Some reflections at the end of the School year

Writing this on 19 May will undoubtedly irritate some people.  It’s not even close to the end of the School year.  In my defence, the Upper Sixth and Fifth Form have gone (gone into exam overdrive, certainly) and the sun is out, which means that it is summer.  I have also taught 26 Saturdays this year, so in terms of days taught, my 19 May is your 1 July.

The end of the School year approaches, and this means cricket and exams.  Some other things happen at this time of the year too, but these are the most important.  There are just over 1100 pupils at my School, and as each pupil group shifts up a year, the current Upper Sixth will drop off the end and are let loose into the real world.  Around 10% of the 155-strong teaching body will spread their wings and fly (or fold back their wings and retire).  So the School prepares for its 459th new year, and everything changes.

I play a part in the lives of others, and I neither under nor over-estimate my impact.  My abiding sense of guilt means that I try to ensure that I could have done no more to help any pupil that under-performs.  When such a poor performance occurs, I like the line (delivered to the pupil): I suppose it is fair to say that we have both failed.  I, at least, have tried.  I’ve never used this line of course, and I don’t suppose I ever will.  Taking responsibility for the performance of those you teach is one of the fundamental parts of getting teaching.  There are teachers who trumpet the part they played in the excellence of grades achieved, but explain the poor results with a they get what they get shrug of the shoulders.  I like the approach which involves stepping into the shadows when the result is excellent and stepping forward with a comforting arm when the result is poor.

I was 17 years old when I left School and I am 37 years old now.  This is my 20th year out of Schooling from a pupil perspective, though I will complete my 16th year of teaching in June.  I have been hanging out with School pupils for roughly 30 of 37 years and the longest time I’ve ever spent not in School was the first four years of my life.  Maybe I should find out what the real world is like some time?

Can one ever become friends with pupils they have taught?  I think it depends on the nature of your dealings with them.  As a senior manager, it is hard enough to make genuine friendships with colleagues let alone pupils.  Many of us like to put people in boxes and from a pupil perspective I think I’m well and truly in the person who tells you how hard you should be working all the time in assemblies and there’s no way I want to listen to that any more than I have to kind of guy.  Perhaps the thought of a drink with me the year or two after leaving School isn’t all that appealing.  We can’t turn our perception of people on and off like a switch, and I don’t resent that italicised perception.  How I really like to be perceived is summed up quite neatly here:


In every year group there are a select group pupils in whom I take a real interest – these are the ones I wonder where they will end up in years to come.  They are sometimes the ones who don’t quite get it right at School and you want to know whether the extra freedom will allow them to shine.  Open the cage door and some fly, others fall and some can’t seem the leave the perch.  Or they happen to be the pupils I think have genuine deep human qualities and I hope that others allow this to be realised.  I stay in touch with some, but it should be more; after all, it’s easy not to lose contact, but I’d quite like them to want to stay in touch too.  Maybe I should teach the last lesson with my Twitter handle and Facebook address on the board, but then suppose no-one followed or added?  

I think many friendships are a matter of convenience.  How many friendships survive because of geography or dwindle because of the hassle of keeping them going?  Many friends are quite tangential – brilliant fun to play cricket with during the summer but put back in their cricket box come September.  Anyway, it’s possible to have fun with almost any individual for a short amount of time: most people bring out their best stories upon first meeting.

I think I’ll post this now, just as it is.

Do we really need to know this?

Questions form a large part of the educative process.  Teachers ask a lot of questions and are asked many in turn.  Most of the questions are welcomed, but the one in the title never falls into this category.  I have never answered the question with a straight ‘no’ (I tend to employ my best withering stare), but I wonder what the response to this answer would be?  To pack up one’s books and leave?  To tune out until the material becomes more relevant?

What the pupil is really asking is whether they are likely to be directly questioned on this material in an examination.  This implies that all knowledge can be categorised as necessary or unnecessary.  The necessary stuff is to be found on the GCSE or A level syllabus, and the unnecessary stuff, well, that’s simply unnecessary.  Why would you ever want to know anything that you weren’t going to be tested on?

