Independence Day: a pointless celebration?

Tomorrow millions of Americans will be letting off fireworks, attending parades, eating good food and not going to work as they celebrate their national holiday of Independence Day. July 4 is always a day to be remembered. I will remember my first July 4 in the USA… a failed firework display at Mount Rushmore in 1998 which sent most Americans home in tears after the whole event was cancelled due to thick fog. The Brit inside me felt the mild ironic amusement of the fact that of all things NOT taken into account when planning the display was the weather – something the British would have surely done if we were still in charge of our former colonies, given our obsession with weather. I was, however, sympathetic to the thousands of Americans that had traveled from afar to witness a cloud of fog; feeling particularly sorry for those Californians who could have simply gone to LA to see something similar!

But this cancelled event made me think… why do Americans celebrate their independence on this day? This is not a glib question. So let’s consider why.

First of all, the Declaration of Independence was suggested on July 1 and kind of agreed with the next day. Then hours and hours of work ensued until by the July 4th, a final draft of the letter was agreed upon by the Continental Congress. But not by everyone!! New York didn’t agree to accept this until July 9th, and that saw riots in their city which was occupied by a serious British contingent at the time!!

Next, no one really signed the letter for almost a month. Most of the signatures appeared on August 2nd, and the last person to sign it did so on November 9th!!

Next, let’s just put into perspective what this letter actually was: it was a letter to King George III saying “We don’t want to be in your club any more because you’re basically horrible to us and we could do a better job than you anyway.” That’s it really. A letter.

Did this grant American independence? Not a chance!! King George didn’t just reply, “Okay then, I’ll pull all of my troops out of MY colonies and hand them over to you.” In fact, in response to this, he escalated troop numbers. By 1776, when this letter was written, it could be argued that the Continental Army was actually losing the War of Independence, so I hardly think a letter would turn the tide and give the Americans what they wanted! It certainly didn’t work for me when I wrote to the British government refusing to pay my tax fine of £100 because it was their error, etc, etc, etc… We can pretty much say that the British government have a track record of rejecting letters, especially when it comes to taxes.

So basically, Independence Day is a celebration of writing a letter to a person who then rejected that letter completely and the outcome of that letter was that nothing changed really, in fact it just got a bit worse!! Is that really worth a celebration? Maybe not.

So when could America postpone its celebrations of July 4th and pick a more appropriate date for the purpose of pandering to my over-pedantic sense of historical well-being? Well, there is a debate over the first country to formally recognise America as an independent nation. Some say it was Morocco in December 1777 when a Royal Moroccan ship saluted an American vessel. But most say it was France when they officially allied themselves against Britain in the War of Independence in February 1778. This is more convincing to me because there was a formal thingy signed. But this was still in the context of fighting a war for sovereignty over Britain, so just because France said, “We’ll help…”didn’t really make America an independent nation.

So what did? Well, even after the decisive American victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, there was a lot of box-ticking to do, largely because King George refused to accept the war was over. This wasn’t finalised until the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3rd, 1783, where Britain, the former rulers of the American colonies, agreed to give up its claims on the region, thus accepting that Americans were in fact capable of choosing their own leader and governing themselves – an acceptance that is now under serious review given the current situation involving Donald Trump as a Presidential Candidate!

So, Independence Day? Probably not July 4th. Possibly August 2nd. Maybe November 9th or even February 6th. Most likely September 3rd. I would suggest that Americans should be more savvy about these dates and petition the government for them ALL to be celebrated in the spirit of Independence as public holidays! That way, there can be no argument!

So, my last message to my American friends is: enjoy your pointless celebrations on July 4th – signed – the Brit that can’t let go!!!

A World Without Ofsted

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Three months ago I moved to a world without Ofsted.

Not a bizarre, made-up fantasy world – like some futuristic utopia where schools and teachers and kids and parents and everyone learns stuff and lives happily ever after. No… this place is real. Its a different country. And there’s no Ofsted. Its weird and wonderful. Especially having been immersed in the English education system for my entire, not very long, career.

So here are my initial observations.

