Archive | October, 2013

Teacher Bashing.

30 Oct

A couple of weeks ago I was so incensed by an article and an editorial in the Sunday Times that I decided to boycott that newspaper from now on. I’m sure this has given Rupert Murdoch a few sleepless nights – losing such a valued customer. I had been attracted in by the Times’ excellent Culture section with its first class book, film, TV and music reviews. However politics and especially education trump all that lot. The Sunday Times’ big mistake, in my eyes, was to attack the teacher unions’ fight against the dismantling of national pay bargaining and support the Tory government policy of “Payment by Results.” That particular week saw teachers’ strikes in defence of their: pay-bargaining rights, pensions and working conditions, coincide with the publication of World Literacy league tables which revealed Britain languishing in a lowly 18th position. It was a godsend for the newspapers and the politicians. Forgetting the important adage that a correlation is not necessarily a cause, they linked the two events together. Surely it was the irresponsible teachers who were to blame for Britain’s comparatively poor performance? It was a golden opportunity for another round of teacher bashing. Thus, a lazy editorial in the Sunday Times commented that the National Union of Teachers should be getting its members to improve literacy levels instead of encouraging them to go out on strike. The journalist, who has probably never entered a classroom since he or she was a pupil, failed to grasp that the strikes of the NUT and the NAS/UWT were actually an attempt to defend and protect the education system rather than harm it.
Our children’s education is often recklessly used as a political football. I think that schools, like the judiciary, should be independent of political interference but unfortunately this is not so. Both the main political parties have constantly meddled with the education system in the name of raising standards. Some new policies have been good but the constant chopping and changing has been bad for school pupils as the biggest thing they need in consistency. This we have not had because of the frequent changes of policy brought in by a series of constantly reshuffled Education Secretaries. Students also need good quality teaching of course but this is under severe threat at the moment because teacher morale has hit rock bottom. I was a teacher for 34 years and understand the terrible stresses and strains of the job. It wears you down; burns you out. The job of educating and socialising children and young people of all ages and abilities, plus a whole range of backgrounds, is difficult enough as it is. However to have the government criticising your efforts and attacking your pay and conditions, plus your long established pension arrangements, can make the situation extremely stressful, if not intolerable, for many.
Teachers used to be respected and valued for the crucial job they did for the whole of society. Now, with successive governments undermining them supported by the largely right wing press, the status of teachers has plummeted. A lot of this started in the 1980’s when I was still in the classroom. The Thatcher governments imposed a series of very low pay agreements or pay freezes, and did not allow the teaching unions to take part in any negotiations. Teachers were effectively de-unionised and largely left at the mercy of the employer. This was all accompanied by a prolonged bout of “teacher bashing” in the media. This period also saw the introduction of increased working hours at the whim of the headteacher. Parents’ Evenings, for example, which had previously been voluntary, tagged on to the end of an already busy working day, now became compulsory. The same happened with training. The Secretary of State, Kenneth Baker, forced teachers to work 5 extra days a year for no extra pay. These in-service training days or “Baker Days” as they were dubbed were deeply resented. In effect they forced teachers to work a whole extra school week for free. What other profession would have put up with that?
On top of all this, the Thatcher government decreased the power of the Local Education Authorities and increased their own hold over individual schools by giving each school control of its own finances. It centralised power and made it easier for the Government to directly control what was happening in schools without a locally elected LEA interfering. It was a classic case of divide and rule. Before, all schools had worked cooperatively under the leadership and guidance of the elected local authority; now schools were encouraged to compete with each other for pupils, each of whom represented a significant sum of money towards their budgets. The introduction of competitive league tables cemented this new arrangement of competition rather than cooperation. It was as if our education system had been reduced to the arrangements suitable for football. The press loved all this of course, gleefully publishing the tables and shining the light on the schools who were at the bottom. Little allowance was made for the fact that some schools were in deprived areas with lots of social problems.
