The G-spot

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I started writing this recovering from the Death by Nativity Play Rehearsals. Every teacher has to put up with these and you can see the fear in their eyes growing from October onwards. Given bad luck being placed in schools, however, and a supply teacher can end up viewing 20 Nativity Play rehearsals of varying degrees of quality. I think I saw 10 in the end and also oversaw a reception Christmas party.  My tinnitus, needless to say, only got worse. For many reasons,  I am only picking it up again at Easter. I am lucky – a lot of teachers probably still have too much teaching work – marking, planning, etc – to do or really couldn’t face writing about education in their precious time away.

It seems time that I should address the G-word. In a way, it seems redundant to write about him as his every loopy utterance is quite rightly attacked in the media, blogs and on internet forums and message boards. Indeed, I tend to zone out at his pronouncements nowadays as they are so out of touch with anything based in evidence and experience. I should probably pay more attention to that which will probably affect me so greatly and directly but feel somewhat like a saturated sponge. Almost needless to say, the man is an idiot but, like Boris Johnson, not some harmless comical one. He is a man who is dangerous to education and, by association, to the country.

What I will say is that Gove’s pronouncements are so little based in robust evidence-based thinking that he would have been thrown off my Education Studies cause after the first assignment. As an example, in a document called “Training our next generation of outstanding teachers“, Gove (through the DfE) made claims that school-based training is better for teachers. He made three references to “Musset et al. (2010)”. In a manner that would have got him marked down by my lecturers, however, that is the only reference. Perhaps the reason for the obfuscation is that, after a bit of Googlery, you find out that the paper is an OECD Education Working Paper called “Initial Teacher Education and Continuing Training: Policies in a Comparative Perspective” (http://tinyurl.com/n3uufnx) which was written for the OECD-Mexico Co-operation Agreement to Improve the Quality of Education in Mexican Schools. A working paper written about Mexican schools. Not only that but the paper merely refers back to the existing school-based education in the UK in the literature review. It also has appalling typos. Anyway, I digress.

 Anyway, aside from that bit of Gove-bashing, my main argument is that, for all his idiocy, he is only the logical conclusion of a process that has been evolving over the last 30 plus years and, with the Liberals now in the coalition, is the fault of all three major parties.

From the start of universal free schooling straight after the way to the mid-1970s, a non-partisan  post-war consensus between political parties ensured curricular and pedagogical autonomy for the teaching profession. The state had no involvement in curriculum or pedagogy, these were the sole responsibility of teachers while the LEAs appointed and paid teachers and for buildings, equipment, resources and materials and Her Majesty’s Inspectors cursorily oversaw the system. Let me put my cards on the table and say that this, to me, is the ideal system for running an education system more or less (I would also rid the system of religious, private, selective, single-sex and, obviously, Free schools and academies).

This was a period of almost-complete teacher autonomy. Local Education Authorities encouraged teacher-led curriculum innovation in schools, increased professionalisation of teachers and the high degree of autonomy which they enjoyed. However, a foreshadowing of the death knell of this golden age was soon upon the profession, during the 1970s, with the demise of the post-war consensus on education prompted by concerns about teacher autonomy and progressive teaching, illustrated clearly by the Willam Tyndale school controversy. The latter is an event that continues to be bashed about teachers’  heads 40 years after the event and in the shadow of an education system that continues expand the inequality of education. The real reason that politicians were worried was the economic recession fuelled by the OPEC oil crisis with those pesky Arab countries wanting their oil to themselves. William Tyndale etc. was just a useful scapegoat, an excuse to get politicians and outside interests involved in education so that the country could ‘compete’.

Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976 announced the politicians, parents and, more ominously, industry would be getting involved in education. This precipitated a major sea-change in the involvement of the state in education. Firstly, education was no longer being seen as a benefit for children administered by the state for the benefit of the rest of society as well – including such hitherto unconsidered figures such as industry . To this end,  Callaghan suggested a “basic curriculum with universal standards” that would “equip children…for a lively, constructive place in society” but, also, conscious of the mass unemployment,  “to do a job of work” . Education being a process that providers what Marxists would call a semi-skilled workforce – and they would be right. Not only did this signify a remodelling of education as form of technicist training  but paved the way for later developments such as introduction of the National Curriculum by Thatcher’s later government. This from a Labour government, don’t forget.

