Can You Help @Labourteachers?

Apologies that this post should have appeared last night. We seem to be having one of our periodic shortages of posts, and as a result things are running a bit late.

Having spent some time thinking of what to write about, it ocurred to me that the most obvious thing is to write a post begging for more help with this blog.

All the people volunteering to write posts do an excellent job keeping the show on the road, and we have just about managed a post a day for almost a year and a half, but it is a struggle at times.

In particular, a lot of people have left the Labour Party, or active involvement in the party, in the past year. For all the talk of Labour’s massively increased membership, there is precious little sign of it in terms of contributions to Labour Teachers. As the party has become more divided, there has been decreasing interest in contributing a site that remains open to all Labour supporting teachers, regardless of what wing of the party they are on. It may also be that as we require our writers to be Labour supporters rather than members, the plummeting level of support for Labour in the country is a better measure of our potential pool of contributors than the size of the party membership. On top of that a number of contributors have left teaching (although in most cases people have moved to exciting new jobs in education, rather than leaving because they have had enough).

So, I will ask again for the following:

  • If you are a Labour supporting teacher, could you write for us? The details are here and we try to publish everything we get that fits the basic criteria of being roughly 700 words from a Labour supporting teacher that has not been published elsewhere.
  • We have a schedule of regular contributors. Would you like to be added to it? It can be as few as one post every 2 months. It makes a huge difference if people can blog to a deadline, as our biggest problem is the huge variation in the quantity of posts. Some weeks I have enough posts for the next 5 days, some weeks I’m having to ask around every day or write my own posts just to keep things going.
  • If you are a scheduled contributor and you have missed a deadline recently, can you please get something to us as soon as possible? Most of the time being a few days late makes very little difference, but some weeks we have relatively few scheduled contributors, and if everyone misses their deadline in the same week it creates an immediate emergency.

Finally, Labour Teachers is hosted on a paid for server. The current funding for this is due to run out at the end of the year. Obviously, we could move the blog to somewhere where it will be paid for by advertising. Alternatively, we could seek to raise money to keep it where it is (the advantage being that we’d keep the current URL and all the statistics). Any suggestions about what to do would be gratefully received.

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Back to School Shopping List: Pens, Pencils, iPads? | @FlyMyGeekFlag

flymygeekflag profile picSarah Bedwell is an Aussie teaching English and other things in the north west of England. She loves using technology in new ways to engage and excite learning, though she does believe in pedagogy before technology. Sarah is currently the ‘Lead Learner for Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Learning’ – otherwise known as an eLearning Coordinator.

Before we even broke up for the Summer the back to school sales were in full swing in supermarkets and department stores across the land. I used to love the back to school shop: new pens, new notebooks and folders – all that promise and possibility for the year to come. I hated back to school shoe shopping when I was in primary school though, as my mother made me wear heavy black leather lace ups when all of the other girls got to wear sandals in the hot weather. It was so unfair! These days, the back to school shop is not as simple as pens, notebooks and shoes, as more and more schools seek to implement 1:1 device policies without the ability to fund them for themselves.

As a teacher, one of the most frustrating things that I have to deal with is students showing up to class without the necessary equipment. I don’t mean a pencil case full of a variety of coloured pens, pencils, protractors, rulers, erasers etc – though I wouldn’t be unhappy if they did. Too many times each day students rock up without a single writing implement and expect one to be just given to them. Now, I’m not intending to stir up the usual twitch-hunt over this – each side of the debate have their own reasons to believe why we should or should not simply give them out. But frankly, if students can’t be bothered to locate or hang on to a pen, then the idea of them turning up to lessons with iPads that are intact and with any kind of charge on them doesn’t look promising.

Those who know me know that I’m an advocate of technology in the classroom. Those who know me well know that I’m not an advocate of technology in the classroom at all costs. It worries me that schools still seem to be buying wholesale into the notion that iPads are a magic solution to raising standards, and have an expectation that all students will have one despite being unable to provide them themselves. I have never been a fan of Apple given their closed door approach to things, unlike Android which allows for a variety of brands to use their operating system, thus bringing the costs down for users. This rigid and unyielding approach from Apple might bring some security relief to nervy network managers, but it makes the devices often prohibitively expensive for many parents.

