I wonder.

In the independent sector, teachers must usually give a term’s notice of their intention to leave. This means that we are now in the middle – and perhaps at the height – of the Easter Term ‘transfer window.’ Staff who are retiring at the end of the year have said so; a few more have successfully applied for jobs at other schools which were advertised last month when the transfer window opened. There is some recruitment in the second half of the Christmas Term, but most of the activity happens this term, and so just this week candidates have been interviewed for three jobs at my current school.

It so happens that I have also just been subjected to a ‘work check.’

Now I understand that the Work Check is now inevitable. It hasn’t always been: it used to be that a lesson observer would take a look at pupils’ books while in that lesson, and that would be all, and so having known better I do now resent having to gather in books, hoik them up to a senior manager’s office, and then collect them once they’ve been appropriately scrutinised.

But I know that my senior colleagues have been on ISQUAM (Independent Schools Qualification for Academic Management, since you asked) courses, and I know that they have been earnestly lectured by University of Buckingham academics and superannuated headmasters. “You know,” they say in a faintly patronising manner, “there are several things which are actually done better in the state sector than they are by Head Masters Conference schools, and which we can learn from, and one of those is scrutiny. Your first duty is to the pupils and their parents, and you must therefore ensure that teaching in your subjects, or in your schools, is as good as it can be.” And yes, I understand that they need to show that they’ve been doing their jobs, and the easiest way of doing this is to have that paper trail to hand, to show their line managers: here, look, I’ve scrutinised all these subordinates’ pupils’ books.

Anyway. The following therefore occurred to me.

Never mind all the standard, obvious and entirely reasonable criticisms of using pupil results to assess the standard of teaching they’ve received. Let’s stipulate that good teaching equals good pupil results in public examinations.

And let’s stipulate that holding heads of department and teachers accountable for pupil results is important.

I know. We know it’s cobblers. But every Head Master for whom I’ve worked believes this stuff – or, at least, addresses his staff as though he believes it.

Well then. One would presumably expect that teachers who know they’re in their last year at a school would get worse results than those who aren’t in the same position. Retiring teachers, and those who know they’re moving on, will be unaccountable for the results in public examinations achieved by the pupils they taught. By the time the results are published, they’re no longer at the school. And they know that this will be the case, often as early as the January before the summer exams, and almost always by the March of that year.

Okay. You get the point. So is this a phenomenon?

I have, in fourteen years, had two sets of disappointing August results. One was at the end of my first year at a school, the other at the end of my second; on neither occasion did I leave the school that year. Both came at the end of my first year teaching an A Level course: I was about to suggest that this might be the best explanation, but then I worked out that I’ve taught seventeen Sixth Form courses for the first time, so to have only encountered bad results after two suggests that there’s not much correlation. It’s probably nothing more sinister than that over fourteen years, each of which involve teaching multiple A Level sets, to not have two years in which the results were, overall, lower than expected is statistically unlikely.

It’s not just me. No leaving teacher, in any department I’ve taught in, has taught an exam class which performed noticeably worse than expected. The sample size here is rather small though: just four people. But when results in public examinations have been sufficiently disappointing that I have found out about it (usually because the relevant head of department has grumbled to me that he’s being given a hard time about them – I’m regarded, you may not be surprised to learn, as someone who’ll give a sympathetic ear to kvetching about unreasonable senior managers) ‘the class was taught by a teacher who was leaving’ has never been advanced as a reason.

So here’s a question. Does this actually happen? In my experience it isn’t, and if it isn’t, then that has significant implications, I think, for the whole accountability gime.

But I’m well aware of how misleading one individual’s experience can be.

So.

Is anyone counting?

Healthy School Cultures

This was retweeted into my timeline this morning.

It wound me up.

Now I don’t normally like accusations of ‘virtue-signalling.’ Especially online, it seems to bear the characteristics of one of those irregular verbs as defined by Yes, Minister: I am boosting the profile of a worthy cause; you are flooding my timeline with politics; he is boasting about how morally superior he is.

Of course when I ‘heart’ something I’m doing it because I want the author to know that his endeavours have not been in vain; that I, at least, appreciate what he’s saying. Of course when you retweet someone it’s because you want your followers to know that you are on Team Brexit, or Team Gary Lineker, or whoever. And of course when he retweets someone it’s intended to demonstrate that while he’s actually just sitting at home with his double mocha choca skinny latté macchiato, he cares about the plight of refugees. Much more than you. Sigh.

