If we’re serious about the poverty gap in Scotland…

Get past this first paragraph: it’s not what you think.

I have a really nice house and have just had and incredibly comfortable, happy Christmas break. I’m dabbling with learning to play piano and often listen to Jazz, classical music less so. I try and eat healthily, for the most part, and have money in the bank. I enjoy gardening have a season ticket at my football team, occasionally listen to Radio 4 and get annoyed at Question Time. I am, to all intents and purposes, living the archetypal Middle Class Life and, while I grew up in a reasonably comfortable working class background, I recognise that I have ‘escaped’ a life I could have had.

I teach in the area in which I grew up and would have attended this school. I see problems with inequality all the time, recognise the poverty gap and want to support our Government’s attempts to narrow that gap. Inequality means we have a huge imbalance in our society: an imbalance of wealth, opportunity, services, voice. While school is a core part in society it must never be seen as the hub of all our problems but we do have our part to play. As an individual I have a responsibility to do what I can to help alleviate society’s problems. But what am I prepared to do?

Those in poverty very often see schools as the enemy; that might seem extreme but it’s true. Parents who’ve had generational resentments of authority see us offering something which is not for them. Families with unemployment running through generations look upon educational aspiration as a middle class conceit. They don’t believe that their cultural heritage- whatever that may be – is valued and see themselves being mocked and derided; the fast food they eat, the TV they watch, the way they talk. To say that education is the way out of that mindset is naive and misguided.

As educated professionals, it is easy to think that we have all the answers, that we know what’s best. What if we gave up that ‘voice’ in order to listen to the problems of our communities? How often do we really listen to the concerns of the parents of our students, instead of voicing annoyance when they don’t turn up to Parents Evenings? How do we create communities where teachers have to give up some of their free time to go and listen to these communities? Would that be a sacrifice? Would that help us understand?

Would we be willing to pay a little extra in tax if we we’re convinced that it would improve the lot of our poorer communities? We see high tax societies working well in Scandinavia but shudder at the thought of paying more here. Why is that? Because we’re not convinced our Government would put it to good use? Because we don’t see evidence of it yet? What would change?

If we are serious about alleviating poverty and improving the lives of those who live in poorer areas then how much are we really prepared to do? How much are we willing to sacrifice? As educators we have the knowledge and the tools to help but need to involve ourselves in the lives of our students and their families. Otherwise the gap will widen. And keep doing so.

If we are serious about closing the attainment gap and alleviating poverty then those of us in a position to do so will need to make some sacrifices. It’s not enough to get annoyed at Question Time or, dare I say it, write emotional blog posts. Otherwise let’s stop wringing our hands and pretending we care.

#4countries Post-Brexit.

When it was created back in 2011, part of the thinking behind Pedagoo was the belief  that if you put a group of teachers in a room and allowed them the time and space to discuss all things education, then great things can happen. Put them in a nice room? Even better. Treat them like intelligent professionals? Fantastic. I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Norton House Hotel where I spent two days with 25 educators from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And, yes, great things did happen. Seven hours of sessions on Saturday, four on Sunday, ram-packed with intelligent conversation, searching for common ground.

And it went on through dinner and breakfast. Other than a set of bullet points for discussion there was no plan, no agenda. We found a path through the complexities of each of the four education systems and began to discover a way forward. It was a challenging and exhausting experience – by five thirty on Saturday I was out for the count – but hugely rewarding and wonderfully invigorating. While recognising the blocks to progress, what was fascinating to find out was the huge ambition and focused determination to overcome those barriers.

As we began, what was striking was that after the initial moans and groans about our respective education systems, the pride and joy we felt about the job we do every day in our communities shone through in every conversation. We started in our own countries, developing themes for debate and recognising areas for development, and as we moved into mixed groups, the room came alive. We probed and pushed, explained and extrapolated. There was serious debate and loads of laughter. But we began to focus on the things that we may learn from each other in post-Brexit Britain. Whether we feel that the UK is on its last legs or at the beginning of a new, golden age, we can still share the vision we have for our children.

In my group, when asked ‘From what you’ve heard about the context, if you could move to any of the other countries, which one would you move to?’, every single person knew that they would stay where they were. For what better way of changing things for the better than working hard to enhance our own communities. The (very) real David Cameron reminded us of Debra Kidd’s line from ‘Notes from the Front Line’: “it is pedagogical activism that will prove to be the butterfly wing of change” .

Sitting at dinner on Friday night, slightly nervous, none of us really knew what to expect. By Sunday, we left with greater resolve and determination to go back to our schools with a rebooted energy to continue to fight to enhance the life of the children we serve.

I left with a greater understanding of the difficult issues teachers from other UK countries have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, there were also wonderfully inspiring tales of hope and aspiration from everywhere; a determination to succeed against difficult odds because we all understood why it was important. It was an honour to be invited to the #4countries conference; an honour to meet such inspirational people, people I can now call friends. No matter our political futures, we understand that education exists to allow the children we teach to become empathetic global citizens; to strive to be the best that they can be. They will need to be.

Using Homework More Effectively

I’ve been trying to get my head round the concept of homework recently. Is there such a thing as good homework and, if so, how can I use it more constructively than I’ve been doing? If I’m to believe some then  homework is the devil’s work and should be avoided at all costs. It’s cruel to our children; it cause parents unnecessary grief when they could be spending more quality time with their families. I should never give it again. Others say that it needs to be the bedrock of a good education and is vital to underpin the work I do in class. So, that’s that solved then.

From a workload point of view it would suit me very nicely to give up issuing homework. It, perhaps, is the reason for most of the conflict I encounter with pupils. However, my school’s policy means that I must issue homework on a weekly basis and if there is one piece of advice that I’d give any teacher it would be to stick to school policy: your beliefs and principles are important but inconsistency helps no child. So, for the last few months I have been looking to develop homework which is helpful to my senior pupils, something from which they will genuinely benefit.

Part of the New Higher English Course includes outcomes for Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening. It can be an onerous task to tick a lot of boxes and one which seems unnecessarily burdensome. So I’ve done this: I issue a newspaper article or essay on a Monday; the homework task is to read and analyse the language in the writing and answer four exam-style questions attached. I specifically model the questions on questions which they will face in May. For example: ‘How does the writer’s use of punctuation effectively emphasis her point in Paragraph 4?’ The homework needs to be handed in on Thursday.

My marking of that homework is minimal. I spend five minutes looking for one perfect, or near to perfect, answer to each question. I write an ‘E’ for Expert in red and that’s that. We now have four ‘experts’ in the class. On Fridays I announce the experts and send them to corner one, two etc. The rest of the class now has a perfect answer scheme. Their job is to go to each corner and ‘mark’ their own answers. Of course, many of them will have perfect answers too but my plan is to allow everyone to have a chance to be a n expert at some point.

The payback for the experts is that they must discuss and not show. No pointing to answers, no copying from others. Experts must give answers in full sentences, practicing the way  answers should be set out in the exam. I’m assessing Talking as well as Listening outcomes – along with Reading – throughout the process which takes about ten to fifteen minutes each week. More importantly, by explaining their answers to others, the pupils are embedding their understanding of the language and of how they might use it in the exam. Other pupils then go back to their desks and have another go. Over the weeks, these answers build in to a collection of revision resources. As a result, I think I’m beginning to use Homework as a more effective learning tool. So. How might I adapt that to other year groups?