Examinations are important, or at least doing well in examinations is important, but examinations are best seen as a celebration of all knowledge gained up to that point.  The examination syllabus guides the teaching and revision process, and in the run-up to examinations, it becomes an almost biblical document.  But for most of the educative process, we do not find ourselves in the run-up to public examinations, and it is important to realise that not all great literature is to be found in the GCSE English syllabus and one cannot find all that is worth knowing about philosophy and ethics in the GCSE RS syllabus.

Teachers tend to blame the syllabus and to use it as a crutch in roughly equal measure.  If the pupils aren’t finding the work interesting, laying the blame at the door of the syllabus is a standard strategy: ‘we have to get through this, it’s in the syllabus’.  Highlighting work that ‘comes up on the exam all the time’ is another tried and tested method to perk up the reluctant learner.  I do think it’s important for pupils to know why one topic leads on to another and to be aware of how the subject is structured, but this shouldn’t be done simply because section 3.1a of the syllabus leads into section 3.1b.  I wonder how many Lower Sixth lessons go by before exams, coursework, modules and syllabus are mentioned?

A simple philosophy for all Sixth Form teachers is this: you have two years to allow pupils to become the best Physicists/Historians/Hispanists they can be, and at the end of this time, you need to assiduously prepare these pupils for the examinations that will allow them to access the Higher Education institution of their choice.

Going back to the concept of necessary and unnecessary knowledge, can it be argued that any knowledge is unnecessary?  After all, even the most trivial fact might help you win some money in a pub quiz.  But it’s far more than that, and I firmly believe that knowledge enhances your life.  Knowledge of the painter El Greco makes a visit to Toledo far richer; driving large distances when in the US is more pleasurable having read works by Kerouac and Steinbeck; knowledge of the Hillsborough disaster makes the recent Liverpool surge to the title far more poignant.  None of this knowledge will ever help you pass an examination, but without them, Toledo is simply a pretty town, a long drive in the US is simply necessary to get from A to B and Hillsborough is just a football stadium in Sheffield.  Knowledge means interest, knowledge means context and (in some cases) knowledge means power.  

Absence of knowledge can never be a good thing; this point I feel is unarguable and some fault must lie with the approach taken by teachers.  ‘Extra’ knowledge, that is knowledge beyond the confines of the syllabus, is too often seen as being the privilege of the academically able, with academic extension something that is laid on for the scholars, the bright and the interested.  Of course this is not true; academic extension is for everyone, though it is inevitable that the nature of that extension will differ from pupil to pupil.  It is fundamentally wrong that any pupil should fail to interact with material that raises them from the bare bones of a subject.  A certain academic liberation exists when learning is done for its own sake.  Improving one’s knowledge is an enjoyable process and in turn this leads to greater enjoyment of the world around us.  We need to get away from the mentality that all learning is simply a means to an end; I often hear pupils stating that they ‘have to read this book as part of preparation for Oxbridge’.  If this is literally true, and it is simply being read for some necessary progression up the academic ladder, is the enjoyment of the book not removed, or at least seriously diminished?

And just to be clear, if any doubt remains: yes, you really do need to know this.    

The New Socialising

I went to a party on Saturday.  I don’t often get invited to parties.  It was a perfectly good party: in a bar, with food and drink and company and though I didn’t know many of the people there, they all seemed nice and friendly.

The day after the party I finished the book ‘The Teleportation Accident’ by Ned Beauman, where the narrator of the tale states:

“Compare the Venice of the late renaissance … to the Berlin of Weimar … to whatever city would turn out to be most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts, with just a few spasms of worthwhile art going on at the naked extremities. Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence.”