(This, by the way, is why I so enjoy teaching A Level Politics. I usually teach the same set for two years. We know each other. By and large we like each other. Yes, there are occasionally tensions, but the pupils don’t generally think of each other as morally reprehensible scoundrels, and even those who wouldn’t be inclined to do so can be persuaded to see the other point of view by being told that they have to for the purposes of public examinations. “What would your political opponent say, and why would he say it?” is a question I ask all the time in class. To begin with some resent it; after a while they treat it as a hoop to jump through like any other; by the end of two years, I’d like to think, it has become a habit of mind. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway. I’m sure I fail at it much of the time.)

Anyway. This little image irked me. I’m sure its creators think they’re just doing their bit to further the sort of values which they believe schools should have. But it rubs me up the wrong way. Those of us who don’t agree are not just on the wrong side of a big underlined ‘don’t’ – we’re also perpetuating an unhealthy school culture. They care about the kids. We don’t. They might not be signalling their virtue, but I read it and consider my lack of virtue disparaged, and I am consequently irked.

Why don’t I agree?

Because actually some of the time these points are entirely justifiable positions to take.

“We’ve always done it this way.” Yeah, well, why might that be? (I’m not saying that perfection has been attained, and that current working practice is always and everywhere correct. I am saying that something being a long-established practice is, all other things being equal, something to respect. Like Chesterton’s fence.)

“I can’t help bad parenting.” And no, I can’t. I’ll do what I can to improve bad behaviour in school, but if it goes unpunished at home, where parents have far greater power to deal with it than I do, then I am at a disadvantage. If saying this is unacceptable, the implication seems to be that I am responsible for filling the gap between bad parenting and good parenting.

“He’s too far behind to catch up.” He has wasted four terms in which he’s preferred disrupting lessons or truanting to doing his work. If saying this is unacceptable, the implication seems to be that I am responsible for filling in all those gaps.

For both “I can’t help bad parenting” and “he’s too far behind to catch up” the suggestion is that if only I cared more I’d be willing to put in the extra hours required to set it straight. I don’t think I need to elaborate further, other than to observe that teachers are not blessed with unlimited reserves of time.

“My kids can’t do that.” On a Thursday afternoon during the Christmas term I take the ‘bottom set’ for rugby football. The session might be on, say, line-outs. The boys in the A and B teams might well be able to do them very well. But my kids, I’m afraid, can’t do that. They’re in the lowest group because they don’t have the skills or the upper-body strength to lift other boys in the line-out. It would be dangerous to permit them to do so. One day, if they carry on with the sport, they will be. But for now, my kids can’t do that, and for them to one day be able to set up a successful line-out we’ll have to work on something else first.

“Anna says you didn’t set the homework.”

“Brian says you didn’t tell him he had to be extra-specially careful with laboratory equipment.”

“Cathy says you didn’t warn her that if she kept talking she would be liable to be given a detention.”

“Dominic says you didn’t remind him that he had to wear school uniform for the trip.”

C’mon, really? I covered it. They didn’t listen. Sometimes they don’t. it’s essential that they do. And if there are consequences for not doing so, they’ll learn. If there aren’t, they won’t.

Replacing Reports

In my last post, I rather controversially suggested that when I’m Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Education (and yes, I can do both, Gladstone was his own Chancellor of the Exchequer and Churchill his own Secretary of State for Defence) I might scrap reports.

But I’m not a wholly unreasonable man. I’d replace them with something.

(I might even keep the end-of-year report, but make it a brief letter from the form tutor, covering the year’s events. I’m willing to negotiate on this one.)

I’d give parents access to an electronic mark book.

Yes, for every teacher in every subject.

Yes, both for short-answer factual tests and for essays.

I think the potential advantages of this would be obvious. Parents would find out immediately how their offspring were doing at school. Some weeks some parents would receive a dozen notifications abouts the performance of their children. Even parents of sixth-formers would receive at least two or three such results every week. They could, like Madeline and her classmates, smile at the good and frown at the bad; and if sometimes they were very sad, well, it would at least be an informed sadness. There would be none of the silliness about ‘well why didn’t you tell us this earlier.’

I would even, prompted by the celebrated Quirky Teacher, go further and say that along with the ‘raw’ test results I would include whereabouts in the class that individual piece of work ranked; and in the interest of full disclosure I would also include the pupil’s overall position in the class on the basis of every piece of work done in that academic year. This could easily be done: even I can create an Excel spreadsheet which will give me all that information.

