Why Jeremy Clarkson’s tweet was irresponsible

Many years ago, one of my inner-city, street-wise girls asked me, ‘Miss, why do you want us to become doctors and lawyers when footballers have so much more money?’

I told her it was because there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers and doctors whereas there are about 150 professional footballers.*

If I had a pound for every child who has told me that he or she doesn’t have to work because they are going to be the next big rap star, footballer, youtuber, winner of the X Factor, video gamer, I would be the one tweeting about my two Range Rovers instead of Jeremy Clarkson.

But I don’t want to own a Range Rover. I can’t drive. What’s important to me is giving kids, and in particular the kind of kids the system has forgotten, as many chances as possible either to become another Jeremy Clarkson, or indeed anything at all. As I say at assembly, “Work hard so you can have ALL the doors open to you, and you can pursue any path you want.” That might include university or not. Of course it isn’t the end of the world if a child doesn’t make it to university. But it is the end of the world if they don’t fulfil their potential through working hard.

When the media and the public insist that exam results don’t matter, that you can own two Range Rovers while failing out of school, it makes a teacher’s job impossible. This is particularly the case for teachers who work with kids who believe street life is glamorous and you-tubing is their dream.

Let’s ignore (as did Jeremy) that learning to love Shakespeare’s sonnets is not meant to be a route to owning Range Rovers but instead is meant take our souls to depths we never knew existed. Telling one child privately who has failed his exams that it is ok, that there will be other opportunities, that exams do not define you, that ‘we will find another way because where there is a will…’ is entirely appropriate and decent.

But telling the world through an irresponsible tweet, as Jeremy did, “Don’t worry if your A level grades aren’t any good. I got a C and 2 Us. And I’m sitting here deciding which of my Range Rovers to use today,” does not just speak to the kids who got poor A level results. It speaks to ALL kids. It helps to set the general expectations of society. The media picks up on it and everyone gets behind that type of thinking. When you have 7 million followers on Twitter alone, you have a responsibility to at least be aware of the kind of damage your tweeting might do.

One of the biggest challenges we teachers have is overcoming the ‘Vlogger dazzle’ which eats away at motivation and commitment in kids.

We teachers aren’t resentful of Clarkson. True his family got him his first job. He also went to private school. He is a tall white guy who doesn’t sound anything like the kids I teach. I wish him luck. Good for him and his Range Rovers! I’m sure he worked hard for them.

But I just wish he wouldn’t pull the ladder up. Not everyone has the advantages he had. And he was doing this a very long time ago! The world has changed since then.

All we teachers can do is beg the celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Branson who endorse the idea that school isn’t important, to stop. You aren’t helping. You may think you are, but we know better. We are on the ground, living in a world that you don’t know. I would invite them to come and visit our school Michaela and see the wonderful work we do combatting the kind of nonsense they endorse, as do many other schools.

Tweets like Clarkson’s might make the authors feel good but their impact destroys children’s lives. I am not exaggerating. Hard work is the main way out for our kids. Why are there too few black and working class kids at Oxbridge? One of the reasons is because of this culture that says ‘exams don’t matter’. More black kids than any other ethnicity miss their A level Oxbridge offers and then don’t get in.

Is this something we want to celebrate?

There is a reason why so many teachers went mad reading Clarkson’s words. That’s because they know something that people who are not in teaching don’t know. Just because you went to school doesn’t mean you know what kids need, especially kids in the inner-city or in schools in challenging circumstances. Today, a friend of mine in his 60s, white, public school, reminded me that he used to say the same thing, “Hey look at me, I did XYZ with my life, and I failed my A levels.” Then he heard what I had to say about it and he stopped doing it.

Teachers see firsthand the damage done by this ‘anti-exam’ culture and while we do everything we can to fight it, it would be so great if the rest of the country could support us in trying to give kids who normally don’t have a chance, exactly that.

 

*If you take issue with my numbers that aren’t exact, then you really have missed the point.

 

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Smartphones: Just say NO

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At Michaela we have a quote on the wall that says, ‘Freedom comes from self-control.’