If that’s his definition of equivalence then Saturday’s party gave me a sense of equivalence.  It was very similar to parties that I used to attend in the days when I attended more parties than I do now.  I wouldn’t suggest that any of my parties bear much resemblance those that went on in Isherwood’s Berlin, but they certainly bear a great similarity to each other.  The parties haven’t changed much, but the people at the parties have changed quite a lot.  I used to go to parties with other teenagers when I was a teenager myself.  I then went to university parties, then parties for people in their mid-twenties.  I am now more likely to attend Christening parties, 40th birthday parties or divorce parties.

  If one defines parties by a rather all-encompassing definition that involves a reasonable number of people who get together at a specific venue for the purpose of eating, drinking, chatting and perhaps dancing, then this is what I mean by the fact that the parties haven’t changed very much, certainly from when I was a teenager and probably from way back in the days of the Weimar.  A graph of time (x axis) versus change in party-style (y axis) would look very much like a flat-line.  If I plotted a different graph of my age (x axis) versus suitability for this kind of socialising (y axis), it would look more like the parabola above.  The far left-hand side would be me at School the far right me now aged 36 and the peak represents me around 25.

School socialising was terrible.  I knew it at the time and I know it now.  Being at a Boarding School meant that Saturday night was the only night with potential for socialising.  The pressure one felt on a Saturday was acute.  Add to this pressure a lack of funds, lack of any real social skills (especially where members of the opposite sex were concerned) and a likelihood of not being served alcohol in any decent establishment and you created a potent cocktail to guarantee social failure.  It’s not a though it was just pubs that wouldn’t serve us; we were lucky to get served alcohol in one of the local curry houses.  An order of 5 poppadoms and 5 pints of lager was common and there wasn’t much chance of making contact with the opposite sex in the window table of Amran’s in Bedford.  Likewise a lack of funds meant that one had to nurse each pint for around 90 minutes to make sure you weren’t left dry by 9pm.  The second half of the pint tasted how I imagine the dregs of lager being poured down the sink the morning after a party would taste if one were curious or desperate enough to take a sip.

By my mid-20s, I was at party peak.  Funds were no longer an issue, getting served was no longer tricky and with the ‘Loaded’ version of the New Lad dead by 2002, it was fine to wear fitted floral shirts out in public.  Many contemporaries remained incapable of talking to members of the opposite sex, instead employing the tactic of ‘separate a girl from her group of friends and then grind like there’s no tomorrow’.  It wasn’t successful.  But doing what we were doing felt about right.  Quaffing a bottle of absinthe before taking a bus to Loop bar felt like the right thing to do, with all problems associated with youth, finances and shyness removed.

But I’ve come out the other side now and I’m nearing the bottom of the parabola again.  The parties are the same but I’ve changed.  Frankly I feel a little embarrassed doing the same kind of socialising that I used to do (albeit unsuccessfully) aged 17.  I know this is my problem and few other people seem to have similar concerns, but it still leaves me pondering: What’s next?  What’s the new socialising?  Is it only canapes, dinner parties, kitchen suppers and Burial on the ipod if one wants to socialise in groups?  Or can I spend my time walking round Victorian graveyards on my own without feeling weird?

Happiness in Bangor

It’s half term now, or Long Exeat as we call it, and I’m enjoying the week off doing very little apart from reading books.  I’ve been reading the ‘Weird Tales’ of H P Lovecraft, which are pretty weird in a Victorian Gothic ghosts and ghouls-type way.  I’ve obviously not switched off from School completely though, because I came across an article in last week’s TES which makes Lovecraft seem like the epitome of normality.

The article is by Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths, who teaches at a Sixth Form College in Norfolk.  In it he attempts to explain that whereas we are all frustrated by the low motivation and work ethic of some pupils, the opposite can also be the case, and pupils do exist that are ‘driven’ and ‘obsessed’ and sometimes these can be ‘just as draining’.  He gives the example of one of his pupils called ‘Michael’ (this can’t help reminding me of the Franz Ferdinand song, which is unfortunate given its strong homoerotic message).  Anyway, Michael is an able mathematician, who has done well in his A level modules, but is worried that he has lost some marks along the way that may mean he does not secure the A grade he needs to attend Cambridge.   

