Why was Helen Hopewell allowed in a classroom?

Where did Waterloo Road get Helen Hopewell from?  Which University admissions’ tutor interviewed her and accepted her onto a programme of Initial Teacher Training?  Was not concern expressed about her teaching ability during her teaching placements prior to qualifying?

Helen Hopewell is only one of a number of apparently incompetent teachers to have been employed at Waterloo Road.  Steph Haydock as has been demonstrated in numerous episodes is another one, and Grantly Budgen is, if not incompetent, certainly lazy.  Should we be concerned at the tendency of Waterloo Road to recruit and retain the least competent teachers?

If Waterloo Road was an accurate representation of a typical comprehensive school, then yes we should be concerned, but it is not. However, this does not mean that the portrayal of teachers in this way should not concern us.  Such portrayals deserve to be examined.

Chris Woodhead, when he was Chief Inspector of Schools told us that around 15000 teachers were incompetent nd should be sacked.  More recently Ofsted highlighted a  ‘stubborn core’ of teachers who were failing to inspire their pupils.  Researchers have also observed the incompetent and lazy teacher to be a feature of fictional portrayals and news media reports. 

Focusing on Helen Hopewell, a more detailed consideration of her character than the series has provided us with so far, might point to the unlikely scenario that there are Helen Hopewell’s to found in comprehensive schools throughout the land.

Pupils had nicknamed her ‘Hopeless Hopewell’, and from the outset it was clear to see why.  While teaching, her classroom management skills left a lot to be desired.  Outside the classroom she revealed herself to be emotionally vulnerable and dependent on  Max Tyler for providing her with a sense of self-worth (she was having an affair with him).   She begged Max for help on numerous occasions and in one episode accused Michaela White of pushing her down the stairs and was determined to get her excluded. She displayed other, problematic and immature behaviour such as  writing apparently threatening notes and bumping a pupil, Micheala White in the common room.   After an unfortunate episode with some spilt orange juice she made an even more unfortunate error of judgement by wearing one of Steph Haydock’s tops – one which enhanced a part of her anatomy which it was probably best not to enhance in a classroom full of hormone fuelled teenagers.   Was she not aware of the attention that she might attract wearing that? Indeed the wearing of that top did result in a cacophony of sexual harassment.  As previously mentioned, Helen Hopewell’s Internet safety awareness was, somewhat lacking and her pupils arranged a party at her home, without her knowledge, causing her to exclaim “Waterloo Road happened!”  It was as if she had stumbled into a Rochdale Comprehensive school rather than having chosen teaching as a career. In a moment in vulnerability in the classroom she revealed her motivation for wanting to become a teacher, she had ‘liked school’.

Helen Hopewell, motivated to do well in her inspection because Max had done so much to help her, faced up to the event by vomiting in the toilets, her affirmations where she told herself how good she was, had it appeared, not had the desired effect.  Her feelings of hopelessness not dissipated, she then paid a pupil, Amy Porter, to ensure good behaviour.  Amazingly it worked.  With her renedwed confidence she announced to her Head of Department that she was relaxed about the inspection:  “Today’s going to be a breeze. Trust me”.  Indeed the inspection went well but her career remained doomed.

When she at last decided that enough was enough she attempted blackmail with a copy of a DVD, which, we have to assume shows her and Max Tyler enjoying some sort of sexual activity with each other.  It can hardly have been a ‘one off’ or on the spur of the moment as she had time to set up the recording equipment and conceal it from Max during those tender moments.  Maybe he was so carried away with showing his appreciation for Helen that failed to notice the video camera in the corner of the room.  So the proof was there, and as we all know by now Max Tyler had given Helen Hopewell a job because he had been sleeping with her.  Of course!  Is it a  typical scenario, that in order for a women to get a job she has to be sleeping with the male boss?  Before we accept this we might ask the following questions:

  • Where was the rest of the interview panel? 
  • Where was the head of department on the day of the interviews? 
  • Or another member of the senior management team?  Where was a representative of the governing body? 
  • Where were her references (especially as it transpired her previous head of department didn’t rate her at all, not even to make the tea as Jo Lipsett announced in Episode 8)? 
  • What were the other candidates like?