There’s also the problem with the devices then not being used to their full potential – or even half of their potential – because time for training and updating that training is not prioritised by schools. That’s training for students as well as staff. I know of several schools in my local area who jumped on the iPad bandwagon, all but forcing parents to pay out for the devices themselves, which are then rarely, if ever, used in the classroom. I know of plenty of teachers who use them well in their lessons, but it’s not a whole school approach if it’s only happening one lesson per day or three lessons per week. Parents are rightfully angry at having to pay out huge sums of money for them to be an entertainment device that rarely leaves their bag during the school day.

Rather than seeing schools invest precious funds into subsidising 1:1 schemes, I’d rather see them invest in a class set or two of (preferably Android) devices first, to test the waters and see how effective they may be. How many leadership courses talk about how to implement change effectively, by starting small, bringing enthusiastic staff on board, and then gradually rolling things out? Why do schools see 1:1 roll outs so differently? Keep the tech investment small, keep the time investment big, and look for hard data about improvement before strong arming parents into paying for a device that they might otherwise never use in a classroom.

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2 Posts on @LabourTeachers (Week Ending 13th August 2016)

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Here are the posts from the last week. Back to normal next week. Please get in touch if you are a Labour supporting teacher and can write something for us.

Sunday

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The Seminar Tutor

For the past few years I have had the pleasure of teaching first year undergraduates at a Russell Group University. On the whole, this has been the most rewarding and enjoyable job I’ve ever had. However, it is also a job that comes with a steep learning curve. The number one thing I have learned though,  is that A-Level history is not fit for purpose.

Monday

Non-Teachers Week 2: The Ex-Teacher | @aspiedelazouch

Years ago, when we first began to read about neurons and mirror neurons in the aisles of WH Smith, it seemed like the answer to everything was on the next shelf, if we could just… reach… across.

Tuesday

Non-Teachers Week 2: The Head Of Education at Classroom Monitor | @jodieworld

Is a change as good as a rest? One thing we have definitely had a lot of in primary assessment this year, is change. I am not sure it is as good as a rest, if I am honest. It’s been hard enough to keep up with assessment changes for me and this is my full time job! For teachers, who also manage the other full time job of teaching in the classroom all day, followed up with marking, planning, meetings and so on, it must have seemed an impossible task. A set up for failure really. The results have added up to pretty much that as well, with only 53% of pupils at Key Stage 2 managing to pass all of the SATs subjects. I have spent the year trying to keep our advice to schools up to date, as well as impacting product developments where necessary, to ensure teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel time and time again. I wish I could have helped more due to the volume of evident need, but even more so I wished I wasn’t needed for advice – that the DfE had taken care of that for teachers.

Wednesday

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The school governor

About six years ago I stopped being a school governor. I had been on the Governing Body of a primary school for 12 years, including a number as Chair, and I was exhausted. I had started becoming a grumpy git, the looming presence in the corner and it was time to stop.

Thursday

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The School Finance Director | @miconm

I first started working in schools in the relatively early days of financial autonomy and just after Labour’s historic election win in 1997. The school I started in had a cheque book and a manual ledger book, but the wider services were mainly provided by the Local Authority and funded through a top-slice. Change was happening fairly rapidly and over time the school started to procure its own cleaning, building services, IT and other contracts. By the time I got to my second school in 2006, my job title was School Business Manager and my brief included taking on a range of now-chargeable services such as payroll, HR advice and contracts, Governor services and clerking as well as all the usual ‘stuff’ that had become the staple of the school back office: finance, IT, facilities, non-teaching staff and so on. In 2007 I moved to my third school – with all of the above and no LA services at all. The school had been a former Grant Maintained School and although that status was abolished by the first Blair Government, Foundation schools had the right to a delegated budget and financial autonomy under the School Standards and Framework Act.

