Bring on the dancing scientists.

Most of the people who I know are involved in the education system at any professional level believe that it is in some trouble. Clearly the Guardian is struggling too, as it’s now publishing articles on education written by sixteen year-olds. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to the views of teenagers on education; in fact, we don’t really consider their true needs nearly enough. Perhaps though, they should be briefly challenged and encouraged to produce a nuanced edit before being published in a national newspaper.

I offer as evidence the sentence: “…Maybe it’s no surprise that this stigma exists: we’re in a society that is obsessed with living for the future.”  Well, yes. As we race towards extinction due to climate change, famine, war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, we absolutely should be living for the future.

The article in question is by a lady called Orli Vogt-Vincent and, in her defence; it is, the odd phrase aside, a thoughtful and lucid piece about being forced into choices by her school and the fact that her option to take up dance is considered less valuable than science.

As a champion of STEM education, you might expect me to offer some rebuttal. I do not. I think that she’s quite right in many respects – the current administration does devalue the arts, does not encourage the study of subjects like philosophy which are the very underpinnings of civilised thought and is obsessed with shoving kids into academic qualifications in maths and science for which few are suited.

My problem with the article rests with the Guardian’s decision to publish it with no debate or discussion. Fair enough to not allow comments, I would not wish to subject any minor to the bile spewed in even the most respectable papers’ comment threads. But this article, which I assume will be read by a fair number of the nation’s more sensitive and enquiring youth, simply adds to weight to the idea that the arts and science are in some way adversarial.

My guess would be that Ms Vogt-Vincent probably has some great dance teachers and at the same time she has not been inspired by science. This is probably the case in many schools. I wholeheartedly encourage Orli to throw herself into dance and to get the most out of it. I would, however, urge her to apply the same iron discipline that a great dancer requires to her studies in science because there are issues around climate change, energy security, health, food, resource management and countless other areas that will require her to make decisions about her spending, her democratic choices and other vitally important areas of, yes, her future. Only a good quality science education will give her the foundation to understand those issues clearly.

So my problem with the way that The Guardian has chosen to present his piece is this: it is unhelpful. All the paper has done is pitted two areas of education against each other when they should be championed together.

The great failure of the current administration and of many authoritative voices in education is that students’ subject choices are simply seen as a pathway to qualifications and hence careers. This article is making the same mistake.

First and foremost, education should be equipping students to make good choices that steer them to a life of happiness, fulfilment and enable them to make a contribution to society. Not to turn them into career-obsessed wage slaves who will do anything they’re told if it will help them reach the next promotion.

This thing is, at present, it’s easy to study technical subjects and still enjoy the arts on a purely participative basis – no qualification required. A neurosurgeon may play piano in a jazz quartet but we (rightly) discourage professional musicians from dabbling in brain surgery.

We need an academic pathway that engages intelligent students deeply in the important issues of science so that their lifestyle and political decisions can be made on a sound basis without shackling them with the pressure of a qualification, enabling them to throw themselves into other subject areas if that is where their passion lies. A pathway that enables the dancer or the artist to have a road to Damascus moment, perhaps, and suddenly, at the age of sixteen, develop a love of organic chemistry. Or, equally, not.

The obsession with STEM education has come from a good place, Orli, I hope that you realise this. The planet is in a bad way and at the moment, we don’t have the engineers, the scientists and the doctors to fix it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need dancers and artists and musicians too – I’m an engineer turned educator and still the thing I’m most glad I learned is to play the guitar. The pressure you’re under to study physics rather than physical theatre is born of the panic felt by those looking over the parapet and seeing the approaching shadow. The message, though, has got lost in the obsession with economic progress at all costs because those technically-educated alumni, you see, also make a better regular return for their paymasters.

But for the Guardian – shame on you. You’re supposed to be looking deeper, doing some journalism and encouraging your readers to think more deeply about an issue, not to take a side in a knee-jerk debate that will ultimately leave the dancers and the physicists equally impoverished.

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U need to improve ur English, innit?

The papers (particularly those oft-rattled in disapproval) have had a nice time reporting that Ofqual  have approved an exam syllabus that will study the works of rapper Dizzee Rascall and that rapscallion Russell Brand. Honestly, if you can bear the feeling of being sullied, it’s worth looking at the comments in the Mail* and the Torygraph – play a game with yourself and see if you can write the most popular comments yourself before reading them…

I’d love to hear someone from Ofqual simply offer a rebuttal with a good quote – maybe TS Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” and leave it at that but I’m sure the debate will rage on.

Any of the objectors in the letters page of the Telegraph might, if they care to put down their copy of Thatcher’s autobiography long enough, find that Russell Brand’s use of language is being studied quite justifiably; he is as skilled, eloquent and creative a user of the language as anyone writing in the Daily Mail (have a quick look here, for example) certainly and he uses that skill to provoke reaction and thought – which is rather the point of education, isn’t it? You’re still perfectly entitled to disagree with his point of view, should you wish to.

