Category: rants

Trying to find a new home

Story of my life at the moment...
Story of my life at the moment…

When your landlord tells you “you cannot live there any more” because they are unable to deal with the mould problem without completely gutting your flat, then you know your living situation isn’t great.

Since June we’ve tried to find somewhere, with very little success. And the reason is contained in the above graphic. If you want to rent in London, you can only choose two of the following three options:

  • Within your budget
  • Within reasonable commute of your work
  • Meets your needs

There are any number of flats within commute of my work which fit my needs, but which I cannot afford. There are plenty that I can afford which are within reasonable commute of my work, but which don’t fit my needs. If I want to be able to afford somewhere that fits my needs then I have to be so far away from work that the extra travel costs mean I may as well have picked one of the unaffordable but closer places!

Landlords, being rapacious scoundrels (and that’s me being polite), hold out for the mythical ascetic tenant who wants to drop £5000 per month on a cardboard box under a motorway flyover. They are less concerned with real people, their real needs, and their real wages. Over the past 8 years house prices have risen by 28% in London, whilst wages have risen 12%. And that’s just going back to 2007. In 2007, house prices were at their most unaffordable. The situation has got worse since then, even accounting for the dip in property prices caused by the financial crash.

How much longer can this situation go on? Something has to give.

What I did(n’t) on my half-term holiday…

Ah, half-term. An opportunity for reflection and relaxation in a busy teacher’s life. A short week where you can catch up on all those little tasks, socialise, chill out, and prepare yourself for the second half of term.
This half-term I had planned to do the following:

  • Correct the homework I set my classes (a short story about Malvolio’s revenge for the Y1 Lit students, a model answer on the Anthology for the Y1 Lang & Lit students);
  • Write two model answers to the Y1 Lang & Lit homework so that students could compare their work against mine;
  • Plan the first few weeks of lessons with resources so I’m ahead of myself for the next half of term;
  • Catch up on some reading I had wanted to finish over the summer (I need to read the relevant parts of Cupcakes & Kalashnikovs before my A2 Lang & Lit students start on it);
  • Start a running training program in preparation for winter running;
  • Relax, catch up on some TV shows, go to the cinema, see friends, sleep in, read for pleasure.

Life, however, had other plans… What I actually did over my half-term was:

  • Spent Friday night to Wednesday morning howling in pain, screaming into pillows, stamping my feet and hitting my head all to distract myself from toothache. Emergency visits to both an emergency dentist and my own resulted in x-rays which showed nothing obvious, a prescription for Amoxicillin in case it was sinusitis, and a prescription for dihydrocodeine since ibuprofen, paracetamol, codeine and topical benzocaine gel were doing nothing;
  • Spent Wednesday morning to now, gingerly avoiding chewing on the left side of my mouth as while the toothache has gone, there is clearly something wrong, and biting food causes sharp pains;
  • Spent Wednesday morning to now, cursing the fact that my lower back and legs have started to develop sciatic pain.

I’m seriously wondering whether extreme pain everyday during half-term is enough to qualify you for a second week off, since I really didn’t get to enjoy this week…

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It was good while it lasted…

And so Scotland exit the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stages. The home nation that lasted the longest (due to scheduling of matches) and the last Northern Hemisphere team in the contest. Despite previous performances, this was a Scotland team that showed up and played 80 minutes of rugby, and largely avoided silly basic errors that have punished them in the past. Australia entered the tournament as one of the favourites, and to lose by 1 point due to a penalty in the dying seconds is no shame.

The Scotland squad, like the fans, were gutted. In his post-match interview Scotland captain Greg Laidlaw couldn’t keep eye contact with the interviewer and looked like he wanted to be any place on earth other than in front of the camera. Meanwhile Scotland coach Vern Cotter sounded as if he was about to break down at any second.

Whatever your opinion of the refereeing decisions—and former England international Matt Dawson is leaving no-one in doubt about his opinion—

it was an exciting, hard-fought match and Scotland need to pick themselves back up, and get back out there playing, improving, and winning.

It’s about resilience. Scotland were not fancied to do much, especially in light of the way Australia beat teams like England and Wales, both of whom are above Scotland in the world rankings. They certainly weren’t expected to take the lead, keep hold of the lead and almost win, let alone only lose by 1 point! Resilience is heading out there in the face of everyone telling you, “you can’t”, and showing them “you can”. And it’s taking a loss, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and not wallowing in what may have been, but focusing on what will come in the future.

