Archive | May, 2015

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed- Jon Ronson

31 May

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As I think I’ve written a few times I generally don’t read non-fiction.  It just doesn’t appeal to me.  However, I had heard good things about Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,’ and having previously really enjoyed his book, ‘The Psychopath Test,’ I gave it a go.  I thought it was brilliant.  Thought-provoking and inspiring in equal measure.

Towards the end of the book the author examines the impact of shaming as part of criminal prosecution and incarceration.  I found this really interesting as I am a firm believer that prison, for the majority of people, is part of the problem rather than the solution.  Locking people up and denying them self-esteem and an opportunity to improve themselves denies them, and us, the opportunity to see any tangible reform.  I just cannot understand why as a society we continue to expect different results with the same experiment.  Untill we do, I doubt reoffending levels will drop dramatically nor will we see a role in the community for those placed in jail.

There are a series of investigations, analysis and interpretations around public shaming throughout the book but it was the looks at twitter that most got to me personally.  I know from speaking to some friends that their reaction to the book has been to make them second guess the sort of things they put up on twitter.  It has created a paranoia around the fact their tweets could be misinterpreted, deliberately or otherwise.  For me it was a different reaction.  I don’t believe I’ve posted things up that could be seen as overtly offensive, although I have no doubt someone could construe anything to suggest otherwise.  However, I did identify with the threads in the book that highlighted the growing sense of community outrage.  Individuals who have jumped on the bandwagon of public shaming, sometimes for all the right reasons, without a greater consideration for the individuals at the centre of the storm.  I may have been perfectly within my rights to have been shocked at the nature, tone or thrust of someones comments but have I always stopped to consider their context?  Have I always thought about the regret those individuals may have had or what the longer term impact has been on their social/professional lives?  I am not sure I can say I have.  It was a timely read in particular coming after the election.  I stayed, I believe, politically neutral.  I’m glad to say I don’t partake in party politics in any way shape or form.  Still, many of those I follow do, and on a cross-party basis.  The commentary from some was so one-eyed and deliberately misleading that it soured the whole debate.  I think some would certainly benefit from reading Ronson’s warnings about the changing nature of our online communities.

The book has made me review the way I use twitter.  How I post and interact with it.  It doesn’t change my own moral compass but it does make me ask the question of what the purpose is of my commentary and more so what the impact is.  If anything I am left with the sense that it is I who has been publicly shamed for partaking in social-media shaming in the past, irrespective of the worthiness at the core of the issue in some cases.

Another Test

15 May

Sometimes when discussing education policy it is all too easy to drift away from the human aspect of what we do.  In fact one of the main complaints I hear from teachers is that we are dehumanizing pupils due to the obsession with data modern education systems have been infected with.  There is less and less focus on how John, Jim or Jenny are feeling and developing and more on how many children from gender/socio-economic background X have reached level Y.  That is really quite depressing for those teachers that went into the profession to change the lives of children.

One area where this sometimes happens is in discussing testing.  That sterile approach was challenged last year when NUT Cymru produced the feedback on a survey I conducted of teachers about standardised literacy and numeracy testing.  The uncomfortable human impact of this policy was all to clear to see.

I just thought I would blog briefly to draw attention to this piece by Cathy Owen in the Western Mail.  It is worth a read.  Not only does it offer a personal view from a parent it also reinforces the view that most educationists have long since accepted, which is that a standardised test does not fit all individuals equally and in many cases offers a badly misleading view of the capabilities of a child.  Something we should keep in mind as schools again undertake those annual exams.

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill

14 May

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After finishing off both ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Humans’ travelling on the train to London for work a little while ago I was left without a book for the return journey.  Under pressure of time constraints and in need of something to read I picked this up.  I’ll be honest, I based the choice entirely on the fact I loved the film ‘The Adjustment Bureau.’  There is literally no logic behind this other than there is something about the titles that suggested they could…maybe….be of a similar interest.

As it happens, they are nothing alike.  While The Adjustment Bureau is a film about the agents of fate conspiring to ensure life’s plan works to schedule, this novel depicts the realities of married life and raising a family.  The narrative develops through a series of punchy fragments which feel like we are following the train of thought of the unnamed storyteller working through her memories.  At first I found this a little sporadic and difficult to follow but as I settled into the book I thought it worked very well and it established an authentic and engrossing way of presenting the plot.