These are the steps that teachers in the real world have to climb in order to be allowed in a classroom, the Hopewell story is just an entertaining and exaggerated representation of a teacher who isn’t performing at her best.

GCSE attainment by pupil characteristics

Today the DCSF published statistics on GCSE attainment by pupil characteristics for 2008-09. It breaks down GCSE results according to gender, ethnicity, free school meal (FSM) entitlement, special educational needs (SEN) and English as a first language.

In summary it shows that girls are outperforming boys though the gap between them is narrowing. The figures show that Chinese pupils continue to outperform pupils from other ethnic backgrounds.

The figures also reveal that deprivation continues to shape educational attainment, with pupils who receive free school meals far less likely to achieve 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE than their peers who do not receive free school meals.  However the gap between the two has shrunk on previous years, albeit by 0.6% .

However, as today’s Guardian announces a new gap has emerged, between rural poor pupils and better off pupils from urban areas.  The funding formula may be partly responsible, providing extra resources to schools in urban areas on the basis of deprivation, allowing these schools to provide one to one tuition and study sessions in school holidays.

The Statistical First Release which summarises the figures is available from the DCSF.

Academies: Gaming attainment targets?

Academies are part of the UK Government’s attempts to raise standards of educational attainment in areas where levels of educational attainment have been poor and educational aspirations, low. 

Academies can be seen as part of the Government’s attempts at promoting social justice in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. 

Academies are also high profile. 

Consider the Nottingham Academy , the largest school in Europe which opened its doors in September of 2009 accommodating its 3600 pupils on three campuses.  Sponsored by the Greenwood Dale Foundation Trust, it replaces 3 schools, one, Elliot Durham a comprehensive school which was badly underperforming in terms of the percentage of pupils gaining 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. One of the other schools it replaces is Greenwood Dale (the sponsoring school), it had dramatically improved its GCSE grades but was, unsurprisingly over subscribed.  The hope is that the success of Greenwood Dale can be applied to this new school, and that by launching as a ‘new’ school with a smart new Uniform and name, the baggage of the old  failing school can be ditched at the same time.

Academies are however not without controversy.  They can and have been sponsored by charities, the co-operative movement, other schools, Universities, and by businesses.

Consider the  Kings Academy in Middlesbrough, it is sponsored by the Vardy Foundation, associated with Sir Peter Vardy, a well known Christian who subscribes to creationism.  Academies have therefore attracted criticism because business involvement is thought to represent a ‘mortgaging’ of our educational future.  Additionally, in the case of the schools sponsored by the Vardy foundation, their involvement has led to concern over the inclusion of creationism in the school’s curriculum  (see the Guardian on this).  This concern goes wider than the way science may be taught in schools sponsored by the Vardy Foundation, but goes to the heart of the involvement of businesses in education.

Yet, despite the criticisms the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) is keen to demonstrate the success of Academies.  According to the DCSF they are often oversubscribed and GCSE attainment in Academies is rising at a faster rate than in other schools.  This appears to vindicate any criticism of Academies.

Except, it is not that simple.

Academies may be engaged in a process of ‘gaming’.  Gaming is a concept which refers to the way in which players (Schools or Academies) make rational decisions which bring them advantage.  In other words, they play a game to win.  A report published today by Civitas suggests that the apparent success of Academies in raising standards may be the result of practices may be pushing some pupils into vocational courses in order to raise the percentage of GCSEs attained at A*-C.  This could be described as gaming.

In its blog Civitas asks if the success of Academies is a sham.  The problem is, that while most Principals surveyed felt  that their Academies were doing well or very well, detailed breakdown of the attainment is not available (Academies are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act) and just over half of the Principals felt that Academies should have to break down their results by subject, as do other state schools?

