GUEST POST: Coming Out In The Classroom

‘Never discuss your private life’. Along with ‘don’t smile before Christmas’, this is one of the first commandments drilled into you in teacher training, but what happens when your private life is visibly tied up with your identity?

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The summer has been simultaneously shocking and celebratory, with a number of very public tributes to the individuals who campaigned tirelessly for this abolition and those who suffered under the consequences of the law.

Having sobbed our way through Peter Gale’s ‘Man in an Orange Shirt’, conversation turned to how invigorating it was to see these programmes so openly publicised. The current generation of school and university students are growing up in a world which, for the most part, celebrates diversity and acceptance. A world where openly gay characters are portrayed living mundane daily lives and ‘out’ members of the public appear, unclothed, on reality shows discussing naked suitors, with no one batting an eyelid. This couldn’t be further from our experiences growing up pre-internet, when the exposure to LGBTQ+ representation was through the scandalous 5 second lesbian kisses on Neighbours and Brookside, or sneaking down late at night to watch Queer as Folk and Bad Girls.

But whilst we are making enormous strides in our public attitudes, there remains one sector of society which is finding it hard to move on. Whilst individually, the majority of pupils approach life with an open mind, as a collective group, our current student body are producing worrying statistics. According to a 2014 Stonewall report, of teachers surveyed, 86% acknowledged homophobic bullying, 89% say that they regularly hear homophobic comments and language and yet only 43% of these teachers say that they would intervene. Only a quarter of all schools provided clear policies on homophobic behaviour and in 65% of cases, even this is not properly enforced. How are we getting it so right in one area of society and yet so wrong in another?

To answer this, we must look to our own attitudes. I remember one of my peers asking our PGCE tutor about coming out in the classroom and the response stuck in my mind for years. ‘Don’t give the children any more ammunition. They will never respect you again’. I was truly saddened by this response, not because of the negativity towards the LGBT issue, but because of the inherent suspicion and distrust she afforded the pupils. Now, at this stage I was not a misty-eyed dreamer, expecting to be adored for bestowing my pearls of wisdom upon eager young minds. I had had my eyes opened after teaching in an underprivileged and unenthusiastic school in northern Spain for a year and subsequently, working as a language assistant in two local state schools. I had seen horrendous examples of neglect, bullying, and gang related violence but never at any stage did I consider education to be a battle pitting teachers against students. I was shocked by her answer but I wasn’t surprised.

See, my PGCE tutor began her career in 1964 and when she entered the profession, homosexuality was illegal. Over the course of her career she saw the decriminalisation in 1967, worked under Section 28 (prohibiting open discourse about homosexual relationships) in 1988, witnessed the repeal of this law in 2003 and the establishment of Civil Partnerships in 2005. It is no wonder the response to the question seemed antiquated. To some extent we are all guilty of making assumptions based on our own experiences but if these attitudes are presented as lore, we are in danger of not allowing new teachers the momentum to move the profession forward.  They say it takes three generations to change public sentiment, one to rewrite the rules, one to bluster through the change and one to have never known anything different. Yet schools and teaching can be inherently institutionalised and may be in danger of not moving on.

I started teaching in a well-known public boarding school and soon began a relationship with another female member of staff. I heeded my tutor’s advice and, whilst one would always aim to be discrete in such an intimate environment, vowed never to allow this relationship become public knowledge amongst the pupils. My decision was confirmed by comments from a long-serving member of the Common Room that ‘people like you shouldn’t be trusted to work in the boarding houses’ and a close acquaintance asserting that I would ‘single-handedly destroy the reputation of the school’. This led to 9 months of looking over my shoulder and cringing whenever a student mentioned anything LGBTQ+ related. I was never 100% comfortable hiding away, but believed it was the only option.

My attitude, however, changed over the course of one evening. One of the 6th form girls came to me in floods of tears between platitudes and armfuls of tissues, she managed to choke out ‘Miss, I think I’m gay and I don’t know who else to tell. I thought you might understand because… you know…’. My heart stopped. She knew. I felt the floor fall away beneath me but my instincts kicked in, I had to put her pieces back together before I could concentrate on mine. By the time we finished, she was bouncing out of the room talking excitedly about her Oxbridge offer. I however, had never felt so sick and immediately went to explain the situation to the housemistress, an insane but wonderful French woman. Far from the conversation I expected, she wittered on about how ‘delighted she was that this girl could come and talk to me’ and ‘how wonderful it was for the pupils to have a visible, gay role model’. Both tears and the scales fell from my eyes.

