Sorry, Nicky, I’m out.

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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 as possible. In the six short years I have been teaching your party has destroyed the Education system. Obliterated it. Ruined it. It is broken.

The first thing I learnt when I started teaching in 2010 is that teaching is bloody hard work. It’s a 60 hour week only half of which is spent doing the actual teaching. It eats into the rest of your life both mentally and physically. If it’s not exercise books and resources taking over your lounge and kitchen table it’s worrying about results or about little Ahmed’s home life keeping you awake at 2am. I’ve never minded this. I’ve always been happy to give my life over to teaching as I believed it to be such a noble cause. Besides we’re not the only profession who work long hours. What I didn’t realise back in 2010 is that the job would get harder each year.

First you introduced the phonics check. I was in Year 1 that year and continued teaching phonics to the best of my ability. I didn’t spend much time teaching children to differentiate between real words and “non-words” because I was focused on, you know, teaching them to read. I sat and watched child after child fail that ridiculous “screening” because they read the word “strom” as “storm”. The following year I taught to the test. We spent weeks practising “words” and “non words” and sure enough our results soared.

My second year brought with it the changes to the Ofsted framework and the obsession with data began. Oh the sodding data game! The game that refuses to acknowledge how long a child has spoken English or whether or not they have books or even food at home. The data game changed things. Attainment in Maths and English was no longer just important, it would almost entirely decide the judgement made about your school. Oh and whilst we’re on the judgements “Satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory – it was the far more sinister sounding: “Requires Improvement.”

From then on things began to unravel at an alarming rate. The threat of forced academisation hung over each set of SATs results and the floor targets continued to rise. Gove cut the calculator paper (because calculators are cheating) and introduced SPaG. Grammar was no longer for writing – it was for grammar. Around the same time he also froze teachers’ pay and doubled the contributions we would have to make to our pensions. Teachers were suddenly worse off than they had been the previous year and under more pressure than ever before.

So teaching became harder still and life in schools started to change. There were new hoops to jump through and somehow we just about managed to get through them. It meant sacrificing everything that wasn’t SPaG, English or Maths but we did it – we learnt how to play the game. Outside of the safety of our schools though there was a bigger game being played – one that we had no chance of winning: the status of the teaching profession was being eroded away. There was the incessant name calling and smears in the media from “the blob” to “the enemies of promise” and, of course, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”. You drip fed the message: teachers were not to be trusted and it worked: the public stopped trusting us.

As bleak as it sounds, those years look like a golden age compared to what we have to deal with now.

I was delighted when Gove went. I knew there was every chance he’d be replaced by someone equally awful but I couldn’t imagine things getting worse. I figured the Tories were done playing with Education and they’d move on to something else. I was so wrong .


This year brought with it our greatest challenge to date – the new assessments. For most of the year we were completely in the dark. We had no idea what form the tests would take and how they would be scored (we’re still not entirely sure on the latter.) There was also the introduction of the SPaG test for 7-year-olds (which was sadly scrapped because of your own department’s incompetence.) The criteria for assessing writing has changed dramatically.  Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up . Year 6 were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.

In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all any more. I prepare children for tests and, if I’m honest, I do it quite well. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as it’s not as if I’ve provided my class with any transferable, real life skills during the process. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it but we’ve done it: and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions. They’ve written raps about how to answer test questions, they’ve practised test questions at home and test questions in school, they’ve had extra tuition to help them understand the test questions. They can do test questions – they just haven’t had time to do anything else.

At the same time you’ve cut school budgets to pieces. This one hasn’t been widely reported yet but it will be over the next 18 months. I know of 3 head teachers who are considering having their own class next year as they can’t afford to replace the teachers that are leaving. Most schools I know have already cut back on support staff (read: made valuable, hard-working teaching assistants redundant.) And this is just the start of it. I suppose the only thing schools should be grateful for is that you introduced performance related pay and, with the leap in National Expectations, there will be fewer teachers getting their pay rise this September.

In many ways I’m one of the lucky ones – I work for two smart Head Teachers in a school with an SLT who genuinely care about teacher workload. Meaningless box ticking exercises are kept to a minimum and meetings are kept brief. We only have INSET on average every other week and book scrutiny/monitoring is only carried out once a term. Demands on teachers’ time are kept to a minimum but there is very little we can do to protect teachers from the unreasonable expectations being put on them by your Government, the threat of no-notice Ofsted inspections and, of course, the ever increasing risk of academisation.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A recent survey found that nearly 50% of teachers are considering leaving in the next 5 years. Just within my own family my fiance, my sister and my sister-in-law have all quit the profession in the last 12 weeks. Rather than address this issue you’ve decided to allow schools to recruit unqualified teachers to fill the gaps. The final nail in the profession’s coffin. I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching but I have no interest in being part of this game any more.

