Thoughts on Northallerton School & Sixth Form College’s Executive Principal’s Video Blog

The title is probably the longest I have ever used.  It certainly is not snappy, but it describes what this post is about.

Northallerton School and Sixth Form College has been placed in special measures following an Ofsted inspection in January 2018. Consequently, the school is, understandably, keen to demonstrate how it is making progress. As part of this progress academisation is being identified as a positive step forwards .  This post comments on the issues of accountability highlighted in the Executive Principal’s recent video blog, particularly in relation to the academisation process. The Ofsted Report is available on the school’s website as well as direct from Ofsted.

The Executive Principal’s video blog sets out to reassure parent’s that the school is making progress since the Ofsted inspection.  It is a two-hander video, with an amateur feel.  This may be deliberate, an attempt to convey an authentic voice of the Executive Principal who can be believed and whose opinions can be trusted because they are not tainted by the spin of professional video making.

Early in the video the Executive Principal addresses some of the areas judged inadequate in the Ofsted report.  Clearly, these will be areas of concern for parents of young people at the school, and listing the ways in which the school is addressing these is designed to set a reassuring tone.

However, there are several problems with this message of reassurance which are highlighted here.  The video is introduced by Keith Prytherch, the Executive Principal who doesn’t introduce himself by giving his name. An oversight perhaps?

The other presence in the video is Paul Bartlett, introduced as the ‘Chair of Governors’.  However, he announces that “the governing body is no longer in existence” (I’m not sure, therefore how he can be chair of governors).  The governing body has been replaced with an interim executive board (IEB) which is a process that can happen when a school is placed in special measures of where the governing body has not adequately performed its duties.  Paul is also introduced as chair of Areté (ἀρετή) Learning Trust, a multi-academy trust (MAT) which is a clear portent of the future direction of the school as I will comment on later.

A key theme referred to in the video is accountability, reflecting the identification of this by Ofsted as a major area of concern.

“The previous governing body didn’t really hold the school accountable for what was going on and that was part of the reason for the Inadequate judgement”

The response to the problems surrounding accountability are far from reassuring.

Whilst shortfalls in the accountability process have been identified, the video then goes on to outline how it intends to reduce local accountability even further.  The following statement is key:

“The School is going to leave Local Authority Control and go to a Sponsoring Trust”

References to local authority control are misleading and I would argue, in this context, irresponsible. The use of the word control here serves to support an idea that schools need to be freed from a dictatorial regime (the local authority). Local Management of Schools was introduced following the 1988 Education Act which delegated financial and management responsibilities to schools.  Further changes devolving more responsibilities to schools were made following the 2002 Education Act and 2006 Education and Inspections Act. Gradually, the responsibilities and the powers of local authorities over education have been eroded. Local authorities currently retain a limited number of responsibilities in relation to schooling, including planning for school places, arranging alternative provision for pupils who are permanently excluded from school as well as the provision of home to school transport. The local authority, North Yorkshire County Council, does not control the school in this sense, but does have responsibilities to promote high educational standards.  Indeed, as the Executive Principal explains, four local authority advisers are coming in to the school on a weekly basis.  This support from the local authority is celebrated as an example of how the school is improving.  Yet, shortly after, leaving this apparent controland academisation is identified as a way forward, no doubt sponsored by the Areté (ἀρετή) Learning Trust.

Accountability, highlighted here in this video is lacking in an academy trust. They are not accountable to parents or the local electorate, but are accountable directly to the secretary of state.  Concerns have already been expressed surrounding multi-academy trusts who withdraw from running schools.  In particular these trusts have been accused of asset stripping (land, playing fields, school buildings and other property is no longer owned by the school or local authority, i.e. it is no longer owned by you). However ineffective the governing body may have been in this case it is important to retain local accountability of schools.  The existence of school governing bodies ensures that not only parents, but local residents are able to hold local authorities and schools accountable.  If they don’t act accordingly, local democracy enables other representatives to be elected and appointed as school governors.

