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One for the Dads

Sometimes one hears recycled the kind of slogan that has become normative within political circles but which, on reflection, does not bear much critical reflection. One that has cropped up again over last few days is the suggestion that women have to make decisions about career and family from which men are immune. The first of which I am not seeking to deny, but the latter of which I can absolutely dispute. It is lazy cliché more than malicious slur, as if males throughout the land are but unreformed cavemen, each of them their own Wolf of Wall Street refusing to let minor matters like love and commitment inhibit their own sense of career progress and achievement.

Which is nonsense. Fathers love their kids too. And their wives. And they make sacrifices to be the kind of father and husband that they feel they ought to be. Fathers, too, are faced with difficult decisions about career and family, and will opt to postpone personal career ambitions for the sake of their loved ones. Sometimes this is leaving work; sometimes it is going part-time; sometimes it is foregoing a tilt at promotion; sometimes it is simply trying to keep a healthy balance between work and family life, such that one is de facto ruled out of the promotion field anyway.

And others try to juggle both. To ‘have it all.’ We work hard because we want to provide for our family and make them proud, and because we feel compelled by the same call to service, the same guilt, and the same determination to do well for the kids in our care. And then we come home and put in a shift there too. Before starting all over again and working late into the night ready for the grind to begin again in the morn.

We do this not because we want a medal, or special praise, or think it makes us any different from anybody else, but because it is both our duty and our calling – we love, too. Because we love, we care. Because we love, we make sacrifices. And it is in these sacrifices we feel we are really being a man.

If some make different choices then, male or female, that is their call.

But I know one thing: if ever the day arrives that I choose to leave teaching, it will be because the current workload and job demands turn me into the kind of individual that cannot also be the father and husband that my wife and children have every right to expect.

In other words, juggling a career and bringing up a family is not a challenge exclusive to women. It hits us men too. This is not to say that it does not affect women more acutely – one can quite believe it does – but there is no need to question the commitment of fathers in seeking to right that injustice. If women are discriminated against because they are women, then we should be exploring that with a view to eradicating it. But one needn’t make the case by talking down the sacrifices men make, too.

Because we are parents too. And that impacts upon us, too. And it means we often have difficult choices to make about our careers, too. But I reckon it might just be that little bit easier if we all stood together when declaring that any job which puts us in such a position in the first place, male or female, is the real problem.

Did we create the ‘cry-bullies’?

A toxic new phenomenon is hitting our universities and is causing concern amongst the commentariat. It is the increasingly muscular determination of student culture to shut down viewpoints with which it disagrees, which usually breaks along lines defined by an evolving identity politics. With the no-platforming of individuals long-associated (in the minds of a certain generation) with free-speech and the challenging of social injustice, the situation has taken on a new urgency, with more and more sharpening their nibs and drafting the same conclusion: the kids are out of control.

And since these students arrive at university following 13 years in the state education system, one is forced to consider the question: have we helped create this phenomenon?

In our schools, the importance of ‘safe spaces’ is something that has long been recognised. Perhaps not in the way that term has come to be applied in our universities today, but certainly in the recognition that the learning process requires a certain protection which allows us, and our students, to address challenging issues honestly and openly. In short, one is less likely to get kids to engage with a discussion if there is a fear of mockery and shame associated with it.freespeech-SamGraham-flickr-370x242

And in a way, this is unsurprising – we rightly promote tolerance, respect, and equality, all of which directs the outer limits of both how and what we communicate. Kids need to have a comfortable environment to grow, develop, to be – it is our duty to provide that.

But if the outcome is what we have now, then we must surely ask: are we getting it wrong?

Now, to change tack a little, a question: how often, during their whole thirteen years year at school, do students receive a consistent socially conservative message? How often in thirteen years do students have a sustained critical engagement with socially conservative viewpoints? Indeed how often, during their entire schooling, do students ever receive socially conservative viewpoints presented in sensitive and sympathetic tones?

