Week two of Teach First: putting things into context

I cannot believe that it’s only been two weeks since I started Teach First – it feels like months since I left my old job. Don’t get me wrong – I’m enjoying it hugely, but it just goes to show that when you get really absorbed in a bubble, it’s difficult to break out of it and to remember that other stuff is going on. If it weren’t for twitter I wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on at Wimbledon.

This past week has been a bit mixed in terms of how we’ve been spending our time, so I’m not going to go through it in minute detail – as per, I’ve gone through my notes and picked out the things that really struck me.

Two great things on Monday: discussing our reading for the “Identity, Community and Achievement” part of the Leading Self Workshop was really interesting (although I would beg Teach First to not make us start at 8am again!) The very short reading was about awareness of self-identity and the identity of others, and how this can effect teaching if the teacher – consciously or subconsciously – treats an individual or group differently because of their identity.

Since the vast majority of the West Midlands cohort is white, being aware of that privilege is extremely important in classrooms where the majority of kids may well be from non-white families. An interesting term I encountered was “naïve egalitarianism”, which denotes the kind of behaviour a teacher exhibits when they purport to treat their students “all the same”, regardless of race or background. While this might sound like the politically correct thing to do, this essentially contributes to systematic erasure of cultural identity and is tantamount to exclusion of the minority. On the other hand, marking a group out as “Other” because of who they are is equally dangerous. Something to think about in terms of maintaining a balance and designing a curriculum which will engage all of the kids. I like to think I’m already quite familiar with this concept, thanks to the work NUS has done in terms of Liberating the Curriculum* in Higher Education – but let’s see what happens when I get into the classroom.

We also had an excellent contextual lecture from the Director of the Institute of Education at Warwick, which essentially gave us the background of government policies and issues in urban education and urban schools. It was really useful to get a sense of where the notion of publicly funded school education came from and the legislation that followed it, given the shake-up currently going on in the sector under the Conservatives. The idea that the improvement of education must be premised on the “raising of standards” is evidently not a new one, but I still find it ridiculous as a concept – after all, as Sir Ken Robinson said in his RSA video, “why would you lower them?”

It was also interesting to remember that when the first City Academies were announced in 2000, they were designed for schools that were perceived to be struggling – now a lot more outstanding schools are becoming Academies. I’m going to try to blog on Academies and different types of school at some point as I still haven’t made my own mind up about the changes. I’ll also be interested to see Teach First’s work over the next ten years in terms of rural schools – currently it does target inner-city schools, but surely as it continues to expand rural schools will become actively included, and rightly so.

From Tuesday to Friday morning we were all in school for observation. I’m not going to write a huge amount here as to be honest, I’m pretty sick of observing lessons, regardless of how good they are – it was a real treat to be able to teach a  class by myself on Friday, even if it was only for 20 minutes. I’ll say this though: the difficulties of teaching SEN kids really hit home this week after I observed a year 7 class that was made up of pretty much all SEN kids. I’m still processing how I’m going to deal with that if I have a class like that in my school.

It was also useful (if a little draining) to spend two days observing the year 6 cohort who were joining this school as year 7 in September. It was remarkably easy to jump to conclusions about what kind of person they are and what their behaviour was like after only a few hours – first impressions must make a huge impact on how teachers treat children so the onus on kids to behave on their first day is absolutely massive. They also put them through  a series of Cognitive Assessment Tests, which most schools do. It terrifies me a bit that the standardisation of intelligence starts before they’ve even got their uniform.

On a more positive note, I was pretty pleased with how my lesson went on Friday and had some very good feedback, which was a big relief and now I can’t wait to start teaching properly! It was also interesting to see, in various observations, that strict teachers  can still be engaging and approachable to kids – as long as they get the balance right.

Finally, on Friday afternoon we all re-grouped for Professional Studies, where we talked a fair amount about Behaviour for Learning. The real thing that I took away from this was a point that I raised – which was whenever we talk about BFL, we always seem to start with the discipline, punishments, sanctions and so on. We rarely, if ever, start with the positive basis for BFL – the praise, the reward. I think this is crucial for understanding how kids behave. If we start from the premise of what is expected, and why it is positive, rather than starting with what the kids should not do or X, Y and Z will happen to them, then I think this makes a huge difference. I’m not one for giving praise for the sake of it, but I don’t think we give it enough – especially for the good, but quiet kids who sit down, get on with their work, and never get any credit for it. It’s something I’ll definitely be keeping in mind as September approaches – as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

In other words, when it comes to BFL, I’m using Pirates of the Caribbean** as my reference point.

Finally on Saturday I took part in the Challenge Day, which was loads of fun – we had to build our ideal indoor learning environment out of scrap materials (our group came top for creativity and second out of four overall, it was definitely the fishtank that nailed it!). Then we got together in groups to do some problem solving for various ventures or organisations – I was part of the group looking at the National Orchestra For All (NOFA), a fantastic orchestra for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to play music. I think we came up with a lot of ideas to help them out and make them sustainable so hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon!

A last little thing that one of the participants told me this week which has really stuck with me: “you do have to build that professional wall with your kids, but you have to use glass bricks”.

