The History Boys

This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.

At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’.  The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of  placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield.  The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.

Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene.  The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s.  This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.

Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades.  Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls.  There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion.  It is a sign that his days are numbered.  As the headmaster says:

“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006).  Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:

“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”

There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils.  Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home.  On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion.  As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.

It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour.  The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour?  Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?

Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:

 “A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”

Continue reading “The History Boys”


A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.

Michael Gove introduces the Schools White Paper

The Department for Education has appropriated a range of technologies to get its message across, following on from the previous Labour administration, the Department for Education has a YouTube site.  Its visual appearance is somewhat more sombre than that of it’s predecessor, the DCSF. Perhaps this indicates a greater emphasis on substance, rather than style. Or, perhaps, that is what we are supposed to think.

With the launch of the Schools White Paper, comes Michael Gove appearing on video introducing it. You can watch the video here.  It leaves you in no doubt as to what the key themes of the Schools White Paper are.

The White Paper is, as Gove tells us, called The Importance of Teaching

Firstly, this refers to the quality of teachers.   The Government is committed to raising the prestige of teachers.  That sounds unproblematic, on the face of it.   Note, however, the emphasis on the quality of teachers, not teaching. The White Paper invites us to believe that improvements in schools will be as a result of good quality teachers.   Presumably that implies that good quality teachers practice good quality teaching.  But this is not merely a semantic point. Good quality teachers will be identified through their degree classification.  Graduates will require at least a 2:2  in order to receive government funding for initial teacher training.  This might not appear to be a bad thing, after all, we want teachers who know their subject and can demonstrate this at degree level.  However, it does suggest that the qualities that are required to become a good teacher, exist, and are fixed before initial teacher training takes place.  In reality, given the popularity of many PGCE programmes, this level of selection is likely to have being taking place for some time. However, as a result of these proposals, providers of post-graduate teacher training programmes will now no longer be able to provide a place to a potentially excellent teacher who has less than a 2:2.

Secondly, there is the power that is to be given to teachers.    Again, this sounds unproblematic.  Teachers will be able “to take control of the learning that goes on” and will be given “new powers to take control of order and discipline in the classroom”.  If teachers are important, this sounds reasonable, let them get on with teaching, and, while they are at it they can get on with disciplining children.  How very generous of the Government to give teachers power.   So, let us problematise this. Can power be ‘given’ to teachers in this sense?  I doubt it.  Unless the Government genuinely sees that it has nothing to do with education, and will disband the DfE, and never again propose education policies,  it still has power, and it can just as easily take back this so called power that it is giving teachers. 

Alongside this new power, is freedom.  As the webpage for the Schools White Paper states, schools are to be  “freed from the constraints of central Government direction“.  The Schools White Paper, presumably, should not be seen as an example of  that “central Government direction”.   

So, there it is, teachers have power, and schools have freedoms, and, there is no “central Government direction”.  Except that “central Government” is pressing for the teaching of synthetic phonics, and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.  Testing remains, with a new “age six reading check”  to be introduced, inspections remain, and minimum “floor standards” will be imposed on schools. The curriculum is to be reformed, with a focus on “essential knowledge”.  We can accept that teachers have new powers, and schools have freedoms, however, they have these as long as they implement this Government’s policy

Physics degrees from ‘rubbish’ Universities

In a previous post I referred to Nick Gibb’s alleged quote, reported in the Guardian.  He is reported as saying:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

Here is a list from UCAS of Higher Education Institutions which are running physics undergraduate programmes starting later this year.

The Universities listed on this page are:

  • Aberystwyth University
  • University of Bath
  • The University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of Central Lancashire
  • Coventry University
  • University of Dundee
  • Durham University
  • University of East Anglia
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • The University of Hull
  • Imperial College London
  • Keele University
  • The University of Kent
  • King’s College London (University of London)
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Leicester
  • The University of Liverpool
  • Loughborough University
  • The University of Manchester
  • The University of Nottingham
  • Nottingham Trent University
  • Oxford University
  • University of Portsmouth
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • The University of Salford
  • The University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • The University of Strathclyde
  • University of Surrey
  • University of Sussex
  • Swansea University
  • University of the West of Scotland
  • University College London (University of London)
  • The University of Warwick
  • The University of York

Which of them are ‘rubbish’?

Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools

Nick Gibb is the new Minister for Schools.  This is not surprising, given that previously he has shadowed this position.

He thinks traditional forms of teaching and discipline are good, so, along with his colleague Michael Gove we might expect to see not only more uniforms, but rote learning, and on the spot detentions. However, Gibb is also anti bureaucracy and wants to leave headteachers to get on with the job.  Which, presumably means they are free not to implement traditional forms of teaching and discipline.  We shall see.