Answer: very rarely. And when they do, it is too often framed in the language of rejection. The socially conservative viewpoint has been ‘othered’ – something to be acknowledged, for sure, but usually to deny. Such that the fundamental legitimacy of these beliefs are rejected, the property of ‘others’, people not like us, with our education and our civility and our morally superior ways. In other words, mirrored in our schools is something of what Jon Cruddas has diagnosed as Labour’s alienation of ‘the Settlers’, ‘who are socially conservative and are concerned with home, family and national security. They value safety, a sense of belonging, their own cultural identity and the continuity of their way of life. They want to avoid risk. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them.’

The problem is this creates a cultural vacuum between schools and home, since it means students are only ever likely to come across socially-conservative viewpoints at home, and most likely to hear them challenged at school. Whilst one might think this natural, indeed defensible, it also inculcates a subtle prejudice against social-conservatism as being anti-intellectual, the articulation of ignorance, something ill-associated with the scholarly. It not only forces a choice upon a student, but also reinforces a sense of intellectual superiority in having made it in a particular direction. To be liberal is to be more intelligent. Haidt’s dilemma plays out in our schools every day.

Which is ironic, since there is little doubt that the cry-bully phenomenon is a deeply anti-intellectual movement, with the collapse into the personal really representing the disregard of the academic. But this also interweaves with wider educational presumptions and forces us to ask another difficult question: does our child-centred approach elevate the self-referential as beyond critique? Does it mean our students are less likely to be challenged, to be told they are wrong, their views lacking validity, having been elevated well above their role and status (student interview panels, anyone?)?

One might be inclined to say yes, but there is an obvious caveat here: those students with socially conservative views, which (as a rule of thumb) quite often means the poorest and the religious, will very much be challenged when they are perceived to be wrong. In other words, safe spaces tend to exist in one direction, defined by a hierarchy which takes particular form according to wider social mores, and that overarching injunction to provide a safe space, which usually means for the expression of the transgressive against presumed historical norms and prejudices. This elevates the perceived transgressive to the progressive, for which we are morally obliged to provide platform and a ‘safe space’ for expression.

downloadOf course none of this explains the cry-bullies phenomenon, which is as much about methodology (no platforming and denying freedom of speech) as opinion (why students are embracing this way of thinking.)

But I wonder if, putting the two together, a potential perspective emerges: a new liberal ethic which demonises impediment to personal gratification and agency, combined with a moral demand for safe spaces which castigate the closing down or challenging of this new liberalism (again, this tends not the case for socially conservative viewpoints – except for the issue of abortion, perhaps, which has proven more resilient), which produces a sense of both entitlement and superiority that renders alternative narratives simply beyond the pale. Such that we send students off to university with all the mission of a moralist but none of the skills the apologist. Their views appear self-evident, having been incubated in an environment in which schools are more inclined to protect them from scrutiny. Or, in the words of one American student, in a recent iteration of this phenomenon: ‘it is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here.

 

 

And so we observe the new phenomenon, of ‘cry-bullies’ in university shutting down any and all expression they dislike. Feelings of community override intellectual dispute, precisely because for those who hold to it, the alternative lacks intellectual merit and is solely an expression of malice or prejudice designed to hurt feelings.

In other words, exactly the kind of thing over which schools would (rightly, I think) intervene.

But it seems to have become something else. And now we’re hearing about it. Not because it is terribly new – it has been an issue for years depending on your moral and/or political compass – but because it is turning upon itself and putting into the firing line precisely those who, historically, were at the forefront of challenging the prejudices of a previous generation with their own cries of ‘bigot!’.  In other words, the hunters have become the hunted. And yet now, perhaps, both must stand together, to combat a more pernicious anti-intellectualism that risks the dignity of something bigger than both: the point of having any education at all.

RE and Masculinity

Last night I came across these two excellent blog posts (here and here), exploring the tension between masculinity and our English curriculum and, secondly, our approach to dealing with the (social and physical) challenges of being a teenage boy. I commend them both fully – well written, thoughtful, and admirably honest.