I can’t wait for September.

*If anyone wants a copy of the study, let me know – short but worthwhile read!

**Obviously I’m referring to the “guidelines” concept here, nothing that amounts to piratical justice or keelhauling.

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“the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” – Sydney J. Harris

This week I started my training with Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields. In the UK, the factor that is most crucial in determining a child’s educational success is their parental income. The Teach First cohort (totalling 997 participants in 7 different regions this year) undergoes 6 intensive weeks of training before being placed in challenging schools for two years in order to start tackling this systematic inequality and give deprived kids the same chances as privileged ones.

No pressure, then.

I’m in total awe at Teach First’s mission, values, statements of intended impact and the quality and depth of the Leadership Development Programme which every participant is a part of. One week in, and we’ve already researched learning theories, talked about legislation, values and principles and vision. Acronyms such as B4L, SEN, EAL, HAPs and AFL fall from our lips easily as fruit. We’ve learned how to plan lessons and what the role of a teacher is, why our subject is important. We’ve started working on the three strands of the Leadership Development Programme. We know about Bloom’s taxonomy and Kolb’s learning cycle. We’ve planned, taught and reflected on microteaching sessions, and so much more. In short, we are well on the way to becoming teachers. We’re all scared, but we’re all confident and excited. We know what we need to work on and what to expect.

To be honest, I could outline all the values and so on here and talk about them, but I actually wanted to talk about the things that stand above that, the things I’ve learned this week that are fast becoming my personal driving force. We’ve been told from day one that the next two years are going to be phenomenally difficult. We’re going into very challenging classrooms with very little teaching and often huge amounts of pressure from Ofsted to improve. Most of us will be moving to a brand new place. We are going from 0 to 100 in a very short space of time. Scared? I’m absolutely terrified. So I need to remember why I’m here, so that when all my energy has been sapped and I’m miserable and tired and alone, I’ll still be able to get up in the morning and teach my kids.

Why do I want to be a teacher?

In 2008, I saw a programme called “Can’t Read, Can’t Write”. It followed a group of adults who were illiterate – as in, they didn’t even know their alphabet. As far as I remember they were all white working class people of different ages and genders. Phil Beadle, an excellent if somewhat obnoxious teacher, was tasked with getting these adults to learn basic literacy in a very short space of time. One adult stuck out particularly to me; her name was Linda and she really struggled with learning the alphabet, moreso than the other participants. Eventually Phil took a different tack: he got her to mould the letters out of plastecine. After literally two or three goes, Linda suddenly knew her alphabet by heart. I thought she would be happy. Instead she was furious. Furious at the education system that had told her that she was thick, stupid, dumb, good for nothing. Furious because it turned out she was pretty damn smart – within a few weeks she was reading Shakespeare. Furious because she had been cast aside at a young age because her mind worked differently.

My one certain joy has always been reading, and so when I saw how upset and angry Linda was, I knew I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one I taught would ever leave school unable to read and write. From then I was pretty much set on being a teacher one day.

What keeps me going?

A girl called Rosie, who I met when she was about 8 or 9 on an outreach programme. Unbelievably smart and cheeky, with a passion for performing arts. Her mother told her she would never get further than working the checkout at Sainsbury’s. That was in 2007. I have every hope that Rosie is now preparing to take her GCSEs, and then go on to A levels and college or University. But I don’t know this for sure. This uncertainty, paradoxically, keeps me going. Rosie is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart, brave kids who are knocked down by systematic inequality, hopelessness and a lack of social opportunity.

That, and poetry, above all.

What’s shocked me this week?

– Hearing from a Teach First member of staff and ambassador, who, when he was teaching, encountered a family with two boys at the same school. The boys had a terrible attendance record – they would come into school on alternate days. Eventually the parents were called in to tell the school what was going on. It turned out they were so poor that they could only afford one uniform. The boys had to take turns to come in to school.
– Learning that a lot of the schools that Teach First work with don’t have a library, and that more often than not, core texts that are studied at GCSE can’t be taken out of the school because there are simply not enough to go around. This means that kids will often go into their GCSE exams having never read a core text – or indeed any text – all the way through.
– The levels of differentiation, even in sets that are formed according to ability. Even in set one you get kids who are much, much less able than their peers. It’s worse in lower sets.
– The extent of poverty and deprivation in one of the world’s richest countries.