The simplicity of the writing and its accurate depiction of modern romance are fast paced and thought-provoking, especially for me during the sections of raising a young child.  It was a snatch and grab purchase but I’m pleased to say it worked out this time.

Zero-Hour Teaching

13 May

One of the big issues throughout the election was the debate over zero-hour contracts.  Labour even took a pledge to the electorate, set in stone I should add, that they will end exploitative zero-hour contracts.  David Cameron himself admitted that there is no way he could live on such a contract.  This got me thinking about the plight of supply teachers.

The truth is that to all intents and purposes supply teachers are living with the very definition of a zero-hour contract.  Put on restrictive contracts by agencies, in many cases teachers are only allowed to earn a weekly wage if they are released to schools by those agencies.  In some cases teachers are forced into signing away their rights under the agency workers regulations, which would entitle them to equal pay and conditions after a 12 week period in a school, or else they will not be able to access work at all.  With some local authorities awarding prefered agency status, and some even signing exclusivity deals with certain agencies, there are teachers who have no options but to sign with a particular agency regardless of how they are treated.

Those teachers, while of course always looking for work, find themselves on a zero-hours platform in so far as if their agency determine they should work, and they do not, they often find themselves blacklisted.  This means individuals have no ability to seek out supplementary work of their own or indeed, and this is crucial in terms of standards, access to professional development.

This isn’t an issue that we can pretend hits just a few teachers working in the supply sector.  Almost all teachers have or will be supply teachers at some point during their careers.  What is more, with redundancies taking place as frequently as they are at present; and budgets being cut as dramatically as they are at present, every teacher is potentially one step away from being a supply teacher.  This issue impacts everyone working in the education sector in Wales.

We should make no mistake about the extremely restrictive nature of the current supply system in Wales.  It is something I have written about on numerous occasions on this blog, including as part of my hopes for education in 2015 piece.  The Children’s Committee at the Senedd are currently looking into the issue and I feel as though it is something this particular Minister is taking seriously.  If we fail to get to grips with it in the next few years, especially given how important the supply sector is going to be during the process of curriculum development, then frankly we cannot expect to continue to see the sort of progress we have achieved in recent years, or even simply to tread water.

The Humans – Matt Haig

12 May

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After a bit of a bad run my book choices have picked up a little in recent weeks with ‘True Grit,’ ‘The Girl on the Train’ and the excellent ‘Chop, Chop.’ This was certainly a fine addition to that foursome.

The plot involves an alien who inhabits the body of a British mathematics professor who has recently solved the Riemann hypothesis. His mission is to eliminate the proof, and anyone aware of it, so that humans do not advance beyond their capabilities. However, the real story is the understanding, appreciation and love that he gains for the human race. Both the virtues and flaws of our species are highlighted in a quirky and off kilter way which are heart-warming, saddening and amusing in equal measure. It is a lovingly bittersweet review of the human race that makes you think, in a personal way, about just how brilliant and bizarre we can be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and definitely think it is one worth picking up. I can imagine it would make a pretty nice beach novel for anyone heading off for their summer holidays in the coming weeks and months.

The Welfare State-School

7 May

A recent survey has estimated that schools in the UK are spending around £43m a year to offset the effects of poverty on their pupils. I am not sure what this figure would look like as a standalone Wales expenditure.  Given the disproportionate way Wales has been hit by austerity and the fact some of Europe’s poorest areas are communities in Wales I dare say it would be a shockingly high percentage of the total sum.

It is suggested that this money is made up from teachers buying clothes, including underwear for pupils; providing lunches; haircuts and even birthday cards and presents for those that would otherwise not receive anything; as well as more conventional things such as stationary, books and P.E kits.

This will come as no surprise to teachers themselves. The truth is that for many years, even in the so-called ‘good times,’ schools in Wales have been so severely underfunded that teachers would think nothing of using their own wages to pay for things needed in their classrooms.  Put simply, unless teachers were paying from their own pockets to provide basic materials they could not deliver lessons and subjects in the way they wanted or needed.