Here’s where Jonny steps in, and says: 

‘Michael, apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?’. [controversial line, needs some back up]

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.
‘I mean, I care, of course,’ I add, swiftly. ‘But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’ [classic argument fallacy – limit the options, neither of which sound that great to me]
“Michael is too stunned to reply.”

Later of course, the moment that Jonny is right all along dawns on Michael in a cringe-worthy final paragraph.  Michael answers a question in class (wrongly) and is corrected by another member of the class.  He then turns to look at Jonny, a smile breaks out over his face, and then he realises….what?  That he was crap at Maths all along, that he might as well go to Bangor, that he doesn’t really give a shit either way, or maybe Franz Ferdinand were right all along, and that he and Jonny should head down to Disco X right there and then.

The real problem here is that there is a very important and valid point that Jonny is trying to get across, but that it’s been lost in a clumsily-worded article.  The problem is that the current examination system has heaped extra pressure on pupils, pressure that did not exist until about ten years ago when the examinations went modular.

One of the main purposes of examinations (and I do mean examinations, not education) at Sixth Form level is to sort a very large number of pupils into two distinct categories: those that go to university and those that don’t.  Within the former category, the examinations need to assign pupils to universities and courses that are appropriate to their interests, talents and ambitions.  Students at university should be appropriately challenged academically, but it’s wrong for someone to end up on a course that is too demanding for them as to end up on one which is conceptually beneath them.

So what’s the problem?

1.  You can do the exams several times

Some papers can be taken four times through the course of the Sixth Form, and only your best mark counts.  Most universities don’t care how many times you had to take the paper to gain the best mark.  

2.  Some subjects are much easier than others

Studies show that there’s about a two-grade difference between the hardest and easiest subjects.  This means that the same pupil (without specific talents in one subject over another) would get two grades higher for, say Film Studies, than they would for Physics.  Even within the same subject, the percentages of A grades are different depending on what exam board you take.  The differences here are smaller, but not negligible.

3.  You can pay for examiners to come in and tell you the answers

4.  Formulaic examinations

I very rarely hear pupils telling me that they don’t understand topics, or that they don’t possess the knowledge to be able to answer questions.  The oft-most cited reason for losing marks is ‘examination technique’, as in ‘I knew everything about that question, but my exam technique let me down’.  Never mind; all we have to do is work through a filing cabinet-full of past papers, and all the examination technique problems will disappear.  Except they won’t; all that will happen is that you will do the same style of question so many times that you’ve developed a rote manner for answering that particular question.  It doesn’t matter that this particular brand of technique will never be required again, so long as they help you gain that A.  These formulaic examinations also reward a particular type of pupil, the automative ‘t-crosser’.  This type of person is useful if you want a large data-entry to be completed accurately, but they aren’t necessarily the kind of creative thinker that’s going to deal with the population/economic/energy crises.

5.  Grade inflation

1980: 8% of A level grades were A.  2011: 8% of A level grades were A*, with around 30% at grade A.  Grade inflation is happening, and it’s not that teachers are getting better or pupils are getting cleverer.  It’s also not that exams are getting easier, which is often seen to be the public’s belief.  It’s simply that much more teaching is focused on how to pass these exams.  This isn’t really what teachers want, but this is what has happened, and it’s understandable why.  By cramming so many grades awarded at the top end, we are struggling to differentiate between pupils, and this is the reason that Jonny’s pupil Michael feels quite so under pressure.  He knows that to get AAA twenty years ago would put him in a real academic elite; nowadays, this isn’t good enough.  He needs A* grades, maybe two of them.  He’s stuck with ‘gymnastics scoring’, where 9.975 is good, and 9.895 is frankly rubbish.

6.  Unfair grading

Every now and again, I mention to non-teaching friends of mine that it’s possible to get 320/400 marks at A level to gain an A*, and to get 379/400 and gain an A.  They think it’s ridiculous and so do I, but it’s the truth.  Bearing in mind that top universities use A* grades in their offers, they’re not even certain of separating out the top pupils by marks any more.   