And they rang true for me for various reasons. In the first instance, it reminded me of something I had read a while back by Cardinal Burke, talking about the ‘man-crisis’ in the Church. For Burke, the root of the problem stems from radical feminism, which in an American culture-war context might make sense, but which I’m going to steer well clear of here, not least because I’m not even really too sure what feminism means anymore, with each subsequent wave seemingly disagreeing with those previous in ever more acrimonious circumstance. For Burke, however, it is a key issue, and he has been at the forefront of a new cultural movement within the Church trying to appeal to the masculine, purposely using the language of (spiritual) warfare and militant service as his perceived antidote to the crisis he identifies. Whether one agrees with his diagnosis or his cure is moot – he is surely on to something in identifying the problem.

765438276292d90a29c0add0a4a5833eA little closer to home, it also reminded me of a chat with a parish priest, during a 40 hours’ devotion we held last year. For non-Catholics, the 40 hours is a period of continuous prayer and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, day and night. I remember the priest telling me how the night/early-morning ‘watching’ used to be known as the ‘Dads and lads’ slots, as the males of the community took it upon themselves to do the more anti-social/difficult hours, an act of service but also responsibility traditionally expected within the community. In this sense it was both a ritual and a rite of passage – it shaped and identified the role of the male within the community. One might bray at this nowadays, but it was considered an act of service rather than superiority, or the suggestion that ‘Mams and lasses’ were incapable. Alas, this practice had fallen away now and, along with it, so has the attendance of ‘Dads and lads’ more generally.

There is nothing much new in any of this – Benedict’s reform of the liturgy was itself often framed as a return to the kind of ritualism that appealed to the minds of young men (the context being a catastrophic drop in seminarians in the West) – and the idea that the Church has abandoned a consideration of the masculine is a long and well-tested thesis.

But it had me wondering about what we do in our schools too – and I should say at this point that I’m thinking about Catholic education, the only type I really know. Have we done the same? How often is faith deemed to be a bit, well, un-manly? How often are prayer groups and social justice projects female-dominated? How often do boys see it as an assault on their masculinity, rather than an affirmation of it? Increasing the general involvement of boys in our academic and spiritual programme is a constant source of discussion – is this unique to our particular locale, or is this a wider trend?

And one wonders if our RE curriculum can sometimes be the same. RE is often very good atRE-logo tackling difficult issues, but how good are we at proposing difficult solutions? Generally speaking, it is all too easy for RE to be transformed into a gospel of nice – think ‘gospel values’ and the Golden Rule and you’ll be getting close – but does this talk to all students equally? Do the general tropes and slogans and images, common to all RE, have equal appeal across the board? Does the drilled repetition to ‘Love thy neighbour’ get through the gender gap? And why is it so tempting to edit out the less fashionable things Christ talked of – his vision of hell, his call for sacrifice, his bringing of the sword (and the spiritual warfare, but also Judgement, it pointed toward)?

Indeed, therein lies a good example: God is Love, I’m certain all students will know that, but He is also Judge – do we hold both equally? And if we don’t, what is the impact of that?

Or to bring this down into my own practice, how often have we explored the gospel through the lens of heroic sacrifice? How often have we really thought of why Christ might have flipped those tables, or Peter slice that ear? How often do we speak of heroism of martyrdom, the joy of sacrifice, or the sheer bloody-minded revolution it really is to proclaim a gospel of Love in a world that despises it? Christ said we should expect to be hated for His sake, and that takes some guts. Do we make faith something altogether much easier than that? A kind of safe-space spirituality where nothing should be allowed to be difficult? And how often have we discussed whether that is justified? Indeed, how often have we challenged males with just such an injunction, a calling to sacrifice – an important virtue whether one holds faith or not – as a choice that is (dare one say it), ‘manly’?

Of course, I fully understand why some might think this exclusionary – there can certainly be no suggestion that women do not also fully take upon themselves heroic sacrifice, dutifully and joyfully. But is our language unwittingly exclusionary is another sense, too, that being in its appeal to masculine self-image? One must tread carefully here; there are potential landmines all over the place (policies aimed at boys, despite their huge comparative underachievement in school, often seem less popular than one might hope for). But at the very least, this: is this issue something of which we even take account?

And with all these questions, I have no easy answers – I’m not decided one way or the other. But it’s got to be a perspective that warrants inspection. Any thoughts?

