Little_Mavis' rants and musings

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Is it Just Me? (1)

Is it just me, or does this sound familiar?

  • You have people visiting, either coming for a meal or a drink, or people coming to stay.
  • The house is a bit of a mess so you tidy up.
  • You run out of time but there is still the sort of stuff lying around that you aren’t quite sure what to do with, or lots of little bits that need putting away in lots of different places.
  • To get the place tidy quickly you put it all in a bag or box & put it somewhere out of sight.
  • The people go, you sigh, relax, go to bed, go to work…
  • You pretty much forget about the box you put out of the way.
  • You want something but cannot find it. You can’t remember where you put it, you look in the place it is supposed to be and the usual places things turn up when they are missing
  • You decide it is lost or you never actually had it in the first place and you buy a new one
  • Rinse & repeat.

In case you haven’t guessed, we are tidying our outhouse (or conservatory if you want to be posh). We are finding lots & lots of things that were put “out of the way”.

This is almost as much fun as clearing the loft was. Among other finds we have:-

  • A cat tunnel
  • A footstool
  • Lots of gardening gloves
  • Elastic bands, now rotted

To be continued….


A quiet plea

I recently managed to offend several followers on Twitter after tweeting views that I considered to be well within the mainstream if not entirely the currently popular view.

I am NOT going to go over any of them again as I don’t want to stir things up but can I please make a couple of points.

  1. I normally intensely dislike the non-apology kind of apology that simply says “I’m sorry you were upset” but in this case it is the only kind of apology I feel able to make.  So I’m sorry if you were upset. I honestly believe some people misinterpreted what I was saying. I am basing this on the fact that people were arguing against points that I never actually made. I may have worded my tweets poorly. People may not have read them correctly. I may have touched a nerve with some people that triggered an over-reaction. (I know this happens to me sometimes if people stumble across one of my personal bugbears)
  2. I do not feel I have the right to tell people how to behave, I do think that if something is in the public arena, however it arrived there, I can comment as much as the next person. You have the right to disagree with me, but try not to get too angry (I know it’s rather a case of the pot calling the kettle here but I do try not to as well)
  3. If I am shown to be factually wrong I will admit it. I’m not afraid to learn or to admit my mistakes.
  4. If you provide a strong, coherent, and logical argument that is contrary to my view I will give it due consideration. If you are persuasive enough I may change my view. My opinions on most things are not completely entrenched.
  5. Twitter can be a bit of a minefield for this type of thing but please read tweets properly and don’t assume that if someone says “you haven’t understood” it means the same as “You don’t understand” as said by the current government.

To recap. I’m sorry if I offended/upset you. I was not trying to tell anyone what they should or should not do, only describe my personal reactions. I’m not going to go into any details. This is simply to close the issue.

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Grade inflation. A personal view

This is a personal experience of teaching. It has a bearing on what is happening with English GCSE grades and why I hope eventually some good will come of it. It is going to be difficult because I am exposing my inadequacies and failures to you all, but then, you already know I am far from perfect.

I went into teaching in FE in 2000 after bailing out of a Primary PGCE because I was having difficulty with behaviour and I was unhappy at what we were expecting small children to do in schools. I was probably not cut out to teach small children anyway and it was the year they introduced the (now abandoned) Literacy & Numeracy strategies.

Someone at the time suggested I try FE. I was handicapped in this by having my degree in Chemistry (which I had not used for many years) and no qualification in IT, which is what I had actually done as a job for 15 years or so.  I spoke about it in an earlier blog here.

When teaching IT Key Skills, I was new to teaching so I didn’t come with all the baggage that came from teaching old vocational qualifications such as GNVQ. I read the specifications and tried to do what was described, to teach IT which was useful in a real world situation and submit evidence from the students’ main subjects as evidence that they had the required skills.

After the first year, I became the co-ordinator for IT Key Skills across college. I was encouraged by the head of Maths & Science to produce an assignment that all students taking the qualification would do to “ensure consistency & make  marking easier” I argued against it. Oh the cheek of it, but I was used to doing a job where my skills and experience were valued so I didn’t realise this wasn’t the done thing. Instead, I produced generic schemes of work that other teachers could use, samples of completed portfolios, I worked with students and teachers to find out what different groups needed to know and which work would be suitable for their portfolio. I had an especially good relationship with the Sport department.

The HOD wrote an assignment for the Maths (Application of Number) Key Skill which was for all students. When the Maths portfolios were seen by an external verifier, they were downgraded from Level 2 to Level 1.