As it happens, Thatcher’s government’s education policies were fairly restricted in its first two terms. However, the appointment of Keith Joseph, a free market advocate, as Education Minister in 1981, led to much more control of education being taken by the government and the genesis of the decreasing of teacher autonomy over curriculum and pedagogy that would not only be seen over the period of Thatcher’s government but henceforth. In 1980, they did introduce open enrolment whereby parents could now choose the school that their children were sent to, subject to available places, and had a chance to sit on the school governing bodies. As I have mentioned previously, this has led to a widespread change in the attitudes of many parents not only towards teachers but also to the idea of sending their children to the local school. After a third election in 1987, however, the Conservative government introduced the National Curriculum which proscribed the core subjects to be taught in all state primary and secondary schools. This curriculum was notably written by the government with no input from teachers – the Schools Council, which had had great involvement in the design of curriculum and examinations previously having been disbanded in 1982. Indeed, it shows the control that was given to the Minister of Education, Kenneth Baker that he could proscribe that 10 subjects that were to be taught compulsorily  until age 16, even despite disagreement of Thatcher who wanted a core of English, Maths and Science. This bill also introduced funding attached to individual pupils through Local Management of Schools in 1988 which, along with the previous open enrolment, was to effectively usher in marketision on education by introducing competition between schools. It also marginalised the influence of the Local Education Authorities by funding schools directly along with creating the opportunities for schools to opt out of LEA control completely by becoming ‘grant-maintained’ (a precursor of Free Schoos and academies).  Control of the education system was also to be further strengthened with the establishment of the Ofsted replacing HMIs and further reducing the teachers’ professional autonomy.

In many ways, this Act opened the floodgates for state involvement in education. Further adjustments to the education system under the Major government. The introduction of state involvement in pedagogy as well as curriculum with the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies in 1998 –  coming in, again, from a Labour Party – was merely building on the foundations of 1988 . Indeed, considering that Blair’s New Labour carried on the Conservative policies of ‘parent power’, neo-liberal marketisation in education and Ofsted inspections, it was as natural a development as anything a Conservative government would have implemented.

Of course, after this, the introduction of Academy schools in 2000, which partly resurrected an ultimately doomed Thatcherite idea  of City Technology Colleges, as well as an increase in faith schools, reduced further state involvement in the curriculum and pedagogy in education . Academies put the control of education into the hands of private sponsors and religious bodies rather than returning it to teachers, especially in remaining state schools still bound to the National curriculum. With the continued move away from true comprehensive education, e.g. the introduction of specialist schools that were allowed to select a small number of their pupils and widening of the academy system by the coalition government in 2010, teachers and local education authorities have been almost completely bypassed in involvement in the governing of schools and choice of curriculum and pedagogy.

This brings up right up to date with Gove who has further marginalised the latter’s control with his implementations of Free Schools where, theoretically, parents and teachers will be able to run schools outside of local education authorities and with their own curriculum. However, running a school being such a huge and complicated undertaking, it was always more realistic that these schools would be run by private companies who could manage such an endeavour. What has happened with these Free schools (and, indeed, academies) and the companies that run them are for another day.

Although the state control of education has gradually increased and, to an extent, decreased again since the turn of the last century, this means nothing, apart from its effects on teacher’s autonomy and political ideologies, unless we judge what impact these changes have had on the children in the education system. While it would be tempting to look at at numbers of passes in public exams, education has to address social inequalities and provide equality of opportunity to all children entering schools. In their flawed but useful book ‘The Spirit Level’ the authors posit that it is not only beneficial for individuals to have equality of opportunity but also for society as an educated working population contributes more and is less reliant on society, is more likely to have good health and less likely to commit criminal acts . The 1944 Education act was introduced to provide an education system that closed the attainment gap between rich and poor and, as such, subsequent education policies need to be judged by how successful they were in this. Evidence of a reduction in inequality in any education system has to be taken into account as well as total attainment.

The current marketised education system, introduced by Tories and enthusiastically adopted and expanded on by New Labour and now the coalition, was supposed to offer more choice and diversity of schools to the consumer of this particular market. With the introduction of parental choice of schools and parental governors, it is arguable that the consumers were the parents rather than the children. The 1996 Education Act was concerned with parental choice and the New Labour government would continue the Thatcherite ideal that market forces would raise standards. When looking at the available attainment statistics of New Labour from 1999 to 2010 and the Coalition government’s figures for 2011, passes of 5 GCSEs at A*-C have increased for the total amount of children entered. However, selective schools outperformed non-selective schools by  47.7% on average and independent schools have outperformed non-selective schools by 32% meaning that, despite increases in the education system as a whole, there are still inequalities between selective schools, independent schools and comprehensive schools . Research of statistics since 2003 of children who are in receipt of Free School Meals – an indicator of low income- and those not receiving FSM shows the disparity is even larger . Non-FSM children have outperformed FSM children on average by 27.5%, albeit with the gap decreasing slightly every year.

While there appears to have been a steady increase in GCSEs, the British education system is still rife with inequality – between independent, grammar and comprehensive schools and, more dramatically, between children who are at the lower end of the income scale and receiving free school meals and those that are not eligible – albeit there is slow small reductions in the disparities year on year. More pointedly, this social class attainment gap has run through the whole post-war education era from the intrinsically unequal grammar school system through the ‘golden age of teacher autonomy” era of the well-intentioned introduction of comprehensive schools undermined by existing grammar schools and middle class manipulation of the system through to the marketised education system of the Thatcherite and New Labour years. State involvement in the education system during this time has gone from ensuring the rights of children to free comprehensive education but with a light touch on teachers and schools to the proscription of curriculum, pedagogy and national testing . Finally, the neo-liberal marketeers of New Labour and, presently, the Coalition Government appear to be divesting control not back to education professionals but to parents, religious groups and private enterprise.

