Category Archives: Education

A quick note on NUS conference and self-care

selfcare

If you’re at NUS conference over the next few days, or know anyone who is there, please remember this: conference is really intense: it drains you emotionally and physically, you’re bombarded by campaign supporters, political parties, factions, fringe meetings from the moment you arrive. Conference floor is exhausting, as well as exhilarating. Debates, whilst largely stimulating and insightful, can often descend into petty name-calling and be (sometimes intentionally) racist, homo/bi/transphobic, classist, sexist and ableist. People underestimate the impact those kind of things have on others, and whilst folks are always eager to hop up to the megaphone and call others out on their bullshit, the damage has been done – to both conference hacks and conference newbies.

I’m only saying this to make a point: when you’re at conference, practise self-care.

My experiences at NUS conferences were some of the best moments of my time as a student officer, but they wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t practiced self care, which is a difficult thing to do. If you need to take ten minutes off conference floor, if you say that you need to go home rather than attending an election party then DO IT and do not feel guilty! It is far more important for you to look after your own health and mental well-being for a few minutes, rather than sacrificing them for the whole of conference. Respect everyone’s access needs, support each other, stay hydrated, eat, SLEEP (I’m looking at you Vicki Baars and Colum McGuire!), take time out if you need. Your impact on conference will be all the better for it.

Finally, it’s often really easy to direct your anger at the people at the podium, or on the stage, or behind the scenes at NUS, or at each other. Just remember that there is a difference between holding someone to account and holding someone hostage for something that they did or didn’t do. I have disagreed with a lot of people at conference – but treating them like crap isn’t a productive way to unite a movement and I really hope folks at conference remember that every delegate – whether an NUS officer, sabb or student – is human. If you criticise someone, be productive about it. Ask yourself, “How can we move forward from this? How can I challenge this appropriately in a way that will make a difference? How can I support this movement?”. I’ve been guilty in the past of getting sucked into rhetoric about factions (I think everyone remotely involved in NUS has!) but it’s more valuable, in some cases, to build bridges where there is common ground to be shared. No one agrees on everything, but sometimes you will agree on something, and that’s valuable. Don’t forget that.

Although I’m no longer in the student movement (I’m still a student, but a full-time teacher!) I am invested in the power that conference has, because I’ve seen how activists change and shape each other over the course of a few days. That’s pretty powerful. Take care of each other and that power will be used to shape the future of education.

(cross-posted on my facebook account)

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Back to the (very scary) drawing board

At 4:30pm today I was hot and irritable, and running late for a workshop through no fault of my own. I hate being late – and in this case, it was for a workshop that I really needed to get the most out of. When I eventually got there, half an hour into an hour long session, I wasn’t exactly in a great learning mindset.

The workshop was on interactive whiteboards. I got there in time to see a fair few demonstrations of how you could use it, coupled with Active Inspire (which is used in my school). When the other people in the group started practising those skills, those of us who had been late were given a whistle stop tour of the techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I got anything out of the workshop. My irritation at being late exacerbated an underlying worry that really got my head in a spin and left me pretty closed off in relation to the learning process. The thing is, I really don’t like ICT. I was never great at it in school – I wasn’t terrible, but it was never something that particularly interested me. Unlike a lot of my peers, who were always thrilled when we had a lesson in the computer rooms, I didn’t thrive in front of a screen. I still don’t, to be fair. I spend far too much time on social media and news sites, but actually I prefer it when I don’t have access to a computer as it takes away those distractions.

When I was in school, it was still pretty exciting if a teacher had prepped a power point. Smart boards came in a few years before I left but I never really saw them used a whole lot to the best of my recollection. However when you go into schools today it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see a lesson in which ICT isn’t used in some shape or form, whether that’s in the form of a simple powerpoint or a snazzy interactive smartboard presentation. Ofsted like it, and after all we’re living in a technological age, so at face value it makes total sense.

The truth is, the use of ICT in schools, particularly interactive whiteboards, makes me so angry and worried that in class today I was on the verge of walking out in frustration. I’ve been told that the research and anecdotal experience says that kids learn well with interactive whiteboards. This generation is very tech-savvy and computer literate, even if they come from deprived backgrounds, because they have access to shiny equipment at school. The problem for me, especially as an English teacher, is that I think they simply have too much ICT in their lives for it to be of much or any use or interest in a classroom situation.