One year when I had some new teachers delivering the course, I was asked to explain why the pass rates for one teacher were higher than those of another. I explained that Teacher A had many portfolios that I considered to be borderline, Teacher B’s student portfolios were excellent and “spot on”. (Remember, I was not actually in charge of these other teachers, I just co-ordinated). I was told that “spot on” was unnecessary; we should be aiming for “just enough to obtain a pass and no more”. This was by a very senior member of the management team. I was not happy with this, but passed appropriate messages on. In all the time I was co-ordinating Key Skills IT, not one single portfolio that we passed was rejected by the external verifier and our pass rates were at least double the National Average, (small boast there), although it was surprisingly difficult to find the national average as the pass rate was astoundingly low since many teachers did not take the qualification seriously. This of course was mainly because the results were not counted in any league table and were not considered by universities. The college delivered them because they attracted a good level of funding. I taught them because I believed that if done properly they were genuinely valuable to students. The students (bless their little cotton socks) told me this once I’d finished encouraging, berating, goading them into understanding how to use IT efficiently and apply it to their work elsewhere.

And here we have the whole problem. Schools are measured by results. If they meet their targets, the targets are raised. If they fail to meet them they are criticised and punished, now by being forcibly converted into academies. Are we really surprised that schools concentrating on getting students to produce work which is “just enough to obtain a grade C”? since that is the prime measure.

According to Warwick Mansell in an effort to counteract grade inflation, Ofqual would redraw grade boundaries as required although

 under Ofqual’s rules, there could be an increase in the proportions gaining top grades (At GCSE) but only if the boards’ statistics on the underlying ability levels of the candidates suggest the cohort is more able this year.

 Interestingly, however, Ofqual’s paper shows that the main method for calculating the prior ability of the cohort is key stage 2 results for that year group.

Now this seems to suggest that there could be no value added by teachers in secondary education and that a child’s ability in GCSE is entirely governed by how well they performed at Key Stage 2. And since Ofqual would also control A level grade inflation based on GCSE results they would also depend on what the children did in Primary school. Quite a burden for Primary teachers.

The college eventually dropped Key Skills IT because of pressure on IT rooms and reduced funding and I started teaching BTEC IT. The college had a reputation for obtaining high grades in this, well above the National Average. It took me a while to find my feet teaching foundation and intermediate level IT students instead of Level 2 Key Skills to Level 3 students. My main job before was finding the hook to get all sorts of students interested in IT and understand how it could apply to their circumstances. Once I’d done that they were willing to learn. Now the problem was to do with confidence, getting the students to focus and working out how the system worked. The first year was mixed and difficult, but we got through. The second year the colleague I was working with went off on long term sick leave and I was more or less left running the level 1 and 2 courses with another teacher coming from another site for some lessons.

I think we did well under difficult circumstances with some extremely challenging students. All those that stayed the course passed, though some with only a Pass grade rather than a Merit or Distinction.  I honestly thought I’d done quite well. I felt the students achieved the grades they deserved and all had passed. However, the number of students obtaining “only” a Pass had caused arguments in the past. There was great pressure for students to achieve more than a Pass grade. Other teachers had experienced the same problem. We felt strongly that students who worked hard to produce distinction level work deserved to obtain a higher grade than someone who did “just enough” to meet the criteria and only with a teacher standing over them. We said it was also unfair to potential employers who would not be able to separate out candidates by their results and that it devalued the qualification. This applied whether we were measuring ability or hard work. The following year I had a level 3 class added to my timetable and I saw how the high grades were obtained. Lots and lots of guidance. Writing frames in the form of questions which could be answered in one sentence and similar support. The students were meeting the criteria but many with no initiative of their own. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is how it should work.

After time off with stress, mainly due to the struggle to constantly deliver new courses and units and write new assignments, I put this into practice. I thought it was more appropriate for levels 1 & 2 than for A level equivalent qualifications and in any case, I was given no choice. My performance review (after I returned from sick leave) said I must improve grades and I must have lessons graded 2 or better. There were other targets but I really can’t remember what these were as (looking back) I was still pretty unwell. Eventually, my students did all pass at level 1 (a pass/fail qualification) even those who struggled to conform to college rules and who had little confidence in themselves.

At BTEC Level 2 every student got a Merit or Distinction Grade. This was mainly because they were a much harder working set of students than I had last year. They actually wanted to succeed. When they had met the Pass criteria they came and asked what they needed to do to get a Merit rather than asking if they could go home now. I had no problems with their all getting high grades. They deserved them.

Unfortunately in the middle of all this, some of my many lesson observations were not graded as “good”, partly because I panicked whenever my manager walked into my classroom. I was told I was being moved to capability proceedings, I resigned. I could not face another year of obtaining “high grades” for students however much or little effort they were prepared to put in.