What has this long historical meander got to do with Gove? Well, he is basically the beneficiary and result of a system that started over 30 years ago with the jettisoning of the post-war consensus and has continued with more and more meddling of pedagogy, curriculum and the administration of schools by increasing numbers of completely unqualified non-teachers. He hasn’t just popped up out of nowhere, the last thirty years’ governments’ education policies have paved the way for someone like him.

 

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It’s multiculturism gone unremarkable

I was at a school assembly today and it occurred to me that about 2% of the children were white. I then realised that every single child in my class had English as a second language – Somalian, Arabic, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Polish, Chinese and French as their first. Do you know what else I noticed? Nothing. Everyone spoke English around the school, Easter was mentioned in the assembly with no protests, everything was like every other school I have been to. Now, either this school is an outlier or the Mail, Express et al are lying about multicultural schools.

Can I be of assistance?

Last Friday was National Teaching Assistants Day, organised by Unison to celebrate teaching assistants, learning support assistants and other support staff. At the school I was teaching at, the TAs got the special awards that the kids normally get and the kids presented them with little testimonies on how great the TAs were. It was a very sweet way to celebrate staff that add much to schools, learning, the children’s school lives, indeed, as well as the teachers’. I have to say that I have had mixed feelings on teaching assistants. A teacher friend once said to me, before I was even a parent, let alone a teacher, that teaching assistants were just going to end up being unqualified cheap alternative teachers. That was an impression that I found hard to budge.

I went to school in the 1970s and early 1980s and one of the main differences noticed on re-experiencing education was the greater number of non-teaching adults in schools in general and classrooms in particular. When I was in school, there was one teacher in the classroom and that was it. Maybe there would be some lab assistants for sceince but that was it, especially in primary schools. However, since then, an ethos where the teacher was the autonomous leader of a classroom, educating a whole classroom solely, reviewing and aiding the pupils’ progress themselves has been replaced by teachers doing less whole-class teaching, dividing the class into smaller workgroups and being supported by non-QTS (qualified teacher status) staff. However, has the expansion of non-QTS staff aided the teacher and the children or has it hindered the teacher in bringing in another level of classroom management – that of adults? Do teaching assistants help children receive more focussed attention that will enhance their learning or merely less attention from the teacher? Are teachers able to spend more time teaching or are non-QTS staff taking over more pedagogical responsibility? Is the increased role of non-QTS staff actually diluting of the primacy of the teachers and contributing to a process of de-professionalising schools and in areas where children are under the responsibility of non-QTS staff – such as break- and lunch-times – impacting negatively on children’s behaviour in classrooms?

The last time, I studied this, in 2010, there were 213,900 teaching assistants in English schools, 16.5 % more than in 2009 and representing a tripling in number over the last decade. This represents just over 19% of the total full-time equivalent workforce in publicly funded schools in England. Combined with other regular support and auxiliary staff, this represents nearly 60% of the total workforce that are not teachers This means that children routinely encounter many different adults in their school career who have many different levels of qualification and experience of working with children and an increasing impact on children’s safety, discipline and, indeed, academic attainment.

As with many elements of schools and teaching in Britain, it is since the 1988 Education Reform Act 1988 that an increase in non-teaching staff has been seen. ‘Welfare assistants’ were referenced in the 1967 Plowden Report, along with the few other non-teaching staff at the time e.g.. secretaries and school meals assistants. However, at this time, they were not working in the classroom and certainly not teaching, due to the – perhaps prescient –  fear that, as Plowden put it, “the profession should be diluted by allowing ancillaries to operate within the classroom”. Teachers themselves were becoming more professional at this time as teaching became a graduate-only profession, thereby widening the qualification gap between themselves and non-QTS staff. However the Report did recommend qualifications for ‘welfare assistants’ so that they could prepare classrooms and equipment for the teachers.

Numbers of teaching assistants grew after the introduction of the Education Act 1996 which legislated that local authorities should provide staff to support children with special educational needs to reduce exclusion. Further reforms were felt to be needed to streamline the intensive workload of teacher and, to this end, the Department of Employment and Skills implemented the Workload Agreement in 2003. As well as restrictions of working hours, this introduced clear advice of which administrative tasks non-QTS staff in the school would take over, such as first aid, administration, preparation of classrooms for lessons, invigilating tests, monitoring and assessing children as well as support for ‘less able’ children and children with SEN. It also introduced planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, for which 10% of a teacher’s weekly hours was allocated. This was also the beginning of suggestions that teaching assistants move into more teaching roles and responsibility for children’s welfare. This was seen as the preferable option as it was cheaper than employing more teachers as cover for PPA time and, also, qualified teacher numbers were falling, due to an ageing workforce, numbers leaving due to workload, stress and low morale as well as reduced recruitment due to the same and a paucity of graduates.