Alert readers of my own output sometimes make comments such as: “For someone what writes so often about English, your hardly the best example, aren’t you?” (Mr P. Figpucker**, Dorset). This is true, I make frequent grammatical and stylistic errors, sometimes to deliberately wind up pedants but most often though simple ignorance. I tend to write in what is technically called “regular” or “normal” English, which can be understood by anyone with a basic level of education and, in my case, a high tolerance for crass jokes. The other types of English recognised by experts are “low” English, spoken by youths, celebrities, gang members, dusky-looking people working in takeaways and anyone else looked down on by readers of the Daily Mail; “proper” English, as used by Her Majesty the Queen, the BBC up until they started letting people with regional accents on and unrelentingly posh Tory MPs and “complicated” English used  by James Joyce, Will Self and in any book that the experts couldn’t finish.

Of course, there is joy and beauty to be found in the language of all of these people – I won’t bore you with the case for the defence, rather, if you have half an hour spare, listen to Stephen Fry’s wonderful podcast on language. That means that all are worthy of study, surely? There’s as much to be learned from the study of the language of the street as there is from the language of princes (and ponces).

At least the chance to study the English of rappers and court jesters might provoke the students into thinking about the way that language can be shaped and manipulated to convince and cajole. The swivel eyed loons will undoubtedly claim that Brand is being allowed to sully the pristine minds of our nation’s youth with his poisonous ideology via their A-level studies  but at least they might be encouraged to look at the language used in politics to describe the poor, foreign powers who don’t like us stealing their natural resources or opponents of wholesale privatisation and perhaps wonder whether their own government aren’t guilty of more than a little sullying themselves?

If there’s one thing that perhaps we could get even their detractors to admit, at least Brand, Rascal et al make an effort when they use the language. And here’s a good point – (he said, starting a sentence with ‘and’, just as his English teacher told him to never ever do…)  – Ofqual are making an effort, letting the English curriculum imitate the language – protean, trend-driven and, crucially, belonging to the people. Long live the revolution and, choosing my words with great care, fuck the Daily Mail.

Happy reading, writing and speaking, people.

*I can’t bring myself to link to the Mail website. You’re welcome to explore hell, I’m not buying you the ticket.

**Having been made aware of the potential for embarrassment with his surname, you’ll be please to hear that Mr Figpucker has reverted to his ancient family name of Deauphyle. I’m sure this should prevent any sniggering .

Teachers? You’re not working hard enough. Also, Gove needs one of your kidneys.

It would be nice to think that the Tories were abiding by form and holding meetings in a hollowed-out volcano bustling with henchmen in primary-coloured jumpsuits. In fact, so great is the public’s acceptance of malfeasance from its public servants these days that they’re probably holding meetings in the penthouse of a shiny new office block that spells out the word “EVIL” when viewed from above where it’s been erected on the ruins of a hospital. Robbingpoor Towers.

So today, while Jeremy Hunt was throwing darts at a voodoo doll of a hardworking nurse and George Osborne was going through his bumper book of cock and bull for more reasons to tax his mates less, the delightful Mr Gove was nodding intently from his swivel-chaired, cat-stroking position as former policy adviser Paul Kirby was suggesting that the next election can be won by making teachers work more.

This, of course, is an attempt to address the nation’s desperate concern with our performance in the far-from-credible PISA tables by granting our students a state called “gaofen dineng” which should be avoided if you’re allergic to star anise or your kids coming home from school with the urge to self-harm.

For some reason, we’ve allowed politicians to convince the general public (that Daily Mail reading idiot that keeps voting Tory) that the way to measure the success or otherwise of our schools is to compare test scores. If you happen to turn out a few well-adjusted, free-thinking, happy young people as you mercilessly thrash them for results then that’s all the better. Or possibly for the worse, as if they’re happy and have time to think for themselves then they could have been working harder at rote-learning ways to decline Latin nouns (“cum nomina efutue”). If you’ve got kids of your own, decide if you’d rather they left school with a passion for reading, an interest in participating in sports, arts and music and ready to have a crack at studying something at a high enough level for a career or with a string of A grades but no aptitude for anything other than been spoon-fed exam answers and no motivation to try hard at anything.

Is that really the choice? I was a secondary school science teacher from 1993 to 2008. The biggest overall change I saw in education over that time was that as exam results went up, the motivation, creativity and excitement of learning went down. There were times in the first half of my career that I found myself teaching basic calculus to fourteen year olds so that they could take an extracurricular project further. Not lately. There’s no time.

Meanwhile, teachers are leaving the profession in droves – I find it hard to believe that this suggestion will convince a fresh new batch of go-getters to take up the mantle.

It would be perfectly possible to extend school time but only as a part of a wholesale set of reforms. We need to question the purpose of schooling, as Peter Gray did recently. The problem with this for government, of course, is that enlightened schools would churn out young people who wouldn’t fall for the crap they’ve been distributing.