So, there you have it. I am officially a shit teacher. I can only guarantee good grades for students if they contribute to this. The light at the end of the tunnel is that maybe when the dust settles after the grossly unfair moving of the finishing post mid-year we can all accept that results won’t and shouldn’t rise constantly. The vast majority of teachers will always do their best for students. The emphasis on results and qualifications above all else hinders this, because teachers will be “encouraged” and coerced into enabling their students to do “just enough” to meet the required criteria for whatever grade they are aimed at under threat of losing performance pay or even their job. I fought against this view for years and finally lost the fight. I wanted to educate my students in the way that was best for them and in a way that helped them to know and understand rather than to just deliver an assignment that met the criteria.

Please remember. This may not happen everywhere, I may just have been exceptionally unlucky with my experience. I did have several years of working hard, obtaining good results and being confident that my students left me better equipped than when they started. And with a qualification, even if it wasn’t especially valued.

Of course teachers are upset, they worked within the system as it is with the knowledge they had and under the constraints and demands of successive governments. They were effectively betrayed. I actually think this needed to be done. But not in the underhand way it was. Maybe I could go back to being a teacher without compromising my conscience and still help students to achieve as well as they can.

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Updated post on hard work & its value

I wrote this post just over a year ago, and thanks to the unthinking outpourings of yet more Tory MPs, it seems relevant again

I do not believe that hard work is not in & of itself especially admirable

I have always worked hard at my job, I have testimonials from previous employers that say this. If you pay me to do a job I will do that job to the best of my ability. I will spend whatever time it takes to do the work properly to my standards. However my work has never been my life. I have never lived to work I have worked to live. This doesn’t mean anyone has been short changed.

I am unhappy if someone tells me I am not working hard enough.  It’s only happened the once.  The combination of working my socks off and being told that actually made me quite ill.

Since I left the job I have heard so much from the government (and others) about the importance of working hard & not having a sense of entitlement that it’s starting to get quite depressing

Yes, do a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay. I have always encouraged my girls to work hard

Work is generally good. It  means you can get a sense of achievement & you earn money to do other stuff. But it shouldn’t be the be-all & end-all of life. There seems to me no point at all in working your socks off so that you can buy lots of consumer goods that you won’t have time to enjoy because you are working such long hours. Slow down & smell the roses people.

Do not expect me to think it admirable simply because you work long hours. Especially if your sole intention is to become wealthy. I won’t condemn you for it either but it isn’t going to impress me. And don’t assume that people who do not have that level of ambition to earn lots of money aren’t prepared to do an equally good job. And don’t assume that if people haven’t “made it” to the same extent that you have that it’s because they are incapable or lazy. Maybe they haven’t had the opportunities or breaks, maybe they didn’t know the right people, or maybe their priorities are elsewhere. (As a brief aside don’t expect me to admire you at all if you got where you are by cheating or trampling on people – though I’m sure anyone I follow on Twitter wouldn’t do that)

Basically, there really doesn’t seem much point in life if all we do is work hard to make more money to buy stuff to save time so that we can work more……etc.  Professor Sharon Beder discusses it here”

One of the things I have struggled most with about the current government is their ability to contradict themselves and expect no-one to notice (as in Michael Gove’s insistence that he wishes to free schools to make their own decisions on what and how to teach while dictating what primary schools should teach right down to the list of words children should be able to spell at certain ages) . The sentence that struck me here is

We must stop bailing out the reckless, avoiding all risk, and rewarding laziness.”

Where exactly do you draw the line between reckless & avoiding all risk? Who decides where this line falls?

Overall this attack on working people seems gratuitous and poorly thought out. I am far from convinced that much of it is true. We are about half-way up the working hours list, as for retirement age, again we seem fairly average

Another well made point is that working hard & long hours is all very well when you have an interesting, rewarding, well-paid job (such as MPs, consultants, board members etc), it isn’t quite as enticing when you have to work 12 hour shifts on factory lines, driving lorries or street cleaning. As a friend on Twitter said when reading that most people prefer a lie-in to hard work “well who wouldn’t)

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But does “Arbeit Macht Frei”?

Right. This has been retweeted into my Twitter timeline several times today (Twitter has the custom of doing screenshots to Daily Mail articles to avoid giving their website more hits than we need to, especially since most of the links are commenting on how awful the articles are)

I have a few thoughts. When I worked in FE (Up until last year) a yearly assembly was held in which we stressed to our sixth-formers the importance of obtaining A levels and going on to obtain a degree. I, by the way, had no input into what was said in these assemblies and I sometimes gave a more down-to-earth assessment back in tutor group sessions. We based this on the monetary value added by obtaining additional qualifications. A table was shown which worked out how much extra someone could earn with A levels instead of a degree and a degree instead of A levels.