In Kipling’s poem If… he writes

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

It’s a Stoic attitude to loss that will serve many well. Resilience in the face of adversity. Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations said

Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.

In other words—this too shall pass.

I am now a personal tutor at college as well as an English lecturer. This thrusts me into a day-to-day pastoral role for more than just those I teach, and more than I meet as a Safeguarding officer. As part of the tutorial scheme of work we are spending 5 sessions on mental health, an increasing problem for young people in these troubled times. I have had my own issues with mental health, and have found some things that have helped, and one of these is the concept of a taught resilience. For a long time I believe, in all honesty, that resilience could not be taught. You either had it, or you didn’t.

As I have encountered, then explored, Stoicism, I’ve come to realise that this is simply not true. Resilience can be taught, and Stoicism is a possible means to doing so. After all, it is through Stoicism and mindfulness meditation that I have managed to come off my own antidepressants and come through a trying few months without ill-effect.

The week of November 2-8 is Stoic Week which I am participating in for the first time this year. As part of it, I shall be attending Stoicon 2015 at Queen Mary University in London. I’m hoping that there will be a range of sessions which I can adapt for use in tutorial and classes, or at the very least opportunity to meet others in education and discuss our ideas for (re)introducing a Stoic element to education.

And as for the rugby? Well I guess I’m an Argentina fan for a week…

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Rearranging the deckchairs

A Thoughtful and Informed Response to the Department for Education’s Consultation Paper Upon the Proposed Reforms to the Key Stage 4 Qualifications, Submitted for Your Consideration by a Humble Teacher of English


Stick Your GCSE Reforms Up Your Arse Mr Gove

For those who missed it over the summer, the GCSE English results were—and this is the technical term—a catastrofuck. A complete shambles of duplicitous goal-post moving and ideological sophistry, with the sole object of enabling Pob (or Michael Gove as he calls himself now) to drive through his politically motivated “reforms”.

As every good exercise in sham-democracy must, this has a consultation period, where the DfE presents teachers with the fait accompli and lulls us into thinking that our opinions matter to anyone. However, where there is a consultation period, there is some poor schlub at the DfE who has to read the responses, and maybe (just maybe) if teachers show just how angry these proposals have made them, then perhaps the worst of the changes can be reversed.

The consultation document and the response form can be found here, and I would urge anyone who teaches GCSE, or cares about education, to read through it and respond. Go. I’ll be here with the ranting swears when you get back.

Anyway, the first thing you’ll notice about the response document is that it has been thrown together by someone who has never before used Microsoft Word, and hasn’t figured out yet how to create text boxes, fields and check boxes. It is a mess, but don’t let that stop you sending in your response. I didn’t. I just berated them about this, frequently and sarcastically, throughout my response.

There are 28 questions in the response. I won’t go over all of them, but a few are worth looking at in detail.

Obviously, they put the most important question at the start of the consultation, namely

“Do you agree that the current Key Stage 4 qualifications require reform in light of their unreliability as an indicator of achievement?”

Just kidding, you don’t think Gove actually gives a shit about us agreeing with the reforms do you? No, the consultation makes it clear that the need for the reform is a given, and that nobody could doubt that GCSEs must die, and die in a fire. Instead, the first two questions are all concerned with what we’re going to call the new qualification…

In my response I pointed out how fatuous this question is. I indicated I wasn’t sure if we shouldn’t call the new qualifications GCSEs, but I disagreed with calling it the English Baccalaureate Certificate, on the grounds that this would confuse it with a recognised and well-regarded qualification like the International Baccalaureate. The next question however sought our opinions on what alternate names should be used. My suggestions?

Gove Levels?

Gove’s Folly?

Michael Gove’s Unworkable Ideological Destruction of Aspiration and Our Children’s Future?

Yet Another Pointless Reform Which Places Blame on the Teaching Profession and Undermines Any Achievement That Students Make?

Question five brings out the English teacher in me.

“Do you agree that it will be possible to end tiering for the full range of subjects that we will be creating new qualifications for?”

My answer to this is yes, it would be possible. Just like when my students ask me if they can go to the toilet, I tell them that barring any medical problems, I believe that yes, they can. That doesn’t mean I’ll allow them to go to the toilet, and in this case while it is possible to end tiering, at no point have we considered if it is desirable.