Because you know what? Pretending that we’re too ‘professional’ to rank pupils is just daft. Ultimately they are in academic competition with each other, like it or not. I’m not quite suggesting that the order of merit be published in full, though I wouldn’t share the horror that this would be greeted with in some quarters: if even Cambridge University is stopping this practice, then perhaps this would be a step too far.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Our pupils know, even if we pretend not to, what the intellectual pecking order in the class is. (Or at least they think they do. They don’t always get it right. But that’s for another blog.) And parents want to know this – all the more so now that the information they are allowed to receive is so anodyne.

Because ultimately I care much more about going about my day unmolested by monstrous regiments of angry parents than about some nugatory concept of ‘professionalism,’ I did of course consider the obvious downside to this approach. A certain type of parent would see each unsatisfactory result as an opportunity to contact the teacher concerned and ask in that passive-aggressive way so beloved of that type of parent just what her feckless wastrel of a son could do to improve.

Well … yes, it would. I’d counter that very reasonable concern thus.

Such parents are going to make a nuisance of themselves anyway. Some might feel themselves empowered to make more of a fuss, though I expect that after an initial flurry of complaints masquerading as inquiries many parents would decide that doing so yielded sharply diminishing returns and stop. Perhaps more importantly it would be easier to answer those parents’ questions on a test-by-test basis.

Why, Mr Grumpy, did my son do so badly on that test? Because he didn’t prepare for it by reading assiduously enough. How does he fix it? He needs to read more assiduously. Let’s see if he does so next week.

Why, Mr Grumpy, did my daughter do so badly on that essay? Because she rushed it all at the last minute. Ask her. She’ll confirm. I know, ‘cos I saw her doing it in her form room a couple of hours before it was due in. That’s why she was second bottom of the class.

Or, if you prefer, because she told a story rather than answering the question. Narrative rather than evaluation. Very common problem, she’ll get there. You see she’s in the middle of the class, actually just above the median? Nothing to worry about.

This also has the potential to tidily deal with two difficult-to-answer questions. What am I doing about your son’s underperformance? Well, we’re talking about it now. He can redo the work or retake the test, or he can just make sure he does better next time. Why didn’t you tell us about this earlier? We did: you’ve had access to all your daughter’s marks, and where that has put her in the class, since September.

I can’t quite decide whether I’d like to be able to annotate a mark with a little note – maybe just by colouring it in red, for instance – to indicate that I suspect that the pupil concerned did significantly less than his best on that particular task. I might get it wrong. But then perhaps that wouldn’t be the end of the world.

I might occasionally have to say no, Mr Molesworth, I didn’t know that your son was in a play rehearsal that evening; I agree, that does put a different complexion on that particular score; sorry. Doing so work irritate me, yes. But far more often I’ll be saying well, Mr Molesworth, he might have worked hard for that test, but he’s had twelve red dots so far this term, and it’s only October, so I’m afraid I don’t believe him: he needs to try harder across the board.

It might work.

Reports

I’m due to have produced some in just under a fortnight’s time, and then some more a week after that; every term I think ‘I must use half-term to get started,’ and every term I leave them until the last minute. In fact I’d almost forgotten about this dreary duty until I was reminded by reading this article, lamenting the decline of the traditional school report. It’s not the first I’ve read: indeed, this is something on which the Telegraph and the Guardian can agree. The modern school report: not as good as it used to be.

Instead, therefore, of making a start on actually writing reports, I’m going to write about writing about reports.

I have every sympathy with the thrust of these articles, which is that the modern report is an impersonal and therefore uninformative as well as disappointing for the recipients. There is considerable nostalgia for the good old days, when teachers reported with honesty and wit, and produced insightful comments which could be stored and treasured. Some blame comment banks. I blame the parents.

Do a google search for ‘school reports Mumsnet’ and you’ll see the problem. Plenty of commentators on that particular website have expressed sentiments similar to those in the articles linked above. But a significant minority express their dissatisfaction at their childrens’ teachers making disparaging comments, especially at the end of the academic year when it’s too late.