Ordinary teachers, like me, commented privately on the fact that the amount of money that could be earned at the top of the teaching main-scale (currently £31,111 after 6 increments and a max of £36,279 with all 3 performance related payments which may be awarded at 2 yearly intervals) was referred to as “only” and it was indicated to students that they should aspire to more than this.

Students have also been encouraged to take on very large student loans on the basis that the additional money they will earn by having a degree will make this worthwhile.

Should we therefore be surprised that graduates are unwilling to take jobs which pay the minimum wage (currently £6.08/hour which works out at £11,856 for a 37.5 hour week) If you had started on minimum wage at 16 you would have earned roughly £43,485.00 by the time you would have left university.

Even worse is expecting them to take on unskilled jobs with (by all accounts) no useful training for your unemployment benefit. Would the author of this article do that job for that money? If not why expect someone else to?  She also says that

“When you have 72 direct competitors, all offering a similar degree, an identical number of starred A-level grades and more or less the same clutch of Saturday jobs, sports awards and extra-curricular embellishments, you really have got to think outside the box, to make your own CV stand out successfully from that huge pile”

Well, here’s the thing. Not everyone can stand out, that is the definition of outstanding. I realise this may come as a surprise to Gove, Ofsted and some school Senior Management Teams but you can’t change that fact.

Cait Reilly, when she objected to working in Poundland wasn’t sitting around waiting for the perfect job to fall into her lap, she was already working, as a volunteer, in a place that actually would enhance her CV and help her towards the job she had trained for.

The government, and sniping right wing journalists want to make their mind up what they think education is for. Either it is to prepare people for work, in which case they cannot object to graduates expecting to do the work they have prepared for once they graduate, or it is for the sake of education itself, to enhance knowledge and make them onto better people, in which case they need to stop criticising qualifications as being “useless”.

If our graduates are expecting too much, it is because we have led them to do exactly that. We sell education as a path to making more money. Their real mistake is in believing us.

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What it’s like to be a Bard

I’ve considered writing this blog entry for a long time but have put it off because I worry about you all getting bored of my introspective ramblings. But, yet again a tweet started me thinking about it and I’ve decided that if you think it’s boring you don’t have to read it.

If you’ve played “Dungeons & Dragons” or one of the many computer games based on their rules you will have come across the idea of character class. The class of character you create will determine your starting attributes and skills and determine how good you can eventually become at these skills and how quickly you can progress with them through practice.

The original classes were Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief. At some point, they added Bard.

A bard can do a bit of magic, a bit of fighting, a bit of theft, they have lots of knowledge and high charisma, they can persuade people. Now I haven’t played proper D&D, I’ve only played games using simplified versions of the rules so I’m interpreting loosely here.

When I first came across a bard character, I liked the idea and based my character on that. I did again, in another game, somehow I identified with the idea. Finally, I realised why. I was a bard. I could be competent at most things, with the notable exceptions of passing my driving test (finally passed on fifth attempt) and ten pin bowling where my first attempt was so disastrous I never tried again.

Of course, I can’t do magic, and I can’t fight, but I can research I’m fine at IT, can programme in obsolete languages, I can teach, am very well organised and logical, I can ace the soft skills but have very few actual selling points,

When I sat my O levels (yes, I’m that old), my results were fine, nothing spectacular like the 10 A* some kids manage now, but perfectly acceptable and evenly spread between the subjects. All the teachers wanted me to do their subjects at A level. (I chose Sciences & Maths btw). At University, I elected to do a Chemistry degree. To be perfectly honest I suspect this was because we had a good Chemistry teacher. In retrospect, this was the wrong decision. Since then my jobs have slowly moved away from Chemistry via research in a Pharmaceutical firm to sales admin in same, to sales admin elsewhere to general admin to IT admin to programming to software support to teaching IT.

I’ve been competent in all these, good maybe very good in some, but never exceptional (as far as I know).

So, there you have it, I’m a bard. I can do lots of things well but am not what I would consider outstanding in any. I know a lot without being an expert. I can get on with people. But I’m not sure where I go now as a generalist. Maybe specialising when young and sticking to it would have been a better plan. My poor parents couldn’t have advised me, My dad drove trains and my mum was a housewife, neither educated beyond 16. Fortunately, my children have known what they wanted to do since they were small. Their ambitions may eventually be thwarted, but at least they always had a focus.

Me, I’m just a sad bard. Jack of all trades, master of none. Is there anyone out there in need of one?