Category Archives: Education

Harry Potter is ruined forever, and here’s why.

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Sunday afternoon. Time to chill out, eat chocolate and lounge about in your pyjamas watching films. Except that, along with everything else that teaching has decided I’m not allowed (a social life, a decent amount of sleep, cheap holiday deals…), this weekend it has claimed yet another victim: Harry Potter.

More specifically, Hogwarts’ education provision. Or any film with a school in it. Possibly even any film with learning in it.

The reason is this: every time they showed a scene that took place during a lesson, I couldn’t help but look at it from a teacher’s perspective. Every time Hermione put her hand up to answer a question and was awarded 10 points to Gryffindor, my first thought was ‘Not much AfL going on there’. When poor Neville was strung from a chandelier by Cornish Pixies, all I thought was ‘No differentiation in that lesson’.  And it only got worse – once my brain had seized on this idea, it went wild thinking about all the things that Hogwarts would never get away with if it was a ‘normal’ school.

…And yes, I do realise I need to get out more.

Seriously though – they don’t even teach the core curriculum! No English and Maths?! What kind of school are they running? Ofsted would be straight in there, appointing an Executive Head and placing them in Special Measures; Dumbledore Schmumbledore. Ok, maybe there’s some science, but mostly it’s Chemistry with a bit of plant-related Biology thrown in. And although studying Physics would be slightly moot, as magic can get around most of the laws of Physics fairly easily (Wingardium Leviosa!), I’m sure it would have helped to at least have some idea about levers when trying to break through one of the many doors Harry&co encountered whilst running away from (or towards) various beasties. In fact, when you think about it, it’s remarkable that the Hogwarts students in general seem so highly literate despite never being taught how to read or write. As most of them went to “muggle” primary schools, I’m actually taking this point as a compliment to our state education system, which has clearly set them up for life – or at least to be able to write a 12 inch long essay without ever having learnt how to use a semi-colon.

And then there’s their grading system – all the way from O for ‘Outstanding’, right down to T for ‘Troll’. In a world where teachers are discouraged from using negative language (or even red pen in some schools, due to a fear of its negative and violent subtext) this would probably be dismissed as unencouraging and demotivating. Gosh, no – can’t have that! Better change it to T for “Tried your best” or T for “Terrific, except…”

Clearly Hogwarts needs to work on it’s uniform policy.

Not that it’s all bad. They do have a pretty solid ‘Behaviour for Learning’ system. I mean, it’s all there – the positive reinforcement, the consequences, and most importantly the consistency of approach. I would love to be a teacher at Hogwarts; sure kids occasionally try to destroy dark wizards without permission, but it’s rare that they answer their teachers back, forget to do their homework, refuse to do any work or throw missiles at each other across the room. Oh for that to be the case in all classrooms. They’ve got it good. Maybe all our schools need is a House System like theirs, with banquets and giant hour glasses and excessive peer pressure, to fix their behaviour management woes.

It actually occurred to me at this point that Hogwarts has many of the problems that may well result from Michael Gove’s current educational reforms – unqualified teachers, harsh end of year exams with no coursework, a focus on facts rather than skills (History of Magic anyone? Yawn.), and a curriculum with little in the way of arts or technology provision. Maybe an overzealous love of Harry Potter is in fact what Mr Gove is basing his reforms on. It would make sense, as it’s probably the closest he’s been to a classroom in about twenty years… But the reality of these reforms is what? The kids hate History of Magic and learn nothing from it, a lot of them buckle under the huge pressure of exams, and Neville gets strung from a chandelier due to the incompetence of an unqualified teacher.

Thinking about Gilderoy Lockhart led me (naturally!) to consider the Hogwarts’ recruitment strategy. Considering it’s a boarding school, you’d think Hogwarts would have a fairly stringent Child Protection policy in place. And yet, somehow, they end up hiring a guy with Voldemort on the back of his head, a Werewolf, a Death Eater in disguise, and a celebrity with questionable credentials. For a genius, you’d think Dumbledore would be better at reading people. And, what’s more, they get a job without even having set foot in a classroom? Rather different from the day long interview I had to endure to get a job in teaching.