7.  Extra filtering

Pupils can now be filtered out of top courses on their GCSE grades, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will get an offer from Oxbridge without at least 6A* grades on their CV.  But why does a Maths GCSE matter for a brilliant linguist and why should an aspiring medic be discriminated against for being only quite good at French?  Pupils at different Schools take different numbers of GCSE subjects, and some subjects are harder than others.  Due to the grade inflation point above, universities need extra ways of filtering out pupils.  Looking at GCSE scores makes little more sense than looking at hair colour.

So what’s the solution?

Place more emphasis on problem solving in examinations; take away an over-reliance on past papers; add an abilities test to the end of Sixth Form examinations; scrap GCSEs; allow universities to set their own entrance papers; do away with coursework; don’t allow re-takes; cap the number of A grades that are awarded each year; break the links between chief examiners and School visits; have fewer Sixth Form subjects – not every course needs to have an exam at the end of it to be educational.

And finally, don’t let Jonny Griffiths write an article in the TES again.

The Element

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Element’ by Ken Robinson, in which he argues that a successful future (either individual or collective) is dependent on us finding our passion in life. I think that most people would argue that discovering one’s passion, and subsequent immersion in said passion is a good thing, and that many people have yet to discover that which is their raison d’etre.

The book is tricky to pin down, however, and for the most part uses examples of famous and talented people that did not discover their passion until they left School, or (in the worst cases) were actively discouraged from following their chosen path by those who guided them through School. I’m always sceptical of anectodal highly-specific and personalised evidence used to lend weight to a theory, especially when no counter-argument is put forward.

Robinson’s general point is that we should all be given ample opportunity to find one’s own ‘Element’, and this is more likely to occur if we were to lose the hierarchy of subjects in Schools, and to place more emphasis on the Arts, and creativity in general. We also need to ensure a high quality of teachers (or mentors (I like this word)) in our Schools, to make it more likely that pupils will be inspired to find their ‘Element’.

It’s hard to argue against either of these points, and when he writes about the need to blur the boundaries between subject disciplines, he’s particularly persuasive; I’ve always been passionate about cross-curricular teaching. I find his jokey style irritating, like the person at a party who’s unable to enter any serious conversation in case people find him boring, and I find his analogy of the standardised ‘fast-food’ curriculum that we have now versus the ‘michelin-starred’ curriculum that we should embrace to be flawed, but it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in the difference between Schooling and education. Just try not to cringe when he describes Paul McCartney as a rock God.

One thing it did do was make me think. I often feel that I’m far too flexible about education, and that my views on how it should be best achieved (at least at School) vary with the seasons. I think that this is actually no bad thing, given our inability to predict what will happen in even the near future. Things move at such a pace (technology, population expansion, global climate change) that it would be foolish to present an education model fit for even the next 5-10 years.

But here’s some ideas:

1. Do away with the current system of Sixth Form examinations (A-levels etc). Universities set their own entrance exams, which ensure that the gap between School Sixth Form and university learning is bridged. This encourages liaison betweeen Schools and universities, and ensures that Schools look forward to higher education and the job market rather than backward to past papers.

2. Exams should be relevant to the subject(s) that the pupil wishes to study, but should be less about rote learnign of facts and more about complex problem solving within that subject. Trundling through mounds of past paper questions is not education; it’s teaching people how to pass an exam.

3. Do away with ‘subjects’ at School, and instead teach ‘classes’, similar to the US college system. This encourages the pupils to think about education not as clasified and categorised into specific subject areas. How many times have I head pupils say ‘but isn’t that Physics?’ when discussing the structure of the atom. Being educated isn’t about learning what’s on the syllabus for 3 subjects in the Sixth Form. I teach chemistry, but why shouldn’t I teach classes about scientific literature, the history and philosophy of science?