I’d like to think that the demise of the traditional report can be laid squarely at the door of irresponsible reformers who destroyed a great institution for no good reason. But I fear that this, while comforting, is probably a misrepresentation. John Rae’s Letters from School, published in 1987, has a chapter devoted to the school report, and defending the type of report which was then written by the masters of Westminster School. These were, it seems, the reports which are lamented by we nostalgics for the past, and yet even then the paying customers of that most august institution did not universally approve.

Yes, it’s a source of surprise and some disquiet to me that some pupils, and more parents, don’t actually want ‘mavericks’ in the classroom. Personally I loved them as a boy, and they’re my favourite colleagues. But let’s be realistic. We all agree that some of those who like to portray themselves as mavericks are actually irresponsible and relatively ineffective teachers, whose veneer of charisma may garner loyal disciples, but whose actual record at teaching their subjects to all their pupils is unimpressive. We just disagree about how many such teachers there are, and who they are. Well, they write reports too, and while some may swoon over their comments’ brilliance, others – perhaps a significant proportion of those for whom the reports are written – find themselves rolling their eyes as Dr Flash takes the opportunity of a report on a pupil to show off his stylistic flourishes and erudition instead.

We don’t use comment banks at my school. We have an electronic reporting system which refuses to allow reports of over a hundred words, and we’re forbidden either to write about what the class as a whole is doing, or to copy and paste. (As a Third Form tutor, which is a relatively low-stakes year group, I see both of these rules violated frequently.) Personally I try to write bespoke reports, and one of the advantages to having taught in the same school for a decade is that I know many of my pupils’ parents rather well: there are, for instance, several fathers who I know will appreciate a cricketing analogy for their sons’ performance in history lessons, just as there are others who I know would consider such things unforgivably frivolous.

But this brings me on to one more thing. You know why so many reports are copied and pasted? Why so many reports are so similar every year? Because ultimately most pupils are similar.

This isn’t an insult. I’m not suggesting that teenagers don’t have their own distinct characters (though sometimes they appear to be trying their best not to), their own unique combination of qualities and vices, their own ways of making me smile or sigh.

But that’s not what a subject report says. It covers what the pupil can do well, where there is room for improvement, and what can be done to address it. And for this, I’m afraid, the same points are often entirely applicable to a large proportion of the class. Aware that copying and pasting is generally condemned, we try to say the same thing twenty different ways, and for me that is what makes report-writing tedious.

Look, I love a good report. I have a daughter in Reception and a son at nursery, and the nursery produces a little report when the children move up a room (there are four, roughly one for each year of age from 1-4); it still makes me smile to recall that hers read that she ‘sometimes needs reminding to put on her listening ears,’ and that his recorded that ‘he will go to an adult he trusts if he is unsure.’ It’s great to read something which shows that the teacher (or, in this case, carer) understands the child. And I try to drop in something along these lines into a report or a parents’ evening discussion: parents will pay closer attention if they think the teacher knows and likes their child.

But I’m left wondering what any of this achieves. Are we really writing reports to reassure parents that we know and like, or can plausibly pretend to like, their children? I’m inclined to think that this probably ought not to be what reports are for.

And so I do wonder whether the formal set-piece report actually achieves much. I’m inclined to think that it probably doesn’t. So would I scrap it?

I think I probably would.

The Technological Revolution

Revolutions often involve unlikely alliances, and they don’t usually last. What they have in common is their desire to overthrow the status quo, and once the status quo has been dismantled there’s nothing to keep the alliance together.

This sometimes happens as Emmanuel Goldstein outlines in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, with the Middle enlisting the Low to overthrow the High. That’s not a terrible way to look at the French Revolution, after all. On the other hand the English Revolution was rather different: Parliament, the Army and the Scots combined to fight Charles I. In both cases, though, a reckoning, with the revolutionaries turning on each other, followed the fall of the monarch.

And it might happen with the educational revolutionaries too.

Two very different groups are currently united around the proposition that technology can and will transform education.

There are those for whom technology will enable child-centred, inquiry-based, individually-differentiated twenty-first century learning, with maximal engagement and endless opportunities for creativity.

And there are those for whom technology will do away with teachers, at least in our current form.

(I suppose there is a third group, comprising those who secretly suspect it’s all hokum, but are aware that their promotions depend on pretending that this isn’t what they believe.)