Friday

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The CEO of Fearless Futures | @hnaima17

5 Myths about Gender Equality in Schools

Myth number 1: Gender equality exists in schools
Schools are sadly not havens of gender equality. Far from it. The reason for this is simple though: schools mirror the world in which we live. Sexism is deeply embedded in our society. It is so ordinary and every-day we barely notice it.

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The CEO of Fearless Futures | @hnaima17

non2Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. This one is by Hanna, the CEO of Fearless Futures, an organisation that runs equality and leadership programmes for girls in school to engage them in critical thought to understand and challenge the root causes of inequalities and to grow powerful new ways of leading transformative change.

5 Myths about Gender Equality in Schools

Myth number 1: Gender equality exists in schools
Schools are sadly not havens of gender equality. Far from it. The reason for this is simple though: schools mirror the world in which we live. Sexism is deeply embedded in our society. It is so ordinary and every-day we barely notice it.

For example:

  • The pressure on boys to conform to ideals of macho masculinity
  • The myth that boys are ‘naturally’ better at maths
  • The fact that 1 in 3 girls experience sexual bullying daily
  • Women are overlooked in the curriculum and their achievements in History, Science, Music and beyond are not well represented
  • Few men working in primary and early years and women proportionately under-represented at SLT and Head teacher level in secondary schools

These are just five subtle ways in which sexism and gender inequality are everywhere, but with far-reaching consequences.

Myth number 2: I don’t need to consider gender because I’m looking at ethnicity and socio-economic background

I know as teachers and school leaders you have a huge amount to consider. But the efficacy of interventions will depend on an understanding of the way all elements of people’s identities inter-connect (among them ethnicity, socio-economic background, disability, sexuality and gender). The fact is, gender assumptions are key drivers of so many of the core-values we want at the heart of our education: aspiration, behaviour, attainment, social inclusion and community cohesion. Understanding how gender inequalities manifest themselves in your institution and taking action to challenge them will absolutely unlock a host of positives across your school.

Myth number 3: If we can just get more girls to study Physics – we’ll have cracked it

The under-representation of girls studying Physics and boys studying English at A-level are a consequence of embedded gender biases not the cause of them. From an early age, we give girls coded messages about their role and place in the world. Physics is just another space where society attributes value and where girls’ participation isn’t ‘the norm’. As such they may likely experience ‘stereotype threat’ – feeling that they don’t belong where the consequence is their confidence will suffer due to their concern that they will self-confirm a negative stereotype about their identity group. A vicious cycle if unchallenged.

Conversely, anything ‘girly’ (read: inferior) is reflected with an under-participation of boys – from caring-oriented careers through to Biology (the ‘girly’ and ‘easy’ science). To ensure schools are spaces where our young people feel able to access the full range of opportunities theoretically open to them, we must directly and holistically tackle gender assumptions.

Myth number 4: Girls aren’t a concern because they outperform boys academically.

I get it. Schools are measured by their contribution to academic attainment and their value add in service of that goal. But girls’ performance masks the reality for girls and women’s long-term livelihoods. There are c.100,000 more young women Not in Education Employment or Training (NEET) than young men, and when young women are NEET, they are NEET for longer. 61% of female apprentices work in just five sectors (all traditionally “feminine”), whilst the same proportion of men work in more than 10 sectors. 1 in 4 women work in low paid or insecure work (compared to 1 in 7 men) and a man is twice as likely as a woman to earn over £50,000.

Girls do well at school – but they continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market. Gender norms are the root of this and schools have a vital role to play in challenging this early on.

Myth number 5: Boys are disruptive and aren’t doing as well – we just need to focus on improving their grades

When we consider the “misbehaviour” and “disaffection” widely associated with boys’ lower academic attainment, we must explore how masculinity shapes this. When we teach boys from a young age that “big boys don’t cry” and to “man up”– we are also teaching them not to appear vulnerable or ask for help when they need it. We are teaching them to express anger and frustration with violence instead of tears and conversation, and to define themselves by sexual conquest and prowess. All else is ‘girly’, ‘gay’, ‘feminine’ and thus inferior.

A school culture that actively dismantles notions of these ‘ideal’ masculine behaviours will certainly drive boys’ attainment, engagement and self-expression. Furthermore, such a culture is absolutely necessary if we have any hope of creating a just and inclusive society where boys and men respect and value their female peers in school and in their lives beyond, and vice versa.