The situation improved considerably under the Labour Governments of Tony Blair. Afterall his stated priority was “Education. Education. Education.” Teachers who passed a series of competence tests were awarded a significant pay rise. This made up a little for all the years when they had been falling behind the other professions. The National Curriculum ( introduced by the Conservatives) was revised and big efforts made to improve literacy and numeracy levels. The inspection regime run by OFSTED, although hated by many teachers, also drove up standards and stamped out complacency.
Now however it’s back to teacher bashing. They have been told that they will have to work longer for their pensions, make larger contributions and get less in the end. It’s a triple whammy for teachers. It’s moving the goalposts near the end of the game for all those teaching staff in their 50’s. It must feel like a kick in the teeth. I was lucky as I was able to retire and get my pension just before the new rules came into force. However that does not stop me from sympathising with my slightly younger colleagues. Then came the much trumpeted Academy system, introduced by Labour and accelerated by the Tory/ Lib Dem Coalition. This is simply a way of privatising education. Private businesses are invited to form consortiums to run schools which are then taken out of Local Authority control. The government saves money by attracting private capital into education. But why would private businesses want to run a school? The answer somewhere along the line is in order to make a profit. The same sad thing is happening to our beloved National Health Service. It’s privatisation by stealth of an organisation which is vital for the nation’s welfare. Do we really want individuals and organisations trying to make a profit out of our children’s education? How can that education remain fair and balanced?
The first thing many Academies have done is sack or reduce the pay of many of the teaching and support staff. Why would they want to do this? The answer is to save money of course. I was shocked to find out that Academies can set their own pay rates and establish their own terms and conditions. In other words they are outside any nationally agreed system and beyond the control of the democratically elected local authority. I still work at a local secondary school as a part-time, examination invigilator. Two years ago it was turned into an academy, partly persuaded by large government financial inducements. At the end of the summer term prior to the reorganisation into an academy, 38 staff were sacked! Usually the end of the academic year is a cause for relaxation and celebration but on this occasion many long- term staff were in tears. Later in the year some of these same people were re-employed, doing the same job but on reduced pay and on a temporary contract! Academies are a law unto themselves.
So many teachers are demoralised and at a very low ebb. Their main support, the teaching unions are being side-tracked by the new system. National pay bargaining to negotiate a fair pay structure for all teachers has now been virtually scrapped. There has been talk of paying teachers in one area more money that teachers doing exactly the same job in other area. This is in order to tackle the problem of teacher shortages in areas such as London. It sounds a reasonable way to solve a serious problem but it is also very divisive and demoralising for many of the teaching profession. It’s the same old tactic — divide and conquer.
Finally, we now have the introduction of Payment by Results. We had this system in the 19th centuries and it was generally discredited and abandoned. Now it is back and seems to have been mostly welcomed by the public. That is why, the new shadow Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, has come out in support of the idea. His party does not want to do anything to jeopardize its chances of getting re-elected. It sounds, at first to be a perfectly reasonable and good idea. What is wrong with rewarding good teachers and punishing the bad ones? Surely this would quickly lead to the weeding out of incompetent teachers from our schools. However, I don’t think it is as simple and straightforward as it first seems. It’s easy to play the blame game and pin the responsibility for our under-achieving pupils on individual teachers rather than on government interference. Isn’t this just another crude example of divide and rule? Instead of everyone in education working together for the benefit of the pupils and of the country as a whole, we now have the terrible situation of school fighting school and teacher fighting teacher. It’s ruthless competition rather than constructive cooperation.
I think underperforming teachers should be supported, retrained, encouraged and helped instead of being castigated and punished. What happened to the idea of being in a team? How can results be a determination of pay when there are so many variables in the situation. The performance of a teacher depends on what area he/she operates in, what school he/she is in, how effective the Head and senior management are and most importently- the abilities, aptitudes and attitudes of the pupils. A teacher can be a great motivator and skilled communicator but there are still many factors outside his/her control that can determine his/her results.