Far from protecting myself, I was perpetuating the myth that sexuality is something to feel ashamed and afraid of and was helping drive it back underground. I was standing in front of these pupils every day, encouraging them to be proud of their individuality, but refusing to heed my own advice. If we want our pupils to celebrate their diversity, should we not be leading by example? I promised myself that, from then on, I would be honest and open if and when the matter arose. When we married in 2013, one of the mothers made the cake, colleagues attended and pupils conveyed their happiness and congratulations. Why had I been afraid?

Since then I have experienced, almost exclusively, acceptance. The only negative moment was during a maternity cover at an all-boys Catholic school when the headmaster called me to his office to say they weren’t going to extend my contract as ‘my lifestyle didn’t suit their ethos’. I was, naturally, upset and furious and I wanted to spend months seething and plotting revenge. But I didn’t. That would be letting him win. He had the power over my contract but I refused to give him the power to poison my mood. Ultimately, I now didn’t want to work for this institution and the only person who would be hurt by my blistering temper would have been my wife. So I had a large gin, held my head high and ensured that I was particularly subversive in my final months to help create support networks for those who didn’t fit the mould.

Subsequently, any school I have worked for has encouraged me to be open about my sexuality, embracing the importance of visibility. When I was younger Section 28 was in force and, aside from the locker room speculations about the PE teacher, there were no visible role models in real life. Every year I have a couple of students come out to me and this reinforces my belief that we need to support teachers in being open, with no fear of recrimination. We cannot live in the past, allowing antiquated attitudes and our own prejudices to be handed down from generation to generation. We must help move society towards a place where someone’s sexuality is as mundane as their hair colour.

We are incredibly fortunate to be living in the modern world where many of the barriers have been broken down by those who went before us but, in all good conscience, I cannot say that every member of the LGBTQ+ community lives without fear. Yes, we can now celebrate same-sex marriages, proudly go into adoption and fertility treatment, and live our humdrum lives arguing about whose turn it is to make the tea; but to say that we all live without fear of retribution is to silence thousands of voices. We still read of too many cases of violence being perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ+ community, too many stories of young people taking their own lives through fear of social discrimination, too many examples of individuals being turned away from their families. How do we help close the gap between general public sentiment, and the experiences of thousands in their own homes? Acceptance of homosexuality needs to step out of the television screen and into reality but, to make a stand, we need use the resources available to us. Teachers are one our most powerful weapons in the fight against homophobia and we need to give them our full support to ensure that our arsenals are well stocked.

 

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

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This week’s guest post comes from one of my favourite people – Kath Shaw. We’ve been friends ever since the day we had to create a make-shift rubbish disposal cart whilst working together at a multiplex cinema. Our cinema days are behind us and we’re now grown-ups trying to navigate life in London. By day Kath works in PR and by night she takes me to comedy gigs.

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

Nine out of ten north London private renters have had “serious problems” with their homes, according to details of the #BigRentersSurvey released last week; problems ranging from landlords entering the property without prior notice, deposits not being returned and unexpected rent hikes.

I moved into a new flat at the start of this month and with one day’s notice was told the rent was going up. The letting agency had known I was moving in for eight weeks so why hadn’t they told me earlier? Presumably because they knew that with 24 hours to go I would already be packed, there would already be somebody ready to take over the room I was vacating and I would have no choice but to meet their demands.

I take little comfort in being part of the 90 per cent of people being screwed over in the city but I take some comfort in knowing that Sian Berry, Green member of the London Assembly and former mayoral candidate, is calling on Sadiq Khan to set up an independent London-wide organisation to represent renters. London is made up of private renters; it’s about time we had the help available to us made clear and formulised. It’s about time there was some protection.

My salary didn’t increase in line with my rent so it just means a larger percentage of it will be given over to my landlord, but I’m by no means the worst affected here. I have a job which pays well and a family who’ll ensure I don’t go hungry. Lots of people don’t. The people who work in the retail or service industry in zones one or two who earn minimum wage – where do they live? The minimum wage in London for 21-24 year olds is £6.95. On a 39 hour a week contract, they will take home – after tax and national insurance – around £1062 a month. Even less if they’re making the pension contributions we’re all being told to make. They’re met with the challenge of working out whether it’s cheaper to live in central and walk to work, or live in zones five and six where the rents are slightly lower and pay travel. The reality is they’re probably working an extra job (or two) and sharing their flats with multiple people. For them, it’s not a case of a little less disposable income. Every fiver was accounted for when I was unemployed and then again when I was on minimum wage. That £40 extra a month on rent just simply isn’t there to spare.
During the 24 hours of ‘negotiations’ with my new letting agency, they suggested I should give up the tenancy and they would ‘find someone who was happy to pay market rate’. Show me those people. Who are they? Who is walking around happy to pay £500+ a month for a box room in a converted council flat? What they meant is they’d find someone happy to accept that they have to pay market rate.