Shaping this future is in the hands of schools and their stakeholders. And despite the challenge ahead, with the right training, focus and innovation, this future needn’t be so far away after all.

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The School Finance Director | @miconm

non2Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here. This one is by Micon Metcalfe, Finance Director at a large all-through academy. She writes and speaks from time to time on education funding matters. She has supported Labour all her life and been a party member since 2015.

I first started working in schools in the relatively early days of financial autonomy and just after Labour’s historic election win in 1997. The school I started in had a cheque book and a manual ledger book, but the wider services were mainly provided by the Local Authority and funded through a top-slice. Change was happening fairly rapidly and over time the school started to procure its own cleaning, building services, IT and other contracts. By the time I got to my second school in 2006, my job title was School Business Manager and my brief included taking on a range of now-chargeable services such as payroll, HR advice and contracts, Governor services and clerking as well as all the usual ‘stuff’ that had become the staple of the school back office: finance, IT, facilities, non-teaching staff and so on. In 2007 I moved to my third school – with all of the above and no LA services at all. The school had been a former Grant Maintained School and although that status was abolished by the first Blair Government, Foundation schools had the right to a delegated budget and financial autonomy under the School Standards and Framework Act.

So I have always worked in a system where schools used their resources across a range of services provided by private and public sector. Taking payroll out of the local authority generated one saving; bringing insurance back in provided another. My focus has always been ‘how can we get the maximum resource directly into teaching and learning?’ Taking advantage of the 2010 Academies Act was an extension of that focus. I felt that the freedom and autonomy generated by academy status would give the school flexibility and choice going forward.

2010-2015 were tough years for school funding and consequently school finance directors. Savage cuts to post-16 and capital funding; freezing of per pupil funding and a proliferation of small targeted grants (all with requirements for reporting on website and to Ofsted). Some academy trusts failed to fully understand their duties under their Funding Agreements and the rest were punished with more stringent reporting requirements. The clarification and simplification of local funding formulae was a good outcome, but didn’t address the inherent unfairness of how school funding is allocated to different authorities. I spent my time working out how the school could maintain its educational provision as funding declined and I kept my expectations in check for any change post-election (just as well really). We thought we were efficient before – but we continue to do more with less – year on year.

The 2015 election result was disappointing but probably inevitable, as were the policy announcements: forced academisation, the need for greater efficiency in schools, a focus on a more restricted curriculum. It is clear that this government wants to spend less on schools and sees greater centralisation as a way to achieve it. It feels like full circle – the small autonomous school looks like an endangered species. I don’t think there is any way back. I cannot agree that the answer is to bring all schools back into local authority control and I suspect attempting to do so would cause a legislative headache (of not quite Brexit proportions). Labour in any case is not yet in an election winning position.

Yet I also do not want to see the loss of individuality in schools. I am convinced there are people in the system who can create good Multi-Academy Trusts that are able to drive efficiencies on the indirect costs and focus on the direct – the experience of the children in each school. It looks as if the grammar debate might distract from other policy formulation; perhaps it is time to quietly seize the moment and make the most of the current situation?

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The school governor

non2Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here. This one is by Chris, a chemist by training, working for a major engineering company. He is married to a primary HT and, in his past, was a Labour Councillor, Vice Chair of an Education Committee with a penchant for closing schools and Cabinet Member for Lifelong Learning during a failed LA Ofsted.

About six years ago I stopped being a school governor. I had been on the Governing Body of a primary school for 12 years, including a number as Chair, and I was exhausted. I had started becoming a grumpy git, the looming presence in the corner and it was time to stop.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to think about joining the Governing Body of a secondary school and I said that I would. I bumped into someone from the LA Governor Support Team in Waitrose. We were tussling over the last of the reduced salted caramel donuts. When I told her I was going back to governing, she said, “Ah, you must be very resilient,” and when I told her the school, she added, “They do need help.” I went to my first Governing Body meeting having set myself the difficult challenge of listening and saying nothing. I managed to do that for the whole two hours apart from introducing myself at the beginning of the meeting. A member of my team at work refused to believe this until I got an email from the Head confirming it.