In short, the school is tackling shortcomings with the existing mechanisms of accountability by replacing them with an academy system which offers no accountability to parents and local residents  At the same it sells this as progress.  That is a clever, but irresponsible move.

Finally, Keith Prytherch ends the video:

“Any feedback, we would genuinely welcome”

You are free to read this blog post.

The conversation to academy status is presented as not only desirable, being the best way forward for the school, but as a given.  Neither is the case.  Academisation can be resisted.

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All American High Revisted

Cameron Crowe’s experiences of a year spent attending classes, undercover, at Clairemont High School in San Diego was documented in his 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story. Crowe’s account spawned the 1982 comedy film Fast Times at Ridgemont High while the 1980’s saw the production of several other films, representing teenage life in U.S high schools including The Breakfast Club. Earning a place amongst Teachers TV’s top ten school movies (The Guardian, 2008) The Breakfast Club, directed by John Hughes invites a critique of the school as a location of disciplinary power (Fisher et al., 2008). In recognition of the contribution of the film to an understanding of the socio-politics of schooling, along with its continued relevance, it was inducted into the U.S National Film Registry in 2016.

Amongst these coming-of age dramas All American High, a 1985 film directed by Keva Rosenfield stands out, not because it deviates dramatically from the coming of age theme, but because it is a documentary. Thirty years on, All American High Revisted is a re-released, remastered version which includes revisting some of the students who featured in the 1985 film.

Keva Rosenfield’s documentary follows the class of 84 at Torrance High School in California. Unlike Wiseman’s High School which focuses on power relations within the institution, All American High Revisited explores the social lives of students as they are mediated via the school.   In All American High Revisited Finnish exchange student Riikkamari (Rikki) Rauhala provides a narration which serves to make the space of the U.S high school, made familiar through drama, strange. Contrasting Torrance High with her experience in a Finnish school, where teenagers are keen to get away from school as quickly as possible, she observes

High School is the teenagers own world where they live and all the teenager’s life is around the High School

There are numerous opportunities available at Torrance High, and Rikki summarises these well:

I think High School prepares more for social life than work life

It isn’t had to see why she thinks this. Located in Los Angeles, near the coast, Torrance High School has a surf team to this day and the surf teacher in the film acknowledges he has chosen this job so he doesn’t need to take a vacation.  Other opportunities open to Rikki include cheerleading and preparing for several dances and parties.

Towards the end of the scenes from the original film Rikki reflects on her time at Torrance, satisfied that she has achieved high grades, whilst doing very little work.  She concludes

I’ve learnt to be lazy

In ‘where are they now’ style Rosenfield tracks down some of the students from the Year of 84.  Cesar, an anti-establishment bass player is working in law enforcement in Highway Patrol.  Michelle, who defended nuclear weapons is no longer a Republican.  Robert, who hoped to go to Police Academy became a Policy Chief in Texas.

As she prepares to return to Finland, Rikki promises to return for a reunion in five or maybe ten years.  She doesn’t. Thirty years later we see watching All American High with her family, and the children are predictably embarrassed, although her teenage daughter is impressed that she has friends made through real contact and not just the internet.

Continue reading “All American High Revisted”

Scotland Street School

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School architecture forms part of the visual culture of education.  Buildings that are built as schools, whether they still operate as such, form part of a readily accessible public archive of the history of education. Yet, as they weave themselves in to evolving landscapes, schools become hidden in plain sight.  If not demolished, they may be abandoned or transformed and repurposed.  Nevertheless, as Burke and Grosvenor (2008) observe school buildings remain recognisable as schools and, as Harwood states “Victorian schools have a visual interest as local landmarks” (2010: 1). Today, as reference point for nostalgia it might be easy to forget that they once represented beacons of civilisation as this conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson shows:

Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.

The Board schools.

Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England, of the future

Doyle (1955:215)

Such beacons were lighting up the Scottish landscape too.  Scotland Street School on Glasgow’s Southside was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with building completed in 1906.  Opening at the start of the school year in August 1906 with a capacity of 1250 pupils it ceased to function as a school in 1979 by which time the school roll had dropped to below 100.   Today, with an absence of housing surrounding the school it is difficult to picture the community it served. Many buildings in the vicinity, whilst still standing, are empty and derelict although there are signs suggesting regeneration and the promise of something better.

Ian Mitchell, in a blog post about the history of the school, puts it well:

It was once the local jewel in the crown, now it is more an oasis in a desert.

Located in Tradeston, the area around the Scotland Street School was once densely populated, hence the need for a school with such a capacity.   Following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 which made education compulsory for 5-13 year olds, the School Boards of Glasgow embarked on a building programme to accommodate children requiring schooling.  The Scotch Education department prescribed single storey schools, but multi-storey schools, such as the Scotland Street School were a practical response given the limited space and expense that this ruling would involve in a city like Glasgow (Hamilton, 2011).   Similarly, the practice of employing one architect was rejected on the grounds of expediency needed to complete the school building project across the different School Boards in Glasgow.

The result is a three-storey building with baronial inspired towered staircases with leaded glass, and glass bounded classrooms situated on either side of a corridor to make maximum use of natural light.  The Scottish thistle is integral to the fabric of the building, appearing on the railings, carved into the stone work, as well as appearing in the glasswork in the towers (see how the green triangles and blue circles on different storeys form the thistles).

Today, a category A listed building, Scotland Street School is museum.  The flyer alerting visitors to its existence recommends this as  “must see for fans of Charles Rennie Mackintosh”. It is equally a must if your interest lies in the history of education, but unless you are specifically looking for it, you are unlikely to find it on a brief trip to Glasgow.  Located across from Shields Road Subway is probably the quickest way to reach it. If like me you prefer to walk, head across Tradeston Bridge and walk long West Street where, en route, you can see the architectural remnants of long gone industries.

In one of the former classrooms, Alexander Shaw’s The Children’s Story a 1938 documentary celebrating Scotland’s education system plays on a loop. The opening statement reminds us that state schooling demonstrates civic pride and provides an imaginary for a better future:

In Scotland today, the first country in the world to have universal education, the focus of attention is the nation’s 800,000 children. In schools all over Scotland a revolution is taking place, teachers are discovering new ways to prepare their children for citizenship in the modern world.

Continue reading “Scotland Street School”

Kinder vom Napf (Children from the Napf)

Director Alice Schmid spent a year filming the children of Romoos, Entlebuchs (Entlebuch Valley) in Lucerne Canton in Switzerland.  The resultant film captures a year in the life of the children of mountain farmers. Reminiscent of Être et Avoir, Schmid conveys the passing of the year in the film’s hour and half duration by highlighting seasonal changes.  Starting in darkness, we hear children trudging through the snow, and see the flickers from the torches on their heads.  Calling out to each other as they assemble to travel to school together, they board a cable car, before embarking by minibus for the remainder of the journey, picking other children up along the way.  Very Être et Avoir.

There are numerous scenes of school life. Using Lego to visualise population changes in Romoos, the children are asked to consider the consequences of a falling population.  One consequence identified is that the bakery may have to close.  On a field trip, to the site of a charcoal pit, one boy warns his classmates about the dangers of falling in, the story he tells involves the recovery of a skeleton of someone who slipped into the pit. The boy then proceeds to walk around the edge of the pit as if to demonstrate the balancing skills that will, hopefully, prevent him from coming to a similar end.

At the school, in the Denkstube (Think Tank) the children speak direct to camera about their lives, offering knowledge, mainly about animals.  Although, sometimes this is not immediately apparent:

“There are some that are really not good-looking.  And others always turn into Miss, already when they’re little. ‘Miss’ is the best-looking.  For example: she has a strong pelvis, a straight back and the udder grows nicely on the belly.”