Marking Policy Review – Tilted Perspectives

We’ve already had a workload review from the DfE. It didn’t achieve much. Still, at the end of last year the DfE announced another review, with three panels created to assess the impact of workload in our schools – Marking, Data and Planning. One can hardly doubt that this is in response to the recruitment and (more significantly) retention crisis facing our schools, however much Nick Gibb might deny that such an issue exists. Still, I thought I would blog a few thoughts, specifically about its Marking Policy Review panel, as I believe this to be the key driver of so many workload issues facing teachers today. Below are three key areas where, and why, I think it will be disappointingly limited in perspective.

 

School contributors

Nine representatives from schools have been invited to contribute to the panel. These are:

 

St. George’s RC Primary School – inspected 2007, interim letter 2011 – Grade 1

Churchend Primary – inspection 2008 (EY 2015), academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Wensley Fold CofE Primary Academy – inspected 2009, academy conversion 2013 – Grade 1

Shaw Primary Academy – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2013 – Grade 2

Plantsbrook School – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Rise Park – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2014 – Grade 2

Barr Beacon School – inspection 2014, academy conversion 2012,  – Grade 1

The Wroxham School – inspection 2014, academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Portsmouth High School – no OFSTED inspection

 

So what does this tell us? That the majority of schools contributing to a review of marking policy and workload have had no recent contact with OFSTED, and the majority have been graded as outstanding (with a couple ‘good’) meaning they have had no negative recent contact with OFSTED either. Of the nine schools represented, seven have not had an OFSTED inspection in four years or more – in that same time other schools could have had two or three.

This really matters. As I have written previously.

It should be noted that those schools graded ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ have more latitude in being magnanimous with their marking policies. I wish they would keep this in mind when proclaiming to the rest of the world how else it could be done. It is no surprise that schools in the lower grade categories implement such onerous policies upon their staff (further reinforcing that cycle which really they need to break.) After all, at the very least they need to show that Something Is Being Done.  Yet those at the top end, with consistently strong results and the kind of intake that almost locks in the top category grades (hot air about coasting schools notwithstanding) can experiment with different strategies and a more imaginative marking approach that will be tolerated by inspection teams so long as positive results keep landing on the doormat each August.

Those at the bottom simply do not have that freedom. And in fairness it might be considered reckless to do so: should they try, then they immediately hand OFSTED a great big stick to hit them with should their results fail to do anything other than transform overnight.

In other words, a huge blind spot appears – the impact OFSTED inspections can have on workload and marking policies, particularly in those schools given a poor grading (we’ll leave for now the correlative link between socio-economic indicators and OFSTED gradings). Meaning that those schools whose workload issues derive from OFSTED intervention and feedback, and the necessity that this should be the case, are without a direct voice.

This seems such an obvious statement, and such an evident issue, that one would naturally be inclined to question why such perspectives should not be included. To suggest, as some might, that outstanding schools are designated as such precisely because of the impact of their marking and feedback policies, such that their wisdom and best-practice should be allowed to trickle down to those who need to improve, is such a flimsy and disingenuous claim that I’m doubtful anybody would ever seriously make it. As such, it would not be a huge leap of the imagination to wonder if the composition of the panel might just be ordered toward downplaying the detrimental impact OFSTED can have on schools, and more particularly the workload and well-being of the staff in those schools upon whom it delivers its judgement.

 

Perspectives 

I would never suggest that any one full-time classroom teacher has a harder time with marking than any other. I simply couldn’t know and wouldn’t presume to ask – I assume that every subject has its unique challenges and every teacher works hard to meet them. I would also be unwilling to say that marking in secondary is any tougher than it is in primary, or vice-versa – I take it is as axiomatic that the demands of each are excessive, and trying to turn this into a comparative issue for bragging rights is not particularly helpful.

However, it is a truism that the nature of a marking policy can impact different departments in different ways. For example, to take a secondary marking policy, then (all things being equal) a policy with a specific focus on literacy intervention is going to have a different impact on PE than it will, say, History (which is not to downplay the extensive commitments PE colleagues have to after-school activities, which History doesn’t). This is just a statement of the obvious.