I have now been to two full Governing Body meetings and several sub-committee ones. The being a governor bit doesn’t seem to have changed much but the whole context seems very different. I am still focusing on asking about the data, trying to understand how we are doing, where we need to do better and how we can do that. But there is a whole new vocabulary to learn. The challenge of returning to a field that is in constant flux is compounded by the fact that secondary schools seem to speak a different language to primaries and there don’t seem to be many displays on the wall.

Why go back now, you might ask yourself. I certain have. Labour is in disarray, hurtling headlong over the cliff of electability, there is barely any effective opposing going on and the Tories, looking unassailable, are starting to think the unthinkable. Grammar schools and secondary moderns; is that the best we can do to equip our young people for the 21st century? The answer is the same as it ever was. You have to keep fighting the good fight. Children get only one chance and good governance can make a difference. So, I am spending the summer going through Ofsted frameworks (changing again next month), inspection reports and notes of visits so I have a better idea of the challenge ahead. If I need to remind myself why, I remember my first visit to the school, a class of Year 8s making Pandora’s boxes and writing about the awful things inside. None of them mentioned Chris Woodhead or Michael Gove or, even, Ed Balls but they were inspired by good teaching and were learning. It did, I hope, make a difference.

Non-Teachers Week 2: The Head Of Education at Classroom Monitor | @jodieworld

non2Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here. This one is by Jodie, currently Head of Education at Classroom Monitor, who will soon be embarking on a freelance career.

Is a change as good as a rest? One thing we have definitely had a lot of in primary assessment this year, is change. I am not sure it is as good as a rest, if I am honest. It’s been hard enough to keep up with assessment changes for me and this is my full time job! For teachers, who also manage the other full time job of teaching in the classroom all day, followed up with marking, planning, meetings and so on, it must have seemed an impossible task. A set up for failure really. The results have added up to pretty much that as well, with only 53% of pupils at Key Stage 2 managing to pass all of the SATs subjects. I have spent the year trying to keep our advice to schools up to date, as well as impacting product developments where necessary, to ensure teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel time and time again. I wish I could have helped more due to the volume of evident need, but even more so I wished I wasn’t needed for advice – that the DfE had taken care of that for teachers.

This holiday is the first chance I, and many teachers, have had to really assess the assessment system. Quite frankly it’s been a mess. That’s my personal and professional opinion. It simply is inexcusable that so much documentation arrived late in the year; everything of an assessment nature should be in place and publicly available long before the start of the academic year and actually before the end of the previous one, to ensure that everything can be planned for properly. Teachers are incredibly flexible people, able to think on their feet, but even they have struggled this year to keep up with constant changes. Schools who previously prided themselves on being very organised with long term and short term plans ready for September, found they were flailing later in the year as all of their hard work needed rethinking.

However, my main gripe is not the overarching changes. I am all for a loss of levels, I feel they were used in all sorts of inconsistent ways and became a way for leaders to hold teachers to account, rather than a way for teachers to move children on in the right way. The focus on results as sub levels created a culture which masked issues and did not often marry up with what was actually happening in class – such is the nature of assessment being a number given once a term. I am not too unhappy with the actual new curriculum. It has its little foibles but when I think of my teaching preferences I like to think I could have made it work. (Possibly just the thought of someone who doesn’t really have to try…sorry!)

My main gripe is the end of Key Stage tests and results themselves. The SATs have recreated levels in a whole new, even more confusing and complex, way. The descriptors are hugely confusing for the below expected pupils and by narrowing achievement into narrow bands with a secure fit model, we have sent a whole year group off to Secondary school with a very clear “PASS” or “FAIL” written on their foreheads. It seems to me that if the DfE really care about the actual learning – i.e. that children are more fluent readers and writers and mathematicians – then the focus should never be on the whole subject banding but on the strands and the results of those.