You will of course be delighted to know the desirability of retaining tiering is (sort of) addressed in question six, where we are asked if there are particular approaches to examinations which might be needed to make this possible for some subjects. The approach needed will be to increase the length of examinations, both in terms of numbers of questions and duration, to ensure that a full range of abilities can be tested. So, we will have insultingly easy questions for high performing students to answer, and demotivatingly difficult questions for our less able students. Tiering had the advantage that you assess to student ability, and removing it says that the DfE does not trust teachers enough to know their own students and what they are capable of.

Michael Gove is appalled that some students get lower marks than the national average (any maths teachers who want to explain to him what an average is, feel free). His reform proposals are a knee-jerk reaction to his belief that GCSEs are getting easier, and everyone is getting A*-C, and that’s just wrong. Yet his reforms are pushing towards a medals for all, no tiering system which refuses to acknowledge that students have differing abilities, and not all of them should be sitting the same level of exam at the same time. Not if you want them to actually succeed and progress.

And here’s the rub. Gove blames tiering and low results for the fact that students don’t progress into further study at A Level and beyond in that subject. He makes a category error and assumes the lack of progression is due to being entered at Foundation Tier, rather than because of lack of ability/interest in a subject. Oh noes, Cassandra was entered at Foundation Tier for English, and got an E, so can’t do A Level. If only she had been entered at Higher Tier and got… an E… so can’t go on to A Level anyway…

Question eight raises the spectre that subjects outside of the core will be further relegated and devalued. It asks whether more time should be given to the core subjects, or if greater emphasis should go to the core subjects. Assuming he isn’t proposing to increase the length of the teaching day or reduce the length of holidays (and this is Michael Gove we’re talking about, so I don’t rule out either proposal), then extra curriculum time can only come from cutting PE, RE, Art subjects etc.

Question 15 is a personal favourite, not so much for what is asking, but the fact that by this point in my response I had lost all patience with it.

How can Awarding Organisations eliminate any unnecessary burdens on schools and post-16 institutions relating to the administration of English Baccalaureate Certificates?
Comment: Not offer the English Baccalaureate and instead offer a qualification which is rigorous, teacher-led, not insulting to the profession, which encourages a depth and breadth of study, and won’t be labelled as “dumbed down” or “grade inflated” by a public which is not involved with the teaching of the subject, nor interfered with by a “wag the dog” government for ideological reasons.

I mentioned previously that Gove doesn’t like tiering. He is getting rid of Higher Tier and Foundation Tier, and replacing it with one tier, one qualification for all students: the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

And also the Statement of Achievement. For students for whom “entry at 16 might not be in their best interests”. The idea is in post-16 education they will get support to enter an achieve the EBC post-16. But the consultation also says that

“We will also consider whether a “Statement of Achievement” could be of benefit to more students to support transition at 16, for example to those who are expected to achieve a low grade at 16, or indeed to all students” (my emphasis).

Low grades? Give them a Statement of Achievement instead? Sounds like a second tier to me. In fact we could be going back to the O Level v CSE days. Smart kids get EBCs, thick kids get Statements of Achievement.

Oh, I know Gove doesn’t intend it that way. But look at the way CSEs are viewed now. Look at the derision heaped upon the Foundation Tier by this consultation. It will happen to the Statement of Achievement too. And the worst of it is that the students will know it.

Question 20 is notable only for the fact that I quote “The Princess Bride” in it. I may be the first teacher to have done that. It asks

“How best can we prepare schools for the transition to these reformed, more rigorous qualifications?”

They keep describing the EBC as “more rigorous”. But they don’t say how it will be. The phrase kept cropping up, and it annoyed me so much that I had to quote Inigo Montoya and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

You can easily make GCSEs “more rigorous”. If “rigour” is what he feels is lacking, change the syllabus, change the specification. Replacing the GCSE won’t guarantee more rigour anymore than changing my running shoes will guarantee a faster time in a 10k. But if Gove wants rigour, then rigour he must get, and we at the chalkface must be prepared. So to the thrust of that question. How best to prepare schools? My answer:

Stop the reform now. Go back to the DfE. Tell Michael Gove that he needs to call in Headteachers and subject leaders from around the country and talk to them about what needs to be taught in each subject, what the best methods for assessment are, how it should be delivered. Then come up with a truly reformed, truly rigorous, truly world-class qualification. Not this ideological hodge podge.

