Notes From the Margins…

Three Cheers for Jess Green

  • April 07, 2014
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Anybody who is or has been a teacher in the UK, or is living or married to one, will recognize the reality depicted in Jess Green’s searing and witty indictment of Michael Gove that is currently picking up thousands of hits on Youtube:

And anyone who cares about the future of the country’s education system should see it too.   Because Green’s mini  tour de force isn’t just a stinging indictment of one of the most repellent politicians in the Coalition’s gallery of ghouls: it’s also a brilliant and passionate corrective to the endless attacks on the teaching profession emanating from the government and its mouthpieces.

For decades now, teachers have become scapegoats for pretty much every failing in British society.     No other single profession has been so relentlessly attacked by the political class,   and no other profession has been subject to such relentless contempt from people who know very little about what teaching actually entails or what happens in a classroom.

Both Labour and Conservative politicians have approached the whole subject of education from the starting point that a) they know more about teaching than teachers themselves b) without their interventions and reforms the education system would collapse c) teachers are not to be trusted d) any teachers who complain about their endless tinkering with the education system are merely defending their own mediocrity,   ‘making excuses for failure’, or pushing some ideological agenda etc.

The belief that teachers are inherently untrustworthy, lazy and unprofessional has resulted in the imposition of the primitive and bullying micro-managed inspection regime of Ofsted – a hateful organization which has effectively subjected the entire profession to a culture of bullying and fear in an attempt to ‘drive up standards.’

Ofsted’s management style is embodied by its chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, an arrogant, smug and self-regarding Tory apparatchik, who, like Gove himself, interprets any criticism from teachers as a sign that he is doing everything right.   In 2011, shortly before Wilshaw became chief inspector he delivered a valedictory speech from the Mossbourne Community Academy where he had been headteacher, in which he quoted from a letter written to him by an ‘underperforming teacher’, describing   him as   a ‘crude and inconsiderate’ man, with ‘the manners of a guttersnipe’,   who had been a ‘disaster’ for the school”s once happy teachers.

For Wilshaw, such accusations were a source of pride. ‘The lesson of that,’ he crowed, ‘is that if anyone says to you that “staff morale is at an all-time low” you will know you are doing something right.’

What a jerk.     Wilshaw is a strong supporter of performance-related pay, who has said that teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ at 3 pm shouldn’t be promoted or paid well.   Of course Wilshaw knows perfectly well that most teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ don’t stop working just because they aren’t in school, but he would rather reinforce the public stereotype of whinging teachers swinging the lead

In January this year Wilshaw insisted ‘ there is a difference between a professional with a legitimate criticism and a serial complainer with another moan. One tends to be listened to; the other does not,’ in a speech describing the fact that ‘nearly 40 percent’ of new teachers leave the profession within five years as a ‘scandal.’     Whose fault is that?   Naturally,   according to Wilshaw, its was the quality of teacher training, not the institution that he heads – a problem that he promised to resolve by ensuring that Ofsted would ‘get tougher’ on training providers.

The evidence emanating again and again from the teaching profession is that Ofsted has got tough enough.     At its 2012 conference, even   the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted by a massive majority in favour of the motion:

‘Successful careers are damaged or destroyed on a daily basis as more schools are put into categories. Fear reigns and confidence wanes as Ofsted waves its stick. We must stand up to the bully-boy tactics of Michael Wilshaw. We deplore his negative rhetoric which is demoralising our members and is creating a climate of fear in schools.’

I have seen the destructive impact of these ‘bully-boy tactics’ twice in the last few years in my local town.     In 2011,   the local secondary school that my daughter attends was threatened with ‘special measures’ on the basis of new data criteria introduced by Ofsted’s chief inspector Ofsted in 2011.   That inspection was preceded by the kind of fear and dread that would have made Kierkegaard seem chilled-out by comparison, and its report describing the school as ‘inadequate’ was a massive kick in the teeth for the staff, children and parents.

That same academic year the school   achieved   a 99.6% A level pass rate 60% of results at grade B or above, in addition to 70% of students earning 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.   In September 2012 the school was upgraded in a follow-up inspection to ‘good’ – a category that is as meaningless and arbitrary as Ofsted’s earlier verdict.

Then last year my daughter’s former primary school was placed in ‘special measures’, and this year its headteacher – the same one who was there when my daughter attended the school – was suspended after a group of parents wrote to Ofsted calling for her to be sacked.

During this time I read the utterly ignorant description of both schools as ‘failing’ schools in the local press – and in the latter case on the BBC.

I did not always see eye-to-eye with that headteacher when our daughter was in the school, but it is shocking and lamentable than a woman who has dedicated her whole life to children and her local community should have been forced to end her career in this way.

That schools should be inspected and improved is beyond dispute, but the idea that the education of the nation’s children depends on the imposition of this culture of fear, intimidation and public humiliation is a travesty.     Most teachers accomplish more in a single day than your average silk-tied politician achieves in an entire lifetime.

Instead of blame, bullying and intimidation, they deserve support and help, so that they can do their job better.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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