Outside of school, the almost idyllic scenes of children working on family farms is contrasted by reports of the wolf that haunts the Napf.  Along with the scenes of children and animals retreating from the impending lightning storm.  The seasons turn, we are in winter again, surrounded by snow and so the film ends where it started.

Uniform Infringements

The start of a new school year has been, predictably, accompanied by stories of pupils falling foul of new school uniform regulations.

As if to highlight the absurdity of rules, reports have featured cases where trousers have been deemed verboten due to being the ‘wrong shade’ of ‘charcoal.  Several news items from across the nation tell stories of pupils turned away at the school gates or placed in isolation and the parental anger at the apparent unfair treatment of their child for what they perceive to be a minor infringement.  Here is a small selection of news reports from the past week:

Pupils banned from Cheltenham Bournside School for wearing wrong trousers

Mum slams school’s ‘strict’ uniform policy which says boys must wear £16 trousers

School put 150 pupils in isolation because they were wearing the wrong uniform

400 Ysgol Penglais pupils in detention over uniform

School sends pupils home for wearing wrong shade of grey trousers

One common sense response is that these are the rules, the uniform requirements are provided in advance and so failing to adhere to them will result in some form of sanction.  If we accept that school uniforms are natural and that a failure to comply is evidence of anti-social behaviour that needs to be addressed, then we can leave the argument, unexamined, there.

But, any social scientific understanding of any aspect of life starts with a requirement to make the familiar strange and ask some critical questions about what is going on here.

One of the issues raised surrounds the requirement to purchase branded uniform items from a designated supplier.  School logos are embroidered on trousers and skirts and blazers have school badges pre-sewn on them. This means that parents cannot simply buy an item from a supermarket, they must buy a regulation issue item, often at a higher cost.   In other words, the business of school uniform suppling takes on the appearance of a cartel.    So, we could ask why is there a need for trousers and skirts to be branded?  Schools do have a response to this and seek to justify their uniform policies.  For example,  Heaton Manor School in Newcastle states:

Heaton Manor School believes that uniform increases a sense of pride and belonging to our school. Uniform also helps to address social differences between children.

So, uniform is for the collective good, as well as contributing towards social justice, therefore the school is justified in sanctioning you if you do not adequately demonstrate a commitment, via clothing, to these ideals.

This is deeply problematic and one would hope any scholar of education would critically examine such a statement in an attempt to understand what schools do to our children.

Uniform is a way that schools might seek to create a group identity.  We could revisit the founding perspectives in the sociology of education to understand why a group collective conscience might be a good idea, particularly as a means of maintaining discipline (Durkheim, 1973).  We can see this reflected in schools’ claims that consistency is needed to achieve a sense of pride and to maintain standards.  As Maguire et al (2010) observe, a tightly enforced uniform policy signifies to parents and the community that the school is maintaining order and that it takes discipline seriously. It is a means of managing risk.  Having a uniform is a form of social control, but this might not necessarily be positive.  Creating an ethos and a group identify can also deny individuality and, where society is based on inequality and conflict may be a means of maintaining and reproducing these inequalities. For example, we can go back to Thorstein Veblen:

The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies a considerable degree of dependence, and may even be said to be a mark of servitude, real or ostensible (1899, p. 78).

Or, we can look to Foucault, (see the section Docile Bodies in Discipline and Punish) and consider how uniforms may be a way of controlling and surveilling the body (see also Meadmore and Symes, 1996).

What of the claim that uniforms help to “address social differences”?  This is meant to appeal to our sense of social justice.  Of course, we need a uniform so as not to expose those children from deprived backgrounds whose parents can’t afford the latest fashions.  This is spurious.  If, as a society, we were that bothered about social differences we would address those social differences rather than use uniforms to pretend they didn’t exist. But, to suggest that uniforms have the power to disguise social inequalities is to ignore how social class is embodied.  Using a uniform in an attempt to ‘address social differences’, i.e. pretend they don’t exist might help us to deny the existence of the pernicious impact of social class inequality, but nevertheless social class remains a ‘zombie’ stalking schools (Reay, 2006).
Continue reading “Uniform Infringements”

