A teacher with 25 years’ experience writes anonymously about life inside the education system — and explains how parents can work it to their advantage
Technically, the Senco was obliged to investigate any claim and carry out relevant assessments, but none of the parents knew this. Further, because we’re an academy, it’s much harder for a local authority (which is ultimately responsible for children with special educational needs) to hold us to account: we can pretty much do what we want. The only place parents can go with a complaint is the Department for Education, and they only deal with major derelictions of duty.
I thought about telling our headteacher about what the Senco was doing, but decided against it because the head is friendly with her — and knows that she has friends in high places. The Senco could help him with his next appointment, which probably will be somewhere such as Ofsted or an academy chain. I know the head would “dob me in” and the Senco would find out that I’d grassed her up. You’re always vulnerable as a teacher — there’s always something you could have done better — and this Senco is renowned for getting her own back on anyone who crosses her. It wasn’t worth the aggro so I kept quiet and watched as parents were fobbed off.
But one of them is a friend of mine and I felt beholden to tell her that she was going about things the wrong way. I knew that it was useless going down the Sen route. She needed to focus on the lack of progress that her child was making, not on his supposed medical condition.
My friend thought her son was on the autistic spectrum, that this was the reason why he hated some subjects so much — he had an “autistic” block. I told her to forget medicalising his condition and to go to her son’s head of year and explain that she was concerned about his lack of progress in certain lessons. Then she should demand that the year head had some clear Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) targets drawn up for him by the relevant subject teachers to help her child progress.
I told her to say that she was very worried about the “lack of value” the school was adding to her child. “Value-added” is an increasingly important word in schools now: it is the “value” that a school adds to a child’s existing test scores and measures the amount that a school adds “on top” of a child’s expected scores based on previous performance. My friend’s son scored highly in his key stage 2 SATS (tests at 10), achieving the top level 5s in English and maths, and so would be expected to get As in his GCSEs, but now in Year 9 (at 13) he was consistently below average. It was becoming clear that he might find it difficult to get even Cs in certain subjects.
The Smart target approach worked because my friend was now using the “lingo” that sets the alarm bells ringing.
Having spent a couple of years getting nowhere about her son’s autism, suddenly my friend found that he was making progress in lessons because he had personalised achievable academic targets to work towards, which were being carefully monitored. That’s what it’s all about.
There was one lesson though, geography, in which the teacher said that it was the class as a whole that was the problem. I told my friend that she should say that the behaviour of the class wasn’t her or her son’s problem; what she wanted was specific targets for her son, not for the class.
Weaker teachers will always find excuses as to why students are not doing well in their lessons. Parents who end up sympathising with them get nowhere: parents who keep reminding their child’s teacher that their child needs some Smart targets to improve — and checks to see that these targets have been achieved (say once a month or term) — really help not only their child but also the teacher.
My own son attends an inner-city secondary school, some miles from the large suburban comprehensive where I teach. Many of my friends, and many teachers at my work, said I was mad to send him to this supposed “sink school”. But he’s been there nearly three years now and I couldn’t be happier with his progress. The school is next to our house so I’m not worried about his journey to school — and it also means that he can stay late at clubs and not have to navigate a long journey back in the dark. The school is incredibly mixed: nearly 50 per cent of children are entitled to free school meals (a measure of deprivation). An older posh friend who sent all her children to private schools nearly had a fit when she heard about all the poor children our son was mixing with! Some people think that poverty is like an infection that can be transmitted if you’re around poor people: you’ll acquire their low aspirations, their stupidity, and perhaps, in some cases, their venality. Of course, our friend thinks like this because she never mixes with other social classes.
Because our son has mixed with so many different social groups and ethnicities, he has become adept at “code-switching”: he can change his accent, tone and approach in a flash, depending on who he is with. He can speak the “street argot” that some of his “gangsta” friends at school speak, he can do the playful banter that his other “politer” friends speak — yes there are plenty of these at most schools — and he can do the middle-class, posh vernacular too. He is familiar with an array of cultures because of the friends at school: Bengali, Somalian, Turkish, Romanian, Italian, Norwegian . . .
