Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 17 June 2023

No Country For Old Men (or Women)

The Guardian reported this week on the record number of teachers baling out.

The latest workforce survey by the Department for Education (DfE) found that 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools last year – almost 9% of the teaching workforce, and the highest number since it began publishing the data in 2011 – while a further 4,000 retired. 
From observation, I’d guess that the 40,000 includes many who have opted for early retirement but are still technically of working age; this represents something of a looming crisis because, while the government points out that nearly 48,000 joined the profession in the same year, this is not like-for-like replacement. The current orthodoxy - that teacher training is all - means that experienced specialists in Physics or Chemistry could well be replaced in the A level classroom by NQTs with, say, a Sports Science degree from a former polytechnic (assuming the school finds a new physics teacher at all).

From friends and family to chance meetings on walking holidays or elsewhere, we are encountering newly-retired teachers in their fifties all over the place, many of them in the shortage subjects like Physics, Chemistry or Modern Languages. Being in the business ourselves we know that, unless they have other sources of income, these teachers will have taken a substantial financial hit to get out before the age of 60.

The Guardian doesn’t have to look far for an explanation:
Teaching unions blamed poor working conditions and the long-term erosion in pay for the exodus, while Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “This is yet more evidence that this incompetent Conservative government has created the perfect storm in recruitment and retention of teachers. 
With rather more of a worm’s-eye view of the situation, I’d beg to differ, at least over the direct culpability of the government. True, older teachers have long been accustomed to seeing their incomes outstripped by friends who went into other jobs or professions, but those who objected would have left years ago, while younger staff went into the profession knowing the pay structures. Government initiatives do make extra work and complicate the job, certainly, but they have far less impact than the day-to-day frustrations generated by the antics of senior management - at least the sort of heads and deputies who manage to impress interview panels and climb the greasy pole In today’s climate. 

And then there’s the fear factor. Barely a week seems to go by at present without news that yet another unfortunate teacher has fallen foul of the management over issues of gender or allegations from pupils and, in cases like the subject of the previous post, it’s increasingly hard to escape a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’, especially given the way some younger colleagues seem ready - or even compelled - to harangue their elders about gender identity and white privilege at every opportunity. With pupil behaviour plumbing new depths and orthodoxy saying ‘believe the victim’, teachers are more vulnerable than ever before to accusations from all sides.

One school I know publishes a staff list in order of arrival at the school (the list was recently reinstated after a brief hiatus when one of the high-ups apparently decided it was too divisive or hierarchical or something) and it highlights what may be a national trend; twenty years ago, the majority of those named were long-serving teachers who had been at the school for ten years or more, last year, three-fifths - sixty percent of the teaching staff - had been in place for less than five years.

This influx of mainly younger staff, together with the resulting lack of continuity and stability for staff and pupils alike, is changing the nature of the working environment, creating an embattled older minority of teachers wearied by virtue-signalling brash young colleagues, endless awareness courses and pointless schemes and initiatives, all the while living in constant fear of denunciation for saying or doing something which would have been perfectly acceptable a decade ago but which, today, could end a career or worse. Small wonder, then, that many are choosing to retire early, despite the financial penalties.

It’s nothing new for older staff to feel under-valued in a progressive climate and children will survive this as they have survived previous upheavals in education, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated at the wasted opportunities and the vast amount of wisdom and experience being lost from the system. 

Wednesday 14 June 2023

“I saw [insert name here] with the Devil!”

Another day, another witch-hunt.

This one (updated here) concerns an experienced History teacher in his fifties working in supply who, despite initial reservations, agreed to cover a year 7 science lesson for an absent colleague, teaching from National Curriculum resources on puberty. He thought the lesson had gone well but, at the end of the following day, the supply agency contacted him to tell him there had been a complaint.

Apparently the pupils, two of whom had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, were upset by his attempts to explain and contextualise the information and had accused him of crude gender stereotyping; instead of dealing with it internally and asking him to clarify the matter, the school had reported him directly to the local authority safeguarding body.

The authority immediately cleared him of any wrongdoing (and, he says, ‘criticised the school’) but the head still chose to escalate the matter and referred him to the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service, the body which clears teachers to work with children - or bans them from doing so). The DBS finally confirmed last week that there was ‘no case to answer’ but the damage has been done; the referral must be reported to all prospective employers for the next five years and, as numerous unjustly wrecked careers will testify, head teachers often prefer to believe there’s no smoke without fire. 

From professional experience, I’d say this whole business smells very odd indeed. Covering a single lesson for an absent colleague in another department almost always means providing supervision while pupils complete set tasks or homework; it is very unusual for a non-specialist cover teacher to be asked to present new material to pupils, let alone deliver a lesson in such a sensitive subject area. 