After 2003, teaching assistants’ numbers and roles grew on an ad hoc basis – stemming from a blurring of role boundaries in many cases – with qualified status and training introduced but not compulsory. This ambiguity of roles also arose from the wide range of qualifications and experience that teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff members brought with them. Some parent volunteers, others qualified teachers themselves who have decided to become otherwise employed in schools in order to take advantage of lesser workload and responsibility (indeed, it was competing for jobs with the latter that made my decision to retrain). Ambiguity also arose where teaching assistants worked for several teachers, due to shared workload or teachers’ job-share. Many individuals may have several roles within schools in that they are teaching assistants as well as school meal supervisors (SMSAs), break- or lunch-time play-leaders or nurses. Teaching assistants, at primary level, have been concentrated on implementing national strategies for literacy and numeracy while, in secondary, they are linked to subject areas rather than teachers.

Teaching staff also have a great part to play in pastoral work with children and, also, behaviour management in the classroom, playground and around the school. Indeed, behaviour management is possibly the teaching assistants’ major role and support for the teacher. There is little doubt that teaching assistants can be more approachable and accessible and have differing relationships with children that can complement the teacher’s. Sometimes this is due to teaching assistants sharing links or background with the children, their family and community; sometimes, it is because they spend more one-to-one time being a dedicated support worker for a child or as part of extended school activities. Often, especially in the case of bilingual teaching assistants, they are a crucial form of communication and mediation between parents, children and teachers. There is a danger, however, that children and, perhaps, parents can become over-reliant on teaching assistants, especially where they are providing one-to-one support and perhaps undermining the teacher’s role. There are also issues raised where teaching assistant may be doing too much for children and restricting their independent learning. Furthermore, teaching assistants can find that these differing relationships an advantage in behaviour management but blurred boundaries between teacher and teaching assistant can be a disadvantage as children recognise that teaching assistants are below teachers in the school hierarchy. This view can sometimes be reinforced by parents, teachers and, indeed, teaching assistants themselves.

Continuity of care by teaching assistants, especially with children with additional support needs, is crucial. However, while teaching assistants are viewed as especially important in supporting children with additional support needs or who are ‘less able’, this can lead to the teacher concentrating on the majority, leaving such learners under the responsibility of non-QTS staff. Research shows that the presence of teaching assistants, certainly for those children with one-to-one support, ending up having the effect of interactions with the teacher being reduced, sometimes by up to 50%. In classrooms carrying out good practice, teachers and teaching assistants exchange roles regularly so that teachers can spend time with and concentrate on less able children or those with additional support needs. The Labour Government’s claims that teaching assistants had been central to raising standards’ were the basis for their suggestion that teaching assistants took over more teaching roles. While, initially, there did appear to be an improvement in pupil attainment after the workforce remodelling in 2003, there has been little long-term evidence of their sustained impact on academic progress.

There is no doubt that teachers, on the whole, value their teaching assistants. Teaching assistants can end up being a link and source of continuity between permanent teachers and supply teachers, job-sharing teachers or teachers of differing levels of experience – explaining the common ethos, structures and practices of the school and the classroom and passing on practical and intellectual knowledge. This can, however, lead to tensions and difficulties between teaching assistants and teachers e.g from a teaching assistant being interrupted in important literacy or numeracy support work in order to prepare materials or equipment or carry out behaviour management. Teaching assistants who have more experience than, perhaps, a newly qualified teacher can be reluctant to change practice. Also, the lack of detailed job descriptions and, also, clear line management e.g. not knowing whether to report to the individual teacher, special education needs co-coordinator or head-teacher – do not help teaching assistants or teachers. Many teachers and teaching assistants complain that there are not clear lines of responsibility regarding teaching assistants’ roles and workload (Butt and Lance,2009; General Teaching Council for England, 2003).

Research has found that regular and clear communication, joint planning and evaluation between teachers and teaching assistants is crucial and formal time should be set aside for this. Research has also shown that, in the last 30 years, teachers have lost 30-60 minutes a day in collaborative time with colleagues. This is mutual reflective practice lost that is crucial for teachers and, following on from this, all classroom staff. Teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff are often excluded from staff meetings where information and support is exchanged, sometimes merely due to meetings being at inconvenient times. Often, due to teaching assistants covering lunch-breaks or the lack of a tradition of teachers and other staff eating with each other, this informal opportunity for information exchange, evaluation and review is also lost. Where joint planning by teachers and non-QTS staff exists, it tends to be disorganised,irregular, incomplete and ineffective and training and time needs to given in order to remedy this. Similarly, it is important that teaching assistants have time to communicate and share information with other professionals, especially outside agencies. This is especially important where they are the link between these agencies, the teachers and/or the child and parents or are responsible for particular strategies e.g.. exercises from therapists for children with additional support needs.