Worse than being a teacher in this system is being a child at the mercy of it and to them I say this: we tried our best to fight these changes: we rallied, we went on strike, we campaigned and made as much noise as we could. I’m sorry it didn’t work and I’m sorry that I’m not strong enough to keep working in this system but as I’ve told many of you many times: when someone is being mean to you – you ask them to stop. If they continue to be mean you walk away. It is now time for me to walk away. I’ll keep up the fight though.

Maybe in time things will change and, when that time comes, I can come back to the job I loved but until then sorry Nicky – I’m out.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe

P.S: One last thing – if you do end up losing your job over your shambolic running of the Education System – make sure they don’t replace you with Boris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age-Related Sexpectations

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 “Miss Brown, how can people have sex with three people at once?” is not a question most people are confronted with at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. This particular question was from a thoughtful, 9-year-old girl. She had seen something online and thought our sex education lesson was as good a time as any to seek some clarification. A deep breath and a quick moment to order my thoughts and I had an answer for her. Teaching sex education can be incredibly challenging but I’ve always enjoyed it. Firstly, because it is so important and secondly because the pupils always find it fascinating.

In the first lesson there’s inevitably a bit of giggling; it can take a while for the class to feel comfortable using words they don’t normally hear/see in the classroom (apart from during those sneaky looks in the dictionary during quiet reading or the occasional, sly Google search during Computing.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that 10-year-olds are obsessed with finding out about sex per se it’s more that they are infinitely curious about the world around them and, in particular, about their own bodies. For every, “What does an orgasm feel like?” question there is, “Why do we have eyebrows?” or “Why do men have nipples?” I don’t discriminate between questions in my classroom and I do my best to answer all of them as honestly as I can.

Anyone who has ever taught sex education to 9-year-olds will know that 9 years old is already too late. I’ve had 9-year-olds ask me questions about threesomes, STDs, masturbation, oral sex, sex with animals and everything in between. For most of those children this was the first sex and relationships education they’d had and their prior knowledge on the subject came from older siblings or whatever they’d seen on the internet. They weren’t asking those questions to show-off, be cheeky or wind me up. For most of them it was the only opportunity they had ever had to get some honest, straightforward answers about the mysterious world of sex. By the age of 9 they’d already been given several mixed messages and were almost relieved to have the chance to do some fact checking.

This is why I think sex and relationships education (SRE) is so important: it answers questions pupils actually wanted answered and provides them with facts that could impact their decisions later in life. Yes, reading and writing is crucial but forgetting how to use a semi-colon is unlikely to result in an unwanted pregnancy whereas not understanding how get hold of and use contraception might. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of the curriculum.

So you can imagine my despair when this week when Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced that sex education would not be made compulsory. The announcement was made after four House of Commons committees wrote to Morgan asking for the status of Sex and Relationships Education to be raised to statutory. Before you tell me that you have a very real memory of being shown a dated video by some red-faced Year 6 teacher etched into your retinas yes, at the moment sex education is compulsory, but only from the age of 11 and parents are allowed to remove their children from certain parts of it. This is the part I’ve always struggled with: parents are not allowed to remove their children from Maths, English, Art, Music, History etc… so why are they allowed to decide that their child should not receive this crucial part of their education?

There is a tension between parents and schools on Sex Education in a way there isn’t over other parts of the curriculum. I’ve rarely had a conversation with a parent about whose responsibility it is to teach their child about fractions or complex sentences. I’m of the opinion that we cannot rely on all parents to educate their children in an honest, factual way. Obviously, some parents are great. They feel confident talking to their children about sex and relationships and don’t mind answering any questions. Sadly, for every parent who is perfectly capable of teaching their child about sex there are parents who, due to cultural reasons, religious reasons or just plain old embarrassment are not able to have those discussions in an honest, open and factual manner. I once had a parent complain that I’d been teaching her son about “The Gays” (as if they were a mountain range.) I patiently explained we’d actually been having a discussion about the use of homophobic language and labels. Her next question was, “Well what am I meant to say to him when he asks questions about this at home?” The idea that she should just be honest hadn’t occurred to her. Her annoyance was not that he had been learning about homophobic language but that it had highlighted her own anxieties about discussing homosexual relationships.