It is suggested by the Civitas Research that much of the apparent improved pass rate at GCSE is accounted for by qualifications considered ‘equivalent’.  As today’s Guardian reports some of these qualifications have been described by Ofsted as being of “doubtful value”.

Civitas suggests that the gaming which may be happening is “impoverishing the curriculum of the already deprived” given that Academies are targeted in deprived communities with the aim of raising educational standards and aspirations.

The problem is we do not know how much ‘gaming’ is going on, however in an A*-C economy where vocational qualifications are regarded as GCSE equivalent it is hardly surprising that Academies promote this route for those pupils who they consider are not going to succeed with conventional GCSEs.

“Hopewell’s had it”

This was the warning of the Waterloo Road pupils this week.  Indeed Helen Hopewell did get it when a group of pupils turned up on her doorstep for an impromptu party, ruining her quiet night in with a rather large glass of red wine.

The pupils had discovered Miss Hopewell’s home address through her social networking site.  As one of the pupils, Michaela White commented, “has she never heard of security?” Clearly not.  This scenario is interesting in the context of recent campaigns over Internet Safety for children.

In Waterloo Road, at least, it would appear that young people have a greater awareness of Internet Safety than do adults. Certainly, Internet Safety campaigns are focused on young people, having being identified as being particularly vulnerable to online grooming from paedophiles.  Yet in Waterloo Road it was Miss Hopewell who could clearly of benefitted from memorising the motto of the Government’s recent Internet Safety campaign: Zip It, Block It, Flag It.

Hopewell’s lack of knowledge of web privacy also highlighted the issue that a number of teachers have to face when using social networking sites such as facebook.  In a recent poll by Teachers TV, almost half of teachers were concerned that pupils might be able to access their personal information through social networking sites.  The advice is use privacy settings, or, alternatively don’t use social networking sites at all.

However a number of recent news reports indicates that maybe adults, and it this case teachers are in need of some ‘Internet Safety’ awareness training.  Consider the case earlier this year of Sonya McNally who was suspended from Humberston School in North East Lincolnshire for expressing negative comments about her class through facebook.  Then there was the case of Phil Ryan, a now retired science teacher from Liverpool who performed a ‘funky chicken’ dance as an end of term treat for his pupils, only to find it posted, by his pupils on YouTube.  Interestingly the Daily Mail’s story on this, headlined Humiliation of science teacher’s Funky Chicken dance in class highlights YouTube threat,embedded the very clip while simultaneously highlighting the “threat” of Internet technology.

The Government’s Teachernet website gives advice to teachers on cyber bullying and harassment of teachers by pupils, suggesting that they use search engines to check what information is accessible to the public.  Maybe Helen Hopewell should have taken the free advice publicly available on teachernet.

Though Waterloo Road is fiction, and is often way off an accurate representation of reality, Internet Safety is clearly not just an issue for children.

Click Clever, Click Safe

Zip It, Block It, Flag It could become the Green Cross Code of the Internet following the launch this week of the UK Child Internet Safety Strategy.

Alongside the launch of a new digital code for young people’s use of the Internet: Zip It, Block It, Flag It was the announcement that Internet Safety is to become part of the national curriculum for Primary school children (it is already part of the curriculum for Secondary schools) from September 2011.

This is in recognition that the Internet is an important part of young people’s lives inside and outside of education.  In education ICT has held a central place since the launch of the National Grid for Learning in 1998 with this recently reinforced by the Rose Review of the Primary school curriculum which further highlighted the importance of the educational uses of ICT to primary school children.

Outside of education most children have some level of access to ICT in the home and children are going ‘online’ at a younger age.  Both parents and children report safety concerns with using the Internet and recent research by the DCSF found that just over half of those children who experienced harmful or inappropriate content took some action. 

