Saturday, June 02, 2007

today : hands up if you're an idiot

I'm wondering what Allen Johnston's game is. As Education secretary, he has hijacked two news cycles this week with bizarre attacks on teachers. You would think that it might be time to sit back and watch the Tories get their knickers in a twist over 'the Grammar School question' and allow the press to focus on Tory splits rather than yet more befuddling Labour initiatives. But the Dfes apparently isn't aware that saying nothing is sometimes the best option.

So, last weekend Johnston suggested that one way that Private Schools could fulfil their public commitments by kindly and and charitably donating their teaching expertise to the public sector. Then, on Friday, he made a case for teachers not using a hands-up approach to classroom questioning because some children are shy.

Maybe he wants to lose the confidence of the people whom he ultimately manages. If he is, this
Woodheadian (or block-headed) approach seems a pretty good way to go about it.

The underlying assumption behind the first announcement is that the teachers in private schools actually have something to offer to the public sector.
Hmm, lets see. Clearly people who need only a degree, the right school names on their CVs and whose teacher development occurs in classes of nine or ten pupils with resources falling out of cupboards and students whose parents have a direct financial stake in them behaving and achieving are the real experts. Those who spend a year of their lives training both in classrooms and on the job in often challenging circumstances with under-resourced schools and often disaffected pupils are obviously LESS schooled in pedagogy and LESS expert than their untrained private counterparts. Yes, private schools get better results on the whole than public, but to use the headline pass rates as indicators of professionalism and expertise, is like saying that Jose Mourinho is better at playing the transfer market than Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp.

I was kind of joking above. I am sure that many private school teachers are superb at their jobs, but I resent the simplistic assumption that they are naturally better. The implication, of course, is that public sector teachers are not good at their jobs and need help. How about trying it the other way around? How about taking inner city school teachers who have to sweat and battle to achieve every piece of learning, every exam mark and every percentage point and taking them into an environment where the students are well behaved, motivated and educationally minded and the
establishment is rich with resources?

And then there are questioning strategies. Someone does one of those pieces of research that is useful but not necessarily ground-breaking. Turns out that a hands up to answer strategy can be unsuitable for kids who are shy, or for kids who aren't so quick at finding answers. Well, knock me down with a feather.

I actually, from experience, have an awful lot to say about how certain students can go through the whole of the system without having their problems picked up on, being stereotyped and their issues ignored. But this is a complex and
multifaceted issue about social inclusion, special needs, class sizes, staff training, resourcing, parental empowerment, subject specific knowledge, linguistics etc etc.

But this announcement contains yet another simplistic assumption i.e. that professional teachers only use one strategy for questioning and what's more their use of it is not sophisticated, intellectual, knowledgeable and appropriate but a one-size-fits-all process that is wheeled out again and again despite its problems. This vision of teachers as people who trot out processes is taking over the
DfEs. Actually it is taking over everywhere. Junior doctors aren't sophisticated individuals with a unique set of skills, talents and interests but can be employed from tick-box questionnaires, GPs just sit and write scripts for Valium and Prozac all day, whoever comes through the door, judges cannot judge but are ordered to simply hand down pre-determined sentences. We are being managed by people who despise sophistication, because it defies their blind necessity to label, box and control everything as a measurable process.

To even imply that teachers can use only one failing strategy to question their pupils is simply idiotic, and insulting to teachers. Why would a secretary of Education do this? Perhaps, like much of the media and the public, he sees the world of education with the analytical skills and insight of the average child.

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