10 Sep 2016

Come on MFL teachers, it's time for change, but our time is now.

It's been an interesting summer, one of great change, with Brexit, a new PM, a new Education Secretary, and the potential return of grammar schools.  It's also been a personal summer of change, as I moved to a new school after 13 years of running a specialist language college, and am charged with helping to raise the profile of languages in front of a new bunch of pupils.  

We've also had another summer where the exam grade boundaries went up, where pupils who previously thought they would get that C grade, now didn't make it.  This is also the year where we start teaching the new GCSE courses in MFL, with the translations, the literature, the grammar, and of course the end of controlled assessment.

In the education sector, English, maths and science continue to be the top priorities for schools, followed supposedly by the other EBacc subjects - humanities and MFL.  Some schools of course take this seriously, others however do not, with the number of pupils attaining the EBacc in England in 2015 standing at just 23%, a figure that has barely changed in 3 years. 

It's at this point that I asked myself whether there was actually any point in teaching languages anymore.  We appear to be living in a more divided society, where hate and fear sadly take precedence over tolerance and love. We are told by some quarters of the media to distrust foreigners, migrants, asylum seekers, anyone that doesn't speak English. We are warned that travelling to Europe may cost us more, and that businesses may move out of the UK, and we are told that EU citizens currently living in the UK do not as yet have their rights to stay assured.  So surely the time is right to move on from teaching MFL?

I say that in fact the opposite is now true - that the vote to remain in the EU was what the young people of this country wanted, and that the reality is that teaching our young people a foreign language has now never been more important.  

We have a duty as language teachers to not only explain the finer points of the conditional tense, but to educate children in tolerance, understanding, and to convince them that being able to communicate with people from other countries is a hugely important skill for the future.  

Despite the pressures we are under to attain our GCSE targets, we need to encourage pupils to learn a language as a life skill, as a way to broaden our minds, and expand our horizons, and to prove to them through our examples that culture and society isn't the same in every country, and that no, not everybody speaks English, no matter how loudly you shout.  

The new GCSEs give us an opportunity to revamp how we teach, to actually teach for the love of the language, to take the time to explain where words come from, to take the time to explain the cultural and social nuances that shape our partners in Europe, to dispel the lazy stereotypes that certain parts of the media use to label the French, Germans and Spanish.  

It's true that these things we all do as language teachers already, but the fight to keep the profile of the role of MFL (or even raise it) is truly on, be it with the pupils themselves, their parents, or even our own school leadership teams.  The numbers taking languages at A-level have been in sharp decline, so we need to play the long game to renew enthusiasm and desire. Create a love of languages for your pupils, engage them, entertain them, inspire them, and eventually we can win them over.  So many of us have become despondent and demotivated over time, but it's now time to work towards the bigger picture.

We owe it to the generation of young people who will be denied the right to easily study and work abroad, who will find their career choices limited to opportunities based in the UK, the generation that one day will hold power in this country, and will possibly one day look back to the day Brexit came with regret.

So let's keep at it, use the #mfltwitterati to support, help, advise, and listen to you, and let's do this.

Have a great year!

31 Mar 2016

My way, your way, anything goes...but am I wrong?

I'm a keen follower on Twitter.  I used to love the feeling of camaraderie, and sharing resources, and sharing good ideas, and the fact that it became a one stop shop for ideas, support and advice.  Then came in a change of government, a change of ethos, and a change of direction in terms of education.  Along with that came the inevitable range of experts, offering us 'research' and 'evidence' that suggested what we were doing in the classroom was wrong and that there's this book we've got to read to make sure we are doing the right thing and teaching the right way, because any other way is wrong.

Now I'm not in denial when it comes to educational research, but I like to pick and choose what I read, and not have it forced down my Twitter feed by these 'experts'.  The thing a lot of these 'experts' have in common is a relative lack of actual teaching experience, a couple of years here and there, a book publishing, and then a day or so a week in a school to keep their hand in, or to give credence to what they write about. 