As is common in other schools, the break- and play-times were supervised predominately by teaching assistants, play-workers and SMSAs. The many hidden areas in the playground meant that the area was difficult to supervise and oversee effectively. The school attempted to address this by having staggered age group break-times in order to reduce the number of children of different ages in the playground at one time. Even with these strategies in place, behaviour issues arising from the playground between children in the same age group were common and had an impact on the classroom directly after break-times. This led to the teacher and principal teaching assistant having to address issues and resolve conflicts reduced teaching time and often leading to continuing conflict and disruption amongst children. While the supervisors were fully aware of their responsibilities and issues around playground management and supervision, few were trained to a level greater than providing first aid and interventions to provide structured play opportunities were rare, mainly due to time needed to physically monitor the playground.

It would be difficult to evaluate from a limited placement period how much impact on pupil’s academic progress support staff had. Certainly, with the pedagogy of the class being based around small groups carrying out different tasks, it was difficult for the teacher to give significant focussed attention to individual children, however much they strived to achieve this. Whether this is due to the target-driven culture and the constraints of delivering a strict National curriculum with set numeracy and literacy time allocation or whether it is due to the presence of many support staff who could be seen to supplement one-to-one time, it is difficult to say. What is more clear is that, within the present classroom context, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for one teacher to effectively manage a class and its behaviour and develop and progress children’s education. The support staff’s duties in the classroom included preparation of the classroom, equipment and materials needed for the day, preparing reading books, one-to-one numeracy and literacy tasks, supporting small groups of children in tasks set by the teacher, monitoring progress of individual children and making notes for individual education plans and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) target attainment records.

Teaching assistants could free teachers to actually teach and reduce their workload rather than involving themselves with pastoral or administration work and there is evidence that this is happening. However, it can also lead to the teacher merely becoming a lead professional or manager of a group of workers, which could end up weakening their relationships with children and de-professionalising teaching, only 40 years after it became a professional role. Similarly, pastoral work should never be removed from a teacher’s role in order to for them to be effective educators. Reducing the autonomous nature of teaching with increased participation of teaching assistants could certainly reduce personal nature of teaching, especially where teaching assistants work for other teachers as well. However, while dilution of the primacy of teachers in classrooms may not automatically be a deficiency, diluting it with staff with no or lesser professional qualifications could cause irreparable harm. Teaching and schools could be in danger of becoming ‘technicist’ de-skilled and de-professionalised institutions and teachers could become managers of facilitators of curriculum delivery rather than pedagogical practitioners and innovators themselves. Replacing teaching time with teaching assistants or other adults while the teacher is left to merely manage a team could demotivate trained professionals, many of whom entered a profession with the intent of educating children. Increase of non-QTS staff teaching alone is not the answer to developing children’s academic progress and enhancing their time at school or decreasing teachers workload or increasing their effective interactions with children. Reducing class sizes, rather, would be more effective in raising pupil attainment than employing more teaching assistants.

Presently, there is still no national requirement for support staff to have formal qualifications and those that are offered have yet to penetrate the profession greatly. The Higher Level Teaching Assistant qualification (HLTA), introduced in 2004, certainly could be made more available and, perhaps, become compulsory if teaching assistants becoming more pedagogically involved becomes a reality. Certainly, this should be seen as the minimum qualification and the accompanying standards, training and development should give teaching assistants clear career progression with qualified teacher status, higher salaries and greater job satisfaction all possibilities. The Labour government certainly appeared to view the HLTA as a step in the path to becoming a fully-qualified teacher and allocating time, funding and encouraging staff to do this would be a step in recruiting teachers with classroom experience. However, a result of non-qualified teaching staff planning and teaching lessons should be avoided for reasons of teacher morale and children’s welfare. Indeed, many teachers believe that teaching assistants are already taking on a more pedagogical role and that there should be clearly defined boundaries between teachers and teaching assistants to provide clarity of responsibility and roles for the benefit of both professions, children and parents.

Good teachers can be and, ideally are, good managers of children as well as skilled educators. It does not necessarily follow that they have the skills for delegating to and managing adults . There is often the added pressure of managing teaching assistants and other non-teaching colleagues that meant the extra pair of hands added to rather than lessened the workload. As well as training of teaching assistants, teachers – especially newly qualified teachers – must be supported with training in the management and mentoring of the adults that will be helping them and in management of contact in multi-agency contexts. This level of management may add extra work in planning and preparation but, implemented properly, can benefit children’s learning, teachers’ and teaching assistants’ workload and job satisfaction.