Educating Greater Manchester (1)

The Educating series of fly on the wall accounts of everyday school life returned this week with Educating Greater Manchester filmed at Harrop Fold School in Salford. The series has become formulaic, with each weekly episode featuring a different aspect of school life. This week attention was focused on the ethnic diversity of the pupil population and the various responses to this diversity.  If the Educating series is a documentary, it is not investigative, and rarely involves a critical exploration the context in which events in the school occur.  Instead it appears to be more concerned with the emotive and providing entertainment.  Nevertheless, the school exists and the events do occur in such a context.

Focused on telling the story of Rani, a year 7 pupil from Syria, this week’s episode revealed the existence of racism in the school, though this word was rarely used, by the teachers.   Instead, various phrases to diffuse the potential harm the racist incidents might cause included:

You don’t mean it though, do you?

It was a joke

It was thoughtless more than malicious

Whilst there was a recognition that such incidents were unacceptable and needed tackling, the reluctance to label such incidents as ‘racist’ (see Pearce, 2014) might be seen as evidence of a tolerance for everyday racist discourses (Grigg, K. and Manderson, 2015; Miller, 2015).

Personal stories were also developed through direct to camera interviews.  At times these felt overly intrusive, such as when Marud, another pupil from Syria was asked about his father:

Do you think he’s alive?

As this episode progressed, so did Rani’s friendship with fellow Year 7 pupil, Jack.  Rani also transitioned from the SEND class where he was placed to help him develop his English language skills, to mainstream classes.  The transition was celebrated with a ‘graduation’, reflecting the effort of the individual involved. Whilst the move from this group might be positive for Rani, the existence of a celebration to mark a moving away from the SEND class is somewhat problematic.  What about those pupils for whom a move to mainstream classes may not be appropriate?

Finally, in a scene where we shouldn’t laugh, but probably did, we see Rani taking the lead in exercising their artistic tendencies on the dirt of a white van.  Rani writes ‘Fock’ and is followed by other boys drawing ever increasingly graphic phalluses.  How everyone laughed, including the head teacher.  He asks the assembled miscreants:

 What are they going to be thinking of the blue blazer?

Emphasising the importance of the group identity, he reminds us scholars of education that we need to re-read Durkheim (1973) from time to time.

Continue reading “Educating Greater Manchester (1)”

Ackley Bridge – Resolutions in need of tea

The final episode of Ackley Bridge served as a liminal zone, a place of resolution for a number of the issues explored so far as well as a threshold for further possibilities to be developed in the next series.  There is going to be one.

The extent to which school dramas represent school life, while not necessarily being representative of school life is discussed elsewhere  (See my posts about Waterloo Road).

The banner unveiled at the start of the episode displaying Collage might have been an indicator of what was to come.  The episode was, indeed a collage of loose ends from the series.  Indeed, when Mr Bell asks “how much damage can he [Jordan] do in the canteen with a couple of paintings?” we know we are being invited to begin to quantify the likely damage left at the end of the episode.

Firstly, there is Jordan. Reeling from the news that he is not the father of Candice’s baby he descends into his course of damage causing when he discovers that his brother Cory is the father.   Cory, is tall, handsome and articulate.  He is everything that Jordan is not, and all the girls like him.  However, Candice reveals he has some questionable sexual politics:

“We only did it the once…and he didn’t even talk to me after.  You were really nice.”

Jordan fails to hear the important point on the end of Candice’s protestation and instead chooses to cause ‘a scene’ in the canteen, as pupils in school dramas do.

Elsewhere, Missy is showing prospective parents and pupils around the school. Dropping into a science lesson she relays that “hands on experimentation with students is encouraged”.  A thinly veiled reference to the more than problematic behaviour of Miss Sharriff, the science teacher, towards one of her pupils, Nasreen. Missy accompanies this phrase along with some suggestive hand gestures.  There should have been a warning to viewers to cover eyes and ears.