Once you start, there are endless possible comparisons between modern teaching and the parallel universe occupied by Hogwarts (What about poor wizards or witches who can’t pay the fees? Why are there no extra-curricular activities? What about SEN / G&T? What would constitute a Pupil Premium wizard?), however, at this point I’m not sure I’ll have any friends (or sanity) left if I carry on, so I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. After all, it is a fiction. I’ll try to remember that next time…

 

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Teaching: The First Half Term

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It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to think about blogging, but now that it’s half term I finally have the time to put in an appearance. What with all the recent strikes and changes to education going on at the moment, my plan was to write a piece in defence of music education, but in all honesty I’m feeling a bit disenchanted with teaching at the moment. Mostly my own teaching abilities, if we’re being specific.  It’s been a difficult 8 weeks to say the least, and there have been many times over the past half term where I’ve wanted to quit. I even spent one evening browsing the jobs sites trying to find a way out which didn’t involve bankruptcy after a particularly gruelling day with year 9.  However, after a few days off to regroup, rest and relax (alliteration, anyone?) I feel like I might just be able to get through the next 7 weeks without tearing the entirety of my hair out. Unbelievably I’m actually starting to miss school, and I’m taking this as a sign that I am in the right job, even if it’s a challenge sometimes.

I’ve been chatting to teacher friends about how difficult the first term is, and we’ve decided that the main thing you don’t expect is the relentlessness of teaching full time, as well as the emotional ups and downs it throws at you. As discussed in my previous post, there are some days when teaching is the best job in the world, and yet others make you wonder why you bother. Aside from healthcare, I’m not sure what other careers really involve this constant barrage of frustration, mild hysteria and paperwork. I realise this sounds very negative, and don’t get me wrong, there are frequent moments when I love my job. But I think part of the nature of what makes us effective teachers is that we constantly reflect on the moments that aren’t quite as good as we’d hoped, and try to figure out how to improve on them. I suppose it’s not really a surprise then that we tend to sometimes become bogged down in these moments, rather than focussing on the times which make us remember why we wanted to teach in the first place.

For fear of sounding like a one-track blogger I’m going to leave this post here, but keep your eyes peeled for my next article, which will hopefully make an appearance before the end of the half term holidays.  Although as there only seems to be space in my brain for music and/or education these days, ideas for articles are always welcome!

And if anyone can give me some tips on keeping year 9 in line, I’d be eternally grateful.

Teaching: The first week

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“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” 
― Aristotle

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?” 
― Terry Pratchett

My first two weeks as a ‘proper’ teacher have pretty much been spent with my mental state bouncing between these two quotes. I’ll teach a lesson that goes really well, and feel on top of the world, love my job. But an hour later I’ll feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, that I’m failing my students and wonder why I ever thought I could succeed as a teacher. 

On reflection, I think (hope) part of this is down to lack of experience, particularly in finding methods that work consistently with the majority of students. This, coupled with the shock of teaching back to back lessons all day every day, means that by the end of the afternoon I am often lacking in the mental capacity to walk and talk at the same time, let alone teach a Year 9 class about classical music. Teaching, I’ve learnt, is all about stamina. As an experienced colleague pointed out to me in the staffroom, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint – have a cup of tea and sit down for five minutes.” This is the adage I’m trying to bear in mind as I end my second week of teaching. There’s no point staying up all night planning super extravagant lessons if you then don’t have the energy to teach the lesson or explain the concept coherently.

On this weary Thursday afternoon as I contemplate an entire weekend of lesson planning, I am leaning more towards the Terry Pratchett end of the scale. I’ve been assured it will get easier. Fingers crossed.

 

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New Primary Education Curriculum: Too much, too young?

I haven’t posted anything about education for a while, but what with the almost daily announcements about reforms coming from government, I thought it was about time I stepped back into the fray.

This article from the BBC, despite its slightly inflammatory title, presents an interesting comparison of Michael Gove’s new primary curriculum with those of Finland and Singapore, which have the most high-achieving education systems of any country.

The comparison can essentially be summed up as follows:

Prof Wrigley said: “The curriculum documents for Finland and Singapore make no demands for eight-year-olds to count in sevens and nines, or for the learning of long lists of spellings which exceed the range of children’s active vocabulary.”

In Singapore children do not begin science before they reach the age of England’s Year 4 children. By this time English children are expected to cover 20 densely-packed pages listing scientific knowledge. In Finland science starts at age seven, and until age 11 is taught within a child-friendly environmental and natural studies curriculum.

So when Michael Gove last week claimed that ‘the changes to the curriculum were necessary to keep pace with the achievement of pupils in other countries.’ and then ‘cited Hong Kong, Massachusetts, Singapore and Finland as “the world’s most successful school systems”‘ I think he was getting his research a bit mixed up. Yes, there may be seven year olds in some countries who can calculate complex fractions, but not in the countries he cites. Their education systems are successful whilst not piling too much academic pressure on very young children, and still encouraging thinking skills and creativity.