Fears about Internet Safety are frequently voiced in the media in relation to the use of the Internet in the grooming and sexual abuse of children.  The Strategy therefore also details plans to update the ‘cyber skills’ of those working with children and provide guidance to Internet providers on how to ensure that children do not access inappropriate content. The Zip It, Block It, Flag It motto is designed as a reminder to young people to keep themselves safe online, while the CEOP reporting button, through which people can report  any ‘abuse’ or inappropriate content they encounter online  is to be further developed.

Secondary School Admissions

The publication this week, Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools by the LSE has brought into question the fairness of school admissions.  The report, written by  Philip Noden and Anne West from the LSE’s Education Research Group is actually the 2nd of two reports  undertaken on behalf of Research and Information on State Education (RISE) looking at school admissions.  While this latest report examines the role of Local Education Authorities and, importantly the role of  School Admissions Forums  (bodies set up to advise LEAs on school admission arrangements taking a particular interest in looked after children and pupils with special educational needs ) it is the non compliance of some schools with admissions code that has captured the attention of recent news reports. 

Headlines have included Schools ‘trying to steal pupils’  from the BBC, and from the Guardian; Schools use dirty tricks to attract best pupils. These dramatic headlines refer to some of the practices reported by the LSE researchers.  These included a school which altered its admission policy with the effect that children living on a social housing estate now had a much reduced chance of being admitted to the secondary school whose catchment area previously included their neighbourhood.  Some schools required parents to complete supplementary information forms, against the Admissions Code. Other schools which were undersubscribed  contacted parents to encourage them to reject their offer from a more popular, oversubscribed school.  In the case of another school it used proximity as a measure on which to allocate offers.  However it did not use the proximity of the child’s address to the school as a criteria which would have been logical. Instead it altered its admissions policy, ranking applicants according to their proximity to a building half a mile away from the school.  Even this admissions policy did not break the Admissions Code and the LEA had not objected to this change in policy.

The findings in the RISE report, aren’t, in fact news, and they are not surprising in the context of a quasi market in education fuelled by the A*-C economy.  In 2004 researchers from, again from the LSE, including Anne West , co-author of the RISE report published research observing the admissions practices of secondary schools in England.  Their analysis revealed that Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools in particular (who have responsibility for their own admissions) adopted criteria which included some groups of pupils while excluding others.  While admissions criteria are designed to do just that the concern is that schools are selecting pupils who are likely to maintain or enhance the school’s rating in league tables, and thus ensuring the school remains a popular choice among potential parents.  In this study, (published in the Oxford Review of Education) West along with fellow researchers Audrey Hind and Hazel Pennell, observed a range of admission criteria, several of which were inconsistent with local Admissions Codes, including some which they termed “idiosyncratic”, “not clear, objective or fair” (p. 359) and  which included, for example admission on the basis of the good conduct of an older sibling.  They concluded that schools which controlled their own admissions criteria were in an advantageous position in the quasi market of education.  This means that these schools in particular are able to cream off the best pupils; often those from middle class backgrounds, while not selecting those from more deprived neighbourhoods and those more likely to be excluded from school.  From a sociological perspective it is possible to see this as an example of the ways in which the education system is implicated in the reproduction of socio-economic inequalities, challenging the common-sense view that education is a route out of poverty.

Teacher Sex Offenders: blurring of boundaries?

Christopher Mead, in last week’s episode of  Waterloo Road was definitely not a sex offender, despite one pupil’s threats to brand him as such in a blackmail attempt and despite another’s misinterpretation of his behaviour arising from her own damaging formative experiences.  Over the last few weeks, away from TV comprehensive school dramas there have been a number of news reports of court cases involving teachers convicted for grooming and or sexual activity with children. The teachers in these reports are no Christopher Meads, who, unwittingly attract false allegations as they naively set off to rescue pupils from sleazy back street lap dancing clubs.  In courts of law they have been demonstrated to be  sexual abusers from whom children need protecting.