This isn’t a new idea: Isaac Asimov’s famous The Fun They Had was written a lifetime ago. Personally I think it’d be catastrophic, but (to return to Orwell) education is like philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, not like designing a gun or an aeroplane: it can be convenient for two plus two to equal five, and if it suits enough people then two plus two can be made to equal five. Let’s not forget the barrage of dreck, painstakingly debunked by the likes of Tom Bennett and Daisy Christodoulou, which has been extolled as ‘best practice’ for so long.

https://halogenicdotme.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/comicbookmooc.jpg?w=656

The Brave New World envisaged by the Godsey article has an obvious appeal for some. It would enable education to be cheaply and uniformly supplied. And it would enable some tech companies to make a great deal of money. Now I don’t object to tech companies making money. I don’t, after all, object to Faber & Faber making a profit by selling Dan Jones’ The Hollow Crown, which I issue to my Upper Sixth Wars of the Roses pupils. Similarly, I don’t object to their advertising their products and services, any more than I object to the purveyors of exercise books advertising theirs. I do, though, object to school leaders being insufficiently robust in considering whether the shiny new toys offer value for money. This piece nails it: having an interactive whiteboard in my classroom is terrific, but only because it has a screen which you can’t write on, and which therefore enables me to show pictures without irritating ink marks behind it. I’m not convinced that this justifies the cost of having one in every classroom.

I’d like to think that most of the tech evangelicals dislike that vision of the future. These tend, after all, to be educational progressives who would still be denouncing the ‘factory model’ had it not become such a cliché. The idea that there is (say) one lecture on the origins and causes of the English Revolution which can be used in every classroom – sorry, every learning salon – in the country is surely anathema to them and to their principles.

And yet these tech evangelists are, I fear, running a big risk. The more their advocacy for ever more use of technology in schools succeeds, the more they contribute to an intellectual environment in which teaching and the use of technology come to be seen as indivisible.

(Not so long ago, when my school was embarking on some technological innovation, a senior manager told the assembled teaching staff that “we are all ‘onside’ with this” and that in the twenty-first century no one could consider himself to be a competent teacher if he were not also a competent user of technology. In the staffroom afterwards we found ourselves in the queue for coffee and I asked him if, were Peter Abelard to apply for a teaching job, he would want his curriculum vitae thrown straight in the bin. Now that gave him several opportunities to reply with light banter – in his place I would have shaken my head and said something along the lines of ‘you, Mr Grumpy, are not Peter Abelard,’ but that’s not what he said: he replied that the great man would indeed have been an inadequate candidate for precisely that reason. I told him that this was educational barbarism, and you can imagine how well that went down.)

I don’t expect ardent supporters of iPads to change their minds because what they believe in also helps people who will destroy their vision. But we’ve seen this before. Some educational Pride or Robespierre will have them purged or guillotined, and then they’ll wish they’d paid attention to me.

Peer Marking

This appears to be, if not a big deal, at least a medium-sized deal.

I have only ever used peer marking in two contexts.

One is for short-answer tests, which take a maximum of a quarter of an hour at the beginning of a lesson to sit, to swap papers, to tick or cross and annotate, and to tell me the results. The immediate correction of misunderstandings and misconceptions, and the (admittedly occasionally irritating) discussions about what does and what does not deserve to be awarded a mark, or a half-mark, which can be illuminating both for me and for the pupils, seems to me to be worth their missing out on me being the one to mark their work.

(I am enough of a monster that yes, I read out names and ask for that individual to announce his mark. No, this isn’t a deliberate attempt to humiliate the worst performers, nor am I under the impression that the average teenage boy will decide to spend half an hour learning about the Secretariat of the League of Nations instead of playing Call of Duty. I am well aware that the glory of proudly announcing ‘ten out of ten sir’ to me and to the class will struggle to compete with the attractions of whatever the name of the most recent iteration of the computer game ‘FIFA’ is. I just do it because it’s the most efficient way to get the marks into my mark book.)

The other is to go over one pupil’s work with the whole class. I do not have a visualiser, though it sounds like the sort of tech which I might quite like. Instead, therefore, I will read out the pupil’s work, and have a designated marker literally ticking boxes on the whiteboard: does the paragraph start by making a point, is there clear explanation, does he supply evidence, that sort of thing. Or its equivalent for a document question. (It’s like a classroom version of the dreaded-but-essential examiners’ meetings which are held just after the exams are sat, and just before they’re marked.)

(Even quite cool teenage boys seem to rather like writing on the whiteboard, while the rest of the class will listen more attentively if they can collectively perform a sharp intake of breath at the designated marker’s bad marking.)