Beyond this of course we are seeing teachers acting like social workers. Teaching is becoming more and more about delivering the welfare state, at the personal financial cost to the teacher. This undoubtedly hinders lesson planning and educational aspirations. Instead of just being a teacher the role has transformed into that of a full-time carer.  It is not just a question of money either. Teachers are increasingly doing things such as washing children’s clothes or teaching children fundamental basics such as how to brush their teeth, use cutlery or even potty training.

I don’t think any teacher would wish to alter the special relationships they build with pupils.  Teaching isn’t simply a profession it is a vocation.  To many it is a calling.  Those teachers care passionately about helping students develop, not just academically, but as well-rounded individuals.  This involves more than just teaching knowledge but in supporting the emotional growth in pupils.  That said, there is a finite amount of time that can go into this without it impacting on the academic, and when we are looking at complex social issues there really needs to be more appropriate avenues for support.

The sad reality is that teachers simply cannot continue, financially or otherwise, to undertake this burden. That it has fallen on teachers in some cases to ensure that a child is clean, clothed and fed is nothing short of a disgrace and a depressing reflection of the dire nature some families have found themselves in.

We often talk about education bridging the attainment gap between children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers. However, all too often we neglect to really appreciate just how far behind they are being left by the inequality we see in everyday society.  In some leading education nations there are welfare officers; psychologists and other individuals committed to the mental and personal issues of a child stationed on site.  Teachers are able to then work alongside these professionals, and crucially, concentrate fully on ensuring the best education possible.  That is but a pipe dream in Wales of course, as indeed it is for most western education systems in fairness; but until we start accepting that teachers can’t do it all, it becomes increasingly more difficult to see how they can do any of it to the levels they themselves aspire to.

The Sport Wales School Survey

6 May

sw_1A return to child-centric education:

Professor Graham Donaldson’s curriculum review is something of a game changer in how we think about the future delivery of education in Wales. While teachers have always wanted to focus on the whole child approach to learning, they have been somewhat restricted in their ability to do so due to the unintended consequences of national priorities. What we have seen, in particular since 2010, has been an almost singular focus on literacy, numeracy and testing. This has resulted in the curriculum being squeezed.

Of course we must always remember the importance of building competent and assured literacy and numeracy standards, but the truth is that other subjects and skills outside those core areas have been marginalised. What Professor Donaldson has done is establish the platform for a return to an approach that gives teachers the freedom to explore, promote and pursue activities that contribute to the personal and social wellbeing of their pupils, as well as retaining that academic focus.

The benefits of physical activity:

The above is important because this is where sport fits in. We all know the immense benefits that we see through physical activity. From a health perspective it plays a crucial role in tackling issues around obesity and helps develop coordination, strength, fitness and agility amongst other things. It also has a profound social impact on pupils. We see how leadership skills, team working, communication skills, critical analytical skills and problem solving intelligence are developed through sporting activities. These are not only vital in terms of a standalone physical education subject, but clearly crossover and enhance the capabilities of students in a range of school settings.

Of course, an important part of utilising sport as an educational driver is understanding what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong and what we can do differently in future. That is why NUT Cymru fully support Sport Wales’ School Sport Survey.

So why get involved as a school?

Over the years this survey has been one of the best platforms available for pupils to have their say about physical activity in schools. It is also a great source of data for teachers wishing to evaluate how best to plan and utilise resources in their schools and communities. The survey is already the biggest of its type in the UK, possibly the world, and this year it could be bigger and better than ever. The survey offers a revealing insight into how pupils see physical activity impacting on their lives and often even challenges existing stereotypes and misconceptions about the role of sport in schools.

From a purely practical point of view this is worth undertaking as it is recognised by Estyn. Taking part in the survey and using the data to inform school plans is an ideal way to evidence how pupil wellbeing and core skills are being monitored.

Working in partnership with the Sport Wales survey we can not only enhance the sporting opportunities available to pupils, but also continue to deliver wider improvements in educational attainment.

This blog was origionally published as a guest piece on the SportWales blog.  You can see the origional here.

Speech to Policy Forum for Wales

1 May

Below is the speech I gave to the Policy Forum for Wales event on the challenges to curriculum reform.  Well as close to it as I could remember having forgotten to actually take the speech with me.

The curriculum review challenge:

Expertise

Teachers have been clamouring, calling and desperate for a greater sense of freedom to shape the curriculum to suit the needs and strengths of their local communities and pupil profiles.