Then there is the question of Headteacher subjectivity. The whole system seems to depend on the Head being able to identify the good and bad teachers. Heads are only human and, in my experience, are not always fair. Some Heads have their favourites. Staff who challenge or criticise them will go down the pecking order when it comes to dishing out the financial rewards. I have seen this happen in my career. Staff who toe the line, support the Head uncritically and even worship the ground that he/she stands on, tend to get promoted. We used to call them “boot-lickers.” I’m sure you’ve heard the term before. Alternatively staff who disagree with the head’s policies and pose a threat to his/her authority , have tended to have their career side-lined or have even been forced out of the school. The system of payment by results will obviously increase the powers of the Heads over the careers and lives of their staff. To me it sounds like a possible recipe for dictatorship.
So I’m not going to read the Sunday Times any more. I don’t intend to vote for Conservative or Labour or any party that supports payment by results, Academies and privatisation of education. ( and I’ve not even mentioned the latest gimmick — the so called “Free Schools.”) I seem to have painted myself into a corner. As with many subjects, I seem to be in a minority. But I wanted to speak up for my much maligned ex-colleagues, the teachers and their support staff. At the moment the politicians supported by much of the press, are bashing them into a pulp. Demoralising, dividing and financially punishing our hard working teaching profession is not the way to improve educational standards.


Island of Memories.

14 Oct

Back in the 1950’s, when I was still in short trousers, my parents took my sister and I on a magical stroll through an enchanting glen. We wandered, open-mouthed, through a tiny, picturesque gorge. It was clothed in luxuriant vegetation and had a charming stream gurgling through it, crossed by little stone, curving bridges. At its head the gorge was crowned by a narrow, plunging waterfall. It was a lovely spot but what made it so special for us kids was that the whole place was festooned with twinkling, coloured fairy lights. It was like enjoying Christmas on a balmy summer’s evening. We loved it!
The place that generated such heart-warming memories was Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight. We visited several chines — mossy, fern covered ravines that tumbled down to the sea. We collected shells with paintings of them from the souvenir stalls. The chines were an extra treat on top of our usual seaside holiday delights of: sand castle building, donkey rides, paddling in the sea and licking ice creams. Our family spent several of our annual holidays on the Isle of Wight, famed for its sandy beaches, chalk cliffs and mild climate. It was an exciting adventure — catching the boat from Portsmouth, crossing the busy Solent, then being picked up by a little steam train that chugged its way down the east side of the island to the resorts of Shanklin and Sandown where we stayed. Even in the 50’s , a visit to the Isle of Wight was like travelling back in time. Everything seemed to be quieter, smaller and more relaxed than on the mainland. The pace of life was slower.
There’s something about islands that stirs the imagination. To some, an island stands for “purity” — a place untainted by “reality”. To others it stands for “escape” — a trip away from the stresses and strains of normal life. No wonder islands are so often associated with holidays. Surrounded and protected by sea, they are somehow detached from the problems and worries of everyday existence. I think that although it is only a 30 to 40 minute ferry ride from the mainland, the Isle of Wight still retains some of this aura. Once the boat slips its moorings one can almost feel one’s troubles being left behind on the receding shore. It’s as if the traveller is escaping to a different world.
I’ve recently returned to the island after a 50 year gap because my mother-in-law has retired there. I would like to say that nothing much has changed but of course it has. The little Thomas the Tank engines have been replaced by old London Underground trains. They look very incongruous in the green, gently rolling countryside. The twisty narrow roads ( basically country lanes) are now often choked with cars and coaches, making travel in some parts of the island, slow and tedious. 30 mph is a good speed on the island and a car journey is often a bumpy, uncomfortable experience as many roads are poorly maintained and frequently dug up. They are unsuitable for large coaches but these still pile off the ferries in their droves bringing fresh loads of mostly older tourists. Some of these visitors decide to stay and spend their later years here. Many hotels have morphed into retirement homes as a result.