That’s it. If we’ve done that, I’ll usually just scribble ‘as discussed in the lesson’ and stick a number on the work, and that’ll be it: I’ve never been challenged about this, but were I to be I think I could legitimately say that the pupil concerned has had several minutes of class time devoted to his own burnt offering, and can therefore hardly complain that his output has been under-scrutinised.

Why don’t I do more? Well, much as it would save me time, I expect it’d cause me trouble in the long run. I imagine a parent saying that he isn’t paying the exorbitant fees we charge for his son to have his work marked by someone whose academic qualifications might just possibly extend to a European Computer Driving Licence, and he doubts, by the way, that the other boy’s father approves of his son being used as an unpaid examiner either.

Now I will yield to no one in my contempt for parents, but I do think that in this case our fictitious protagonist might have a point. The reason pupils need teaching is that they don’t know what they need to know. They are, therefore, in no position to assess each others’ work without very careful guidance and oversight: they are apprentices, not journeymen, never mind master craftsmen.

An important footnote. It’s easy for me to say this, I know. I teach a total of eighty-nine pupils in six sets (two Upper Sixth, two Lower Sixth, a GCSE set and a Third Form). No, I’m not part-time: I have two Games afternoons, and consequently take sports teams on a Saturday, and that makes up a full timetable. But it is therefore relatively easy for me to stay on top of my marking. The largest number of pupils I’ve ever taught in one year (which, for me, is a decent measure of how hard I have to work) is 147, and I felt very sorry for myself indeed that year: proof of which is that I remember the number. I’m well aware that even this would count as a particularly low number to those who haven’t spent their careers in the independent sector.

Responsibility

“I do not care about your feelings. I am utterly indifferent to your feelings. Some of my colleagues are paid to care about your feelings, and some care about your feelings even without being paid for it. For the record, I am not one of those teachers.”

At that point I deposit the offending essay on the pupil’s desk.

“So do not tell me about your feelings. Is that clear?”

Now I think it’s pretty clear that this is an instruction about academic writing, not necessarily a declaration of my professional position. It usually, though, does occasion a little surprise in the classroom. “Don’t you care about us?” I’m asked, and I gleefully reply that no, I don’t: I’m there to teach them history, not to cuddle them when their boyfriends dump them.

(At this point someone always tries to correct me, and tell me that I mean ‘girlfriends,’ which gives me the opportunity to write the word ‘heteronormativity’ on the whiteboard, define it for them, and tell them that their English teachers will be delighted if they manage to use it.)

No one, neither pupil nor parent, has ever complained.

Anyway. I’m not one of those teachers to whom pupils often come with their problems. And this isn’t something that upsets me. If I say that performative caring isn’t my thing, it sounds dismissive, and it isn’t intended to be: pupils do need people who genuinely care about them. Some pupils do need a cup of tea and a biscuit, a comfy settee and a heart-to-heart, and of those some need that to be with someone at their school. For other pupils, caring about them means encouraging them to meet the highest standards of which they are capable, and of those some need that encouragement to be supported by robust consequences for failure.

I will not be so presumptuous as to make a sweeping judgment about every teenager in the world. I will just say that, in my very limited experience, the majority of teenagers belong in that latter section of that latter category.

Nonetheless, occasionally pupils do forego the opportunity to see one of my more approachable colleagues, and come and see me instead. And this happened the other day. A bright, civilised and academic young man in the Fifth Form, since you ask.

“Sir,” he said, “why do girls only like rubbish boys?”

Well.

It’s funny the number of things you can think about at once. What should I tell him? What were my responsibilities to him? to the girls he would meet? to society at large?

So we sat down and had a cup of tea and a biscuit. We talked about the various interpretations as to why this was, and how masculinity and femininity were constructed, and the feminist critique of his premise. And I think he went away intellectually reassured, and a little more educated, if not any nearer to securing the affections of the girl to whom he’d taken a shine.

But I don’t know the answer to my question. I have firm views on quite a lot of things. But what my responsibilities in this (fortunately rare) situation are? No clue.

Peak Special Needs

Most of us, I expect, approve of reasonable accommodations being made to enable pupils with disabilities to access the public examination system. If, for instance, there are people who think that visually-impaired pupils should not be given documents in bigger and bolder print than their classmates, I haven’t come across them.