Many people think that freedom comes from a lack of control. But at Michaela we believe the opposite: it is only by mastering one’s base desires that one can be free to embrace real freedom and genuine choice. Only with knowledge can one know freedom of thought. Only with practice can one know freedom of expression.

The same goes for that smartphone. We are clear that if we see or hear a phone, we’ll confiscate it. And we’ll keep it for a long time. The kids are clear. The parents are clear.

So guess what?

No one at Michaela ever takes out their phone.  I can count on one hand the number of times a pupil has deliberately taken out their phone in the past 4 years.

They revel in the freedom it gives them.

All children yearn for the self-discipline to just say NO to their smartphone, to Fortnite, to Grand Theft Auto, or to that Xbox. Self-discipline is hard to develop. Many adults cannot manage it because no one helped them to learn it as a child. Many adults remain slaves to the sofa instead of going to the gym. Or they jump from job to job because they find it too difficult to be self-disciplined enough to turn up on time or meet deadlines.

School isn’t just about academic pursuits. It should be about setting children free. And that means teaching them self-control.

I hear some teachers or headteachers say they want to allow children phones at break and lunch so that children can be in control of their own phone use. But for the 6 to 8 hours that children have away from school every day, and for the 48+ hours they have at the weekend, they have lots of time to ‘choose’ whether or not to use their phones.

But even then, we try to support our pupils and parents. We give them a series of boxes to tick (to give a sense of achievement) if they manage to stay away from their phone for 3 hours in the evening. This frees them up to do their homework, talk to their families, or simply read a book.

Parents are SO grateful. In fact, we sell brick phones at reception as an alternative to the smartphone. We understand that parents like the security of being able to contact their child after school. Mobiles are a convenience of the 21st century. With a brick phone, you get the advantage of being able to contact your child without allowing them through the doors of hell. While there is good on the internet, there is also so much that is worrying for children, not least the porn, the bullying, and the miserable one-upmanship on social media.

I have had children beg me for help. ‘Miss, I am addicted. I just can’t get off it. What can I do?’ They desperately want to revise for their GCSEs but they have been seduced by addictive ploys. To those people employed at SnapChat and Instagram to make these apps more addictive, I can only say this: I don’t know how you sleep at night.

Self-control is hard to learn at the best of times, let alone as a child in the 21st century. At Michaela (and in many other schools no doubt), we believe it is our duty to help our pupils break free of the control of the smartphone so that they should be in charge of their own destinies.

And that is no bad thing.

Now where did I put that chocolate cake…?

 

The silence over Labour’s ‘legitimate’ racism

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A few weeks ago, I signed a letter that was published in The Times that said racism was no longer a central problem in our society. Had someone asked me at the time what I thought would happen to an MP being blatantly racist, I would have said they would be fired immediately.

Yet when the disturbing racism of the Labour MP Emma Dent Coad was revealed this week, hardly a word was uttered in condemnation either from the Left or the Right.

Emma Dent Coad wrote (a few years ago and before she became an MP) about the black Conservative politician Shaun Bailey, “Who can say where this man will ever fit in, however hard he tries? One day he is the ‘token ghetto boy’ standing behind D Cameron, the next ‘looking interested’ beside G Osborne.”

Dent Coad also drew that picture above referring to Tories, ignoring the gut-wrenching history of blacks being lynched in the United States. Only thanks to the blogger Guido Fawkes do we even know about this. Where are the journalists?

How is it possible that in 2017 someone who is now an MP from the main political party of the left could say and draw such things without censure, and not in her distant past but just a few years ago when her views were presumably the same as they are today? Not only has Dent Coad not been censured by her party but the whole issue seems to have disappeared almost without comment.

The story would not have been ignored in this way in the US if Dent Coad had been a Democrat politician. And I suspect if she had been a Conservative or even UKIP politician she would have been fired on the spot.

Shaun Bailey said this of Dent Coad, “I’m extremely disappointed and further saddened by the cowardly response given by Emma Dent Coad. Instead of facing this issue, she has attempted to blur and camouflage the views she expressed in her blog by falsely dressing them up as someone else’s words.”