The deserved embarrassment of Miss Shariff, whose behaviour warrants, at the very least, a teacher misconduct hearing, is interrupted only by a chemical reaction overflowing in phallic form.   From there, we move seamlessly on to the next humorous scene which is introduced by a cringe worthy performance from the school’s Brass ensemble (revealing the hitherto unknown absence of a Brass Band culture in West Yorkshire?).  Setting the stage for a car crash recruitment presentation to an audience that seemed, strangely, to consist largely of staff and students, Alya Nawaz, the daughter of the sponsor Sadiq Nawaz announces:

“My Dad’s screwing the headmistress, that’s the only bit of integration that’s going on here”

Gasp.  And, then we see the reaction of the assembled crowd, and we realise why there had to be staff there.  They need to pass round the gossip. This they do.

Shifting to a corridor scene we witness the utterly disgraceful attempt by Miss Sharriff to claim the status of victim as she admonishes Nasreen, the 17-year-old VIth former she has had a sexual relationship with:

“Yesterday,in class anyone could have found out the way you two were carrying on”

Before recognising, in an all too late moment of self-awareness that she “should never have gone near” Nasreen.  Bold and incredulously, she asserts that she is

“here to be trusted”

Seventeen year Nasreen stands her ground, failing to recognise the enormity of what has happened between them:

“I’m not gonna say anything and I’m not gonna tell anyone”

So, that’s alright then?

To be fair, maybe this storyline is in a transition zone and will be developed in series 2.  Who knows?

Meanwhile, back to Jordan.  Thinking he can only impress a girl as ‘sophisticated’ as Chloe by driving a stolen car at high-speed, rather than just being himself (i.e dozy, lovely and thus ultimately more decent than his brother) faces existential angst whilst looking out across the wilderness that is, presumably, Calderdale.

Throughout the episode we revisit the sexual tension between Miss Keane and Mr. Qureshi which has been brewing from the very beginning of the series.  It is a case of will they/won’t they before we are put out of our misery by Miss Keane deciding to be an adult and choosing to focus her attention on her daughter, Chloe, who we now know isn’t as sassy as she makes out.

Then, in an effort to save himself, Sadiq Nawez shafts Miss Carter, this time verbally, in front of the governors.  Drawing on familiar misogynistic tropes to make her behaviour seem worse than his he stakes his claim to remain as the school sponsor.  Miss Carter returns from a brief impromptu trip to the family court, where she has demonstrated to viewers that she really does have the best interests of the pupils at heart. Symbolically, her character too is resolved, reunited with her husband, Mr. Bell.  As she strides through the school doors the battle to keep her job begins.  But, we are in a zone of possibilities.  We will not know who has ‘won’ until the start of the next series.  This is a message to us to not to forget to come back for series 2.

In summary, the final episode suggested everything can be resolved by having a chat. It is Yorkshire, after all.  Nevertheless, this was unrealistic, there was not a pot or mug of tea in sight and everyone knows liminal spaces need tea, Yorkshire tea.

Ackley Bridge

‘Expect Challenging and Outrageous Behaviour’ warns the Channel 4 downloader about its new six-part drama, Ackley Bridge.  Challenging and outrageous behaviour, at least within the remits of the pre-watershed, is the staple of TV school dramas. The audience is presented with a familiar format.   Set in West Yorkshire, possibly, somewhere within the environs of Leeds/Bradford, because in drama land that is West Yorkshire. As with other dramas about the lives of young people (KES, Ratcatcher, The Selfish Giant), the presentation of the landscape as a backdrop to the lives of the characters is not insignificant.  When not within school, the young people’s lives take place within terraced houses, back yards, ginnels and waste land that serve to remind us that this is a bleak place that constrains the young people.  And if we don’t understand this message, the Head reminds that only one third of pupils from this area get GCSE English. The school will intervene in the lives of these young people, and they will turn out good.