Back in September there was the case of Matthew Knott, who not unlike Waterloo Road’s Christopher Mead was a Science Teacher from Greater Manchester.  He was jailed for grooming a 13 year old girl for sex (not one of his pupils).  He did this by setting up a false identity, ‘Jessica’ in order to chat with his victim online and persuade her to meet him.  Using his own identity he arranged to meet the girl, and picked her up in his car, drove her to his flat and ‘told her’ to have sex with him.

Move forward to November and there is the case of Kenneth Anbany who taught in a school in Exeter.  After his arrest he claimed he was “bit over familiar at times”.  This would appear to be a gross understatement, as this ‘over familiarity’ involved driving one of his 15 year old pupils to a wood and asking her to have sex with him.  During the investigation other pupils described how Anbany would behave in a sexual way towards them.  He admitted charges of sexual activity and causing or inciting a child to have sex.

At the end of November newspapers reported on the case of a female offender, Madeleine Martin from Cheshire, who was sentenced to prison for 32 months. The Internet is involved in this case too, as she and her 15 victim, a boy at her school began communicating via facebook before the relationship became sexual.  She was, as the Judge said at a “low ebb”, however the boundaries of acceptable behaviour became completely ‘blurred’ as she paid for him to get a tattoo, and had sex with the boy.  Both are, of course, illegal.

Earlier this month the case of John Cope was reported in national newspapers.  An IT supply teacher at a private school in Brighton, he communicated, using a mobile phone with his female pupil, sending her sexually explicit texts.  In his defence he claimed he was trying to help his pupil through a difficult time, though one wonders how he thought sending texts about flavoured condoms and oral sex was going to achieve this.  He was found guilty of sexual grooming.

This select sample should not be used to suggest that in every school there lies a sexually predatory teacher intent on grooming his or her pupils.  The media, to varying degrees sets the agenda as to what news we get to read about.  The behaviours described in these news reports are clearly cases where the boundaries were not just blurred but completely transgressed by teachers who were in positions of authority, and in most cases had a duty of care over the young people they taught.  They behaved in ways which they must have known were inappropriate and illegal. 

Mead’s efforts to engage students by giving tutorials, in contrast, appears to be a manifestation of ‘personalised learning’ which is highly valued in contemporary educational policy discourses.  Of course he needs to ensure this personalised learning is properly sanctioned and overseen by the school.

As for his attempts to rescue Vicki MacDonald from a Lap Dancing Club; surely that appears to be positively heroic?

Waterloo Road – Web hacking and amateur sleuthes

Episode 6 of this series of Waterloo Road highlighted once again some of the issues that are associated with schools.

Until now there had been no suggestion that Christopher Mead, the new deputy head was a sex symbol.  However almost right from the start pupils were videoing him as he bent down to pick up a conveniently dropped folder and before long the clip was pasted onto the School website under the ‘Meet the Teacher’ pages.  This didn’t say a great deal for the Internet security policy of the school, and the Head teacher when informed didn’t exactly react swiftly, preferring to admonish the teacher in question and not mentioning the pupils responsible.    Perhaps Waterloo Road might like to consult BECTA for advice on securing the school’s Internet connection, it could consider revising its Internet access policy, presuming it has one, of course.

In defense of the Rachel Mason, the Head Teacher, she was rather busy playing at being amateur detective in the case of Lindsay James’ the pupil whose mother has killed her father in mysterious circumstances.  Rachel Mason invited Mrs James’ solicitor into school and then tried to extract from Lindsay information that might help her mother.    Eventually, after spending the day accusing Mr Mead of being a paedophile  Lindsay disclosed to an unsuspecting Rachel Mason that her father had been sexually abusing her.   Immediately after hearing this distressing information, Rachel Mason went off to the pub with deputy, Christopher Mead, who is no longer accused of being a child sex offender.  Maybe she had forgotten to call the local  Child Protection Unit, pondering that she would have to call the ‘designated officer’ the next day, if she knew who that was, of course. 