Emma Dent Coad thought it sensible to invent a story about how Shaun Bailey had called himself ‘boy’. What black man with any sense of history would do that, given the oppression associated with this word? Shaun Bailey visited our school (Michaela in Wembley Park) about a year ago. He comes from the same area as our pupils. He spoke with such pride of growing up in that area. In no possible world would he ever think, let alone say that where he comes from is the ‘ghetto’. Only racists speak in this way of areas where hard-working people are trying to make a living.

It is also absurd to call him ‘token’, another typical racist assumption that black people achieve because of bias in their favour. In fact Bailey is one of the brightest people I know and has struggled against multiple disadvantage, including racism, to get where he is. He would be a great addition to our House of Commons and it does not reflect well on the Conservative party that he has not found a safe seat.

As Bailey says, “Despite her claims, she can provide no evidence that I or anyone else used the horrendous terms she advocated. I find it appalling that someone as privileged as Ms Dent Coad would dare question the legitimacy of my background. I am now urging Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to take the strongest disciplinary action possible.”

Sadly, not only has Corbyn not acted but thousands of white progressives have come out in defence of Dent Coad’s vicious remarks.

I am not one of those black people who sees racism in everything. Indeed, I signed that letter in The Times. I’m even forgiving of various types of everyday racism, especially when it comes from ordinary people. When white progressives hacked my email account and sent out vile racist emails to my address book, all because I dared to once speak at the Conservative Party conference, I ignored it.

On another occasion, I met a member of the BNP for lunch. While I found some of his ideas disturbing, I was fascinated to speak to him to find out why he thought as he did. He was very friendly and wore a suit to meet me because as he said, I was educated at Oxford, whereas he was white-working class and had never been to university. When walking through the streets of London, I noticed him limping and asked him what was wrong. He explained that he had bought new shoes for the occasion and they were hurting his feet.

Racism is complicated. So the whites who jump to Dent Coad’s defence with the ‘some of her best friends are black’ argument, or the ‘but she has helped black people in Kensington by doing x’, are either being dishonest or they do not understand how racism works.

Neither is it OK to point to blacks who are supportive of Dent Coad’s words and say, well if they say it is OK, then it is OK. During slavery times, some blacks supported slavery. Some even owned slaves. That did not make slavery right.

Emma Dent Coad being a racist isn’t what shocks me. The BNP man was polite, respectful and bought me lunch. I liked him, despite his racism. What is deeply disturbing is the fact that Dent Coad is in a position of power and respect in this country and the man who leads her party has refused to discipline her and indeed has made no comment about it. Does Corbyn think it is fine that black men should be referred to as ‘boy’?

Where are the protests? Where are the whites demanding action? When the Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris used the phrase ‘nigger in the woodpile’ earlier this year, she was immediately suspended and had the whip withdrawn. Theresa May showed leadership and demonstrated by her actions that racism will not be tolerated within the Conservative Party.

The Labour Party cannot now say the same. One of their MPs has directly attacked a black person using three terms of abuse—token, ghetto and boy—that have been unacceptable in the black community for decades and nothing has been done.

Who has come to Shaun Bailey’s aid? Here is a black man being vilified for being black and working-class and it is left to other black people like the Conservative MPs Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly to write letters to Corbyn to ask for action.

Why is no one supporting them from either the Conservative Party or Labour Party? Why does no one care? This last week has taught me a lot about our country.

I am not a Conservative, nor am I a politician. I am a swing voter who has small c conservative values. Once upon a time, the Labour Party might have shared those values, some of which are about valuing the content of our characters and not judging people by the colour of their skin.

Sadly, I can now see that the Labour Party of today no longer agrees with that sentiment. Labour was at the forefront of the early battles against racism in the post-war period but it has grown arrogant and lazy when it comes to race. Too many people on the left think that they own black people politically and if you are seen as a black person on the wrong side of the political divide you are evidently fair game for attack and even for racist abuse.