What have I learned?
– That education as it stands actually perpetuates inequality. I mean, I knew the education system was unequal but for some reason I didn’t make the connection. We watched a really excellent video that isn’t perfect, but it is very slick and goes some way to explaining why this is. It’s worrying that we are going into a system which actually reproduces inequality at the same time as working to give equal chances to all kids. It’s reassuring that Teach First also produces research, policy and recommendations that aim, step by step, to address this problem.
– That I can’t change the world in a day and I shouldn’t try to.
– That I’m going to fail not once, but many, many times over the next two years. This is scary as I’ve never properly crashed and burned at anything, coming from the background that I do.
– That my two degrees (1st class honours BA English & American Lit, and MA English Lit) have absolutely no relevance in the classroom.
– That not everyone cares about or even knows about Educational Disadvantage, and even amongst the people that do (within the TF cohort) there is a lot of disagreement and debate about what it looks like and how it could/should be tackled.
– That loving English and wanting kids to love English is just as good a reason to teach English as any.
– That clinging to the idea of education as important because it gives kids “a stake in society” is utterly pointless given that the kids I’ll be teaching have absolutely no clue what it is like to have a stake in society.
– That I am really, really bad at English grammar.
– That kids are amazing, capable, brilliant, and come out with the most hilarious stuff that will literally have you spilling over with laughter.
– That one-on-one work with kids, even for 20 minutes, has a massive effect.
– That wine and/or gin are going to become my very close friends. Luckily we are already well acquainted.
– That it’s okay to be angry and frustrated and hold onto this “WHAT THE FUCK” mentality when thinking about how horribly unfair the education system is and how much work needs to be done to change it.
– That it was stupid to think I could take a designer handbag into a deprived school and not feel like a total hypocrite.
– That I am absolutely, completely, 100%, without a doubt in the right place, at the right time, doing the right training, for a career that despite making me cry, scream and despair on a regular basis, is absolutely what I was meant to do.

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

Another splendid lesson in “how to do liberation wrong”, courtesy of Julie Bindel

I was extremely dismayed, but not surprised, to read yet another bigoted and vitriolic article from Julie Bindel. Apparently dismissing and demeaning trans* folks is not enough for her, she feels the need to belittle and devalue the experiences – indeed the very existences – of bisexual women.

Bindel claims that lesbian politics and feminism are one and the same – and whilst lesbians are present throughout feminist history, and vice versa, it is both inaccurate and insulting to exclude bisexual and heterosexual women, as well as women who do not define their sexuality and/or gender from the feminist movement.

I think it’s completely accurate to blame the patriarchy for the fact that bisexuality, particularly in women, is seen as a phase, or a tantalising experiment to please a male partner. What Bindel does, however, is blame bisexual people – and those who engage in “bisexual behaviour” for the existence of this perception. Perhaps she needs to dust off her “Feminism 101” manual: women who consent to have sex with another consenting adult, of any gender or sexuality have every right to do so, and no one should tell them otherwise.

Bindel writes, “Lesbians having heterosexual sex are seen as transgressive, when in fact they are simply reverting to a traditional way of being a woman. For a straight woman, having a girlfriend on the side is almost like having the latest Prada handbag”. These statements (which are, incidentally, not backed up by anything remotely resembling fact) are incredibly reductive. A traditional way of being a woman? If Bindel is referring to the existence of women prior to the advent of sexual liberation, I think she’s missing the point. Before women had any grasp on what sexual liberation could or should look like, they had very little choice as to how, when and why they had sex of any kind. Now, if a lesbian chooses to have heterosexual sex, that’s her own damn business as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Bindel, in her typically transphobic style, reduces sexual acts to gendered performance, completely discounting trans* bodies and behaviours.

As for this idea that straight women reduce their girlfriends to trendy accessories, generalising isn’t going to help anyone here – Bindel not only discounts the sexual autonomy and choices of “straight” women, she completely denies their right to shift their sexuality and behaviour and instead lumps all straight women together as lying, shallow hussies. It’s exceptionally lazy journalism as well as being wildly unfair.

It is a real shame that Bindel is such a relentless bigot – not only because she has a significant platform in the feminist and LGBT media, but because in this article specifically (I’m not going to tackle her entire journalistic canon) she almost manages to make some sensible points. For instance, when she writes, “I personally feel that straight women are missing out on the best sex on the planet, but that is their choice”, I almost want to applaud. “Yes Julie!” I want to cry out. Yes, because she is stating her personal opinion without denying women the right to choose what kind of sex they want to have.

It’s a shame that the elation I feel when I read that sentence is so utterly crushed by her crass assumption that bisexual women who sleep with men are halting feminist progress and undermining sexual politics. I’ll say it again: sexual politics connotes the choice about who we sleep with – who, when and why. It is not in any way undermined by the genitalia or gender identity of the person (or people) who are lucky enough to have their world rocked by an awesome person (or people). However, because Bindel seems completely unable to grasp this, I would suggest that for the foreseeable future, you take the advice of my friend Lauren: “If lesbian women have an ounce of sexual politics, they will stop sleeping with Julie Bindel”. Couldn’t agree more.

At the beginning of her “article” Bindel asks, “what makes some of us uncomfortable with bisexual women?” I can answer that for you Julie: bigotry. Some people (including me) are bisexual. Get over it.

It’s on days like this that you know who your friends are

So it’s been a tough day, and I’ve cried, and I’ve been in such desperate need of hugs from people who simply aren’t here. But at the end of it all, I’m still the luckiest girl in the world, and I can still smile, so here are some things that made me happy today:

1) My friends

2) Tori Amos – taxi ride (savoy 09, syracuse 07), personal jesus (dublin 10)

3) AFP: http://blog.amandapalmer.net/post/5424547289/arrested-in-amsterdam

4) Bob, my chocolate caterpillar cake.

5) Many other things, but finally, this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spnN3vH2S6M

Things will be ok.

In between the lines, women are writing the revolution