First, for a good teacher I think this is a blessing. Increasingly in England I was beginning to feel that bigger chunks of my time were spent compiling data that was simply serving Ofsted to show that my school was actually doing its job. I was spending less time actually teaching, and less time still actually thinking about teaching. In my final year in England I thought that I was a worse teacher than three years ago, which doesn’t make sense. But without the senseless monitoring and data collection, I can now teach. I teach good lessons mostly and great lessons sometimes. I’m now finding that my great lessons are becoming more abundant because I have more time to plan and resource them. Ask my students.

As a Head of Department I feel that every decision I make is about the students. I feel liberated as an educator. Of course I test my students. Of course I gather data and track the progress of everyone in my department – but its all done to improve their learning and to inform teachers (myself and my staff) what areas we need to focus on. And I don’t have to show progress through individual lessons or points within lessons. And I don’t have to get the students to document everything down so when an inspector comes knocking we can all prove to them what a great job we’re all doing. Some lessons involve discussion. Sometimes we even go out of the classroom to observe something in the real world related to what we’re learning about. And the students love it. They’re engaged and excited about my subjects. I’m happy and they’re happy.

The final analysis comes with results – a topic that has driven teaching for many years now. Like it or not, teachers and students live and die by their results. But what I’ve come to find is that if I can engage the students, grow their strengths, help them address their weaknesses and give them the time, space and support to develop, the results will come. And they are…

Is it all good? Well, I never thought I would say this but, no! There is space for something like Ofsted. Without it has been a liberating experience for me. But it has come with its frustrations. Some teachers clearly need an oppressive framework like Ofsted to motivate them to do well. Without it, I have seen some fall into a malaise of lazy practice. Dull lessons produce disengaged students, which I have witnessed during this transition. In some cases, I have been reminded of some of my own teachers back in the 1980s where the lesson plan said, “Copy pages 57-63” and that was as much input as a teacher gave. I can’t help thinking if Ofsted was around, you’d need to up your game!

So what are my final observations? I think most teachers are in the profession for their want to make a difference in peoples’ lives and this serves as the motivation to make the learning experience fantastic for their students. Furthermore, most teacher really care about teenagers which informs their day-to-day interactions with them. We don’t need an Ofsted to monitor this. Most of us do a fine job. But we cannot escape the fact that some teachers might just like the holidays, or knocking off at 4pm, or are that complacent about their practice that the care has just seeped out of them. Maybe this is where Ofsted come in. Overall I don’t think the constraints put on most teachers are necessary. I think if schools develop a good system of supportive coaching for their staff, most would be fine. A more efficient Ofted-less model might be to use a network of schools to perform checks and balances on each other – like a supporting friend – that can help teachers that are struggling but avoid putting constraints on the ones that flourish in a liberal environment.

I don’t know the right answer. What I do know is that I’m enjoying my world without Ofsted.

Sorry Nicky, I’m out. —

Dear Nicky Morgan, Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear […]

via Sorry Nicky, I’m out. —

Class War in the Classroom?

A recent, magnificent article by Sarah Moore in the Guardian got me thinking about the issue of class in the UK. As a teacher from a very lower class background, I find myself in the minority. Okay, I get all the sociological arguments about access to education and all the fluff about working class culture, but the fact remains that most teachers in the UK are from backgrounds that carry with it some level of privilege. Here is where I hold my hands up and scream out my disclaimer- I know I’m generalising (I know lots of working class teachers), I know it might appear that I am suggesting that class has any impact on the excellence of a teacher (it really doesn’t). But one worrying pattern that I cannot help to notice is the fact that the education profession is generally led by people who are quite far removed from many they are paid to teach. This permeates throughout British society from the highest level right down to the types of teachers certain schools can recruit and keep hold of. If Britain indeed is locked into some kind of class-war, as has been suggested by many social critics, maybe that war starts in the classroom; in schools which end up creating ideas about class, privilege and rights within our young people which has led to the vast ideological chasm about what it expects from people in society today.