 

 

Why David Lammy might be wrong about Oxbridge

OxfordI was at Oxford in the early 90s and I stuck out. Why? Because I was black and hardly anyone else was. Entrance exam & interview was the way in. Nowadays, Oxbridge tutors have a sea of A* candidates to choose from. That’s what happens when you dumb down exams. It does not solve social disadvantage. It perpetuates it.

I can see why David Lammy thinks the problem is Oxbridge. That’s how we’ve always thought and changing one’s mind is hard. But my own experiences (which are vast in this area) tell me that he is wrong.

  1. It is recognized that black students from private schools get in. So clearly the problem isn’t about race.
  2. I would love to know the number of white private school applicants who apply and then the number that have 3 As and get rejected. I’d also like to know the number of black students (from the state sector and then also from the private sector) who apply and the number that get rejected. Then we’d have some facts instead of wild speculation from people who have absolutely no experience of the system.
  3. There is data out there showing that the majority of successful state-school applicants to Oxbridge come from about 200 schools. I’d love to know how many black students attend these schools and if, when they apply, whether they also get rejected.
  4. The current evidence shows that blacks often apply for subjects like Law and Medicine where the rejection rate is high. Again, I would love to see more precise data on this. How many blacks applying for these subjects get rejected? How many whites applying for these subjects get rejected? How many blacks applying for other courses get rejected? We need more data.
  5. Because of the dumbing-down, grades are necessary but not sufficient. Is it really the case then that one just has to ‘whiten up’ to get in? Or is it more profound than that?

Why are so few blacks at Oxbridge?

  1. Over my long(ish) career, I have met so many teachers who are anti-Oxbridge that I have lost count. I have also met many teachers (but far fewer than those who hate Oxbridge) who are trying to encourage their pupils to apply but are so terrified at being called elitist that it is a battle that is rarely won in many state schools. Not all schools are like this of course. But far too many are, and we refuse to talk about it.
  2. The schools where many black pupils go can often not have knowledge as their focus. They believe in teaching skills. Oxbridge will expect students to know lots of stuff at interview. It is hard for kids to teach themselves, however bright they are.
  3. The schools where many black pupils go can be reluctant on insisting on a no-excuses behaviour culture. This means that pupils who could get to Oxbridge are held back by those who would never be able to go. Teachers cannot teach and even if they can, their time is taken dealing with the disruptors instead of pushing the top ones to go for the very best universities.
  4. The schools where many black pupils go can have mixed-ability classes. Teachers will pitch to the middle and so the ones at the bottom of the spectrum prevent the ones at the top from accessing the knowledge that is necessary to get them to Oxbridge.
  5. The schools where many black pupils go can have teachers who struggle to know the Oxbridge application process and requirements. Even if they are lucky to have a few teachers who are not anti-Oxbridge, these teachers do not know how to get them in.

As a Head, if you have Ofsted pressures to deal with, unreasonable parents, staff who need huge support, caretakers who don’t show up to work, amongst a million other daily fire-fighting issues, is it any wonder that your school’s Oxbridge count may not be your top priority?

Our top cohort is in year 10, but I have spent the last 2 years visiting both Cambridge and Oxford colleges, speaking to admissions tutors, asking for advice, attending events and conferences on how to get them in. It is a big focus of ours. In doing so, I have met countless Oxbridge tutors, all desperate for me to send them talented black pupils. I have met the full time staff employed by every Oxbridge college, all with one focus: widening access.

When the time comes, if we get some of ours in, I am certain people will say we got lucky. Or they’ll say that doesn’t it matter, all universities are the same anyway. But neither of these things will be true. And if someone took a moment to look at why Mossbourne or the London Academy of Excellence or Newham Collegiate Sixth Form or Harris Westminster (amongst others) get large numbers of ethnic minorities into Oxbridge, then we could start having a meaningful conversation about this.

 

 

I LOVE our school!

