Little_Mavis' rants and musings

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Conformity or Variety?

A very quick two penn’orth on the issue of criticising/praising schools.

For what it’s worth, and feel free to ignore me but, in my personal (& humble) opinion, it’s good to have schools with different ethos(es?). I doubt there is a single way that works for every child (assuming we could define what we mean by “working” for every child). And even if it did there will be teachers and parents who would find it morally uncomfortable to follow some practices whether they be strict discipline or too much freedom. Maybe we could just accept that different provision should exist for different requirements.

Some fortunate children will thrive in any circumstances because they are adaptable and have an enriching and knowledgeable home environment. These are the children that teachers describe as “a joy to teach”. Some will also thrive in any circumstances through sheer grit and force of will. On the whole, these are less well liked by teachers because they can make life uncomfortable but they are valuable because they can teach us something about ourselves and how we relate to those who do not fit our image of what a good student should be like.

Sadly there are others who need something different. Yes, the quiet children who might suffer because the classroom is too rowdy (by the way, if we are being really keen on developing “grit” shouldn’t we apply it to this group? – Not advocating this, just pointing out an odd inconsistency in some current ideas) but also the misfits who struggle to conform or to concentrate. They may need something different.

What I find worrying is the idea that if something works in a specific setting it should be applied everywhere and, if ever this then doesn’t succeed, it’s because people just aren’t doing it right. That may be the case, but it also may be that the idea isn’t universally transferable to elsewhere.

I’ve seen arguments/discussions recently about whether it’s OK to praise or criticise specific settings or people. I’ve seen concerns about obedience and conformity.

Personally, I’m not keen on obedience as a concept, I’d rather instil a knowledge of what is desirable or acceptable in varying circumstances and have children understand why certain behaviour is required and then do that because they want to. I’m also not keen on enforced conformity, which is odd, because I tend to conform. Maybe that’s why I dislike petty rules so much, because I can’t just do the sensible thing and ignore them when they get in the way of common sense. I need to fight them.


I don’t especially want to stop other people running their schools in a way I dislike. I just don’t want people trying to make all schools work the same way and I would be most unhappy if I had no choice but to send my child to one.

Just stop telling other people they have got it all wrong and you are right regardless.


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Grammar School

My next instalment of school life in olden days.

If you would like to see the earlier posts, they are Infants, Juniors and some background.

Before I start, I want to make it crystal clear that I do not support the reintroduction of grammar schools. This is simply a description of what it was like as a South Yorkshire working class girl attending such a school in the 1960s, It was a good experience. I probably didn’t take quite as much advantage of it as I should have. It may also give some insight as to why some people in power, who would have attended somewhere similar and who gained from it might be nostalgic about them and support them. I also suspect that the intake of this school was more working class than those in leafy suburbs. It was a mining area, solidly Labour then & pretty much so now, apart from UKIP inroads. “Posh” kids were the exception, not the rule so I don’t think I felt the alienation that some in similar positions felt. My brother went to the local secondary modern and did just fine. He got Grade 1 CSEs & a couple of O levels. He did practical subjects that the grammar didn’t offer and got an electrical apprenticeship straight from school.

I came out with 9 O levels and 5 A levels and was the first in my (extended) family to go to university. I can’t say I made the best of a good education, but many of my classmates did. For us, it was a success. I completely understand that it wasn’t the same for everyone, but you can’t ignore the fact that for people like me, it worked.

So. 1965. I passed my 11+, along with a good proportion of my classmates and was sent to the local grammar school. The school I went to was an old fashioned grammar school with a twist. I think I’m going to make this in two parts. First, describing the school itself and then my personal experience of it. I’m not sure how it compares to other schools today. I only attended the one and the school my children went to was a comprehensive that had been built in 1950s as a grammar school but was becoming rather dilapidated.

I haven’t worked in a High School except for short times on supply so have very little idea of what is standard, either for normal high schools or grammar schools.