To put it another way; my professional tutor told us a couple of weeks back to look at the “diet” that pupils were being fed in terms of lessons during our school observations. I’m pretty sure over the three days I didn’t see a single lesson that didn’t involve ICT in some way.

We talk so much about kids being unable to spell, read, write, add up, concentrate, engage. Is it any wonder, when they have been born into a world where a machine will spellcheck everything for you? Why concentrate when you know that the answer is just off-screen, waiting for a click or a dragging motion? Why bother to inquire or be curious about anything at all when all you need to do is type a few words into google?

I’m frustrated because I think it is very easy to use ICT for the sake of using it, and not because it is meaningful or increases the rate of progression in kids’ ability. I’m frustrated because I’ve got to include ICT in my lessons, and I never learned to love literature or language or anything for that matter through a series of slides, with a glaring backlight.

One of the best things we’ve done so far this Summer Institute is learn about Active Shakespeare, a way of exploring Shakespeare as a class, on foot, orally and physically. Although I am not entirely certain, I’d still be willing to say that this was the only session I’ve had that was “sans powerpoint”. And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I remember more about that session that I do about most others, although they’ve all been great. I’m not a purely kinaesthetic learner – I actually learn best visually, reading words. So it says something about my ability to view ICT as a useful tool, since I don’t think I have ever been able to learn from it myself.

I’m fully aware that a large part of my rage and sadness today was to do with insecurity and personal capability – because I am not good with ICT, I am really terrified of having to use it to facilitate learning on so regular a basis. Interactive whiteboards honestly put the fear of God into me. I don’t know how to use them, and I don’t particularly want to use them.

I can see the useful side of ICT – it is so much easier to not waste time writing instructions on the board. For SEN pupils (of which I will have many in my classes come September), simple and short instructions on a single slide, with images, are much more effective than oral instruction. I will use ICT when I think it is useful, when it is going to be best for my kids. Despite my lack of computer literacy, I do have some very strong opinions when it comes to good powerpoints; the anger I feel when I see a cluttered slide with clashing colours and difficult fonts is only equalled by the genuine anguish I feel when people misuse apostrophes.

I think if I manage to get some substantial time with an interactive whiteboard, and if I can familiarise myself with the Active Inspire Software over the few free days I have in August, I’ll probably survive. However I still think it’s worth bearing in mind that it may do kids good to have  a break from technology in the classroom whenever possible. Outside of class they are constantly on phones and computers, or watching TV. There’s nothing wrong with the written word, with tactile sheets, with pen and ink. It just takes a lot of guts to go back to basics, guts I hope I’ll be able to hang on to, if only to prove that the book is mightier than the slide.

Ps. Roald Dahl takes a somewhat more extreme view than me, but I still think he may be right.

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – late night poetry

I learned a wonderful way of writing poetry the other day, from the founder of First Story, a really wonderful organisation that runs creative writing workshops in UK schools. I’ll try to write about them at more length at another point, but I just wanted to have a place to put my first attempt at using the technique up here.

The basic premise is making random combinations of abstract and concrete nouns, and using their definitions to make a poem. I cheated a tiny bit by not always using the dictionary definitions – but that’s kind of the point. I used an online randomiser to generate the combinations and these are the two poems I came up with.

1. Pain is the organ that keeps you alive,

A daffodil is a strongly felt dislike,

Bravery is a device that keeps you dry in rainstorms,

A candle is the grief of losing someone you love,

Happiness is a clear glass container that holds the cure for dry throats,

A gun is the belief that that person over there is dangerous,

Anger is a piece of cut metal that opens a lock,

Betrayal is a  colour that exists between red and blue.

2. A window is the state of being alone,

Faith is a reflective surface,

A diamond is the quality of being considerate,

Loyalty is a material pulped from trees,

Ice cream is a feeling of exultant contentment,

Love is an ornament worn around the neck,

Coffee is placing your confidence in someone.

It is a LOT of fun to write and makes you realise more than ever the potential magic of words. I can’t wait to teach it to my kids this September!

Concrete nouns used (in no particular order): gun, window, heart, candle, bottle, necklace, coffee, mirror, daffodil, umbrella, paper, key, ice cream, purple, diamond

Abstract nouns used (in no particular order): love, pain, loneliness, happiness, trust, bravery, fear, hatred, faith, anger, joy, loss, loyalty, kindness, betrayal.