Since taking up his new position, he is reported, according to the Guardian to have said:

“I would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE.”

So, apparently he believes that some Universities are ‘rubbish’ , though which ones is not clear, though it seems Oxbridge does not come under the rubbish category.  Neither does Durham, one might assume, given that Gibb studied Law there.   Presumably he also believes that a graduate with excellent knowledge of physics will make a better teacher than  someone with, say, a third class degree and a PGCE.  However, there has been no announcement yet from the Government that teaching qualifications are to be dispensed with. We’ll wait and see.

Back in 2006, Steve Richards interviewed him, about his school days, for Teachers TV.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It is clear from this what kind of school he prefers: Maidstone Grammar good, Thornes House Wakefield bad.  However, he might disagree with the Minister for Education, Michael Gove on the issue of uniforms if his experience of Canadian schools is anything to go by.  No uniform there, but they did start the day by singing ‘O Canada’

If you watch the video, then listen for this quote from Gibb when Richards asks him about the different intakes of the schools he attended:

“I never knew what the intake was, as a kid I never, you never sort of assess that, but I did notice very much the differing quality of teaching and the ethos of the school”

So,while he was oblivious to the backgrounds of his fellow pupils in the numerous schools he attended, he was able to discern what good teaching is, and he stands by the validity of this selective, partial judgement. 

Continue reading “Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools”

Social Class still matters

This is not a revelation, but social class and education is making the news again. 

Earlier this week, a report commissioned by the Sutton Trust, Education Mobility in England reported on the links between the educational levels of parents and the educational outcomes of their children. 

Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Getty Images

 The research findings did show, unsurprisingly, that social class matters.    

As an indicator of social class, John Ermisch and Emilia Del Bono, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, who carried out the research for the Sutton Trust, compared children of parents with a degree to those without.  According to their analysis, in 2006 children with parents who were educated to at least degree level were four times more likely to achieve 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE than pupils who were not educated to this level.   As both the Guardian and the Independent reported, this gap is worse in England than in other countries, including the USA, Germany, and Australia. 

If you are concerned about the reproduction of social class inequalities through education this is not good news.   It clearly demonstrates the persistent influence of social class, and thus points to the maintainance of social class advantages by the educated middle classes.  

There are other important findings.  The attainment gap widens between the ages of 11 and 14, following transfer to secondary school.  The researchers highlighted the impact of the school, pointing to widening gaps in attainment amongst this age group being shaped by segregated secondary school admissions.  

If you read further down the reports in both the Guardian and the  Independent you will find some glimmer of hope.  The researchers did find some improvements, in that, for 11 and 16 year olds, the advantage of having a degree educated parent had diminished.  For the 11 year olds at least, they have been educated entirely under a Labour Government, and the report does suggest that education investments over the last decade may have contributed to a narrowing of the gap. They point to other research which indicated a widening gap in the early 1990’s. 

As a means of addressing this gap, the report recommends “more balanced intakes”  (p. 4)  into secondary schools. At present, intakes are not balanced. Phrases in popular discourses, such as ‘selection by mortgage’ indicate the ability of middle class parents to secure a place at their preferred school.  

Are the Conservative’s ‘free schools’ a solution?  In short, no.  They would further reproduce social inequalities.  An answer is to overhaul the secondary school admissions process.  But that would mean tampering with the concept of ‘parental choice’, even though this actually refers to the ability of middle class parents to maintain their class position through the education system. 

Continue reading “Social Class still matters”

Waterloo Road and the elusive exclusive Russell Group

At Waterloo Road, Kim, the Head of Pastoral Care, and Chris, the Deputy Head are making things up as they go along.  The  hitherto existing evidence supports this claim, and this week, further evidence of their ad hoc application of educational initiatives was put before the audience.

This week, Chris happened to set up a scheme to help one student, Ros, get into Oxbridge.  Other students,  may get to University, if they applied themselves, he asserted, but stood no chance of getting to one of the ‘really academic Universities’. 

What he meant, was, that this scheme was designed to help students get into one of the Russell Group of UK Universities.  Though, as ‘Russell Group’ is not frequently found in popular discourses, he couldn’t really say this in a popular TV drama. Inevitably, at Waterloo Road, some pupils felt disgruntled at being excluded from this scheme.  In particular, Michaela White, felt she had been unfairly labelled as ‘thick’, and campaigned for equal opportunities. The result, a selection interview revealed that Ros McCain had a very clear idea about her future, and the role of University in achieving this.  Michaela, on the other hand, was less sure, she knew what she didn’t want to do. 