4. Prioritise the education that occurs outside School. We focus so much on the education that our pupils get within the School’s 4 walls, and ignore what happens outside. It’s so easy to communicate with anyone at any time, and yet we don’t make best use of this in an educational sense. Education means much more than taught classes, and people can become more educated every time they read a book, or a newspaper, or watch a film, or listen to music, or debate a political point. If the pupils are inspired in the classroom, they’ll be adept at educating themselves outside the classroom.

There you go – heavy stuff for a Tuesday morning, or does that make me sound too much like Ken?

Staying in Control

Since I started blogging I’ve had a go at food, sport, music and low-grade humour. I clrealy have a way to go before I’ve mastered any of them, and reading Malcolm Gladwell on the train today confirmed the enormous insurmountable chasm that exists between me and he. I’m not sure what makes him quite so good, but I’m pretty sure it’s the fact (as I read in a review somewhere) that he makes you feel like you’re the genius. He makes things that you weren’t interested in seem interesting, and he makes things that you hadn’t even thought about fascinating. I bet he’d make a great teacher, because this is all teaching is really about. If you can explain things to people, and develop their interest at the same time, you’ll have done your job. When Arthur C Clarke said that ‘when people are interested, education happens’, he knew what he was talking about.

When people ask me whether they’d make a good teacher (most people seem to have thought about the profession at some point), I always say that all you need is the capacity to work hard, and you also need to be an interesting person. Since most of my friends are interesting people, I end up telling them that they’d make good teachers. It’s not quite as easy as that, because there’s a lot more paperwork these days (our litigious society has seen to that), and it can be stressful, and hard to turn off. If I ever thought that my friends were serious about going into the profession, I’d probably give a little more thought to the advice I gave, and the most important thing for any new teacher is this: stay in control.

The feeling of losing control of anything is terrifying (cars and bowels come to mind), but losing control of a class is about the worst thing that can happen to you during the School day. We all get by with a mixture of bluff and bravado, and with the realisation that the system only works if the traditional pupil/teacher relationship holds. We as teachers have complete power over the pupils, but this power is based on nothing at all. So a pupils wants to walk out, and swears at us on the way past? So be it (this never happens where I teach, but I’m sure it does somewhere every day). Power and control zapped in an instant. What keeps the pupils in their chairs is the illusion of power and no more. I am one of those teachers who has to be in control all the time, a control freak if you will. I had just enough of a taste in my early career of what it felt like to be on the edge of losing control, and I didn’t want to go back there.

In reality, it should be quite easy. Pupils generally have no plan B, whereas we have the opportunity to have plan B, C, D and any others that are required. Easy enough to stay ahead? Maybe, but there’s quite a few of them and only one of you, and you need to stay ahead of all of them. Pupils don’t have a lesson plan, and it’s our job to have a response to anything that may be thrown at us. Need silence? Have a 10 question spot test in the bag.

Now I work at an idyllic place; it’s hard work, but it’s control of a different sort that I thought about earlier today, and it’s the control associated with management. What I liked about running a department was that it was easy to stay in control. You had your little corner of the School, your team of teachers and a section of the School population that committed to your subject every year. You could plan out your year; sometimes the admin got on top and it was enough just to keep up to date with everything and make sure that the ship stayed on an even keel. At other times, with no deadline pressures you had the opportunity to be creative, and the blue sky ideas could flow. After a year or two in post, you knew when it was time to baton down the hatches and get through the rough stuff, and when it was time to unfurl the sails and let the wind take you. Such is the joy of an academic department.

I have great respect for middle managers on the academic side, but that’s a job I could do. Middle managers on the pastoral side have a whole different set of challenges. How do you stay in control? I’m not sure it’s ever possible to do so. No matter how good and watertight the systems you put in place, they can be blown apart by one unpredictable incident, such as never happens on the academic side. Your job is reactionary, and no amount of pro-activity will ever make it any less so. For this reason (and I’m sure there are others) it’s not for me. The thought that something (anything) could happen at any time is exciting, no doubt, but if anything is going to interrupt university challenge, I’d like to think that it’s something I could have predicted.