In which I compare the British Education system to “The Hunger Games”, because I can

I’ll readily confess that when I first heard tell of The Hunger Games (thanks twitter) I thought it was some kind of extreme pie eating competition. Imagine my disappointment when I found out it was a best selling trilogy with a rabid fanbase. Naturally, I ranted and moaned for a while about “popular literature”, lamenting the conspicuous lack of Austenmania in today’s youth, before actually reading the books and finishing the entire trilogy in about 6 hours. Turned out it was quite good. After all, anything’s better than Twilight. Anything.

The thing about The Hunger Games is that despite not being the most beautifully written triology of all time (I could rant for ages about the epilogue which almost equals The Deathly Hallows in its utter lack of closure and general sloppiness), it is the kind of story that gets into your head and won’t leave. Which is why, several re-reads later, I found myself walking home and all of a sudden thinking, “hey, our education system is kind of like a fight to the death in a world controlled by dictatorial social forces and constrained by poverty to the extent that it can be compared to a dystopian Roman Empire if a dystopian Roman Empire involved loads of puns about fire”.

Let me break it down a wee bit. For those of you who have been living on Mars, the premise of The Hunger Games is an annual televised competition, in which 24 children fight to the death in order to atone for the rebellion of their ancestors who instigating an uprising against the Capitol of Panem, the future America. One victor remains at the end of the Games as a reminder of the Capitol’s good will towards their citizens. The kids are chosen to go into the arena by a randomised ballot (supposedly randomised, anyway) – one girl and one boy, aged between 12 and 18 are selected from each of Panem’s twelve districts.

Here’s the catch: because of systematic oppression at the hands of the Capitol’s power elite, a lot of the districts are poor. Really poor – as in, don’t know where their next meal is coming from poor. Kids can get extra grain and oil for their family (“tesserae”) by putting their name in the ballot more times, which many of them do. So basically, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get picked – and the more likely you are to die. Hold on to that thought for a sec.

Katniss, the protagonist and narrator, tells us that it’s usually pretty much a given that Districts 1, 2 and 4 will be the ones to have a victor at the end of the Games. The kids in 1 and 2 tend to train in an academy until they are 18 and then volunteer for a shot at the glory.  These kids are known as “Career” tributes. I don’t think it’s ever explained why 4 is on a similar level – but Districts 1 and 2 are closer to the Capitol, geographically and politically. The kids are clearly better fed and richer owing to the industries of their districts. This, along with their extensive formal training, gives them the upper hand in the arena.

By now it might be easier to see where I’m coming from with this comparison. But let’s put the education system into its social context for a brief second:

People living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England will die on average 7 years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods [The Marmot Review / Department of Education 2010]

Remember what I said about poverty in The Hunger Games? It boils down to this: if you’re poor, you’re more likely to get into the arena, and you’re more likely to die than survive. The tagline of the trilogy, and of the Games, is “may the odds be ever in your favour”. In Katniss’ world, at least the authorities come clean about the fact that it is a game of chance. In the games, you may avoid murder at the hands of the other tributes only to die of dehydration.

In our world, in the education system, the odds are equally unstable. You may live close to an excellent school, but your catchment area may mean that you go to a much less good one. You may have superb teachers and support, you may not. You may get help with your homework, have parents who have been educated, live in an area with cultural opportunities and work experience options. But the odds are, if you live in a deprived area of England, you won’t have these things. The odds are not in your favour, because the single greatest indicator of how well a child will do at school in the UK is their parents’ income.

As inThe Hunger Games, this is not always a be-all end-all – after all, Katniss and Peeta are the eventual victors of the 74th Games, despite being from the poorest district, and some kids from deprived backgrounds will excel at school and break out of the cycle of poverty. But the odds of that aren’t great. Only 17% of kids on Free School Meals will go to University compared with 96% of their privately educated peers.

There’s more to be said about this comparison. In the arena, children between the ages of 12-18 fight to the death. Okay, maybe this doesn’t happen literally in schools – but think about it. Our education system as it currently stands is premised, ultimately, on how good one child is compared to the rest of their peers – in their classroom, school and nationally. In other words, kids are judged contextually rather than individually. This is not the same as acknowledging a child’s context in the sense of their background. Rather the system operates on a series of benchmarks which children either meet or fail – and in order for some kids to succeed, or excel at succeeding, other kids have to fail. Not everyone can be a winner. That’s why they are called winners. We talk about “healthy competition” – and maybe that’s okay, to a degree, when you want to motivate kids to do a task quickly, or strive to win points for their school house. But at the end of the day, what we’re actually asking them to do is not simply to be their best, but to be better than everyone else’s best if they want to really shine.