Our very first visit was on the day we started after the summer holidays. No visits to get to know the place, just “Turn up at 8:30 on Monday”. We were all sent into the hall and were allocated into 6 classes, 30 per class. There were proper cloakrooms to hang your bags and leave your outdoor shoes and we had a classroom with proper desks with lift up lids that we kept our books in. The teachers came to us, except for things like science, art, domestic science & PE.

We did exams twice a year and our report books included our mark & our position in class for each subject.

The school building was very new. It had its first intake in 1964 when we were in year 6 so had, what was then considered to


Typical 60s built school. Since demolished and replaced.

be state-of-the-art facilities.

For PE we had a boys’ and a girls’ gym with a sports hall between, tennis/netball courts, huge playing fields with multiple pitches for hockey, rugby and football, a rounders pitch, a full size running track and long jump and high jump pits. We also had a swimming pool. Well, to be honest, it was more like an oversized water tank in a greenhouse.

We had dedicated labs for Physics, chemistry and biology, art rooms, domestic science, both cookery and sewing music and woodwork and metalwork rooms.

We also had a kind of tiny farm with rabbits and guinea pigs. I’m honestly not sure what that was for.

After the first year, we were streamed. The top third (no idea how this was done) were put into two classes which comprised the Latin stream and, were taught Latin alongside other subjects. I imagine we were considered those most likely to go to university. Within those two classes we were further set for science only. We did have to choose between (I think) art & domestic science for girls and art & woodwork for boys. There was no thought of girls doing woodwork or boys taking DS.

The teaching was pretty formal, they told us stuff, we wrote stuff down, we learned things and discipline was, well, not especially strict actually. Some teachers expected you to stand when they came into the room but not all. Some wore gowns, most didn’t. Boys were caned for some misdemeanours, girls weren’t.

Every year we had an “Arts Festival” which was an inter-house arts competition which included creating & performing a small play (multi-year) reciting poetry, playing instruments etc.

great hall

The College hall from a more recent photo found on FB

The school had an annual Gilbert & Sullivan production with both (sixth form) students and teachers performing roles and a school play, again sixth formers. The two I was involved in were The Beaux Stratagem and The Petrified Forest, so it covered a decent range.

Girls played hockey, rounders, netball, boys did rugby, football, cricket. Boys also did cross country. We girls lobbied to be allowed to also, but the head was against it, he didn’t want girls “running round the countryside with bare legs”. He was eventually persuaded that we could run a circuit of the school fields, which is what the junior (years 7 &*) boys did. We soon discovered it wasn’t all that much fun, especially in the mud. We had inter-house sports and played against other schools. Often first and second teams.

The head was rather eccentric. He built an aeroplane in the woodwork block as a school project – I believe it is still flying today and help “High table” on the stage prefectin the college hall where about half a class would have lunch with him while we chatted politely. I remember him as always having food stains on his tie.

The sixth form was in a separate block, though it shared science labs and was not a standard school sixth form. It was, as far as I know, the first sixth form college.

I found this extract in a book which explains it quite well. There was no uniform in the sixth form and although we did not call teachers by their first name we did have a more informal relationship with them. We had a sixth form common room and free periods, at least, you did unless you had foolishly decided to take four full A levels.

mgs sixth form from Education 16-19 In Transition by Eric MacFarlane

From Education 16-19: In Transition Eric McFarlane

I’m sure there are things I have forgotten here but since I’m planning a further post on actual experience this is just meant to be a brief outline. I’m not sure it’s substantially different from many comprehensive schools today. I’ll write again about my personal experiences.



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Clearing my mind #1

I’ve had a shaky few years recently for various reasons but I think I’m getting back to my old self. I can tell this partly because I seem to be pissing more people off. I’m not saying this is a particularly good thing but it is familiar.

This means I can look back & start writing objectively about things I couldn’t write about before because they were too recent. So. I’m doing a few posts to get things off my chest. I don’t especially expect anyone to find them interesting but I can now write about them without getting upset so here we go.

Today I’m going to talk about …

Lesson Observations

I was thinking about this after reading this about Ofsted observations being not very useful in judging the quality of teaching.

Observations were the thing I hated most when I was teaching.