This just landed in my inbox from one of our teachers and I had to put this on here because I want to tell the world just how incredible our school is, not because Ofsted inspectors say we are, but because of things like this…

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I confess that this morning in form I did something unspeakable. I did what, in other school contexts, we might call “discovery-based learning”. I played 8Z the opening minute of each of the ‘Planets’ suite and got them to ‘guess’ which planet we were listening to. Normally this would have been a pointless game of “guess what is in my head” but, owing to our fantastic knowledge-led curriculum, they were able to correctly name the first four without fail! Here is a sample of the conversations we had:

Max: “is this Mars because Mars was the God of War and this sounds very war-like?”

Jenny: “Is this Venus? Venus is the Roman god of Love and it has a very romantic sound”

Carl: “I think this is Mercury because Mercury was the God of messengers and thieves. He was known for playing tricks on people and the piece sounds very mischievous”

And then when I skipped to the “I vow to thee my country” part of Jupiter all the hands shot up.

Knowledge really does beget (meaningful) creativity.

What a great school we work at!

What is so extraordinary about this is this is this teacher’s tutor group. He isn’t a Science teacher or a Music teacher. He is just playing them some classical music as every tutor does every morning across the school.

It isn’t a test. They haven’t been taught this and then asked questions. It is just conversation being had while the register is being taken – with a year 8 middle set of working class kids in an inner-city school. They have remembered and retained what they have been taught over the last 2 years in various subjects and they have voiced it and applied it in a totally different context.

David Didau unwittingly argues for selection

WARNING: This post is not for the emtionally-attached to the ‘Grammar schools are evil’ idea. Only those who think there are pros and cons on both side should continue to read.

udzUVdjD_400x400David Didau is BRILLIANT. But he has unintentionally made me think that maybe Peter Hitchens is right on grammars after all.

‘Why grammar schools for all won’t work’

If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that. At Michaela, we so believe in the sentiment that we have ‘Top of the Pyramid’ painted on the wall. We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.

Peter Hitchens argues for an education system with grammars. David Didau does not believe in them. And yet, I find that Didau makes the most powerful argument in favour of grammars. Weird, eh?

Here’s how:

  1. As Heather Fearn has discussed and Roger Scruton argues for, the purpose of education should be to impart knowledge to the next generation, not to engender social mobility.  While Didau and I may put social mobility first, we also believe in our duty to pass on knowledge to future generations.
  2. Both David and I want a high floor for all schools. But David Didau makes a strong argument for the necessity of less good schools to exist so that good schools can set themselves up against them and motivate the children with talk of ‘being better than that’.
  3. Didau does say that he believes that children who do well in grammars would do well elsewhere and those who do worse in grammars would do better elsewhere. And he rightly said to me he isn’t sure how that can be construed as an argument in support. Didau is right: his heart is against grammars. But the logic of his argument is not.
  4. If the central point of Didau’s blog is correct, then, as he says, not all schools can be excellent.
  5. If this is true, the question is which schools should be excellent and which schools should not be. Hitchens makes this point and argues, rightly, that often what makes good comprehensives good is that they have huge intakes of very supportive parents who have moved into the area to get their kids into said school. Why select by postcode instead of ability?
  6. Of course there is also a handful of schools out there that are excellent despite intake because of the incredibly committed staff. But these are certainly not the norm. For a nationwide system, what should one do?
  7. Grammars have a natural ‘top of the pyramid’ position to play on and use to their advantage. If we had grammars across the country in sensible numbers, then the dynamic (currently used by clever comprehensives where they create the illusion of being better than others – explained by Didau) would give those schools the edge required to do very well.
  8. If Didau and I believe in successful schools and we believe in the validity of his blog post—that grammars cannot exist for all—then the question is who should get to go to an excellent school?
  9. Hitchens believes it should be the more able. I’m not sure who Didau believes it should be.
  10. If education should both promote social mobility and impart knowledge for future generations, then the argument that Hitchens puts forward for the able to be the chosen few is a good one, AS LONG AS some working class kids get in.
  11. As it stands, both Didau and I seem to take the position that the chosen should be those who get lucky either by post code or having pushy parents, or those who so happen to get into a school which so happens to have a strong ethos at that time because a good Head just took it over and will remain for 5 years until he/she leaves and the school deteriorates again. Our position is that the chosen should be totally random and unpredictable.
  12. And while Hitchens’ position in favour of grammars is coherent, I’m not sure the same can be said of ours against them.