In one of my Teach First Leading Self Workshops (yes I know, gouda with a side order of gruyere), we read an article about what kids bring to school in their metaphorical schoolbag – a love of reading, musical ability, parental support and so on. We went on to have a discussion about policy and whether or not current policy is working. Someone in the group made a really excellent point about how the education system is basically geared towards a certain “type” of kid, and they are the ones who are, from the moment they enter primary school, going to succeed. These are the kids who are read to in English – and have been encouraged to read in English themselves. These are also, generally speaking, the kids whose parents have been educated to a Higher level. The kids who are less likely to succeed may still have a lot in their schoolbag – the example in the article was a kid who spoke three languages (including English, but that wasn’t his first language), loved music and hearing about the history of his parent’s home countries. Yet he is more likely to fail because these are not the schoolbag items that are valued in the educational system, to the same degree as formal abilities sustained by cultural capital.

Going back to The Hunger Games, a narrative of survival, Katniss manages to endure precisely because she has unprecedented access to a skill set that is not usual for a District 12 tribute; her ability to shoot and hunt puts her on a level with the formally trained Career Tributes – although arguably it is her sheer grit which sees her claim the ultimate victory. If we put this model in the education system, surely we would see the same results – kids of all backgrounds have the potential and determination to succeed, but only some of them have the tools to be able to do so.

Despite the fact I’ve spent this time comparing The Hunger Games to the educational system, there are obvious points of diversion. The trilogy is finite, it concludes with the overthrow of the oppressive system and the destruction of the Games. This overthrow comes at a huge price (I won’t spoil it for you, read the damn books) but it still happens. And it happens because the Capitol’s regime has a figurehead, a power source; President Snow. The centralisation of power makes it relatively easy to pull the plug on it, in the end. Same with Voldemort and the One Ring; drain the sources of life, and you kill the centre of darkness.

For us, it’s not so simple. The education system that we currently have is so deeply embedded into our social structures that there is no simple crux, no turning or tipping point, no regulating factor – no horcruxes, no ring, no President. Sure, there are few things I’d like to see more than Michael Gove being trampled to death by an angry crowd, in the same way as Snow meets his demise, but apart from a fleeting sense of relief on my part it wouldn’t do much good for the education system. The means of control exerted by the Capitol is simple; not so for us.

So what do we do? Well, the good news is that we can all do something. One of the things I’m slowly getting used to is that Teach First is only part of a wider solution to this problem of educational disadvantage. It focuses on excellent teaching, as it should – but it is not an overtly political organisation, which is sometimes difficult for me, being the highly opiniated person that you all know and love. Yet we can have influence at a systemic level. Teach First’s Ultimate Goal in 10 years time is to not exist – it is the hope that by then we will have achieved enough as a collective organisation to become unnecessary. By setting the standard for teaching and learning, by driving our kids to raise their aspirations, improve their achievement, and gain access to life options, we may slowly see the system reinvent itself.

I’m pretty terrified of the challenges that lie ahead – and I guess my comparing the education system to a fantasy trilogy is just my way of coping, of mapping my thoughts. I’ve always done that; literature is my lens through which I can look at the world – that’s why I want to be an English teacher, to give other kids that perspective. I think that’s going to be my role in this narrative. It’s Katniss’ father that teaches her how to use her bow and arrow – even if she is the one who eventually leads the revolution. We all need someone to teach us how to shoot straight, after all.

And now the end is here…Reflections on my time as a student officer

I can’t remember when I started caring about students – that is to say, students as students. In my first year at Warwick, most of my time was spent with Warwick Lacrosse and RAG, and enjoying my degree. In the blink of an eye, it was second year and I found myself on the other side of the world in California for my year abroad. Upon my return to Warwick I was elected to the Warwick Pride exec, went to my first NUS LGBT conference and threw myself into my work at the Arts Centre and my degree. I had a great three years, and my time abroad, during the Prop 8 saga, definitely politicised me in terms of LGBT issues. But still, that was my activist base, not a Student Union.