I came to teaching late after successful years in a variety of roles & industries – What can I say, I have itchy feet – It meant that I was used to being treated as an intelligent adult and having my judgement trusted. In teaching (at least in my experience), this isn’t the case.

We were observed twice a year. Once was by our line manager, when we were supposed to be able to negotiate which lesson was seen, and once was part of an institution-wide review. In the latter case all we were given was which half of the week we would be observed and it could be by any senior member of staff. This was meant to help prepare us for an Ofsted visit.

The first few years were fine. In those days, there were different grades for teaching & learning & 7 grades. I honestly can’t remember the grades but there were good points & points to improve. As time went on the pressure to perform well in these observations increased. As Ofsted observation grades changes, so did ours. We had grades 1-4 Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor. My place of work was ahead of Ofsted in deeming Satisfactory not to be satisfactory. A Grade 3 observation grade meant a stiff talking to & re-observation. In my experience, the grade given depended as much on who was doing the observing as much as on how the lesson went.

One year I had been given the second half of the week as my “time slot” I knew full well that some teachers managed to elicit hints about which lesson would be observed but I had none. By Thursday evening nothing had happened and I was getting very tense. On Friday I taught what were probably my three most challenging classes. I taught IT across the board to students who did not want to, and “had not signed up to” do IT (good luck to all those FE teachers who will be delivering GCSE resits to unwilling kids who failed them in school). On Friday morning I had two Performing Arts groups followed by a Sports Study group. I was delivering the same content to them all, although it would be delivered to the two kinds of students in very different ways. I had prepared a lesson which ticked all the boxes on the list of “How to deliver a Grade 1 lesson” which had been handed out the previous week. I had printed copied of the Scheme of Work, lesson plan, copies of handouts, a character profile of the students with their additional needs.

Of course, I hoped I would be observed in the first lesson as they were usually the more co-operative of the groups and Sports Studies students on the graveyard shift on Friday was always, shall we say, demanding.

No-one turned up to observe the first lesson. “Oh good” I thought optimistically. I can iron out any kinks. The class behaved appallingly. I suspect they simply picked up on my tension. Performing Arts students could be charming, mercurial, sensitive and infuriating. Often all at the same time.

The class were awful. Simply awful. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with the lesson but they were having one of those days. I kept thinking ahead to the next class who were generally less co-operative and how that lesson would be even worse, and the afternoon………..

Eventually, I burst into tears. There, in the classroom, in front of the students. I was mortified. It was bad enough crying in the loo or in the staffroom but in a classroom? In front of students? It was unthinkable.

The class were wonderful. They calmed down. Sympathised, behaved (*mostly) for the rest of the lesson, and, miraculously made no attempt to make capital from my distress. In a rather twisted way I could blame my distress on the fact that my mum had died a few weeks before and I suppose, in hindsight, that did have an effect, but truthfully, the cause of my distress was the stress of waiting to be observed and criticised.

The observer came to the next lesson. It was OK, not brilliant. I was still too shaky. No idea what grade it was given, I’ve obviously blanked that out.

Other than that, my worst experience was when I did a lovely lesson for an observation. The kids worked hard, learned stuff, enjoyed themselves. The observer enjoyed herself & told me so. When the report came back, my manager told me I had been given a grade 1 but they believed it was really a grade 2 because of a couple of improvements listed. Grade 2 went on my record. I was so cowed by the whole business by then I didn’t even go back to the original observer to ask. I think that was the point at which I realised it was time to go. I was obviously never going to win.

….Oh, no, there was an even worse occasion when I changed everything I was going to do in a vain and misguided effort to do what I thought was wanted and the class just refused (quite understandably) to co-operate at all. By then it was all too late and I was a dead woman walking anyway.

It is possible to have good experiences of observations where the focus is support rather than judgement. I had a wonderful staff mentor who came in and helped me to identify what I was doing right and what I could improve and how. If all observations were like that I would support them wholeheartedly. Sadly, they seem to be far more about bringing teachers into line and people pushing their own favourite styles & theories. I hope the way they are done improves. I don’t think that will happen.

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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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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.