.

  13. Education is always we are worry and here too.But el Ministerio de education is a mess!
    I think you are a good teacher!

  14. And yes I think be a teacher is o.e of the more important profession of the world!

  15. An especially perceptive distillation.

    I worked with a nurse who was constantly complaining about both her chidrens teachers. One day she said: I will accept nothing but the very best teachers for my children.

    So I asked her if she was the very best nurse, & if she did not think her patients deserved the very best nurse...& then who gets to decide who the very best nurse is? What is to be done with the other nurses?

    She said I was argumentative. Uhmm. Not really.

  16. Still very content-based here, every now and then, they tweak it to 'improve' methods and even approaches to draw out thinking but the volume just negates all that and we're back to quantity not quality of learning.

  17. I have had quite a bit of contact with schools and teachers recently, and all I can say is that I am AMAZED at the good work that so many of them do.

    S and A's school has raised money to build a Peace Room in their garden, a Japanese style simple place where troubled kids can have time out with a support staff member and just do stuff like gardening. Some of the kids are so stressed at home, their parents do 2 or 3 jobs and don't have time to teach them anything. School is a refuge for them.

    The school also does a lot for gifted kids. OK it doesn't do as much as a posh little prep school for every single child, but you know something, it is also up to parents to help their kids if they can. Some of the gifted kids at the school have parents who can't help or don't care and THEY are the ones who get the special tutors, not the middle class kids.

    Of course, there are also lousy schools, you can tell those by the disorderly rude kids. But you will always get good and bad. And even in the "poor" achieving schools, the teachers may be working on other issues. I know one who tries above all to create an environment where the kids don't worry too much. She says so many of them have such scary lives.

    It is a long time since I have met a "don't care" teacher, and boy there used to be a lot of them about 20 years ago. They would have been squeezed out by now.

  18. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  19. I totally agree with you. The British Education system seems to have steadiy gone downhill over the past fifteen years or so and it's not the teachers' fault, it's the freaking politicians who know nothing about education. The arbitrary changes they make, and the random cuts and splices and bs, just adds fuel to the fire. A few exams are necessary and a good thing because it teaches kids to be prepared and ready under pressure but a system of only exams is ridiculous! Not to mention completely unhelpful. Life isn't just one big exam. It's projects and coursework and research. And working together with others.

    Honestly, with the current schmucks we've got in power, I don't have any hope for the British educational system.




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