I am including questions of interest from the consultation only. And question 22 is possibly the most interesting. It is short, and it is about languages. But the implications of it are telling.

“Should all languages in which there is currently a GCSE be included in our competition?”

In other words, should all languages, currently examined with a GCSE, be available as EBCs. Or should some of them be excluded? What happens to these excluded languages? Do they never get taught in British schools again, or as I suspect, do they remain available as GCSEs. In which case, if it is acceptable to retain some subjects at GCSE, there cannot be a problem with the GCSE as a qualification. The whole object of this consultation is that the GCSE is a massively flawed system in which there is no public confidence. If that is the case, all subjects in which there is a GCSE should be reformed. To allow some subjects to remain undermines this point of view, and that the consultation countenances that puts the lie to the whole project.

The final question I will comment on, because it affects me directly. The question of how to support post-16 institutions to provide EBCs. The consultation states there is a 10% shortage of English teachers in the FE sector, and 25% in maths. I teach English in FE. How to support the sector?

How about paying my tuition fees to get my PGCE? How about offering bursaries for subject specialism in the FE sector. More widely, how about not shafting the FE sector, and paying us at the same level as secondary teachers. How about recognising us as professionals? How about allowing us to teach in secondary schools, the same way secondary teachers are allowed to teach in FE with no additional training? How about viewing us as equivalent to secondary teachers. Hell, how about viewing us as professionals, as teachers, as a sector worthy of support? Just a thought Michael…

These are just a few of my responses and thoughts on the consultation. They represent my opinions, the opinions of a trainee English teacher in the FE sector, one who may not even be particularly good, but one who gives a damn about it and is trying to be a good teacher. The questions I’ve highlighted provoked a range of reactions from disbelief to outrage in me. I could have written paragraphs and paragraphs about each question. I completed the consultation during half-term whilst staying at my in-laws, and my wife and father-in-law will testify to how blue the air turned with each successive question.

Should we be striving to provide the best qualification for our children? Of course. Should we expect them to achieve to a high standard. Absolutely. Does the GCSE need to be reformed? Possibly.

Is the DfE proposal the right way to go about this. I have grave doubts.

Stifling dreams

No one should negotiate their dreams. Dreams must be free to fly high … You should never agree to surrender your dreams. ~Jesse Jackson

The Paralympics are coming to a close. J and I were watching the Men’s 100m T42 final, and the commentators were discussing whether Richard Whitehead would move to using prosthetics with a bendable knee like some of the other competitors in the race, and that his coaches were looking at it as a possibility for 2016. We wondered how those prosthetics work. J said “you would have known, if things had been different”.

It’s not the first time we’ve had that conversation. J sent me a Guardian article asking “Could exoskeletons help disabled people to be more active”. The photo illustrating the article was similar to images that were in my mind in my early teens.

When I was in high school, we had to decided in our second year what subjects we would study for the following two years, and sit our exams in. I was good at science. I wanted to do two sciences. I wanted to do physics and biology. The school forbade it. If you wanted to do two sciences, you had to do chemistry plus one of physics or biology. Physics and biology was an impossible combination.

But I wanted to do both. Because I wanted to build robotic limbs and exoskeletons. I wanted to create devices which could supplement weakened bones and muscles, or replace missing arms and give a person a fully functioning body. To do that I needed to understand biology, and I needed to understand electronics. So I needed to do physics and biology.

Explaining this resulted in laughter. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that what I wanted to do was silly. It was science fiction. It was impossible. I watched too much Star Wars, read too much Asimov. I should be realistic and stop being silly. So I gave up, humiliated that I had been set on something so obviously ludicrous that adults laughed at it. It was around that time that I picked up a video about becoming a solicitor from the school’s library. There was a sensible, realistic career. So I applied myself to that instead.

And twenty years on, the Guardian has photographs of people in the sorts of devices I dreamed about. Artificial limbs which are wired into nerves and controlled by thought are available.

I now teach. And I am conscious of how easily a careless word can completely crush the dreams and enthusiasm of a student. So whenever a student comes to me with pie in the sky dreams, I know to stop, and think. Twenty years ago thought-controlled limbs would have seemed as ludicrous as touch-controlled pocket computers which can send messages and retrieve information from around the world. Yet twenty years on, they are common place. I can’t go back and tell myself not to surrender my dreams. But I can ensure that I don’t ever tell a student to surrender theirs.

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