I moved from the North East to London and sometimes when I want to cloak myself in sadness, I play the, ‘what would this get me in County Durham?’ game. The answer: a three bed house in a good catchment area, a yard – potentially a garden, living room, dining room, garage. But I just brush it off. I join in with colleagues as we share those all too frequent viral room adverts offering little more than a tent in a living room. I frivolously compare London to the cinema whereby I wouldn’t dream of going into a supermarket and happily handing over £14 for a Diet Coke and some Butterkist but within the parallel economy of a multiplex cinema, I don’t question it. London is my Vue: County Durham, my Sainsbury’s.

And that’s fine for me. I could pick myself up and move back. If the work opportunities were better, I probably would – and I’d probably fit back in just fine. But what about all the Londoners who are being priced out of their own home city by greedy landlords who plead that ‘they’re just charging market rate’ (as if market rate isn’t something they have any shitting control over) – do they have to move out to completely new areas, get new jobs and build new support networks? That can’t be how it is.

So it’s not just landlords screwing born and bred Londoners over. It’s idiots like me, who keep paying the ridiculous rents. I could just stop. Maybe we should just stop – that might be the only way the revolution starts. If we all just bartered and dared to suggest that maybe the bedsit with the leaky shower wasn’t legitimately worth £680 a month – and all agreed that we wouldn’t pay it. Landlords would have to price their properties in accordance to their actual worth, not the value they’ve escalated it to. Mobilising a city of people is all it would take…

Generation Rent. That’s what we’re called. Those in (or approaching) their 30s who have half the wealth than those born a decade earlier had at the same age and have the lowest house ownership rates for any generation in a century. If we’ve been given a name then it seems likely we’re renting for the foreseeable. It’s bad enough that London homes are too expensive for us to ever own them, we shouldn’t have to also deal with an inefficient and exploitative renting system.

So whilst things don’t seem likely to change anytime soon, it might have to be enough to at least have some help which Sian Berry’s Londonwide renters organisation would offer. In the meantime, I’ll flesh out that mass mobilisation idea.

Five Reasons why these Test Results Tell us Precisely Nothing.

Tim Paramour

In the aftermath of the publication of Key Stage 2 assessment results on Tuesday, much of the criticism by unions and other teaching organisations has, quite reasonably, been that the government’s new tests are too hard, that they are setting children up to fail and that the content is not relevant to children’s lives. While valid, all of these criticisms are merely components of a much broader concern: that the all-important performance data the test results create no longer tells us anything useful. Educational policy, Ofsted judgements and funding decisions will no doubt continue to be made on the basis of this data and yet, for the five reasons outlined below, that data is not worth the paper it’s written on. 

1. The reading test doesn’t assess the National Curriculum. Or reading. Or anything.

The level of vocabulary required to access the reading test (example: “rehabilitating the image of the…

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Guest Post: What Is Education About?

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One of the best things about blogging is hearing from people who’ve read my blog and want to contribute their ideas and offer their opinion on something I’ve written. I’ve had emails from people from all over the world, teachers, lecturers, students and sometimes just other bloggers that have read something that’s struck a chord.

A couple of weeks ago I had the most charming email from a man called Geoff Marshall. He had read “What Did You Learn At Primary School?” and wanted to get in touch. It turns out that Geoff had been pointed in the direction of the article by my Primary school head teacher, who had worked with Geoff in the 70s. Geoff is 87 years old and retired from teaching in 1989 – something of an Education veteran.  He knows his stuff and has written an article that sums up the state Education system perfectly. He kindly agreed to let me share the article here. You can find it in it’s original form on his website. Just to recap: this is an article written by the man who hired my Primary school head teacher. This is why I love the internet.

What is Education about?

I’m desperately concerned for our children, both now and in the future. Few question what is happening in our schools. The establishment seem to be agreed that, minor quibbles aside, all would be well if only the state sector could be like the private. 

 
But within my lifetime many of our primary schools were the best in the world and visitors came from across the world. Innovation and initiative were welcomed and expected and Education was an instinctive discipline, the foundation of our thinking. Each school built its own identity upon who was there and where they were. People and place were what made them.
 
Children are expert learners. They have to be and they show it from birth. It’s what they do, with parents and teachers to help them. Schools should be where learning is enjoyed and celebrated for children to ‘grow in abundance,’ as Christian Schiller memorably put it.
 