Similarly, I think most people tend to have a point at which they will raise their eyebrows and wonder if such-and-such a diagnosis really deserves to bring with it the opportunity of 25% extra time.

Are we, those of us who doubt that Oppositional Defiance Disorder really deserves to ‘count’ as a Special Educational Need, monsters? I’m sure there are some who think we are, and who have persuaded themselves that they are part of a very select few who constitute the only people who truly understand, the only people who really care. These are the people for whom the disparity between the rates at which privately-educated children, and their counterparts in the maintained sector, are diagnosed with conditions permitting that particular perk, is evidence not of anyone playing the system but of just how widespread Specific Learning Difficulties are. If only state schools had the resources to investigate cases with the rigour of independent schools (or rather, the private educational psychologists who are paid by the parents of pupils at independent schools) we’d probably find that a quarter of the population deserves extra time in their exams.

I am, it won’t surprise you to learn, on Team It’s Mostly Bullshit.

But set that aside for now.

I think, regardless of my own views, we’ve probably reached peak special needs.

In my school, there aren’t just pupils with extra time. There are pupils with extra time and the right to take rest breaks. There are pupils with extra time, rest breaks, and the right to type on a computer instead of handwriting. There are pupils with extra time, rest breaks, computers, and the right to sit in their own personal exam room, either because they have been deemed unable to handle the noise and presence of others sharing the exam hall with them, or because they have been deemed to ‘need’ the opportunity to talk aloud while considering questions. And there are pupils for whom neither writing nor typing will do, and who must be permitted amanuensis instead.

(Mine, by the way, is not an independent school which specialises in teaching pupils with special educational needs. Nor is it widely regarded as an institution which mollycoddles its pupils.)

I have noticed a discernible change in the attitude of teaching staff to the special needs industry. There has always been the dismissive ‘they won’t get extra time in the real world’ brigade, which has always had more members than are willing to say so in public. But I’m noticing more and more that the type of teachers who would have been appalled, or at least disquieted, by this attitude, are no longer shaking their heads at the dinosaurs. The young idealists, the older softies, the moderate professionals … they’re all much, much more willing now than they used to be to denounce the whole thing as a racket.

Is this because they’re all appallingly selfish specimens? The sort of teacher who’ll denounce them for not caring about the kids (because it’s always ‘the kids,’ isn’t it?) will say so. I won’t. Yes, I think that all these wholly unnecessary cover tasks of sitting with pupils who don’t really need their own room, but whose parents are a bit irksome and who might as well therefore be placated, contributes to this dismissive attitude. We don’t like being given extra work for no reason, and that includes staying with the extra time candidates while their internal exam lasts until the end of breaktime rather than getting down to the staffroom before all the coffee runs out.

If your answer to this is to dissolve the teaching profession and elect a new one, good luck.

But it’s not just teachers. The pupils themselves, despite having grown up in a system (especially if they’ve attended independent schools all their lives) which has always recognised and accommodated these special educational needs, are utterly unsympathetic.

I left school less than nineteen years ago. Two boys in my year had extra time in exams because of dyslexia. It never occurred to me, nor do I recall anyone suggesting to me that it occurred to them, to think that this was unfair. I don’t know why not, but my best guess is this: I knew nothing about dyslexia, but because those individuals had clearly been found to have difficulties, making accommodation seemed – if I thought about it at all, which I don’t think I did – reasonable.

Now, though, pupils are scornful. They sit next to ‘extra-timers’ every day. They reckon it’s all a con. They tell me that the extra-timers should have a note on their certificates testifying to it. I wonder if fresh graduates are including ‘no special needs’ on their CVs: it wouldn’t surprise me.

(You’ll like this. A couple of years ago an Upper Sixth pupil tried to get himself a diagnosis of dyslexia in order to qualify for extra time. He overdid it. I was told by our SENCO that in one of the tests he did, this boy who had a string of A and A* grades at GCSE had appeared to be in the bottom 1% of the population for reading comprehension. This occasioned plenty of merriment among his peers.)

Is it all a con? I don’t know. I have my suspicions. I wonder why some intellectual impairments (the very common ‘slow processing,’ for instance) should merit official recognition and accommodation, while others, which aren’t as clearly identified, but contribute to lower overall performance, don’t. I know that there can be no answer to that.

But it’s not about me.