I can see why the island is still so popular. It has quite a lot of places that can be described as quaint or twee. I think another phrase is “picture postcard.” They represent an older England that still lingers on in the memory. They are like a reminder of what England used to be like ( at least in our rose-coloured imaginations), before the frantic rush of the modern age. Ironically, tourists, in flocking to these places that represent a bygone era, end up destroying the very thing they have come to experience. For instance, Godshill, a beautiful old village with an ensemble of thatched cottages clustered round an ancient church, is now dominated by a very large car and coach park and has spawned a rash of tourist “attractions” such as souvenir shops, cafes, an old smithy and even a miniature village. Coach companies nearly always include it on their island tour itinerary so that, in summer especially, the locals are totally swamped by the visitors.
When we arrived at Godshill one lunchtime, there was already a nearly full car park which included 5 large coaches. While there, 2 more coaches arrived, decanting 40 to 50 people at a time to wander round what used to be a little quiet village. We had to queue for our tea and scones. It serves us right for deciding to visit one of the island’s mass tourism “honey pots” The village down the road was very quiet. Places such as Godshill have to be careful as they are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
The Isle of Wight still has pretty countryside, charming villages and interesting sights. Its south coast features spectacular chalk cliff scenery and has a wilder, more remote feel to it as there are less settlements.( and tourists.) I particularly enjoyed visiting Dimbola Lodge at Freshwater Bay in the south west. It’s an interesting museum created from the former home and studio of a pioneer photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. She was part of Victorian high society and was a neighbour and friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Other visitors were her great nieces: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, along with luminaries such as Charles Darwin and Lewis Carroll. Her early black and white portraits make a fascinating exhibition. I also liked Brading Roman Museum on the eastern side of the island. It has excellent mosaics. Carisbrooke Castle in Newport, in the centre, is another impressive and enjoyable destination. It features lots of stuff about King Charles I as he was imprisoned there after losing the Civil War.
I’ve also walked over the wonderfully bracing Tennyson Downs from Freshwater Bay to the Needles and Alum Bay. I did try to drive to the Needles, a famous series of pointed chalk stacks, but got stuck in an endless traffic jam, much to my initial surprise. The tiny country road couldn’t cope with the huge volume of traffic. It was almost like the M1! The reason for this was because what had been a lovely, quiet area has now been turned into The Needles Pleasure Park, complete with: fairground amusements, a glass studio, a cable car ride, boat trips and of course a very large car/coach park. What a travesty! I believe the same sort of crass commercialism has taken over Land’s End on the tip of Cornwall.
As with most places, the IOW has a mix of good and not so good.( in my opinion.) Some places have been spoilt while others are well preserved. Tourism is still a major source of income and the island has done all it can to keep the punters rolling in. It’s only 23 miles long at its widest point but that has not stopped it from packing in a whole raft of attractions for people to visit. What other tiny patch of Britain features a: Pearl centre, military museum, zoo, Garlic Museum, Tiger and Big Cat Centre, Roman villa, castle, Victorian Royal palace, botanical gardens, arts and craft centres, smuggling museum, glass centre, waxwork museum, miniature village, steam railway and the aforementioned chines?
So, returning to the Isle of Wight has been a mixed experience for me. Fond childhood memories have been reignited and new, interesting destinations discovered. I wandered up Shanklin Chine again, this time stripped of my rose-coloured glasses. It is still a nice spot with a very good tea shop, but on a damp autumn day and with no fairy lights, it had last much of its magic. The island is pleasant rather than spectacular despite the hyperbole in the holiday brochures. It still has a staid, old fashioned air and a slower pace of life, which is appealing to many. The Rough Guide describes it as “desperately unadventurous” which sound damning, but a “safe”, familiar destination is very attractive to the large numbers who are not addicted to thrills and spills and have no desire to have their senses assaulted by culture shock. The IOW is particularly attractive if you are a fan of Victoriana. Queen Victoria loved the place. She may have been Empress of India but preferred the Isle of Wight. After the premature death of Prince Albert, she took up permanent residence at Osborne House near Cowes.
It’s still a mini adventure catching the ferry from Portsmouth or Southampton — a trip overseas without needing a passport. I’m pleased I have had the excuse to recently return to a beloved childhood haunt. Being able to mix the past with the present has added an extra dimension to my excursion. It has been a neat and enjoyable way of linking up my childhood with my retirement years.