My parenting style is a mixture of “tiger mother” and “hippie-creative mum”. But I’ve always been hot on getting him to read to me: even now, at 13, he reads to mebefore bed. I cannot stress enough how important regular reading aloud is. Not only have we read all the classic children’s novels — Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, etc — but we’ve also read things such as Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, the Dorling Kindersley version of the Bible, and Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. I’ve encouraged him to read with expression and energy; to make the words live on the page. You could throw any text at him now, and he’ll understand it. The educational battle is half won already.
I’m a great believer in making children culturally literate: they need to know their Bible stories, they need to know their grammar, they need to know their Shakespeare. This is where I agree with Michael Gove. Where I differ, though, is that they should learn these things “for their own sake”. What nonsense. They should learn these things because you can’t fully make sense of English culture without knowing your Bible, Shakespeare, your science, etc.
When my son and I visit churches, museums, town centres, we’ll have long discussions about how the English have been shaped by Christian values, scientific inventions and so on. Hopefully, he sees how the world around him has come into being.
I’ve also been “tiger mumish” about getting him to learn a musical instrument. While reading can give a child vital “cultural capital”, it is only through learning an instrument that they are really inducted into the nitty-gritty of learning. Once you’ve picked up how to play the clarinet or violin, you know how to learn on a much more general level because you realise that to get good at something you have to practise, practise, practise.
Apart from the reading and the music, I’ve been relatively hands off. Crucially, when he was younger, I let him play in the playground with his friends rather than making him do lots of homework. His first primary school gave him lots of homework but my husband and I pulled him out because we felt he was being robbed of his childhood. He then went on to a primary that had a “no homework” policy, except reading. This was far, far better. He was much happier and began to achieve more in school.
I have been quite judicious about technology, although I caved in and let him get a PlayStation 3, and he has, at times, played some quite violent games with his mates. I felt this was important because I wanted him to participate in what felt like a dominant culture.
We’ve had long talks about it and I’ve shared my concerns with him. We have had long discussions about Call of Duty (CoD) and Grand Theft Auto (GTA) which many of his friends played, even at primary school. I know at my school, all the boys play CoD, even in Year 7. The 18 rating means nothing.
My son has lost interest in these games now but I always rationed them: I stopped sessions longer than an hour, training him, like Pavlov’s dogs, to only play for shortish bursts and then walk away. I know too many children who have become addicted; their weak or neglectful parents have let them play all night.
When I taught at a private school a few years ago, I noticed that a surprising number of my students were really addicted to computer games. On the whole they were high achievers: they would do their homework quickly and then spend all night gaming. I’d tell their worried parents, who would come to me for advice, that they needed to ration computer use. This just led to massive bust-ups. It was only when I returned to the state sector that I realised that the pressure-cooker, cocooned atmosphere of the private school had something to do with it: these children were, by and large, plucked out of their local communities and were online, in part, to socialise with their private-school mates. They were also “hyper-competitive”, after hours of tutoring to pass the relevant entrance test to get into the “best schools”.
In some ways, these were good schools: small classes, teachers with good subject knowledge, and so on. But scratch the surface and you found some attitudes that aren’t present in the state sector. To my horror, for example, I learnt that the young male teachers at the private school where I taught liked to rank the sixth form girls according to sexual attractiveness, drawingup league tables among themselves.
It was also well known that one married teacher was having an affair with a sixth-former and yet nothing was said. I spoke to one colleague who had walked in on the girl giving this teacher a blow job. I told him he had to report him to the headteacher but he refused. I told the head what I had heard — I had seen nothing myself — and she supposedly investigated but nothing happened. The teacher is still in post.
I’ve never heard a teacher in the state sector talk about a student as a sexual object. The atmosphere is completely different: there’s much less sense of a hierarchy. You rarely get the feeling that teachers think children are incredibly fortunate to be attending a state school, whereas this sense permeates the private sector where teachers, parents and students feel that they’ve escaped the hell of the state system.
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