In my opinion, Gove’s whole plan to gear the curriculum towards more rote learning and a knowledge based curriculum is skewed. In a world of Google and Wikipedia, what use is rote learning? What we need is to teach our students skills that they can apply in the real world. And this doesn’t come about from our seven year olds trying to learn 20 pages of scientific knowledge.

Don’t even get me started on how this new curriculum will affect those children who aren’t necessarily the most academic.

Teacher Training: Things I wish I’d known…

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On a night out with some friends from my PGCE course this week, we got talking about all the things that we’ve experienced this year that were completely unexpected, things that we wish someone had warned us about, and things that we think future trainee teachers should know. So, in the spirit of giving, here is our contribution to PGCE students of the future…

1. You will want to quit at least once. Probably in November, possibly in January and definitely in February. It’s a rite of passage, but don’t worry – if we all made it, you can too! In the immortal words of Dory, “just keep swimming”. We promise it gets easier.

2. You will experience every emotion humanly possible. Even some you didn’t know existed. When X-Factor contestants talk about “their journey” or the “emotional rollercoaster” they’ve been on, they’ve clearly never done teacher training. PGCE should actually stand for “Probably Gonna Cry Every day” …Just make sure you wait until you’re out of the classroom!

3. There’s more paperwork than teaching. And just when you think you’re done with paperwork, they’ll hit you with some more paperwork. Our advice: do it as you go along. Yes, it’s a faff, but it’s preferable to making up an entire years worth of mentor meetings in June when you have deadlines to be worrying about.

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4. Many a relationship has failed due to the pressures of a PGCE course. It’s very hard not to become completely self-absorbed during your PGCE year – it’s a survival instinct. And unless you have a very patient and understanding partner, it’s likely they’ll start to get fed up with your inability to talk about anything but teaching and constantly being too tired for sex. Don’t even think about long distance or starting something new, and if by some miracle you do survive the year, be sure to treat them to a holiday somewhere nice to say thank you – I’m sure they will have earned it.

5. You need to make time for things other than teaching. Even when you have more work to do than you can even process, you need to take at least one evening off a week and think about something else. Your work is never done as a teacher – there’s always something extra you could do – and without some semblance of work/life balance you’ll burn out by Christmas.

6. Your coursemates will become like your family. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I don’t think I’d have made it through this year without them! Whether it’s a day in uni, texting, Facebook or a trip to the pub, they are the people that will understand exactly what you’re going through. They will let you talk about nothing but school, they will empathise with your essay stressing, and they will let you know that you’re not the only one on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Thanks guys!

7. Ready meals will become your best friend. At the end of a 12 hour working day, when you still have three lessons to plan for tomorrow, it’s unlikely you’ll have the time or energy to cook a gourmet meal. Now is not the time to be a food snob – a ready meal is better than no meal. And if you’re lucky enough to be in a school that offers a decent lunch, take full advantage!

8. You’ll learn a lot about yourself. From how much sleep you need to just how patient you really are, it’s a learning curve. Embrace it – knowing about yourself means knowing what works for you as a teacher, and will help you in the long term.

Overall, the main message is: It’s tough, but it’s worth it. You’ll work hard, be more tired than you ever thought possible, and yearn for that day in June when you no longer have to wake up at 6 every day, but when that day finally rolls around, you’ll feel like your arm has been chopped off. It’s a love/hate thing: I’m very thankful I never have to experience this year again, but I’m also super glad I stuck it out. Bring it on, NQT!

Education: private or state?

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So, during my time in education as both student and teacher, I have attended almost every kind of school… C of E voluntary aided, secondary modern (not sure what the new term for these kinds of schools is), comprehensive, academy, private boarding school and private day school. The only type i’ve missed, i think, is state grammar – although my brother attended one. This has thrown up quite a lot of questions about which kind of education is ‘best’. Obviously a lot of it is down to your political viewpoint and ‘social conscience’ – a phrase my mother is a big fan of. In the last few years however, i’ve gone from being a supporter of private education to being firmly on the fence about it – probably with one leg dangling in the ‘against’ field.

I was a child who loved to read books about little girls being sent to boarding school, having sleepovers in dormitories, sneaking into the kitchens for a midnight feast, and causing some mild mischief with their school chums. I knew that financially it wasn’t possible, but I longed to be sent away to school, or to attend our town’s prestigious public school. When one of my good friends’ grandparents offered to pay for her to attend, I had to try and contain my jealousy. In the end, she hated it. I thought she was mad. How could she not appreciate all the opportunities such an education offered her? I would have loved the chance to learn in smaller classes, with better facilities, and teachers who were truly experts in their subjects.