Teaching assistants are part of a team that children have contact with, often every day and the most effective of these teams work in a mutually supportive and collaborative manner. Mutual support and collaboration amongst all staff is crucial and time and resources must be allowed for this. These roles are now a pivotal and integral component in a schools with great influence on children’s education and should be treated as such. Teaching assistants can be especially crucial in interventions for children with additional needs or who are less able but they have to be managed well to be fully efficient in this respect. Well managed and trained teaching assistants deployed correctly have been found to have a clear beneficial effect e.g. on pupils attainment – especially in literacy and reading – but this is only in a minority of schools.Schools have to be adept at identifying the children who require interventions and ensure accurate and efficient deployment of teaching assistants to be effective

There are areas in which the employment and deployment of teaching assistants and other non-QTS staff can be improved ensuring efficiency and effectiveness and, possibly, a direct measurable gain for academic outcomes. The roles of teaching assistants and the perception of these roles have to be clear to all, from the staff themselves – through specific job descriptions – to children, parents and outside agencies. Qualifications, training, development and clear career paths should be offered, supported and encouraged for teaching assistants for their morale job satisfaction and for continuing professional expertise. Teaching assistants need to be deployed effectively and efficiently and, to this end, teachers and head-teachers themselves should be trained in management and mentoring of teaching assistants. Time, opportunity and resources should be allocated to teachers’ and teaching assistants collaboration, review, evaluation and planning. Clear communication between teachers, teaching assistants, outside agencies, children and parents is also crucial and, to this end, non-QTS staff should be included in staff and planning meetings.

Michael Gove now has not only started to introduce Free Schools where unqualified teachers are openly advertised for but also, earlier this year, suggested that the government will reduce considerably the amount of teaching assistants. When I first started training (and, since, working) in schools, I have lived in fear of teaching assistants that have been working in a school for years, don’t take to being managed by an inexperienced teacher and run a critical eye over everything that they do. In reality, I have met maybe three TAs like that and the rest have been mostly extremely diligent, helpful and extremely caring for the kids. Indeed, the three that were critical were, in their way, just the same as well. Whatever my ideological mixed feelings about teaching assistants and their place in schools, it stands presently that they are vital and integral to the current school system and all those those that teach and learn in it. If I trusted Gove to replace teaching assistants with more qualified teachers (as he has suggested) and dramatically improve the current school system, I would feel better but, you know…..

Anybody can teach!

As I am too exasperated to put into words what I think about this, I will let another blogger speak for me.

Secret Teacher

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I wish I could say this was some kind of practical joke; that this had appeared on a whimsical website poking fun at government policy. However this is no joke, and nobody is laughing.

The South Leeds Academy are in need of two maths teachers, but not just any maths teachers. Those with any sort of qualifications to teach are deemed surplus to requirements. Indeed those who have the experience and expertise to assist pupils adequately are going to be immediately overlooked. They needn’t apply. The South Leeds Academy epitomize a worrying transformation in the education system in recent years.

When Michael Gove removed the requirement for QTS in academies, the rhetoric was of professionals such as scientists, engineers, musicians and linguists teaching pupils. I doubt anybody could argue that the above advert isn’t looking for professionals, for professionals are almost always qualified. There isn’t even a mention of a…

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I blame the parents.

I have had a lot of contact with ‘kids nowadays’, certainly over the last 11 years as a parent, Sunday school leader, football coach, school governor and now as a teacher. Do you know what? Kids are great. I mean, not all of them all of the time. Often they are pains in the arse. However, contrary to a lot of popular opinion, children are certainly no worse than when I grew up 30 to 40 years ago. Indeed, they are often better. I grew up in a small monocultural town which meant that my friends and I were the sort of little racist, sexist and homophobic shits that existed before racism was bad. We were drawing swastikas on exercise books and telling jokes against Pakistanis, the full works. Ludicrous seeing as we had never even seen a non-white face apart from the rare one on TV but that is the way of the ignorant child. Today’s children , however, seem to be have achieved the sort of acceptance of those different from oneself very quickly, almost naturally. My son has a friend who has had a sex change and, after the minimum of explanation, has accepted this. Like I say, kids are pretty cool nowadays.

Why, then, are children acting so differently from previous generations? The main cause, in one word, is ‘parents nowadays’. Throughout my experience with children, I have encountered parents who have ludicrous ideas about what their children can and can’t do. Parents who feel that their children can’t go to the park at the end of their road. Parents who feel they have to drive their children half a mile to school. Parents who will take their children to ballet and flute classes before teaching them to swim, cross the road or ride a bike. Parents who feel that they have to let them have games or movies rated over their age. Parents who cosset their children by not letting them free to play away from home with their friends, roam free in parks or countryside and even just hang around town (now, it appears, some sort of sign of delinquency in itself). Apart from traffic, children are as safe nowadays or even safer than at any time in history and, as I say, it doesn’t appear that parents are teaching their children road safety more. Actually, I am wrong. Children appear to be more at risk from obesity nowadays than before. Part of this is due to being ferried to schools in a car and having active play and sports restricted to one hour a week at a adult-supervised club.

Ok, a rant about ‘parents nowadays’, what has that got to do with education? Well, mainly because the same parents who often make ill-informed decisions based on rumour, innuendo, prejudice and flawed evidence are gaining more and more power in education. I am not talking about Free Schools which are on a plane of lunacy all their own. I am talking about all education. This, along with many damaging moves,  started with the Conservatives’ 1988 Education Reform Act, brought in by Kenneth Baker. It introduced open admissions (effectively meaning that children could go to schools outside the catchment area), schools budgets set by amount of pupils and the introduction of external testing which, in turn, led to league tables of schools. This was supposed to give the parents ‘choice’ when, in fact, it ended up with parents having too much or no choice depending greatly on your socio-economic status.