Anyway, if you want suicidal kids with inflated grades, go ahead and vote Tory. Remember, though, that they’ll have privatised the NHS and nicked your pension, so you won’t be able to afford the psychological treatment that your kids will need if they’re to survive long enough to pay your winter gas bills after you’ve retired at 97.

Actually, Mike, I’m fairly sure they do…

So Michael Wilshaw claims that teachers “…don’t know the meaning of stress”. This does suggest a catastrophic failure in the teaching of literacy, or that he simply didn’t ask any physics teachers who would have told him that it’s the ratio of internal force per unit area in a material and possibly taught him how to calculate Young’s Modulus.

I’m wondering if he had a call from the DfE asking him if he could do anything to make Gove seem more popular with teachers, like going out on the pull with an ugly friend. Mission accomplished, I’m sure that many teachers would happily walk past Gove’s house without so much as a casual bit of arson on their way to Wilshaw’s place.

So I’m going to flirt with danger a little bit when I suggest that, within the crassly insensitive speech that he gave, there’s a tiny germ of truth lurking. Remember; if you dry out horse shit, you can use it for fuel.

I think that what he should have said was that teachers shouldn’t be stressed. To say that they aren’t is ludicrous. I’ve been working in education for almost twenty years and I’ve never seen teachers put under so much pressure (same SI units as stress, by the way) to get better exam results and measures of progress from students, a significant proportion of whom are lazy, spoiled, in awful home circumstances or otherwise disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

Put on top of that, it has never been more apparent that the education that these students are offered is not the guarantee of employment and security that a good education was when Wilshaw was at a grammar school in the fifties.

We shouldn’t be surprised at Wilshaw’s views: after all, were talking about a man who, as a head teacher, banned students from hugging each other. His belief is that with zero tolerance discipline, smart uniforms and recitation of mantras, standards can be driven up. I bet that school was fun. I’m sure that Wilshaw would take issue with the idea that schools should be fun. It’s all about the statistics with him. No school will be described as outstanding unless its academic results are.

The problem is that if all you measure is exam grades and progress metrics, you’re missing out on some really important points.

A big one is that the world is fucked. If you ask the brains at the companies that are trying to solve the problems they’ll tell you that they get hundreds of applicants for every job, from bright-eyed graduates, all of whom have identically brilliant qualifications and none of whom can locate their arseholes with both hands and a mirror on a stick. Because the metrics that we judge our schools on don’t encourage creative thought, or teamwork, or long-term problem solving; in fact, as a preparation for real life, all school teaches kids is to do is as they’re told. That would be great if someone was going to tell them how to solve the world’s problems but they don’t because nobody knows – and the people that think they do are generally, well… dicks.

We haven’t really radically re-thought schooling since Victorian times. Read a bit of John Holt, watch Ken Robinson talk about changing educational paradigms (I know I’ve linked to it before but its great…) and tell me that they’re not onto something. Wilshaw, and by extension Ofsted, don’t give a crap about all that liberal hippy bullshit. They want A grades and lots of them. Doesn’t matter whether the kids can think, or love the subject. The point is that education is serving a society that’s barking up the wrong tree about how the world ought to be. That’s an important debate but its too complicated to have (especially with a nation who’ve never been taught any philosophy) and the people at the top believe, erroneously but to the core of their beings, that they have too much to lose.

Teaching, though, shouldn’t be stressful. I did it for ages and for the most part it was great fun.

It should be the best job in the world. People should be queuing up to take pay cuts to do it. Kids are hilarious, honest, enquiring. They make you question things. Teaching can force you to understand things that you thought you knew in a deeper and more profound way that you would think possible. A years teaching could be a new form of national service for anyone going into science, politics, medicine or any other job that forces you to explain complicated things to people who often fail to give a bugger.

What makes teaching stressful is teaching a turgid curriculum to kids from homes bereft of hope without the time or flexibility to make it interesting under pointless targets and restrictions on how it should be done with the threat of nitpicking, draconian inspection hanging over you. Its stressful because you can do it for ten years and be unable to afford a decent home in the town that you live while you see public servants lining their pockets from the tax that you’ve paid. Its stressful because you can be abused, kicked and spat at by students who can’t be expelled because it makes the school look bad on the league tables.

Let me be balanced. I’ve seen teachers create plenty of their own stress. Kids try it on and you can deal with it with a smile and turn it into a joke or you can snap and they’ll snap right back. There are plenty of people in schools who should simply not be teaching; they don’t know their subjects, they can’t talk to children and they’re no help to their colleagues. They spread plenty of stress around too.

But there are thousands of teachers out there working for fifteen hours a day and for a good chunk of the holidays that are supposed to be the reward for the pressure, who take on the problems of their students and colleagues alike and who daily light up classrooms, studios and sports fields with awe, wonder and laughter. I know loads of them and the compassion, wisdom and support that they offer to their students is incredible. If you think that comes without a cost, Sir Michael, then you don’t know the meaning of the word stress either.