The system is widely perceived to be a joke. It might be able to limp on indefinitely. But if current trends continue, more and more pupils will be availing themselves of the opportunities on offer. Parents will (continue to) demand it. Schools might struggle to staff it. (One boy with amanuensis is an irritant. So is one girl with her own special exam room. Twenty of each would be prohibitively expensive.) What happens then?

Well, maybe the system limps on. But maybe there’s either significant demand to change it and toughen up, which might in some circumstances be politically popular, or so many pupils get accommodations of some type that it becomes the new normal, with so many qualifying for extra time that the official length for a public exam ends up like a headline price with Ryanair: it might appear on the documents, but everyone can add on another half-hour.

Dumbing Down

“Why do we have to do this stuff?”

It’s a refrain which teachers are used to, and most of us have got our answers ready. Rather than reach for a philosophical defence of the study of history I tend to opt either for the totalitarian answer (“because the Government, or the school you attend, says it’s mandatory”) or for the free-market answer (“because you opted to do it”).

But that’s not what this Fifth Form pupil meant. “You’re just teaching us this stuff [the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture under Stalin] so that we think that socialism is bad.”

Well, I answered, if you think I’ve told you any lies, then do say so; if not, would you prefer me to tell you some?

He sighed. “It’s just propaganda though isn’t it? Socialism is bad. Every lesson. I bet you could  teach us a load of stuff to say that socialism was good if you really wanted to.”

I laughed and told him to take it up with the Head of History and the Subject Officer of the examination board which issued the specification. And I conceded that he might have had a smidgen of a point. I don’t actually think that there was a sinister cabal of capitalists directing the likes of OCR & AQA to make a study of the interwar Soviet Union an element of their GCSE course, no. But yes, I told him, I would agree that a pupil studying that period would be unlikely to emerge with a favourable view of communism; whereas someone whose GCSE depth study had been based on (say) the social and economic history of the first half of the nineteenth century might have emerged with rather more sympathy for left-wing political arguments.

I was reminded of this particular incident by seeing this image, from a history textbook, on the same topic, tweeted this morning:

Is this an attempt to propagandise for Stalinism? No, I don’t think so. It’s an attempt to make out the case for collectivisation, using some of the arguments which Stalin’s supporters used at the time. It’s an attempt to make it easy to remember for pupils who will be sitting examinations in this subject. I can’t say for sure, but I think I recognise that particular style of textbook – it’s halfway between a GCSE textbook and one of those dreadful ‘all you need to know’ revision guides, design to be as ‘accessible’ as possible.

[Updated: yes, it is. CGP. I stand by my description of their oeuvre.]

But is it misleading? Does it suggest that ‘the positive view’ of collectivisation is about as persuasive as ‘the negative view’? Should, indeed, providing a ‘balance’ be encouraged, when the murder of millions of people is on one side of the ledger? No, I don’t think so. Call me pompous, but I don’t think that’s an historical question, really.

But I think this is less a consequence of the textbook’s authors’ and publishers’ callous disregard for the lives of millions and more a consequence of excessive dumbing-down.

The ‘positive view’ … well, I wouldn’t call it ‘the positive view.’ I’d call it ‘the reasons why the Communists embarked on collectivisation of agriculture.’ I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect pupils to know that. And I think the reasons supplies are, very broadly, accurate. It was ‘the socialist way’ and it would provide the advantages of economies of scale.

But this is so simplified that it is misleading. I’ll give one example.

The underlined (hyperlinked?) ‘greedy’ and ‘troublesome’ adjectives, used to describe the ‘kulaks,’ are so deceptive that a pupil who learns them will be getting the history very wrong. To get just this part of those five point right, I would submit that a pupil needs to know the following:

That ‘kulak,’ while describing a landowning farmer, was also a term of abuse;

That anyone suspected of being less than a wholehearted communist could be denounced as a ‘kulak,’ regardless of his relationship to the means of production;

That the word ‘greedy’ and ‘troublesome’ must therefore be understood in this context: they do not mean what the average teenager might consider them to mean, but indicate instead an unwillingness to submit to the precepts of Stalinism;

That Stalin’s policy was called ‘dekulakisation’ and that the Communist Party’s avowed objective was ‘the liquidation of the kulaks as a class,’ and what that actually meant in practice.

Is that too complicated? Then we shouldn’t be teaching it. A GCSE candidate who memorises those numbered points might be able to achieve a passing grade in a public examination, but he doesn’t understand collectivisation: in fact, he grossly misunderstands it. And that, I think, is a problem.