A prevailing attitude that has grown up around this – amongst politicians, the media and, indeed, parents – is that, academically, parents know what is best for their children over and above teachers (we will leave that politicians feel they know what is best for children educationally over and above teachers for another time). This is a bizarre idea. Although there have been some occasions tending towards this in the field of heath (see MMR), no-one is suggesting, medically, parents know what is best for their children over and above health professionals. Well, internet diagnoses and homeopathy notwithstanding. However, everyone is now in a position to decide on one of the most important experiences a child is going to have, regardless of how informed they are.

Since 1988, a culture has built up where, due to school budgets being set by pupils numbers on roll, an education market has established itself with parents as consumers and children becoming currency for schools to vie for. Of course, the ‘advertising’ that these schools used have invariably been the league tables. The idea that this has introduced choice for all parents is illusory. Parents who have the cultural capital, familiarity of professional and bureaucratic systems and higher achieving children (that schools with one eye on league tables will wish to attract) have a great amount of choice. Parents of lower-acheiving children who do not know how to play the system have less. In theory, schools cannot select children. however, admissions by religion, siblings or through a complicated appeal system mean a system skewed towards those who are savvy with application forms, professional jargon and legal rights. Even if less able children from lower socio-cultural background get into ‘better’ schools, they are more at risk of being suspended or excluded permanently due to, again, parents lack of familiarity with the system and schools’ reluctance to have children who are going to drag down the results.

Of course, all these arguments have been visited and revisited in schools, the media and in government for years so why am I addressing it? Throughout my contact with schools and parents, I have noticed a lack of respect for teachers that just wasn’t present when I was in school 30-40 years ago. In those times, mostly pre-1979 and the election of Thatcher, parents regarded teachers views on children, their academic potential, ability and attainment  almost without question. Now this, in itself, could be a bad thing open to exploitation were it not for one thing. Teachers, like nurses, social workers and other public servants tend to get into the profession to help others. It certainly isn’t for the money nor, contrary to popular belief, the holidays. Anyway, teachers were seen as being best placed to comment on children’s education. It seems logical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? In the same manner as doctors are best placed to comment on children’s health and dentists best placed to comment on their teeth. You know, with all the training and qualifying you have to do before you even get to the fact that many teachers have a fair bit of experience. Even parents who were not particularly interested in education themselves tended to want their children to do well in school and respected teachers’ role in this.

Nowadays, however, you have parents who seem to believe that you are working for them and their vision for their particular children rather than all the children in your care. Either that or those that see your role as someone who seeks only to victimise their children. The former quite simply want the school, teaching, curriculum, management and the rest of the children to fit in with their offspring otherwise they will take them off to another school. I expect we have all seen or heard examples of this but I once saw someone to take their child out of school to another only to return a month later as their daughter didn’t have any friends in the new school. Odd, that. The thing about these parents is that the issue is never with their child. It is always that the curriculum or teaching aren’t testing them enough or is too hard so they misbehave. However, if other children misbehave, it is because they are disruptive and are putting their little offspring off (By the way, “disruptive” nowadays is a code word for ‘black’, ‘working class’, ‘boy’ or any combination of these).

Then you get the parents of children who are genuinely disruptive , aggressive and occasionally violent. You meet up with the parents and they refuse to believe that their child can be acting as such, even in the face of professionals recounting many examples of this that have been noted and recorded. Often, these are the parents that will get angry, aggressive and even violent with teachers. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree etc. I remember one case of a school agreeing to keep a child there if he managed to keep violence to other kids down to one incident a week. Yes, you read that right. As it happens, in my capacity as a governor, I ended up being physically confronted by the parents of this boy in the reception. The head was too scared to meet them and had left instructions to call the police if the parents kicked off. The acorn doesn’t etc, etc.

Now, don’t get me wrong, not all parents. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that most parents aren’t like this. The schools that are genuinely effective (forget Ofsted ‘outstanding’) are the ones where parents are fully involved with their child’s education and help out at school – encouraging children by reading to them, modelling respect for education, teachers and school, volunteering to hear children read and getting involved in PTA organisations. Indeed, one of the Conservatives’ better implementations of parent power was, in 1986, introducing parent governors. While many of these may embark upon a governorship thinking that they will mould the school to their own ideals, they either change their mind or leave when they realise that much of the work of a governor is number crunching of budgets and reading of endless directives from local and national government. Those that stay do vital work in supporting the school, the staff and the children.

However, there are enough of the ‘sharp-elbowed’ parents (a term which David Cameron described himself as recently) to reduce a school’s roll if their (and their friends’ – playground gossip can be a most destructive weapon) ideas of how a school should be run aren’t implemented. There is a minority of the aggressive parents with similar children that can make school staff’s worklives hell. All this dealing with parents is, of course, on top of educating, managing, caring for and being responsible for their children while keeping on top of the latest wheeze from the government.