My real issue is this.  I teach French, and am now in my 20th year of doing so.  The methods I've used to attain grades have evolved and been reinvented, have been tinkered with and adapted over the years, though my own self-reflection and advice of those I work with.  I teach in a comprehensive school, where languages are compulsory, so deal with a number of pupils each year who have to learn a language but don't want to, and I'm judged by my results.  I use ICT and iPads, because the pupils enjoy it, and it adds relevance to what we study, I get them to design posters and leaflets, we do role plays, we are creative.  I also do learning by rote, memory tests, grammar drills because I feel it's necessary.  What is consistent is that I get good results, and have a decentish career of results to back up my methods.  Furthermore my methods are not too different from thousands of other teachers across the country who are sensible enough not to listen to those that pontificate in 140 characters, because quite frankly they don't have the time or the energy.  

In this new era of acadamisation, where schools are supposedly given new freedoms to deviate away from the national curriculum, teachers should be able to plan engaging lessons as they wish to.  Personalised learning? I like it.  "But the research says it's wrong." In my classroom, with my students, in my subject and in my circumstances it works.  

So let's get back to sharing ideas and good practice, let's cut down on the preaching, and if your methods work, then stick to your guns.

10 Dec 2011

By the sea at Margate - Kent Transformation Network

Early morning in Margate

It was a privilege to have been asked to present at the Kent Transformation Network on behalf of CILT and the CfBT this last Wednesday in a cold and blustery Margate.  Despite the wind outside, that nearly swept many of us away, the buzz inside the wonderful Turner Contemporary Gallery was really good.  Forty teachers from across Kent attended a number of workshops - my colleague from Suffolk Lara Townsend talked about ideas for providing a motivating and engaging Y9 curriculum. There was Jenny Carpenter, the languages adviser from Barking and Dagenham, presenting a session on how to create more autonomous language learners, Sharon Czudak on alternative forms of accreditation, Pete Spain looked at better use of listening resources in lessons, whilst Irene Wilkie ran a session on grammar, and Sue Short delivered a presentation on 'Developing a desire to read in the foreign language'.  I was asked to provide a run down of useful websites and tools that can spice up MFL lessons.  Trying to get though 30 or so ideas in 45 minutes was always a big ask, but I think I managed to just about pull it off.

Such a wide range of talks meant that there was enough to cater for everyone's interest, and it was great to catch up with some of the #mfltwitterati - the ever-growing band of Modern Language teachers who on twitter - they seem to be everywhere now!

Turner Contemporary
In the current climate where CPD opportunities are under financial pressure, and where schools are more reluctant to let staff have time off school, these sort of events are excellent methods of getting more information, meeting new colleagues and sharing new ideas with like minded people.

8 Dec 2011

Exam boards still don't pass the test...

Photo: comedy_nose
The recent allegations regarding examiners 'giving away' key information has provoked another outpouring of annoyance from many in the teaching profession.  I seriously consider the examination system in this country to be discredited, mostly unaccountable, and more interested in making profit than trying to get the best out of our students, and upholding standards.

For one, does the country need so many different exam boards? The idea has, I suppose always been about choice.  If we don't like what one board does, well we can switch to another.  We changed boards a few years ago, feeling that our students would do better under a different organisation.  Not that the discussion was not entirely around teaching and learning, but about which board would be fairer (and easier) for our students.  In all honestly, these are not the sort of discussions schools should be having, but in the chase for the A*-C percentage, then it is only logical to weigh up one's options.

If we bemoan the standards that our students achieve, and their apparent lack of skills upon leaving school, I feel you can point the finger at teachers.  Yep, it's our fault.  It's our fault because we teach the students what they need to know to pass the exams, and have no time in the curriculum for anything else.  Until the assessment changes, then this will carry on.  How students can achieve A* or A at GCSE in a modern language, and yet still lack the grammatical understanding for AS Level is an outrage.

Of course, to help train (rather than teach) students to pass their exams, there are a number of useful strategies.  First of all you invest in your course resources.  A good text book is a start.  It helps if you buy the text book that is "exclusively endorsed" by the exam board that your students are following.  You can also attend the CPD workshops run by the exam board, for which schools have to pay, but then it's really important that we know all the hints and tips that the chief examiners can offer, isn't it?  The fact of the matter is that the exams business is just that - a business, and there is money to be made from it - but is profit coming before standards?  Maybe someone else can answer that question.

If we expect the best from our students, then surely we should have the same expectations of the examination bodies that assess them.  As teachers we work hard, and at times under extreme pressure to prepare students for the GCSEs and A Levels, and we have a right to expect that the exams are marked fairly and consistently.  The rise in the number of remarks (for which schools have to pay) would indicate that consistency is not being applied as it should.  Why not? In modern languages I have been stunned by the differences between the marking in French and Spanish, often taught and moderated by the same teachers. Then you only have to look at exam papers that have errors on them.  That is a disgrace which should never, ever happen. 