Recent studies have suggested that despite the rhetoric of inclusion and the famous “every child matters” agenda which has been a cornerstone throughout education recently, under the current government we are moving nearer to a divided system which favours the agenda of the ruling class. A paper published only days ago by the Social Market Foundations Commission on Inequalities in Education has pinpointed several problematic issues with teacher recruitment in secondary schools. In short, schools which have a higher percentage of Free School Meals (FSM) employ more staff who are either underqualified or newly qualified. In addition, many of the NQTs in these types of schools end up leaving after only a short time. This is further exasperated by the fact that these schools pay teachers less on average, which could be one reason for their short lifespan. However, from my own experience, I would suggest that it is not just the issue of money which drives many of these NQTs away – sometimes it is social class. In many cases, these NQTs came from “nice” grammar schools, then onto a university education, followed by placements in schools which were performing well, and it may be a simple fact that many NQTs from more privileged backgrounds simply struggle to connect with lower class kids from schools in deprived areas. If we follow this paper trail further, we find that less lower class people are going to university because the funding structure and the astronomical fees just don’t support their enrollment. Furthermore, often university culture is alien to most young, lower class people, especially if their parents can offer no help or advice whatsoever. The whole system needs a shake up and more working class kids need to be going to university.

The structure of education itself is also changing. Education is supposed to be about expanding minds and building vehicles for creative and independent thinking. Instead, teachers are now trying to work within a system which is obsessed with measuring and tracking numbers in order to prove to an overbearing organisation that everything works. The outcome of this is deeply ironic because this crazy obsession with measuring progress to a detail means that less education is actually taking place. Those with power in education are increasingly trying to adopt a business model to it, which only further reinforces the capitalist system which favours those with privilege and power. Examples are abundant. Performance related pay in the UK – where teachers are now expected to meet targets like sales assistants in a department store. The academisation of schools – allowing businesses to dictate terms and conditions. There is even talk of businesses running education curricula. We are already in that dangerous zone where capitalism overrides education when we consider the cost of textbooks for underfunded departments in schools. There is a reason why Pearson Education are a multi-billion pound a year publisher. In a wonderful article published by the education blogger @Teacher Toolkit, we should consider a quote which sums this up eloquently from the book Flip the System by Evers and Kneyber, “Education is threatened on a global scale by forces of neoliberalism, through high stakes accountability, privatization and a destructive language of learning.”

Finally, there has to be some recognition of the existence of a class culture within Britain without the Thatcheresque denigration of working class people. Most working class people are not stupid but many don’t get access to the pathways that allow them to become teachers. So, for now, maybe a start would be to redress the system by teaching compassion and understanding rather than a business model of productivity. Maybe if education leaders change their attitudes towards working class students, more of these young people will want to support the system, but until that happens most working class people will see the system as exclusive and oppressive, which will simply reinforce the cycle we are in currently in. Sadly, it appears again that this model is something that favours those with privilege, which I believe is why we find ourselves in this social situation right now and those with the power have very little incentive to change things.

In the long run, getting more teachers who can tap into the cultural needs of working class students is the key. I have worked in a school where this was superb! Teacher retention at this school was fantastic and the number of young, dynamic teachers who moved onto middle leadership was also impressive. In short, few teachers left. (I emigrated!) What was the formula? Simple, teachers were employed on their ability to connect with the types of students they would be teaching. Many of these were teachers from lower class backgrounds; some were from more privileged backgrounds that were prepared to listen and learn. A special culture had been generated. The most important outcome here was the success rates of the students. The school punched above its weight in these terms.

To finish with, I cannot help but cast my mind back to an online argument I had with a student whom I won’t embarrass from a University that should be embarrassed to have him. When I challenged his political thinking he referred to me as “you people”. To me – it spoke volumes. Because I had defended a working class point of view, he made certain assumptions about me and in those two words he assumed that I was uneducated, bitter and somehow jealous of his privileged position as a university undergraduate. Maybe one day he’ll move on to become a teacher. I hope not because he would simply reinforce everything that is wrong with the social system in which we live today. The words “you people” did suggest a difference; a struggle.

For me, this struggle starts in our classrooms.