Why has it got to this place? Why has respect for education and, specifically in this case, teachers been so diminished? Well, the 30-40 years that have passed since my education and today are a very crucial time period for this change. Firstly, there was end of the post-war consensus which had previously kept education from being the political football it is today. Following this was the introduction of the influence of industry as well as politicians in curriculum and pedagogy setting. A particular pity about this was that it was the Labour Party of Callaghan that started this process of emasculating teachers from their own profession. Even though the Conservatives waited until 1988 to bring in their reforms, the ground had been laid for their interference by the Labour Party who wished to make teachers scapegoats for their own economic woes.

The subsequent decades have seen everyone from parents, politicians, the media to business figures feel that they are well-positioned to comment, criticise and control education despite, often, their only qualification being that they once went to school. Teachers, on the other hand, have become increasingly de-professionalised and relegated to deliverers of a curriculum that they and educationalists have had very little input to and are judged by those with little knowledge of the field. It is inevitable that teachers have lost the respect of much of society that they used to have. It is very much a drip-down effect – government, the media and business blaming teachers which influences parents and this often leads to a lack of respect from children.

As I say, many parents are supportive of teachers, schools and education, get positively involved in the schools and even the ones who are looking for schools that are fine-tuned for their children are, I am sure, mostly doing it with their children’s perceived best interest at heart. However, this is why unqualified untrained people – whether they be politicians, industry, the media or parents – should not have the power and influence they currently do. However well-meaning, parents do not know how best to educate their children unless they have had had formal training and formal qualifications (however much Gove wishes to devalue these). Well-meaning parents with no relevant practice and instruction are the reason that we end up with children being treated with homeopathy and not receiving MMR injections.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-parents. Far from it, I am still very much an active parent. Indeed, I also felt that, as a parent, I could contribute to schools and education. Which is why I took 4 years in studying education and then qualifying to be a teacher. It kind of made sense to do it that way.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

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So, I have started my career as a supply teacher waiting for others to drop off the perch ill or get pregnant. I am presently in that post-half-term lull when everyone is back at school and raring to go, so have time to kick this off.

I started my interest in education when my son went to primary school and I got roped into PTA groups on bullying and school meals policies – the latter during the Jamie Oliver bubble. These are two areas that I still think are somewhat overlooked, with regard their effects on kids’ academic performance as well as social, physical and emotional welfare. Anyway, as it was a well-regarded school, these were my only involvement as there was a waiting list to be a governor. When my son changed schools to one that was less ‘fashionable’, I was roped into being a governor within 6 months of arriving. I then ended up with the SEN governor post (as it was the last one to be offered aside from “Health and Safety” which no-one ever wants). This led to a lot of day-to-day involvement with the school.

At this time, I was full-time parent to my son, and during my involvement with the school, I decided to re-enter work by looking for a teaching assistant job. I found myself competing for jobs with teachers who, having had children, had decided to become teaching assistants for the easier hours. This should have told me something. However, by a long illogical sequence of events, I then thought I would retrain as a primary school teacher. This led to going back to college to do an Access course, doing a Education Studies degree and then completing the PGCE.

The Education Studies degree was a joy. I got taught by proper professors, like Michael Caine in “Educating Rita”, who let me debate with them and sometimes win. I explored the huge width and depth of education – alternative pedagogies, international education in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the politics and philosophy of education and theories of learning. I was able to discuss and debate education with people who were as enthusiastic and concerned about education as I am.

However, I knew that there would be an issue with taking all that I had learnt and the ideas that had come from that and, to an extent, narrowing this into the “Forget about that, this is what we do” funnel of the PGCE. Sure enough, as hard as the lecturers (at the same Uni I did my degree) tried, it became obvious that it was STEM, STEM, STEM. Actually, it was SEM as Technology, like PE, Art, Religious Education, ICT and Drama, were marginalised while History and Geography were ignored completely. We also got experience of the harsh realities of teaching in our 15 weeks of teaching, planning, marking and assessing over two placements. It was one of the most relentless and intense years that I have ever experienced. The second 10 week placement especially was punishing, not least as I had flu in the middle. After that placement, my wife pointed out that I may as well have been working away for 10 weeks for all that she saw me. Even when she did, I was working planning lessons or my mind wandering to the next day’s lessons.

However, after some failed applications for permanent jobs, I entered the world of supply teaching and do you know what? I love it. I go in, I teach – all the way from Reception to Year 6 -, I mark and I come home. It has inspired me once more, reignited my confidence in my ability as a teacher, returned my innate skills (like behaviour management) that had been knocked and reminded me again why I want to teach. Sure, I am not getting constant work, I have to be up 6.45am ready to see the Supply Teacher Signal shine in the sky and am not going to get my NQT this year but I am loving what I am doing.

I will expand on all this as and when but, in a phrase you won’t see often, enough about me.