And this is important. A typical humanities teacher in a secondary school could have 17+ classes with 30+ children. That is 500 children per week – not to mention homework and assessment. And, being a literacy-based subject, there will tend to be copious amounts of writing. This means its challenges are unique – even different from other literacy based subjects, the obvious example being English, with fewer classes (6? 7?) and smaller sets, and more opportunity (due to much more regular contact) to be able to implement the feedback and marking strategies directed within a marking policy.

Again, this is not to downplay different challenges or to indulge in comparative tales of woe – marking the sheer amount of writing students must get through in English is a challenge I would not relish – but it is important to ensure alternative perspectives are given airing. Yet on this panel, of the three secondary schools represented (one an independent all-through school), there is just one contributor who seems to have a full-time teaching/marking timetable, a teacher of MFL, the other two contributors being a Deputy Head and a Head of English at an independent school (another of the independent contributors, David Didau, was also a former Head of English.) Indeed, of the nine represented schools, the composition is: one Executive Headteacher, two Headteachers, one Deputy Headteacher, one Assistant Headteacher, one Head of English (independent school), and three class teachers, two with TLR responsibility, both of whom are primary based.

In other words, of a panel of 14, there is just one voice representing the challenges of a full-time secondary teacher. Considering the recruitment but, perhaps more significantly, retention challenges facing secondary, I’m not convinced this is sufficient. Indeed, so far as listening exercises, it feels a bit tin-eared.

 

Geography

Finally, here’s the contributing schools mapped (I have put the two secondary schools in yellow, with the third being an all-through school):

marking

Notice anything? We northerners, so frequently told we need to get up to speed, to get with the game, nonetheless rarely seem to find ourselves with a voice at the table and are hugely under-represented when we do (this applies to ‘the regions’ more generally). For example, taking all the three DfE workload panels as a whole, London has more representatives than the whole of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, Northumbria, and East Englia put together.* As Laura McInerney put it recently, the North is sick of being gawped at – get us involved.

On a related note, I have to confess to being a bit angry when I first saw that Sir Michael Wilshaw had decided to aim his Piety Pistols at the North in a recent speech. Not because our kids don’t deserve better – but because there is already an institutional inequality that neither he, nor OFSTED, nor politicians ever seem willing to grasp when taking potshots at those of us exhausting ourselves at the coalface. After reading the speech a couple of times, I cooled a bit – Wilshaw does offer up a recognition of the need for political will, but mostly just as another angle from which to have a dig at northern education, and his superficial recognition of some of the challenges northern education faces (such as recruitment, training and leadership) yet contain no consideration whatsoever of the pernicious and corrosive influence OFSTED itself has on these key challenges (I have written of some of them here). After all, when Sir Michael was working wonders in Hackney he was getting £10,335 per student; a Headteacher in Stockton-on-Tees, of Benefits Street fame, can expect to receive around £4,486 and then be told their results have to be the same. Wilshaw is right to say poverty is not excuse – however, lack of funding clearly is.

 

Conclusion

The make-up of contributing schools to this policy review is largely southern, outstanding/good, and without recent OFSTED experience – with an obvious tilt toward primary.

I am not questioning the integrity or value of any contributors – I’m sure they all have vital insights to share – but this feels like a missed opportunity to really get broad and diverse testimony about the issues facing many in our school system today. Some topics, if not off-limits, are certainly beyond the recent collective experience of the schools represented. As such, one can’t but help feel there will be a tilted perspective, away from the realities of teachers working in our toughest schools, where recruitment and retention is most difficult, and where workload plays a huge part in that. And indeed, where OFSTED plays a huge part in that. As such, I’m not sure there any grounds to be optimistic that this workload review will be any more effective than the previous one.

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*the wider composition of all three panels joined together can be seen here (for the sake of ease I have not listed all the schools of the Ark Schools or the Rowan Learning Trust, both of whom appear on the Data Management Review Group – the Ark network consists of 34 schools based in London, Portsmouth, Hastings and Birmingham, whilst the Rowan Learning Trust has 3 schools, two in Wigan and one in Liverpool. Link: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?hl=en_US&app=mp&mid=zOHsNRts1Djg.kmuSw4yDOKuo