Tag Archives: DfE

Why the DfE is wrong to dismiss OCR’s new English A-Level as ‘rubbish’


In a response to Gove’s demands for more rigorous A-Levels the exam board OCR seem to have thrown him a bit of a curve ball. They’ve worked closely with the brilliant English and Media Centre to create an English Language and Literature course which celebrates diversity in the texts it has chosen to examine – from Emily Dickinson to Dizzee Rascal, from William Blake to Russell Brand. Turns out this is not what Gove had in mind when he said he wanted to increase the potential for pupils’ ‘thinking skills and creative ability’ – at least not if we are to believe a DfE source who has dismissed the course, carefully constructed by education professionals, as ‘rubbish’.

This is yet another example of the narrow-minded approach that typifies all that is wrong with the people running our education system at the moment. They are stuck in the past, and have no understanding of how people learn or what constitutes good teaching. Worse, they appear to be afraid of innovation and change for how it might upset the status quo which they have relied on so heavily to gain – and keep – the power they enjoy.

Having taught English and Media in secondary schools for ten years, I know that there is nothing intrinsically dumbed down about the study of contemporary texts, whether they are literary fiction such as the work of Jhumpa Lahiri (also on the new OCR course) or come from the wide range of multi-modal communications that surround us in our daily lives. In fact I would argue that it can be more intellectually challenging to dissect a text that we are less culturally removed from – to unpick the assumptions that our media is laden with and see how language is being manipulated to create effects that we are usually just passive consumers of.

This is particularly important for young people, and gives them power in a world where they are surrounded by overt and hidden propaganda, where the written word has celebrated a resurgence in social media and where everyone now has a myriad of public platforms to choose from if they want to be heard. The ability to know how to use that voice and to interpret the cacophony around them has arguably never been more urgent than it is for our young people today.

There is, too, the question of diversity. Whilst the DfE dismisses it as ‘patronising’ to presume that young people can only be engaged in Literature through culturally relevant texts, I would argue that they have again missed the point. They have latched on to the headline grabbing names which are sure to make every self-respecting Daily Mail reader weep into their bran flakes and decided to ignore the fact that these texts are only part of a varied patchwork compiled to enable young people to see the power of language across boundaries of time and place. The OCR course in question has not done away with the canon – it still finds space for Shakespeare’s plays, for the works of Charlotte Bronte for example – but it tells students that language does not stop there, that other voices are just as relevant and worthy of discussion.

The urgent need for increased diversity in the books available to our young people has recently been highlighted by the We Need Diverse Books campaign. But until they are written, perhaps it is by exploring a range of different types of texts that the diversity that enriches our society can form part of an English education that truly reflects where we are – not just where we’ve come from.

Of course there’s nothing really new about what OCR are doing – for years teachers have used a range of texts in the classroom, and this has been reflected in source material provided by exam boards. So what is it about this new course that has sparked such derision from the DfE?

It all comes back to that lack of understanding, really. They don’t understand how an education different from their own could be as good – or better – for the young people of today. They don’t understand how contemporary texts they’ve never really engaged with could possibly stand up to a linguistic analysis worthy of A-Level study. They don’t understand how young people might learn from the words of people with similar origins to themselves, rather than by being indoctrinated by the status quo of white, male supremacy that has held such disproportionate power up until now.

And perhaps there’s another lack of understanding too, one of which people like Gove and Cameron are even more afraid. Perhaps they do not understand the world that people like Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal speak of, perhaps they do not understand the new cultural norms which are sweeping the globe – perhaps they do not want to, but perhaps they are even more terrified by the thought of being surrounded by people that do.

Perhaps this is why their spokesperson resorted to such an immature and unsophisticated rebuke. To dismiss this new course as ‘rubbish’ is insulting on so many levels – and such a dismissal can only have come from someone who really doesn’t understand, and is afraid that in their lack of understanding the world is just going to start to pass them by.

We owe our young people more than that. We owe them an education which prepares them for the world they live in – this includes the opportunity to study the canon, but also to get their teeth into the complexities of multi-modal communication that surround them on a daily basis. OCR should be proud that they have used Gove’s cries for increased rigour to produce a course which is more rather than less innovative than what has come before, and Ofqual would be very wrong to miss the opportunity to add this level of diversity to the range of qualifications on offer.


Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Why we should not ignore teachers’ ever-increasing workloads

On Friday, a year after it was carried out, the DfE finally published the results of the teacher workload survey. It does not make pretty reading, and it’s hardly surprising that Gove wanted to sit on it for as long as possible, finally slipping it out on a Friday ahead of its planned publication date and not accompanied by a press release.

What is frustrating is that it was virtually ignored by the mainstream media, the story being picked up by only The Guardian and The Mirror. With the press being quick to pounce on stories which paint our schools and teachers in a negative light, this was one insult that those over-worked professionals really didn’t need.

Because the fact is that over-worked teachers should concern us all. And there is no doubt that they are over-worked: even before the results of this survey were released, and before the impact of Gove’s interference was really felt, surveys indicated that teachers are ‘amongst the hardest workers in the country‘ and are ‘more likely to work overtime than employees in any other sector‘. Even the DfE survey is unlikely to reveal the true picture – after a further year of Tory reforms, and certainly if the experience of my former colleagues is representative, the hours teachers are working are if anything even greater.

It is personal experience – mine and that of my colleagues and friends – that makes these figures especially pertinent. Teachers regularly falling ill as holidays approach and using their time off to physically recover from the stresses of the term-time workload. Teachers attending 7am meetings as there is no time to fit them into the working day. Teachers holding classes on Saturdays and throughout school holidays to help students achieve the grades they deserve in the face of changing qualifications. Add to this the stark evidence of the ‘sharp rise in serious mental health problems among school staff‘ and it’s clear we have a problem.

Teachers who are stressed and tired and over-worked are simply not going to be able to do the best for our children. Teaching is a job which requires intellectual rigour, creativity and empathy. In the classroom, you need to be able to think on your feet, to juggle numerous different tasks and to slip seamlessly between many different roles. You need to be aware of, and act upon, the needs of each and every child in that room – that’s thirty different learning journeys, not to mention the huge variety of personal needs that children arrive at school with each day. Stressed out teachers will snap, will make rash comments or miss the needs that are really important. A knock-on effect on behaviour is inevitable, and in the interests of survival learning will fall further down the list of priorities.

Most of the teachers I know will put the students’ needs before their own: will work themselves to the bone in term time, sacrificing social lives and personal relationships because they feel that their job puts them in a privileged position, one which they should not take for granted. It is an amazing feeling to be able to enable young people to learn, to help them break free of the shackles of their lives and to become who they want to be. It is this I think that leads to the somewhat ironic situation we are in where despite drowning under their workload and frustrated by constant challenges to their professionalism teachers are still found to be the happiest workers in Britain.

There are also of course the minority of teachers who refuse to sacrifice their own mental health for the sake of a job, and will put in place their own safeguards during term time to reduce their workload and make their careers more sustainable. And then these are the ones who are branded lazy, letting down our young people. But I wonder sometimes whether they’re not in fact the sensible ones.

Because what is the alternative? Seemingly to abandon the profession altogether. I am guilty of this – at least for the time being, I can see no way of combining the demands of a teaching career with being a mum. And I am not alone: despite loving their job, almost half the nation’s teachers have considered quitting the profession in the past year. Ofsted chief Wilshaw has commented on the ‘national scandal‘ of two-fifths of teachers quitting within five years. He cites inability to cope with pupils’ poor behaviour as the cause, though studies indicate that unsustainable workload alongside bureaucracy and lack of professional autonomy is more likely to be to blame.

It is partly for this reason that Tristram Hunt’s declaration that he will not seek to reverse any of Gove’s initiatives if Labour are elected is so galling. I understand his point that teachers do not need more change for the sake of it, but Gove has done so much to undermine the profession and to fracture our education system that someone needs to be prepared to put it right.

There are a raft of education professionals clamouring to be heard so that we can begin to do just that, but we seem to be at a particularly low ebb in terms of the nation’s respect for teachers. Our politicians (as well as the media) need to acknowledge that our teachers are working too hard, and then, alongside those education professionals, they need to work out what they’re going to do about it. Because whilst it might be our teachers who suffer in the short term it is our children’s futures that we’re really risking here.