 

I hope this makes sense. I find it hard to get my head around it!

How to persuade those of us who are not instinctively anti-grammar

UnknownI have no problem with selection. I do not have an instinctive aversion to grammar schools. I do think that the current school system is failing our children. And I do think that something radical must be done to save it (and the country).  I also believe that the school system of the 1950s was not failing the country and I do absolutely believe that we have been on a downward slope ever since.

So I really should agree with Peter Hitchens’ (@ClarkeMicah) position on grammar schools.

Except that I don’t.

And despite having had a long to and fro with him on Twitter last weekend, I am still not convinced of his pro-grammar stance. 140 characters just aren’t enough.

For those of us who believe that there are pros and cons in this debate, but are still anti-grammar, I think there are two issues for us.

  1. We are not convinced that the reason progressivism (child-centred teaching & lower behaviour standards) consumed our education system was because the grammar schools were abolished and comprehensives established. We think it was a sad coincidence that these two things happened at the same time. Indeed, we are certain that grammar schools now and the grammars of the future will simply perpetuate progressivism because generally speaking (not in every classroom but in many), as a society we believe that the teacher teaching from the front is bad, that lessons must be ‘engaging and fun’ and that strict behaviour systems are, well, not very nice.
  2. The old grammar/tripartite system of the 1950s belonged to a different society. It may well have been successful then with some 50% or 60% of pupils being from the working class.  We do not deny this (unlike many anti-grammar people) and nor do we insist that similar standards of both behaviour and achievement are being met by our current comprehensive system. But we are unsure of how we would recreate this now for two reasons. a) The stable working class family with dad working at the factory and mum at home with the kids doesn’t exist on anything like the scale that it used to (today barely half of households with children are conventional two parent, married families). b) The 11+ used to be a test that was fairer. It was fairer because hot-housing did not dramatically affect who got in then. These two reasons help to explain why poor kids have a far harder time getting into grammars these days. We do not believe that this is only because grammars are in affluent areas. Middle class people are everywhere.

So how would I be convinced grammar schools could work?

  1. Convince me that somehow by establishing grammar schools, this will help to reduce the impact of progressivism. I believe that our main focus in education should be in establishing what works well in schools. Does having high expectations on behaviour work, or not? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start expecting this across the country. Does having teachers teach from the front work? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start rolling this out in all our schools. I think progressivism is harmful. I don’t see how establishing grammar schools that will themselves be progressive is in any way addressing the more urgent and dramatic issue for our country: an education system that is broken at its roots and in need of a radical rethink.
  2. Convince me that we can test pupils in a way that isn’t unfair to the poor. I can even accept that it might be a little unfair. But grammar schools cannot just be a clever way for the middle-classes to get a private education without paying for it. How you do this in 2017 with the hot-housing culture that we have where the poor are at such a disadvantage, I don’t know. How on earth the government is going to insist on 30% of grammar schools having poor kids without lowering the test results for them, I don’t know. Tests require cultural knowledge. Tests require either a home filled with books and someone to give you practice tests and/or a teacher teaching knowledge from the front of the classroom. Our schools on the whole don’t do that. So how on earth are the poor kids going to get in?

Often I read stuff on the anti-grammar side and I cringe. It can often be too emotional and assumes that people who are pro-grammar are mean and nasty and have another agenda.

The simple fact is that the anti-grammar people and the pro-grammar people all want the same thing. They want a fair and successful society where our children, ALL of our children are educated in the best way possible.

We simply disagree on how to do it.

This – Changing my mind on grammar schools, from one of Michaela’s teachers (mike_taylor11) is well worth reading. I only discovered his thoughts on grammars upon reading it and then I thought, yes, I think that’s right.

Peter Hitchens responded to my post above in tweets below:

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