I'm not a massive fan of Mr Gove's policies, but I welcome any review he orders into the awarding bodies, in the hope they get their house in order.

1 Nov 2011

Is the 'reality' as bad as that?

Over the weekend I was drawn by Chris Harte's post on twitter to John Bald's post on ConservativeHome.com in which he draws comparisons between Passmores Academy in Harlow and the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney.  Frankly, I was stunned by both the tone of the article and the level of ignorance it portrays regarding modern comprehensive schooling.  I'm not one to jump to knee-jerk reactions, so have waited a while to formulate a response.  

The Channel 4 programme Educating Essex, considered by some to be either a reality show, or documentary, depending on your viewpoint, aims to give an insight into the lives of selected students at Passmores.  Since the series started, it has been a conversation topic both in my staffroom, and at times in my classroom.  The general consensus amongst my colleagues and my students is of how realistic it is, and how well it reflects the situations and problems faced by many students these days.  It is very much filmed in an attempt to give a balanced portrayal of the difficult lives of teenagers, and the dedication, frustration, patience and endeavour shown by their teachers.  

The point of the programme seems to have passed John Bald by. 

"The pupils’ work rate in lessons we’ve seen has been far too slow, and their lack of commitment to or interest in their work pretty much constant."

In each episode, only a limited amount of time is spent actually in the lessons themselves, with the programme concentrating more on the story or issue of the student that features predominantly in that week's show.  Bearing in mind that filming went on for a prolonged period of time, and that images of students working quietly in neat rows doesn't actually make for good television, I believe Mr Bald's comment to be ill-informed and naive with regards to how the media works.

"...the head sets a poor example with his slack tie, crumpled collar and occasional designer stubble."

Does a good teacher become a poor teacher depending on their choice of wardrobe? Should a teacher with tattoos be overlooked for a position in a school because they may be perceived by some to set a poor example?

"The tables are part of the problem. A pupil’s attention should be on his or her work or on the teacher – this does not happen if they raise their head and see another pupil opposite them, as this invites interaction between pupils rather than work."

Agreed. Pupils should concentrate in lessons.  Pupils should also learn to work in groups, interact with each other, learn collaboratively, and learn with and from each other.  My students sit in rows.  They also sit in a horseshoe, in clusters of tables, or any way I see fit to challenge their learning and to promote interaction.  Again, Mr Bald, you saw a snapshot of what was going on and made a huge assumption of the state of the pupils learning.

"Three per cent of Passmores pupils reached the Ebac standard last year."

This is compared to 0% of pupils at Eton or Harrow.  I appreciate that Eton study the IGCSE, but these don't count for the EBacc either.

"Most of the pupils at Passmores do not hate school or education, or even dislike them. They are just indifferent, and see school work an interference with their social life, which revolves around cliques."

Considering that the programme focuses on Year 11 pupils, and at best we come face to face with 20 of them,  using the term 'most' is a huge sweeping generalisation. 

"Ofsted failed Passmores pupils by rating this school as outstanding, despite evidence of significant weaknesses in the demands made by teachers..."

The Ofsted inspection of Passmores says "...students' enjoyment of school is outstanding, confirmed by what parents and students told inspectors..." Whilst Mr Bald believes that the inspectors are missing failings in the school, the views of the major stakeholders would tend to counteract this claim.  Ofsted go on to say that "...there are high expectations of what most students will achieve...questions asked by teachers are of an unusually high quality..."

So not only does John Bald disagree with the management style and teaching that goes on at Passmores Academy, he also finds fault with the inspectors that graded the school as outstanding.  Teaching has moved on, standing at the front of the class and talking at pupils might work for some, but won't work for the majority.  I won't argue the fact that there are significant failings in the education system, but I dismiss his cynical view of a school based on at most 5 hours viewing.  That's even less time than an inspector would spend in a school.  Today's teachers are more caring, patient, sympathetic than they have ever been.  It's not my job to defend Passmores, but more to stand up against a generalisation and lack of balance that would shame my A-Level students.  I wonder what the Ofsted inspection was like for Waterloo Road.