As a school I would rather be sent not a list of scores but a list of our strengths and weaknesses across the cohort. I want to know we are good at grammar but struggling with spelling. Or great at fractions but weak in statistics. That is something I could imagine acting on as a Head Teacher. And as a secondary teacher I would imagine it would be more useful to know what a child struggled with and is good at? Rather than “Working Towards” Maths. How about a chart showing strengths and weaknesses at a glance based on strands? You could even use this chart for accountability. If a school shows as having the same weakness year after year there is something in that. If their strengths changes every year there is work to do there too!

The inherent problem is that the DfE, LAs, Ofsted and some Head Teachers feel the need to use assessment, i.e. test results only, as hard line accountability. That’s fine if you feel that’s what you have to do. But it will never solve the problem of attainment. That will only be solved when accountability is an ongoing journey within and across schools rather than a yearly headline.

Non-Teachers Week 2: The Ex-Teacher | @aspiedelazouch

non2Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here. This one is by Barney Angliss (@aspiedelazouch), who was a teacher for 25 years and is now a consultant in Special Educational Needs & Disability.

Years ago, when we first began to read about neurons and mirror neurons in the aisles of WH Smith, it seemed like the answer to everything was on the next shelf, if we could just… reach… across.

When Nature magazine recently published this study of the organisation of proteins in the brain, that irrepressible sense of wonder resurfaced. The authors suggest that, around the synapses of the brain, proteins are organised at jumping-off points in nano-columns: regions with the highest likelihood of releasing proteins are aligned with the densest receptor areas, thus optimizing the potency of neurotransmission. They only have to… reach… across.

Yet, setting aside the article’s finer points of vesicle priming which defeated me, I’ve observed nothing so simple nor so transparent since Woody Allen donned a white suit and was propelled, sperm-like, across the great divide for the teleological climax of “Everything You Wanted To Know…” This film, incidentally, includes a parody of “The Blob”. I make no apologies.

Watching Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith arriving at Cardiff, each struggling to penetrate a small wooden perimeter fence erected around the building and then, inside, debating like dogs chewing a splintered bone, was like reading that article in Nature: as much as I could understand the point, I couldn’t comprehend the detail of how these things came to be. The two men are fundamentally split on one issue – Trident – but that’s just an epitope to which their animosity binds in public. The rest, the grey that matters, is a tangle of “you left me” accusations and hysterical spending pledges. They agree that the party could not be less united than it is now and the solution is either to get back together or to walk away, according to one or the other. Writing in New Statesman this week, George Eaton argues that it’s all a question of alignment, reminding us of Corbyn’s comment to a supporter after he made it into the Labour leadership ballot last year: “Now we need to make sure I don’t win.” The Labour ‘selectorate’ is assumed to have a degree of plasticity; the purpose of Corbyn’s politicking, to shift the party’s nervous system further to the left rather than to win. In the televised debate, supporters on both sides took turns to cheer and jeer; the closer their voices assembled, the quicker they leaped to their man’s defence. Again, I recalled those white sheathed troops of Woody Allen’s film, marshalled into procreative columns: such potency, yet such poor odds.

I find myself in sympathy with Corbyn. Early in the last school year I chose not to win an argument but, rather, to shift the debate and let victory go begging. Clinging to principle, I resigned and, at their request, served an extended period of notice that became eight months of symbolic and curmudgeonly resistance. I’m now a consultant and my timeline on every conceivable platform is backlogged and bristling with things people have shared, from conspiracies to cocktails. Online, I read a letter in The Guardian deploring the senseless, cumulative sanctions imposed by a London council on its poor. Casually retweeting, I laid myself open to the kind of excoriating censure reserved exclusively for the whimsical, the infirm of purpose and the social justice warrior. Nothing hurts like being criticised by someone you like. I’m more conscious, now, of the effect my own words must have had when I handed in my resignation. Is it possible that Corbyn’s impact is so modest precisely because he prefers to be taciturn than to be outspoken? Watching the debate, I thought so. That ill-equips him to win votes but, if Eaton is correct, it may have allowed him to shape the agenda for the next decade, bringing forward from the shadow cabinet an electable opponent further to the left than had ever seemed likely.