Learning is a process which requires skills, just like any other process, skills which are improved with practise, founded upon choosing. Making wise choices is the most difficult of skills as we all know and it is fundamental to learning. Adults, knowing something of the available options, are there to help children choose but always within their capacity to choose.
 
Children’s learning begins by observing and contemplating first hand, concrete experience. With all the immediate reactions upon meeting something new there will eventually come one along the lines of ‘So what shall I do about it?  How shall I respond?’ This is the beginning of choosing. It is the task of the adult to follow the child, ready to talk through the possibilities. Being alongside, reading the child, then becomes a prime skill of the teacher.
 
I know this is a simplistic description of learning and of being a teacher but it is sufficient to set it apart from today’s model of good practise. The teacher I have described is a world away from the super being, master of a problem class of youngsters, awed by his ability to impose and to instil the required information. The Secretary of State now promises a hit squad of ‘excellent teachers’ to show failing schools how to do it.  But clearly, instilling information is not practising learning. One is absorbed in helping a child to grow, the other is remembering information.
 
I remember teaching a class of children who could be ‘difficult’: you needed to control to survive. Teachers still need to do that because in most schools children would rather be somewhere else only they know they will need a job when they leave and passing exams will help.
 
Teachers should not be blamed for what they have helped to create in schools today though many are happy enough to see themselves as the one who tells you what to know and how to pass exams. They are after all servants of the state employed to do that. They have become a function of targets, inputs and outcomes reducing the magic of learning to a set of instructions and measurements. There is no place here for intuition, for choosing an alternative medium or discipline, or for simply doing something else. Their masters see no need to meet and learn about children, how they grow and think: they are immersed in sheaves of paper, sending them across the land to ensure all children everywhere perform to a standard in the way the Minister wishes.

 

 

What is it the Minister wishes? Looking back over the years you might think it difficult to know, but overall the message is the same. The Minister wants what is best for the politician; Education is a means to an end which is whatever the Cabinet decides it is. So it could be sex education, numeracy, racism, literacy, social mobility or whatever else is in the headlines of the moment. Teachers have to ensure that children know all about these because society requires it. Above all though, the nation wants young people fit for work, flexible to the needs of the employers’ market.

 

Education is no longer an unconditional ‘good’ like Health. I can speak of a time when my purpose was all about the rounded growth of the person, me with the doctor, the healthy mind and the healthy body. They go together in the makings of a person. Thank goodness the doctors’ oath protects us. Their only concern is our health, not what it’s for. Education is too wide in its references to be described as being ‘for’ anything, rather it is an elemental aspect of life. Would anyone suggest that living is ‘for’ something? Education is a process promoting a full life, one that makes the most of the experiences it offers. Inflating ‘training for a job’ to being its main purpose has been the triumph of capitalism these last fifty years

Parents know that their children are unhappy at school. It is not a place where they can follow their interests, especially when that might disrupt the routine of the day. Parents remember their school days where they learnt that school is to be endured for the sake of the future. So they feel guilty yet remain zealous supporters of what happens. Why is that? It’s because they know that the tests and the targets are all a means to an end which is otherwise unobtainable, so the children must manage as best they can.  Many parents translate their responsibilities into an almost hysterical determination to grab a place in a ‘good’ school which makes no bones about its purpose being to give a ticket to the next stage on the treadmill. So finding a ‘good’ school is as easy and simplistic as reading the football scores and is done with the same intention. What’s top and how to get in?

It ought to be a monstrous crime to seize a young child barely out of babyhood and deliberately proceed to process it in a calculated programme preparing for an unpredictable future which can be of no interest to a young mind which by nature is only interested in the here and now. There can be no more effective way to confuse the mind of a child than to make it perform to a purpose which it doesn’t understand. But when there is a real need perceived and designed by children, they will achieve the most astonishing results, the envy of adults and such as only they can create.

What would happen if we went with children instead of against them, if we followed them, studied them, and helped them to become what they have the abilities to become? Children are devoted to learning. It’s what they do. We should be reading their needs, showing choices and helping them to respond to the concrete first hand experiences they meet. What would happen if children were given the fundamental right of a civilised life and encouraged to grow by developing their ability to make appropriate choices within their capacity to choose? What would it be like if progress were measured by the growing sophistication of the choices made? Just suppose teachers became trusted professionals, expected to decide what has been achieved and what next should happen. What if knowledge became a product of the process of learning rather than the first requirement?
Then as they matured children would begin to understand that their work leads naturally into subject disciplines each of which is of course embedded and was extracted from a concrete experience. They may well become a specialist but still their work will depend upon making wise choices, which of course is the foundation of democracy. How long must we wait before this is allowed to happen? 
Geoffrey Marshall, November 2015