While the deprived urban landscape provides the stage on which the young people’s lives are acted out the rural landscape, at least what we have seen so far, is the where free spirited English teacher, Emma Keane, lives. She provides us with an inter-textual reference to Wuthering Heights, so we’d expect her to be living where she does, a million miles away from her pupils?  Even here, the landscape is constraining for her daughter, who is used to London.  She thinks it is a backward place.  Nevertheless, it is not so far away from urban life, as Mr. Qureshi from the school can drop her home before returning to the school to retrieve his laptop, and possibly the girl’s mother.  Clearly, West Yorkshire is not so vast that it cannot be traversed in its entirety in a short car journey.

Ackley Bridge College is a newly created Academy, though, conveniently, we have been spared the story behind the creation of the Academy. If these details had been presented there is a danger that we might have questioned the disempowering of local communities, and the long-term consequences of the privatisation of education.  This is drama, and all we need to know is that the new school replaces two failing schools within a divided community and that, consequently attainment will rise as meritocracy triumphs.  The school aims to become outstanding.

Deprivation, particularly urban deprivation is another familiar theme of school dramas, and added to this, we have ethnic tensions.  A secondary school drama set in a market town would be inconceivable. Social problems do not exist there, at least not ones that can be explored on pre-watershed television for a prime-time audience.  Predictably, sexual tension, between the teachers as well as the pupils is an underlying theme to keep us returning over the next few weeks.  A social drama, politics lite, episode three is on 8pm,  Wednesday June 21st on Channel 4.

Bedale’s Bog Standards

Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochmerle is clearly not on the reading list at Bedale High School this term. If it were, the school’s management team may have been able to predict that a new toilet access policy might not have ended well.  Instead, a policy designed to limit ‘free’ access to the toilets to specific time slots prompted a pupil protest, starting in the girls toilets, then spilling out on to the school playing field.   The police were called; they determined, unsurprisingly that it wasn’t a matter for the police.  The school responded by fixed term exclusion of some 38 pupils.

Local news agencies broke the story on Friday 10th March.  The Harrogate Advertiser ran with Police called during student protest at Bedale High SchoolRichmondshire Today went with a  no less  descriptive headline:   Students protest about toilet breaks at Bedale School.  Predictably, the story made it to some of the Nationals, ensuring some unwanted, but warranted publicity for the school.

The protest was a response to recent changes in school rules which included altering the access arrangements to toilet facilities. The toilet access being one of a number of rule changes brought in by the school following a recent Ofsted inspection which concluded the school “requires improvement”.  A statement from the school, issued on the day of the protest, appears to be an attempt to clarify the toilet policy.  The statement also positions the school as reasonable,  reducing the protesting pupils’ actions disrespectful disobedience, thus justifying the school’s actions in excluding the miscreants.  Here is an extract:

“the school has reminded students that toilets are freely accessible during specific periods at lunchtime and break time but that students who need the toilet during lessons, or need access for medical reasons, will always be given access on request. Toilets are therefore accessible at all times.”

However, the wording of this statement, along with reports regarding the prosaic reality of this policy suggest something more problematic.   It appears there are gradations of accessible referred to here.  The school use the term ‘freely accessible’ when referring to the ‘time slots’ allocated for pupils to undertake acts of personal hygiene.   News sources have reported that the toilets are ‘open access’ between 11.05 and 11.25.  The school’s newsletter informs its pupils that the toilets will be open again from 13.10, five minutes before afternoon school starts.  While the assertion that “toilets are therefore accessible at all times” appears to suggest that human rights are being upheld, there is something more going on here involving the control of pupils, their bodies, and expectations of discipline and obedience.   Some reports suggest, that while the toilets may not be locked outside of these hours, pupils have to be escorted to the toilet.  Perhaps, there is a specific job role here?