Being empowered to act on that flexibility is a challenge all teachers should welcome.

However, it is also clearly something that teachers are simply not accustomed to, and in many cases will not feel comfortable with, at least in the initial stages. The challenges are both frightening and exciting in equal measure

We will seriously have to consider the question of capacity within the system to meet the demands of this curriculum revolution.

Teachers who have been put in straitjackets by an increasing sense of micro-management from the Welsh Government have become accustomed to the package and push approaches and may be waiting, wrongly, to receive the next curriculum update from that central source.

It is not too strong a statement to say that the top down approach to curriculum design we have seen in recent years has somewhat de-professionalised teachers in this aspect of education planning, and has restricted independent and critical thinking around the curriculum.

That isn’t to say that the ability of teachers to meet this challenge can’t be fulfilled.

However, the truth is that we went from a system that trusted teachers to one that, not least since the 2010 ’20 point plan,’ took all control away from them.

We now seem to be moving back towards releasing the shackles but we mustn’t expect the sector to run before it has been allowed to properly walk independently again.

Teachers will almost have to relearn the skills of curriculum design, which is going to be a burden on professional development and workload.

Time

In the early stages it is important that teachers and schools are given the time, space and support to meet this challenge.

The last thing we want is to find the pressure to tackle this process too quickly leading to “off the shelf” solutions being purchased that drain both the creative opportunities and finances from schools.

The Education Minister has been bold in making public pronouncements about his wish to see the teaching profession lead the work of designing the future curriculum in Wales.

That is to be welcomed.

A sense of working in partnership with the Welsh Government, rather than clashing with them as has unfortunately too often been the case on the reform agenda in the past, is one the education sector desperately needs on such an important topic.

It has also been really positive to hear the Welsh Government be far more realistic about timescales than perhaps they have been on other issues in the past.

Not only will we have to see a significant investment, financially and in time, to build the right skills for curriculum design and planning amongst existing practitioners, we will also have to see the way teachers are trained reimagined .

Something the Furlong report has already taken steps to put in place.

Digital Literacy

Within the recommendations there is the specific challenge of promoting the role of IT. Digital literacy is a key component of these curriculum reforms.

The report essentially puts digital competency, including computer programming and coding, on a par with literacy and numeracy as priorities that should be considered within all lessons, across all subject matters.

While education should not simply be about fulfilling the requirements of economic drivers, and indeed the curriculum review is quite explicit about that, we of course need to accept that becoming IT literate is a reality of modern life.

The impression that has come across thus far, to me at least, is that the patience we’ve seen for building curriculum capacity is maybe that bit thinner when it comes to digital inclusion.

This is something the Minister wants to see put in place a lot sooner.

The reality is sadly that we need to support upskilling the profession if we are to ensure that all teachers are confident and creative in utilising modern technology in order to design the best learning experiences for their classes.

Children, who have only known a world of iPads, iPhones and Facebook, are more fluent than teachers who were born, and in some cases already teaching, before the internet was even invented.

I mean, I’m only 32 but while I got my first mobile phone at the age of 19, my son was seamlessly navigating YouTube at the age of 23 months.

There is going to have to be, yet again, a significant investment in continued professional development in this field, as well as in hardware and other resources to ensure schools actually have the quantity and quality of technology needed to be able to realise the ambition.

While the ‘New Deal’ potentially holds a lot of promise we are yet to learn how it will radically change the current deficiency in CPD provision, though we already know there will be limited, if any, new money accompanying it.

Assessment and accountability

Sadly I am short on time as I would like to speak further on assessment and accountability, particularly in terms of the challenge of squaring the circle of the current system of high-tariff, punitive accountability measures, (many of which are irrelevant to securing progress for the individual learner) , and a system that must move towards utilising assessment for learning in a more subtle and relevant way.

Conclusion

I want to end by saying that while you may think I’ve been somewhat negative here this is really simply a reflection of the fact I’ve been asked to speak on the challenges and barriers to implementation.

What’s being asked of the profession is a massive undertaking.

However, what the profession is also getting is a real opportunity.

Learners’ achievement and school development, based on an innovative and flexible curriculum, matter to no one as much as they do to teachers and school leaders.

Here is a chance for them to reclaim ownership for what we all know should already be theirs.