I guess things changed when I remained at Warwick to do my MA. I was a freshers’ supervisor, which understandably involved spending a fair amount of time with SU staff, and promoting the SU. I think this was when things started to shift towards my Union involvement. I was also on Union council this year, as LGBTUA+ officer in the Union. And then of course, the tuition fee rise was proposed and the HE world exploded with anger. If I had to pinpoint one thing that got me into student politics and representation, that was probably it, but it’s not as simple as that.

It’s my last day in office today. A couple of weeks ago I was looking through photos of freshers, remembering the exhaustion and sheer joy of the sabb team greeting the new intake of students last October. A very small part of me wishes I could go back and do it again. Do it better, do it differently (some of it). A much larger part of me wouldn’t change a thing. And the rest of me is tired, and can’t wait to get to the pub (well, sports ball for tonight!)

I’ve said it before, many times, and I’ll say it again: this job is the best job in the world. I know there’s no concrete way of truly knowing that. I’m starting my teacher training on Monday, the job I’ve wanted to do since I was 9 years old and that I hope to spend the rest of my life doing. But I still say this: being a sabbatical officer is the best job in the world. Watching students develop themselves, contribute to education and their community and society – and knowing that you’ve been a part of that, is absolutely mindblowing. The pace at which students are moving and shaking is phenomenal – sometimes I sit back and wonder how the hell do they do it? It’s a pleasure to support students like that and see them leave at the end of three, four or five years a totally different human than when they first arrived on campus.

Of course, it’s not all like that. I’ve cried my eyes out, I’ve been sent spiteful and anonymous emails telling me that I’m not fit to do my job, witnessed my fellow officers in other unions be bombarded by smear campaigns and sexism. As a team, we’ve dealt with the horror of Bacardigate, students generally complaining/moaning about what we do, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time simply sitting together asking what the hell is going to happen to the Higher Education sector, which we all care about so much. We’ve put up with people saying that our jobs aren’t “proper jobs”. To all those people I say: come and spend a week in the office doing what we do. I doubt you’d last a day with that attitude. What we do is vitally important, and very difficult, and putting up with people’s idiocy and spitefulness is totally worth it, so you can bite me.

I’m so lucky. I’ve had a job that I love, wholeheartedly and irrationally. It may have been for less than a year, but how many people can say that they look forward to coming into work every single morning? How many people get to work with some of the most passionate students, the most dedicated activists and officers, the most patient and capable staff, and see their combined efforts improving the lives of people day by day? How many people get to be part of a movement? I’m one of the lucky ones. This job has made me determined that I will always work for improvement and change, that I will always do what I love and trust my gut instinct, that I will stand up for what I believe in. It has given me so much more than I ever thought it would.

I’m not going to talk about what I’m proudest of, or what I wished I’d done better. The long and short of it is, I’m damn proud of everything I’ve done this year – and of course I could always be better. But people come and go, things change –that’s the nature of the student movement. If I helped one student this year, that’s enough – and I know I’ve helped many more. At grad ball last night, I was able to look around the room and think to myself, the SU has made an impact on your University life. Whether you know it or not, it has. That’s enough. Knowing we’ve helped is enough.

I don’t have time to thank everyone I need to. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll probably send cards and emails to the people I need to. I like to think I’ve thanked everyone as the year has gone by, that I’ve let them know how much they have done. But just in case I’m going to list a few people here – this list is not exhaustive!

Firstly, Warwick Pride. My favourite society on campus who have gone from strength to strength over the last few years, who remain my safe haven to which I can always return and feel loved and accepted. I am incredibly proud of you and owe you more than I can put into words. Who would have thought that when I arrived at Uni, barely out in 2007, that I would end up a passionate and proud LGBT activist? Couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you. (ps. looking forward to Bows tomorrow night!)

Secondly, the Union staff. The Senior Management team have supported me so much this year and been very patient with me, and work so hard for students, it has been a real pleasure to work alongside you. And to the Advice Centre Staff – Meena, Sue, Ken, for doing exceptional work for students that is rarely easy – you are all diamonds. David, I would not have got through this year without you and I am going to miss you and our daily chats so very much. The SU owes you a huge debt. And to JC, our wonderful CEO – I honestly don’t know how you do what you do but we owe you big time. Thanks for being a brilliant mentor this year and for putting up with all my moaning! And EVERYONE else who works for the Union in any way – you’re all wonderful, thank you for everything you do.