However, when the chance finally came for me to attend one of these exclusive establishments (albeit as a staff member), I found the reality was not what i had anticipated. Fresh out of university, and wondering what I could possibly do with a music degree that wasn’t admin, I was offered a job at a local boarding school as ‘Musician in Residence’. It involved living on site, helping in the boarding houses, and getting involved in the musical life of the school. Great, I thought. A chance to use my subject knowledge, encourage others to take up music, and work in a sociable environment. Whilst there were many aspects of life at boarding school that i loved – good quality food, a really strong sense of school community, and a fantastic array of musical opportunities – I couldn’t help becoming frustrated at the sense of entitlement of the students. Their school offered them so much, and yet many of them had no appreciation of how lucky they were. There were of course those who worked extremely hard, said ‘thank you’ at the end of every lesson, and had a real sense of just how hard their parents worked to be able to send them to such a school, and these were the students for whom the staff were more than willing to go the extra mile. But equally there were those who did the bare minimum of work, blamed the school if their grades weren’t as good as they should be, and frequently wasted their parents money by missing paid-for extra tuition or activities. There were those who ordered take-away food every night, despite (actually rather good) food being provided for them, and those who felt they could behave how they wanted as they were paying to be there. It’s the same (to a lesser degree) in a private day school. The fees aren’t so extortionate, but the attitude of many students that ‘You have to make sure I’ll do well in my exams or my parents will stop giving you money’ still exists.

I suppose if I had got my wish and attended such a school as a student, I might have (probably would have) loved every minute of it, but equally I don’t think i’d have learnt to stand on my own two feet quite so well. One aspect of private school life which stood out to me was the fact that there’s always someone on your back, making sure you do your homework / coursework / revision, in some cases literally sitting down and doing it with you. By the time I got to Sixth Form this definitely wasn’t the case – if i wanted to do well, I had to make sure i had the self discipline to do my work. And that set me up well for university, where you have to be an independent learner to get anywhere.

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Alongside this, as a teacher there’s the slightly soul-destroying notion that the school is a business first and a school second. The head teacher in my final PGCE placement school made no secret of the fact that in the private sector, education is all a numbers game. He would proudly state at each staff meeting how many more students were coming into year 7 than the previous year, and how much more money this equates to. Open days  in private schools are not about inspiring students to learn, they’re about schmoozing wealthy parents and convincing them to invest their money in your school, even if you feel the school would not be a good fit for their child. And that makes me feel really uneasy. It goes against all of the reasons I became a teacher, and it feels dishonest.

And whilst when i was younger i had a romanticised view of private school, as an adult I have begun to resent that the opportunities I see on a daily basis weren’t open to me as a child. It’s ironic that in a nation known for our sense of fair play, we’re so proud of an education system which succeeds in upholding the class divide. Sure it has history, but not all traditions are worth keeping purely for traditions sake. Take slavery, for example.

I’m starting to think that if private schools didn’t exist, there would be more incentive for those with the money / power in our society – most of whom send their children to private schools – to take an active interest in our state education provision. It also seems likely that in order to benefit the education of their own children, there would be more individual donations to state schools, allowing state educational establishments to benefit from the nepotism and philanthropism that has been present in the private sector for hundreds of years. Admittedly, this might come at the cost of some of the wealthier / more influential parents trying to pull rank with the school’s senior staff, but this already happens to a certain degree anyway.

As Labour politician Dianne Abbott discovered, this debate becomes even more complicated when it involves your own children:

“Private schools prop up the class system in society. It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school. But I had to choose between my reputation as a politician and my son.”

When it comes to my own children, I’m really going to struggle. There’s a part of me that wants them to have all of the opportunities that I didn’t have, and which undeniably exist in the private sector. But at the same time, I’m convinced that they should be able to be successful in whatever their chosen path without being the lucky few who are able to afford private education, and reinforcing the system. Of course every parent wants the best for their children, and state school provision can vary enormously from area to area – it’s often a safer bet to opt for private education, if your conscience and budget will allow it.

But for now, I’m determined to work in the state sector, and fight for all children to get the best education they possibly can.

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/apr/27/michael-gove-policy-inconsistent-hypocrisy

This article sums up my own views on Michael Gove almost perfectly, and far more succinctly than I could manage. There are a few points I’d like to add (his derision for the arts, and his completely unsubstantiated views on education which seem to have no basis in real research or evidence, for example), but for those of you looking for more evidence to fuel your arguments against Mr Gove, this article from the Guardian’s Secret Teacher blog is a good’un.