We all have our jumping-off point. We can either look back at what we were and what we’ve left behind; or we can choose to believe that we are each of us an idea constantly in transmission: creative, inconclusive.

NON-TEACHERS WEEK 2: The Seminar Tutor

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Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here. This one is by Dave, a history postgraduate student at a top university.

For the past few years I have had the pleasure of teaching first year undergraduates at a Russell Group University. On the whole, this has been the most rewarding and enjoyable job I’ve ever had. However, it is also a job that comes with a steep learning curve. The number one thing I have learned though,  is that A-Level history is not fit for purpose.

As a seminar tutor this becomes most apparent when the first essays are handed in. With few exceptions, these essays are to scholarship what finger painting is to fine art. Sentences are torturously long. Paragraphs and sections meander aimlessly, veering between a knowledge dump, and a string of platitudes. Where there is structure it can often be painfully formulaic, the result of having been taught one very strict structure to please examiners. Students used to textbooks will desperately cling to one scholar as an authority. Occasionally, this first scholar will be linked with another completely different scholar in an effort to show a garbled consensus that does not exist. For example, I once had a student put forward a line of argument that tried to be both Marxist and Malthusian. Almost any essay on Germany in the 1930s and 1940s will be terrible, demonstrating both the strange obsession with the Nazis in the curriculum, and the lack of depth it is imparted with. However, the biggest problem though are four words, or a variation on the theme, that appear in so many essays: ‘this source is biased’.

The problem is that ‘biased’ is essentially a useless word for serious analysis. It presupposes that there is a perfect, fair and unimpeachable ‘unbiased’ that is always objective. This is particularly unhelpful when students are asked to work directly with sources. Many will seek desperately to prejudge a source based on a shallow understanding of its authors. Others will do the opposite and latch on to elements of the source, sometimes wholly disingenuous elements, and ignore the need to question why, or how the source came to be?

On one course I teach, we ask students to write a commentary on an archival document, most of which are pamphlets, relating to political change in 1970s Britain. Telling me that a pro-free market think tank is ‘biased’ against Trade Unions is essentially meaningless, it obviously is. However, the real problem with the abuse of the term ‘bias’ is not just the sloppy scholarship, but the way it can be used as a get out of jail card for providing actual analysis, or worse for confronting facts and opinions that you do not agree with.

Now of course my colleagues  and I do our level best to drive these bad habits out of our students. We are on the whole successful, and our students are often miles ahead intellectually of where they were dumped by A-Level history. Yet of all the issues, getting students to move beyond declaring things to be ‘biased’ is hardest.

This reflects a wider problem with the misuse of ‘bias/biased’ across debate in Britain. In an age of great political uncertainty and increasing polarisation ‘bias’ has become a favourite escape route for those unwilling to seriously engage with politics. It has of course become popular to refer to ‘post-factual’ or ‘post-truth’ politics (I prefer the term ‘Super Bullshit Politics’). This has become even more concerning in light of the current ‘debate’ about the Labour party leadership where one, extraordinarily poisonous, level of the online discourse is undercut with accusations that opposing points of view are ‘biased’. The real problem with this is not just a disturbing inability to engage with facts such as: polling, or multiple instances of anti-Semitism, but the willingness to construct a fantasy world based, rather ironically, in a construct of self-reinforcing references and ideas designed to coddle the individual’s original point of view, rather than introduce any nuance, or heaven forbid doubt.

The abuse of a pantomime idea of ‘bias’ is not only cheapening our national discourse, but is empowering people to act in a way which the inhabitants of Jonestown might have believed to be a step too far. Improving A-Level History courses will not magically fix this problem, but it might well help to lift the level of national debate from its current swamp. Plus it would make my life as a seminar tutor easier.

Last Week’s Posts on @LabourTeachers (Week Ending 6th August 2016)

Before I list this week’s posts, please have a look at the details for Non-Teachers Week 2 and pass them on to anybody who might be able to contribute a post.

Here’s last week’s posts. If you are a Labour supporting teacher and you’d like to write something for us, please get in touch.

