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.


Anonymous said...


John Bald said...

You're very free with the word "ignorant", when what there is is a deep division of opinion over what a school should do and how it should be run. Schools face serious problems in the broken society, and the point at issue is how they should be dealt with. I'll probably post on the same topic next week, but for the moment will say that my criticisms of Ofsted are based, not just on the contrasts between what we see and its judgements, but on a framework that did not allow inspectors enough time to gather evidence to support judgements. Changes to this framework began in September 2009, and have continued.

Alex Blagona said...

But that does not take anything away from the sweeping generalisations you made in your initial article. The observations you made, in my view, completely miss the point of what the show was about.