There are a number of perspectives we can use to make sense of what has occurred .  From a Marxist perspective Bowles and Gintis (1976) suggest that the school functions to socialise children to thinking that hierarchies are normal and natural, and so learn to be obedient and subservient.   Unable to negotiate a resolution the pupils turn to protest, for which they punished and reminded who is in charge, as the school reminds us:

“Unfortunately, a small group of students have attempted to undermine our work to improve the ethos at Bedale High School.”

According to Bowles and Gintis, schooling thus corresponds with the world of work.  We could also look towards Foucault (1991) to consider the ways in which the school timetable operates as a disciplinary mechanism.  Time is used to regulate the body, and the body becomes the target of power.  In short, the school toilet is a site of spatial politics (Millei and Imre, 2016) where children are trained and civilised  (Elias, 1978).

Another problematic aspect of this incident was the report that some pupils could claim access to the toilets at any time, for medical reasons on production of a ‘medical card’.  If true this is a peculiar form of inclusive practice in the sense that it calls out the disabled, or ‘leaky’ body as requiring ‘special’ treatment, a theme that is explored in more detail by Slater et al (2016).  A dose of dis/ability studies and training in non-discriminatory practice might be in order.

Finally, this display of pupil protest is not unique, there are a wealth of examples from the history of pupil protests and strikes, many in response to punitive actions and material conditions in schools and classrooms.  These could have been studied to inform a more  dialogic process and productive resolution.  Teachers, study your own history.

Continue reading “Bedale’s Bog Standards”

PISA (Slice 1)

A lot can be said about PISA  (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2015, the triennial test and survey completed by a sample of 15 year olds in OECD and other nations.   Databases and interactive data visualisations are available on the PISA website.  Potentially, anyone with skills in data analysis can use these data sources to explore their own questions about the data, and research will no doubt be forthcoming. In the meantime, the first slice of PISA looks at news reports of the PISA results.

Results of the 2015 PISA test were published on 6th December 2016.  UK based news sources have been keen to report on the performance of the UK, and its constituent countries, in comparison with the other nations taking part in PISA 2015.  BBC News ran with the headline: PISA Tests: Singapore top in global education rankings reporting that, in comparison, the “UK remains a middle-ranking performer”.  The Telegraph asks: Where does the UK rank in the international school league tables?   While it reports that the UK has climbed up the ranks for science and reading, it cautions that the average point score had dropped in both subjects, though only by one point in reading.   As the Telegraph report goes on to say:  “only 11 per cent of students in the UK are top performers”  in comparison with Singapore where 35% of pupils are ‘top performers’.   Similarly, The Guardian focuses on the apparent lack of success of UK schools with the headline:  UK schools fail to climb international league table.   The Independent too warns that UK schools are falling behind leading countries.  These reports suggest that there is little to celebrate in the latest PISA results. The position of the UK in the PISA rankings signifies, according to news reports, that we are falling behind.

However, where average, or mean scores form the basis for comparison we should not be surprised to see some variation in the results between schools as highlighted by the case of Alexandra Park School in North London. As BBC News reported, the average score of the pupils in  this school surpasses the average score of pupils in Singapore, the top performing country taking part in PISA.    So, while the UK is ‘middle ranking’, some UK schools are not.  Some score higher, some score lower. Perhaps in an effort to highlight which country is to blame for bringing down the UK average,  the differential performance of constituent parts of the UK has also received attention. The PISA scores for Wales are lower than other UK countries, and falls below the OECD average.  The BBC reports that Wales is “still worst in UK in world education tests” as the performance of Wales’ pupils has failed to improve on previous PISA tests.   Wales Online reminds us that politicians may be judged by and held accountable for the educational performance of a country’s pupils, reporting that First Minister, Carwyn Jones has been described as a ‘failure’, partly as a result of the country’s performance in PISA 2015.

These reports, in highlighting the apparent mediocre position of the UK in global league tables suggests that the comparative performance of the UK should be a concern for both educators and policy makers. Grek (2009) discusses a politics of comparison where the PISA ranks provoke policy responses in an attempt to increase a nation’s position in future tests.  Future slices on this blog will pick up on these and other issues related to PISA.

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