Still, what this episode did highlight was the issues that schools have to deal with,  a sentiment shared, in this episode by Christopher Mead after discovering why Vicki MacDonald was really trying to accuse him of sexual harassment.  Max Tyler, the new Executive Head, of course felt that pupils came to school to leave all their problems behind.

Of course schools don’t exist in a vacuum, as has been highlighted in Waterloo Road countless times.  It is strange however that in one episode that many of the difficult home backgrounds of pupils can be resolved.

Achievement and Attainment tables

This is the new term for performance tables which were published earlier this week by the DCSF.  You will find details of each primary school’s performance at Key Stage 2, the test that pupils take in the final year at primary school, aged 11, here.

School performance league tables are receiving some bad press at the moment.  Introduced by the previous Conservative administration as part of a marketisation of education, league tables were intended to provide parents with information upon which they could base decisions about their child’s education, and they could choose to send their child to the school of their choice.  In a free market economy it was believed that this would lead to raised educational standards, with parents exercising their rights to send their child to the best performing school, which schools ranking low in the league tables would be forced to improve in order that it retained and attracted pupils.  In other words parental choice would drive up standards.  Brilliant, just by choosing to send your child to a highly performing school parents can drive up standards.

Except it doesn’t work like that.  Parents have numerous reasons for selecting schools, and many parent have little choice about where to send their children, the local school becomes an automatic choice for many without cultural capital, knowledge to seek out the ‘best’ school or transport to ensure that their child can physically attend a seemingly better school on the other side of town.  For a comment about some research which examined this, see a previous post on the impact of parental choice.

The publication of the 2009 Achievement and Attainment tables follows bad news stories for performance tables.  In recent years we have seen the delay in publication of the tables along with the termination of contracts.  Key Stage 3 testing was recently abolished and political parties continue to vie  for votes  in a future General Election by telling us what they will do about League Tables.  The current Labour Government who inherited the legacy of league tables has hinted that they will probably disappear, replaced by teacher assessments with these to be introduced alongside test results from next year.  The Conservatives who introduced them, claiming it was necessary to inform parents about the ‘quality’ of local schools has suggested replacing them with a test in the first year of secondary school.  The problem here is that the league tables will not actually relate to the performance of the seconday school  but that of the primary school the child has just left.  So quite what the purpose of such performance tables will be is unknown.  Next year’s tests are threatened by members of  some teaching unions (the NAHT and the NUT), just in time for a General Election.

The publication of the 2009  Key Stage test results has prompted concern over falling standards with the Guardian reporting on the growing numbers of schools where pupils are failing to reach Level 4 (the expected level) in English and Maths by the end of Key Stage 2.  Yet, elsewhere Dian Morgan, the Schools Minister has highlighted the improvement in the number of pupils reaching Level 5  (beyond the expected level), particularly in Maths.  The DCSF press release also singles out Darlington as the most improved Local Education Authority.

League tables have been criticised since they came into existence because of the problems with reporting on the raw scores of pupils, failign to take account of the value that a school has made to the child  (known as value added) and the context of the school, such as deprivation, which is known to impact on educational attainment.  Under the Labour Government the issue of the various social contexts in which schools exist has been dealt with by a Contextual Value Added measure (CVA).  If you look at this on the DCSF website you will see this explanation:

“The CVA measure is shown as a score based around 100. Scores above 100 represent schools where pupils on average made more progress than similar pupils nationally, while scores below 100 represent schools where pupils made less progress.”

But this isn’t a remedy to the limitations of league tables as it based on having the Key Stage 1 scores of all pupils, which may not be possible in a school with a high level of mobility, particularly from abroad.

Just how much does the publishing of school tests actually tell us about the quality of education that takes place in that school?