Thirdly, the Student Support Team at the University who do an incredibly difficult job under huge amounts of pressure and have been a great support to me this year. I could thank lots of people at the University individually but this team deserves special mention.

Fourthly, everyone I’ve met during my time in the National Student Movement – that’s a LOT of people! Regardless of whether or not we agree politically, the movement is strong because of the passion and dedication of the people involved. NUS is vitally important despite its flaws and the team for next year has a real opportunity to set the agenda for the future of HE and FE. Don’t let us down!

Particular thanks to the NUS LGBT campaign, my political stomping ground, especially to the committee of 2011-12, working with you gave me some of my best times in the student movement, and marching with you is a privilege. You’re the best part of NUS and don’t you forget it! J And to my #tresamaze and #phenom welfare counterparts at other Unions around the country – thanks for all the support and advice and welfare bants. You’re all excellent. I won’t miss jiscmail even a tiny little bit.

Finally, I want to thank the rest of the sabb team. It hasn’t been an easy year and we haven’t always got on, but the work we’ve done, the relationships we’ve built and the fun we’ve had outweigh the bad times by a heck of a lot. I genuinely think you are all amazing and I’m so glad I got to work with you this year – can’t even begin to explain how much I will miss our general banter (also known as our weekly meeting) or our pub times. I don’t think a lot of students appreciate exactly how much you do for them but you do it anyway, and that’s pretty inspiring. I’m sorry I won’t be around for handover (gutted that I’m going to miss the “scenario session” – next year’s team are in for a real treat!) but I know you’ll do an excellent job of preparing the incoming sabbs for the challenges ahead. Sports ball tonight is going to be cracking, and I’ll be on the piazza at midnight for the key ceremony on July 31st and then I’ll get emotional about you all individually. Bring popcorn and Kleenex.

On that note, I’m going to force myself to stop. I’ll say thank you again to every single person who has made this year the best first job that I could have ever hoped for, and leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Margaret Mead which has kept me going, and will keep me going as I enter the world of Teach First on Monday:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”

First posted on my work blog, at http://www.warwicksu.com/blogs/blog/izzyjohn/2012/06/22/And-now-the-end-is-hereMy-last-day-in-the-office/

A return to Hard Times? My thoughts on Michael Gove and educational reform

“…little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

The above quotation, taken from Chapter One of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, is forever etched into my brain thanks to my English GCSE, for which I studied ruthlessly back in 2005. Today, as documents outlining Michael Gove’s proposal to scrap GCSEs and replace them with the old system of O-Levels have been leaked to the media, this quotation seems ever more ominous. Pressed into pages, Dickens’ commentary on the industrialisation of education is buffered by its fictional nature – but it is becoming alarmingly relevant.

I want to preface the rest of my thoughts by saying this: the GCSE system – in fact, the whole exam and school system – needs serious reform. The replacement of blackboards with interactive whiteboards over the last five years symbolises the wider takeover of technological progress that now characterises how we work and learn; the double-dip recession has sparked endless debate on the nature of Britain’s skilled – or unskilled workforce. The international scope of business and enterprise, thanks to worldwide travel networks and the internet, means that everything is globally connected, and bilingualism is rapidly becoming an invaluable boost to prospects. The schools system in the UK needs to change and adapt to these challenges if it is to remain – or rather, re-become – the coveted school system of the West.

Some of the changes proposed by the government in recent months haven’t been entirely awful. Their premise is often correct – but the ideas miss the point. So for my own benefit, I’m going to outline some of them, including the changes today, as I understand them, and then explain why they fall short:

1) Foreign languages to become compulsory from the age of seven.

Good: as I said above, because of the internationalisation of the working world, languages – even a familiarity with widely spoken languages such as Spanish and Mandarin – will set people up well later on in life, and it’s better to learn them when young. The study of languages also involves the study of different cultures, provoking interest and promoting understanding.

Falls short: Michael Gove places seemingly equal emphasis on Latin and Greek as languages to be studied from a young age, which hearkens back to an antiquated curriculum. Now I’m not knocking the classics – although I was awful at Latin in school I absolutely loved Greek and Roman mythology, and I also studied Homer and Virgil in my first year at University; there’s a phenomenal amount of history there and of course our own culture is indebted to classical civilisation. However I think Latin and Ancient Greek, as languages which are no longer spoken, shouldn’t be awarded equal emphasis as MFL, and certainly not from the age of seven. Pupils should be given the option to study them at secondary level and University if they wish. Although I can’t remember the source, I also recall that the number of students studying classics at A-Level and University continues to decline; which begs the question – who is going to teach the kids of the future if classics is to become a classroom staple once again?