Sunday

Don’t worry about grammars: keep improving comprehensives! | @rbnpepper

A few days ago on this blog Jules Daulby claimed that “I have found something we all [the Labour community] generally agree on (I think). That the return of grammar schools is a crap idea.”

Well, I’ve been a Labour party member for over a decade and I have no issue with selective schools. I went to one, I taught in one. I know them very well and recognize their strengths and their weaknesses. In my own personal, highly anecdotal experience they have the potential to be transformative and wonderful.

Monday

When they go low, we go high | @RosMcM

“When they go low, we go high”

Michelle Obama

I listened to the First Lady’s speech and it made me reflect on how I dealt with such things as a teacher. Over the course of my teaching career I taught many subjects – I trained to teach sociology and RE, but have taught politics, economics, history, PSE, and even bricklaying (that wasn’t one of my highlights!) In the late ‘80s I was the school’s ‘AIDs Education Co-ordinator’ and taught students how to unroll condoms onto large pritt sticks. I always seemed to be teaching what were known as ‘controversial topics’.

Tuesday

Show me the money Jeremy! | @davowillz

For the past few weeks I’ve really been trying to understand the policies of Jeremy Corbyn’ s shadow government. To be frank, at first Jeremy impressed me. I liked the fact that he kept trying to bring Prime Minister’s questions back to policy and I thought he argued his points in a clear, dignified fashion. This was refreshing and exactly, in fact, how I think good politicians should behave. I’m reminded of Michelle Obama’s motto at this point: “When they go low, we go high.” I also felt that Cameron was quite flustered by this approach. All Dave really did is offer quite infantile sound bites. (I do worry that the sound bites are generally all that makes it onto the news mind you.)

Wednesday

Non-Teachers Week 2 on @LabourTeachers

The week running from Sunday the 7th August to Saturday 13th August will be Non-Teachers Week on Labour teachers. We will be looking for posts by people who:

  1. are Labour supporters, preferably members or registered supporters;
  2. work (or volunteer) in education, but not (currently) working as teachers.

These two requirements are non-negotiable. You do not have to work directly for a school, but should be in regular (preferably daily)  contact with those working or training in schools or colleges.

Grammar School Heresy | @pjmerrell

There’s a Mitchell and Web sketch in which two Nazi SS officers consider their uniforms – complete with skulls on their caps – and begin to wonder: ‘are we the baddies?’

Of late, I’m starting to empathise.

I grew up in the 80s – in inner-city Birmingham – in a house about 5 miles away from where I live now. The men in our family, across the generations, work with our hands. We leave school, as quickly as possible, without qualifications and become gas men, electricians, plumbers and welders. We start at the bottom and work our way up.

Thursday

Actually, Mr. Corbyn, the facts don’t matter… | @rhsp27

Like so many others, the outcome of the EU Referendum left me more than disappointed, but not surprised. That was because I’d spent a lot of time campaigning in my home constituency where traditionally, as the cliché says, the Labour vote is weighed, not counted. Now, however, the reality of a Labour heartland not being convinced by – or not really caring about – the party line on this massive issue, has become all too apparent. In the end, in the course of campaigning in this area, it was clear that it was the inaccurate impressions of the adverse effects of immigration, which above all, swayed the vote. For, as conventional wisdom had it, it was immigration that was the cause of a ropey health service; immigration that resulted in no jobs or low wages and immigration that rendered our education system over-subscribed and under-resourced. Some concession was made to the benefits of the more enlightened policies of the Welsh Assembly Government and its First Minister. But this was frequently eclipsed by the overwhelming impression that the Westminster politicians did not understand the real world and had no real idea of what life was like in this part of the country. As such, people who would suffer most directly (in financial terms) from a Brexit victory threw caution to the wind, ignored hard evidence and voted Leave. For me, blithely assuming that the referendum would be secured by the Labour loyalty vote, June 24th was a wake-up call.

Friday

The Cost of a University Education | @JulesDaulby

I was saddened yet not surprised the UK’s tax on university education has created a wealth divide. 9% fewer state school entries applied for university this year as private school applications continued to rise.

Saddling yourself with huge debt is a concern for anyone who knows their parents will not be able to help them out.