As for his alleged comments, he is supposed to have crammed a surprisingly large amount of offensive gender-stereotyping into a single lesson and the phraseology sounds interestingly uniform in tone and language register. Mr Higgins describes the allegations as ‘untrue’, taken out of context or the result of a misunderstanding - to that list a cynic might be tempted to add potentially leading questions, unwitting or otherwise, on the part of those investigating the affair.

(On the subject of the reliability of pupil recollection, I was once summoned to explain why a year 7 pupil had written, for homework, a poem about ‘punishment beatings’ and ‘guts hanging on barbed wire’, which he insisted had been the subject of my English lesson. It took the demonstration of twenty-odd rather wobbly but uniformly charming haiku about trees, clouds and flowers to convince the management that, prompted by the mention of Japan, he had spent that part of the lesson daydreaming about his favourite [and completely age-inappropriate] WWII computer game).

All in all, it looks suspiciously like a set-up; a humanities supply teacher instructed to deliver a science lesson - on puberty, of all things! - without being informed that the class contained two pupils with gender dysphoria. For the head teacher then to ignore the findings of the local authority safeguarding committee and go directly to the DBS - a course of action usually reserved for serious concerns about sexual or physical abuse - suggests that someone was determined to ensure Mr Higgins would never teach again. 

It’s always possible that a young or inexperienced head was manipulated by a cabal of aggressively self-righteous pupils (the world of ‘The Crucible’ gets closer every day; it’s worth bearing in mind that the real Abigail Williams was only twelve years old) but, based on the hostility of some younger colleagues towards those of us deemed deficient in virtue-signalling fervour* and their apparent lack of any sense of humour (or proportion), I would not rule out the possibility that Mr Higgins, possibly unwittingly, gave offence to a militant activist among the staff (or senior management) who decided, for the greater good, to remove him from the profession by any means possible, including exploiting his willingness to help a colleague by teaching a lesson completely outside his area of expertise.

*As an illustration, I once had to defend myself against another teacher’s accusation of endorsing misogyny and promoting ‘toxic masculinity’’ while teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’, a GCSE set text; apparently, when quoting from the text, I failed to include sufficient condemnation of Steinbeck’s attitude to women. (I should, perhaps, point out that I am, unequivocally, female).

Friday 2 June 2023

‘Double, double, toil and trouble,..’

‘Masterchef’ isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to find inspiration for social comment but I’m still mulling over an odd moment in one of the recent rounds where a competitor was discussing his plan with the judges.

“I’m taking you back to seventeenth-century Salem” he said, explaining his witch-themed creation of a cauldron-based dish served with a ‘monster’s eyeball’ and brightly-coloured slime and accompanied by a pastiche of the witches’ incantation from Macbeth. It was undoubtedly creative (albeit in a rather lowbrow trick-or-treat way) and apparently very well executed but I was finding it hard to concentrate because I was still struggling with his original comment - after all, wasn’t the whole point that there weren’t any actual witches in Salem?

I’ve mentioned ‘The Crucible’ a couple of times recently - the parallels in the world of social media and public life are, alas, inescapable - and, in the course of research, discovered that the social media generation may be interpreting the plot in a novel and somewhat disturbing way. By turning Abigail Williams into a victim and casting the townsfolk as the villains of the piece, the way is opened for a reading in which “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil” can be accepted as a believable statement.

The aspiring chef’s conflation of the Salem witch-trials and Macbeth was apparently inspired by a film -  a product of the usual Hollywood dumbing-down and distortion of history - about actual witches in seventeenth century Massachusetts, presumably leading to the same sort of muddled thinking which has people believing that Frankenstein was a monster with a bolt through his neck. Apart from sadly traducing the innocent (200 accused and 20 executed in a relatively small community), this confusion completely undermines Arthur Miller’s allegory and the point he was making about the evil of witch hunts.

In a world where Oprah fans, defending an imposter who promoted a false misery memoir on the show, can condemn ‘the facts squad; these people make me sick!’ and Prince Harry opines ‘There's just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts’, the play’s courtroom scene becomes a veritable quagmire of shifting truths and values - a problem which has chilling implications for the use of a jury to decide legal cases. If Abigail is assigned the moral superiority and credibility now accorded to victimhood, goes the argument, her truth must be valid, ergo Goody Proctor must be guilty of witchcraft.

Even before this shift in values, my faith in trial by jury was irretrievably undermined when, after some years in a different subject area, I took over another teacher’s English GCSE class and read their coursework essays on ‘Macbeth’; I still shudder at the thought of an innocent defendant trusting in the verdict of jurors who, a few years earlier, despite having read the play and watched a film version, struggled to identify the murderer of Duncan (or, in one case, insisted that it couldn’t have been Macbeth ‘because it’s never the person you think it is at first’).

With the concept of truth under attack from all directions and in an increasingly complex world, trial by jury may be reaching the end of its usefulness as an institution; what hope is there for justice in a world where people believe there really were witches in Salem?