This episode was, of course, full of sociological concepts.  There are, as Chris Mead stated ‘hundreds of Universities’.  Probably there is one which would take Michaela White, if she wanted to go.  But, some, it appears are better than others, or, as Mr Mead put it, there are some Universities which are really academic.  And, this is true.  While more young people now go to University in this country than have ever done, with Widening Participation a policy which many Universities pursue, attracting ‘non traditional students’, there remains inequality between High Education Institutions. 

At Waterloo Road, this stark reality was highlighted.  There were, for example, a number of references to social class and Higher Education.  The stratification of Universities reproduces social class and wealth inequalities.  In other words, your social class is likely to shape, not only whether you go to University, but also which University you go to.  Chris Mead said that he wanted Ros to have the opportunities that pupils at a private school would take for granted, so was clearly aware of this social class inequality.  Here, are clear references to Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and cultural capital.  Ros may be able to get the grades to get into a top University, but, as Mr Mead observed, she lacks the confidence.  Mead went further in describing her as a genuinely bright working-class kid.  So, while she isn’t surrounded by the right people who could help her get to Oxbridge, she deserving of the school’ help.  It is doubtful however, that a few months of tutoring by kindly teachers at Waterloo Road will supply Ros with the cultural capital that other, more advantaged pupils will possess. 

Chris Mead was less sympathetic to Michaela White.  Presumably, while she is working class, she is not genuinely ‘bright’.  In the end, she decided that University wasn’t for her.  Some sociologists have described this type of attitude as a form of classed identity where individuals reject the prospect of University, because it appears alien to working class experience.   Pupils like Michaela then, make choices about their future, and decide not to go to University, with this contributing to social class inequalities in higher education.  Mr Mead, however, appeared not to be familiar with the work of Louise Archer (et al) and preferred to label Michaela as a trouble maker. 

Elsewhere in the school, reality was suspended.  Aidan, a pupil we had never met before, was intent on maintaining his supplies of doughnuts and sausage rolls, and, Rachel Mason was holding an interview for a chef and health eating co-ordinator.  All part of her job, however, she appeared to be conducting the interviews alone, and the morning of the interviews was the first that staff knew about this new post. Did they all miss the advert?  Was not the Head of Pastoral Care invited to the shortlisting?  In the end she offered the job to a Mr Fleet, who, had missed his interview, having being trapped in Ruby’s cookery class. Which, raises more questions about the recruitment process. Continue reading “Waterloo Road and the elusive exclusive Russell Group”

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.

A Level Results

Various News headlines are today reporting a record number of A  Levels entries have been awarded A grades.  This year over a quarter (26.7%) of A Level entries have been awarded an A grade.  This is an increase on just over 25% least year and represents a new record.

One of the implications for the increasing pass rate and increasing number of top grades being awarded is the pressure on University places with demand this year outstripping supply. 

Today’s news reports also inevitably discuss the issue of dumbing down.   Today’s Daily Mail reports calls from the chief of the OCR exam board to make A Levels harder.  The Times  joins in with the debate and considers the possibility of ranking A Levels with percentages.  The Independent also reports on calls to “crank up the standard”, observing that Universities struggle to distinguish between candidates when so many achieve the top grades.  However A level grades should never be the only criteria by which Universities select their students

The overall theme is that the increased pass rate and increased number of A grades awarded is evidence of ‘dumbing down’ or falling educational standards.  Rather than take increased grades being taken as prima facie evidence of increased standards, this evidence is rejected.  The opposite must be true.   Chiefs of the examining boards contest the idea that A Levels are being dummed down. 

Some Facts to consider…

  • Over 60% of applicants have had their University places confirmed so far
  • The Government has made an extra 10, 000 places available to cope with the anticipated extra demand for University places this year (brought on by a number of factors, including demographic changes and recession)
  • This year competition for University places is greater than in previous years
  • This year there will be a record number of people studying at University as participation continues to widen
  • 40% of students receive a full grant to support them during their time at University

University places: State vs Private

It is only a few days until this year’s A Level Results are published.  This  year marks are expected to go up – for the 27th year running.  A Level results are of course influential in securing a University Place.  Top grades at A Level are oneof the ways a student can secure a place at one of the elite Universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge.   However a student’s chances of getting the top grades at A Level and securing a place at one of the most elite Universities is heavily influenced by the type of school that student goes to. 

In 2008 7.7% of pupils in comprehensive schools achieved 3 A grades at A Level compared with 31% of pupils from private schools. 

This amounts to educational inequality.

The implications of the inequality is discussed in this article from Polly Curtis and Tracy McVeigh in this Sunday’s Observer.  They  tells the story of two A Level students who are hoping to secure places at Oxford; one from an elite private school and the other from a Comprehensive.