Which is why every year, as we approach sex education, there are mutterings from a small group of parents that their children are “too young” or (my personal favourite) it might “give them ideas.” I understand that the fact that 1 in 3 10-year-olds has viewed pornography online might be difficult for some parents to accept, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Ten years old is too late. As for “giving them ideas” – firstly when it comes to sex young people don’t need to wait for school to give them the ideas so surely it’s better that they know the facts rather than having to piece together things they hear in the playground or see online. Secondly, don’t worry, nothing will dampen those thoughts faster than showing them a video of a woman giving birth.

If it were up to me, SRE would start earlier than 9. In Key Stage One I’d start with children knowing the technical terms for their anatomy and move on to educating children to understand that there are parts of their body that are private that nobody (apart from a doctor) is allowed to touch. In lower Key Stage Two we should teach puberty and the changes their bodies will go through in the coming years. It is important that this is done right – there are tales of girls starting their periods and think they’re dying because they had no idea this would happen or even boys who are worried that their periods haven’t started. Then finally, at the start of upper Key Stage 2, we should teach sex and relationships.

It’s the relationships aspect of SRE that anxious parents overlook. This is the time to discuss: homosexuality, asexuality, what it means to be transgender, feminism, marriage, divorce, fertility, dating and anxieties about relationships (which they may already be having.) Obviously these conversations shouldn’t just be restricted to sex education lessons but it’s a great place to start. This education is vital and we are doing young people a disservice by allowing their parents to opt them out of it.

Mind you, perhaps I shouldn’t expect a man who is alleged to have had sex with pig to consider honest, open discussions about sex and relationships a priority for education.

The Big O

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Michael Wilshaw is currently Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education and, I would argue, the most powerful man in education today. Consider him the evil sidekick to the Education Secretary; the Richard Hammond to Nicky Morgan’s Clarkson.

It was my partner who first said to me “only teachers and Olympic athletes are judged entirely on their performance once every four years.” A bizarre but true fact. Over the last five years I’ve worked in two schools and been through two Ofsted inspections. Both of those inspections took the school from “Good” to “Outstanding” (which is not something I’m taking credit for.) I think it’s important to have some sort of regulation and once upon a time that’s exactly what Ofsted used to be. You’d run your school the way you believed was best for the children, Ofsted would come in and check that what you were doing was OK (or better.) What Ofsted didn’t control was how you taught, how much work was in your books and how you gave feedback to children. This has changed in the last three years.

For the last couple of years in particular I have felt as though I’m working FOR the benefit of Ofsted. It’s a dangerous approach for schools to take because I know very few teachers motivated by an overwhelming desire to assist Michael Wilshaw and far more motivated by an overwhelming desire to improve children’s lives. I’ve seen schools create policies, displays and introduce initiatives off the back of documents Ofsted have released. I’ve seen leadership teams await new announcements as if they were awaiting their next orders. There’s been a dramatic increase in the publication of books such as this one offering schools advice for their next inspection. This shouldn’t be necessary because the expectations should be clear and fair.

One of the problems is that any document Ofsted resleases is almost completely open to interpretation. Ofsted are looking for “consistent practice” in schools. Some schools have, quite sensibly, interpreted this to mean teaching needs to be consistently effective. Sadly many schools have taken this to mean “everyone has to teach the same way and at the same time.” I’ve heard of some schools taking this to mean everybody has to have the same displays on the same board (English first board on the left, adjacent to Maths.)

The irony being the Ofsted themselves are notoriously inconsistent in their own practice. Inspectors vary from power tripping, orange women to supportive, fair, gentle well meaning types. Schools are completely at the mercy of whichever particular team that walks through the door and, if an inspection isn’t fair, there is very little schools can do about it. In my experience feedback is hugely inconsistent too. One teacher is told there is too much teacher talk another told there is not enough. One teacher was criticised for “just staying with a Guided Group” and another for not having a Guided Group. Last year Ofsted stopped grading individual lessons, a fantastic move in my personal opinion. However in my most recent inspectiont the feedback after the first day was:, “we need to see more Outstanding lessons” which suggests, even if they’re not writing them down, lessons are still being graded. If there was a consistent approach schools would have less to fear but at the moment schools have to be ready to meet the individual preferences of the inspectors that walk through the door.