As my mother always said when I moaned about my Latin grammar, “Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be – it killed the Ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me!”

One final point about MFL from a young age – the balance must be struck between proficiency there, and ensuring that English literacy is prioritised. This is of especial importance for EAL kids – but for everyone, as English literacy is currently a huge concern in schools nationwide and must remain the focus.

2) Poetry, above all: children as young as five will be expected to recite; renewed focus on spelling/grammar.

Good – I bloody love poetry. And good grammar and punctuation, as we know, saves lives (let’s eat, grandma! vs. let’s eat grandma!) In all seriousness; spell check isn’t a reliable fallback, despite technological advances – and I don’t know about you, but if I were reading a CV and saw a grammatical error that would immediately affect my opinion of the applicant. I’m mean like that. Did I mention that I bloody love poetry? It brings sheer joy to my day, every child should access that – especially as very few kids are read to by their parents or even have access to books at home.

Falls short: my first instinct regarding poetry is to say is that I’d rather kids were able to read and discuss lots of different poems – as well as having a shot at writing their own – rather than spending that time memorising one or two. I think learning to speak confidently is incredibly important – but recital isn’t necessarily the best way – or more accurately, the only way – to learn this skill. Equally, reading poetry (and all other literature) aloud is very important; it helps you understand meter, it allows you to put expression into the words – I think the emphasis should be on that rather than “by heart” reproduction.

Does a poem’s value increase if it is memorised? I honestly don’t think so. I happen to have a lot of poetry committed to memory because I was lucky to be raised in a household with a voracious appetite for literature – my mother’s ability to commit verse to memory continues to astound me; but she never made me feel like I had to learn it. I never consciously sat down and memorised poems, and yet I can call Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”) to mind almost as easily as breathing. Tellingly, I never studied the poetry that I now know by heart. Remembering poetry and allowing it to fold new layers of understanding into my life is something that I value on a daily basis – but for me, a love of poetry needs to be fostered before it is committed into memory.

I don’t have anything against the proposals regarding spelling and grammar per se; as long as the balance between speaking, listening, reading and writing is well-thought out. I will say this though: I very much doubt that any of the proposals have seriously and thoughtfully taken children with learning difficulties and/or English as Another Language into consideration, since they involve a huge amount of factual, hard-and-fast rule-based learning which those children may not be able to absorb as fast as their peers.

3) Exams to be taken after two years

Good – supposedly more time for learning, less pressure on students in their first year of the course.

Falls short – conversely, puts more pressure on students by the end of their second year and makes academic success contingent on fewer assessments.

4) The scrapping of the National Curriculum, allowing head teachers to set the school agenda

Good – Head Teachers, who actually have a qualification in teaching, know more than Michael Gove. Might allow schools to adapt to the circumstances of their teachers and learners, fewer hoops to jump through.

Falls short – actually, it’s a pretty terrible idea. If every school had a different curriculum, if students  -and indeed, teachers – needed to transfer schools, they could be thrown into a whole new system and inevitably fall behind. It would also embed inequality in the education sector, which is already rampant – as the success of students would be entirely dependent on the ability of their head teachers. Additionally, when it came to applying for Further and Higher Education, how on earth would FE and HE institutions assess applications, if they came from vastly different backgrounds in terms of curricula?

4) The scrapping of GCSES, to be replaced with O-Levels and CSEs.

Good – GCSEs have become hoop-jumping exercises, and the exam system needs reforming – especially in terms of re-takes.

Falls short – instead of innovating, Gove is basically proposing a return to the old system, which essentially doesn’t make any sense. So much for the Conservative tagline of change…Also, the division of O-levels and CSEs isn’t necessarily a bad thing in principle – however the likely outcome is that vocational education (known in the right-wing press as “soft subjects”) will become even more demonised than before. The ripple effect will include the self-esteem of kids not deemed “academically able” to nosedive faster than Nick Clegg’s political mandate – leading to snobbery and segregation in classrooms and essentially shutting “non-academic” kids out of HE and FE. Although to be fair, the reforms that are already taking place in those sectors will ensure that in any event. Premising the future of children by enforcing an academic-vocational dichotomy is exceptionally damaging for career prospects and personal development – neither field should be seen as more valuable than the other, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.

A final point on this reform: GCSEs have supposedly gotten “too easy” – this is based, of course, on the fact that kids are getting better grades. It can’t possibly be because kids are becoming more aware of the need to work hard for their future, or because teaching standards are going up. I’ve got news for you, Michael Gove: GCSEs are bloody hard. I went to one of the best private schools in the country. I had exceptional teaching throughout my school days and fantastic support from my parents, including their paying for extra maths tutoring when I was in primary school. I worked my socks off for my GCSEs, and I came out with 6 A*s and 3As. But that achievement was difficult, it was the result of months of solid, gruelling revision and years of hard work. Don’t you dare say that GCSEs are easy, because I’m pretty damn intelligent and I didn’t exactly breeze through them.

I’m starting my teaching career on Monday. Six weeks of intensive training with Teach First, and then off to teach English in a secondary school come September. I am absolutely determined that even if the proposals turn out for the worst (and I’m not optimistic that they will turn out otherwise), I will not let the kids that I teach be turned, as they are by Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, into “little vessels” to be filled with facts and diktat. As W.B.Yeats put it, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. I don’t need to memorise that. It’s just the truth.

Sources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18529471

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18530499#?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18384536

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jun/21/michael-gove-scrap-gcse-exams?CMP=twt_gu

A letter to my home MP, two days before the vote on higher tuition fees

Dear Philip Hammond,

I grew up in your constituency, I've lived in Weybridge since I was
born, if you look at my address you'll probably recognise it as a
pretty privileged area, and indeed I've been incredibly lucky in my
life - I attended private school from the age of two, including one of
the best (and most expensive) boarding schools in the country. I
finished my undergraduate degree in English & American literature last
year at Warwick University and am currently studying for a masters,
which my parents are funding.

It's funny, because when I talk about student debt, a lot of people
write me off, saying because I come from a privileged background I
shouldn't concern myself with such issues. Indeed, the amount of debt I
am in is equivalent to one year of my high school fees. Most people
imagine that I can pay off this debt in a blink of an eye, because my
parents earn a decent amount. 

That couldn't be further from the truth. I fully intend to pay off
every penny of my debt myself; and I intend to pay back my parents for
my tuition fees this year, which are £4700. I also work part-time in
order to support myself. But if I'm being honest, I'm terrified. I'm
paying these loans back myself out of pride and because I don't want to
take any more from my parents who have already been so supportive, even
though I know I could probably ask for leniency from them. And I don't
want to move back home after I graduate, back to the comfort of
upper-middle class suburbia. That's not why I went to university, I
want to get a job and be independent. But until I pay back these debts,
I will never be independent. 

The point I want to make is this: there are thousands of kids who
aren't as lucky as I am, who haven't had the best education money can
buy, because their parents can't afford it. When I was in school, I
volunteered with an outreach programme, working with young girls who
were seriously bright but disadvantaged. They all spoke with such hope
about how badly they wanted to go to university. One girl said that her
mum told her that the furthest she would ever get in life was working
as a cashier at Morrisons. This was five years ago, and we were able to
tell these girls that it was going to be ok, that they could go to
university because university was a place for people from all walks of
life, and it didn't matter if they were rich or posh, they just had to
be commmitted in passionate.

Those girls will be 15 and 16 now, and I'm so, so angry, because I feel
like everything we told them was a lie. Because £9000 isn't a remotely
fathomable number to these girls, whose families are on benefits and
living on a shoe string. It's enough to put them off, regardless of
what the government is saying about social mobility and oppurtunities
for all. If I had known that I was going to pay £9000 a year for my
education at university level, I probably still would have gone, but it
would still have been a difficult decision, despite my privilege. For
kids who have had fewer chances in life, higher education is no longer
an option. It will simply be too expensive.

I could go on, but the vote is on thursday and I really need to
convince you now to vote against the rise in fees. Two Conservative MPs
have already said that they will stand against the proposals and this
is admirable. Please, for the sake of your constituents who don't live
in the beautiful suburbs where I am lucky to have been raised, for the
kids who lived in flats and council housing and aspire to a life
outside of a supermarket, please please take a stand against the
proposal to raise tuition fees.

I would like to request a personal meeting with you on thursday in
Portcullis house and would appreciate your response on this matter as
soon as possible.