The latest Ofsted framework focuses far less on the teaching they see on the day and far more on evidence in books. Whilst I agree that it is not fair to judge a teacher on a twenty minute performance this intense scrutiny of books has brought a whole host of other problems. Ofsted say they wanted to see next step marking and  “a dialogue between pupils and teachers.” Quickly schools produce detailed marking policies and invested in coloured pens and highlighters. The sign of a well-marked book is how much of the child’s work resembles a Rothko painting. Howeve, I know of a school that doesn’t mark any work in books and has not dipped lower than “Outstanding” in over 15 years.

So what is going on? Is it Ofsted’s ever-increasing demands or just the fear of Ofsted that is causing the damage? Ofsted, recognising that teacher workload had increased as a result of schools reacting to their policies, released a document outlining what “they aren’t looking for.” (Some might argue a clearer “what we are looking for” document might have been more helpful.) So are Ofsted entirely to blame? If it is schools’ interpretations of the policies creating the problems can they be held responsible? Whilst I think schools need to focus on doing what they believe is right and not sit awaiting instruction I understand why they do: fear. An Ofsted inspection can make or break a headteacher’s career.

A school is being graded “inadequate” can mean the head teacher is be removed, the governing body is dismissed and academy status is thrust upon it. Academy status means the school are independent of the local authority and the services it provides for example SEN, disability and behaviour support, emergency contingencies, advisory services, staff training and professional development. Academies have to fund these services themselves.The pay structure and terms and conditions of staff contracts can be rewritten without consultation. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that before he was appointed Chief Inspector of Education, Michael Wilshaw was the director of Ark Academies – a rapidly expanding brand of academies.

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A poor inspection can be the death of Head Teacher’s career

One thing we can all agree on is the focus on data. A school’s grade is narrowed down to two categories before Ofsted even turn up.  A headteacher is only a safe as their last set of results. If you have a bad year, it doesn’t matter what other improvements you have made to your school, your data will be a cause for concern. Equally, a strong set of data can cover all manner of sins. This could lead to school leaders choosing “safer” schools. Schools where the majority of children arrive already speaking English, where there are books at home and parents engaging them in conversations about the world around the. Sadly this means school leaders will choose to work in more affluent areas as, to put it bluntly, children growing up in poverty are less likely to do well in school. So why risk it? What incentive is there for school leaders to put themselves in the firing line when they could find themselves a “safe seat” as it were?

So what is the solution? How do we ensure children in Hastings get the same offer as children in Hackney or Hertfordshire? Things are changing: Ofsted is due an overhaul after an increasing number of complaints of poor judgments and conflicting messages. One suggestion is that within education we develop our own assessment and accountability mechanisms and work on “peer-to-peer” school improvement. Another idea is make being an Ofsted inspector like jury service: all experienced teachers would be put into a pool and selected randomly to be part of a team of inspectors. So the people inspecting are currently working in schools themselves.

What should they measure? A school inspection should be assessing how well the children in that school are equipped for life in 21st Century Britain: how critical are they? How much do they understand about other cultures and beliefs? How adaptable to change are they and are they resilient? We all agree that young people are leaving school ill-equipped for the working world but a system that only measures progress in maths and English is not going to address this problem. Ofsted need to talk to children, talk to staff and really understand a school. If school’s were involved in peer assessing one another they would have a genuine understanding of the barriers that school was facing and could suggest practical, useful ideas for overcoming them.

In the meantime I hope school leaders will be brave and have the strength do what they know is right for the children in their school. Inevitably there will be things schools HAVE to do to appease Ofsted and in those cases, school leaders should be honest with their staff. Staff would respect hearing: “as you know, the vision for our school is A and B and to continue to be able to do this we need to stay open and that means also doing X and Y for Ofsted”.

Too often I hear of schools trying to convince staff they aren’t doing something for Ofsted in the vain hope they’ll be believed. Of COURSE you’re doing things for Ofsted! We all have to. Just be honest about what those things are and show that you are only doing to be able to achieve your own vision for the school. Don’t let the Ofsted grade become a vision in itself. When I was looking for Assistant Headships I went to look around a school that had recently come out of Special Measures. I really liked the idea of a school that had nothing to lose; it’s a blank slate and you can pretty much build it up from scratch. I asked the Head Teacher what her vision and she said “to be Outstanding.” As a result, I didn’t apply for the job.

Shortly the time will come for me to put my money where my mouth is. To not allow the ever increasing pressures from Ofsted to compromise what I believe is right. Ofsted need to grade us Good at the next inspection but I hope we can prove that doesn’t mean we have to spend the next two years dancing to their tune.