The hokey cokey woos of headship
Today's in-service training session provided the most memorable start to any academic session in my whole teaching career, for all the wrong reasons. Given the disastrous and dispiriting opening innings that it has been my displeasure to endure over the past 22 years, that is quite a record.
To explain, we had been forcibly joined with umpteen schools in the authority - primary and secondary - to attend a day of "inspirational learning techniques". The course was run by a pair of evangelistic - I use the word in its most pejorative sense - American educators (Mike and Dave), whose last glimpse of a classroom must have been when they were under the influence of mind-enhancing drugs, so far as I could make out.
They started proceedings by assuring us that we were all part of the same "authority team" and suggested that we would "enhance our teamship" (for heaven's sake) by sharing our holiday experiences with each other. Well, that used up a good 30 minutes and was a pleasant enough way to pass the time; but, from what I understand, they are charging some pretty outrageous fees to get us to talk about our holidays, especially when that is what we would have been doing in the staffroom anyway.
Having encouraged our "teamship", they offered a session on inducting teachers into the school. Apparently, it is more than just giving them a list of rules and a set of ethos indicators: these days, new staff need to be "enculturated". Yes, that's right: "enculturated". I could hear audible gasps from my fellow English teachers around the room, although some of the PE mob seemed to be lapping it up.
But even they sounded sceptical when Dave gave a session on the effective use of resources, quaintly entitled "Modelling Your Manipulatives". Or maybe the beanbaggers were just sniggering at the double entendre.
Most awfully, there was a session on mentoring, wherein our course leaders suggested that mentoring was a dance and to best support new teachers, mentors should "hug and let go, hug and let go, hug and let go", a suggestion accompanied much swinging of arms and swaying of hips. Jaws dropped across the hall.
Frankly, if it was supposed to motivate us for the new term, it's sent me back to the middle of July.
If yesterday was depressing, today was worse, as the full implications of our exam results - the worst since Greenfield Academy was forged from Parkland High and Rockston High - became apparent for this year's timetable.
With our third year having been presented en masse for Standard grades, it has been a salutary experience to realise that their two-year preparation for Highers is going to be severely blighted by the large collection of exam awards at levels 6, 7 and below, with which so many of our candidates emerged.
Pat Gibbon is at her wits' end and resembles nothing so much as a headless chicken seeking any solution to her problems. This morning, for example, she asked the senior management team to approve her proposal for streaming classes in the first and second years!
Kevin Muir, one of our more pragmatic deputes, apparently urged time for reflection, after the recent bad publicity on streaming, and suggested that she meanwhile throw her lot in with those voices who clamour for the abandonment of external examinations during the middle stages of secondary school. "At least that way," he reasoned, "they won't fail until they leave."
Mrs Gibbon has renewed her fight against the fast food vans that populate the road outside our school. Having tried - and failed - to ban them from parking in Rockston Road, she has instead banned all pupils (other than sixth year students) from leaving the school premises at lunchtime and insists that everyone should follow the Greenfield Academy healthy eating policy by visiting our dining room or bringing a packed lunch that will be inspected by kitchen staff for nutritional value.
Having allowed a day of amnesty yesterday, she enforced it strictly today by positioning several senior management team members at and around our gates and fence. It certainly had the desired effect, as row upon row of bewildered children stared through the fences, looking like incarcerated children in a Victorian workhouse, and four food and confectionery vans remained bereft of customers for almost the entire lunch hour, expect for when our senior biology teacher, David McManus, nipped over for a burger and a packet of cigarettes.
Mrs Gibbon has followed Mr Muir's advice with a vengeance and has written a letter to The Times Educational Supplement Scotland in support of "a move away from external examinations, except for the final gold standard of the Higher and Advanced Higher leaving examinations", a document she copied to all staff via the school intranet this morning.
It certainly sparked a lively debate in our own staffroom. "Not another bloody bandwagon," muttered Simon Young, my principal teacher.
"Well, I think it's a good idea," chipped in Peter Taylor, one of our younger staff members. "It's unfair to put all this strain on teenagers at that stage in their school careers, especially when we can assess them perfectly well by internal methods."
"Hah!" scoffed Simon. "You mean, like they do in primary school before they get here, when we haven't got a clue what any of them can do? Like we do in S1 and S2, when they just faff around 'cos they've got nothing to aim at?"
"But if we have an effective self-assessment and reward scheme at that stage, then ..."
"Don't give me that self-assessment crap!" laughed Simon. "The next thing you'll be wanting is for the SQA to organise a How Good Is My Work? self-qualification."
"Well, that might be no bad idea ..."
"Oh, don't be so bloody stupid, Peter! Our Standard grade results might not have been up to much with the third year, but you tell me this: what was the only thing that kept the little buggers quiet and relatively motivated throughout last year, and their predecessors in previous third and fourth years as well?
"Why do they suddenly get interested in S3, or S4, or S5? It's because they've got something to aim at, something to work towards that might mean something in the outside world."
Nothing daunted, Peter bounced back: "But if the school has an effective internal assessment policy, then surely a good report is something to aim at?"
Simon placed his fingertips at both sides of his head and spoke slowly.
"Peter. No employer worth his salt gives a toss what we say about a pupil.
They know we're biased. They know we're trying to give them a decent start, even if they're sub-literate. And they know that internally-assessed coursework is most likely to be written by a parent at best and a website at worst. Or even a teacher.
"So, all this nonsense about cutting out exams in the middle school and replacing them with vocational courses that don't have exams is going to come up against a very sticky gum-tree in my opinion as soon as Mr British Industry finds out about it, because all he wants to know is whether his potential employee measures up against an external standard that is applied across the country and across all members of that year's cohort."
"Well, if you think that way, Simon," I decided to intervene, "I think you'd better go and register your protest with Mrs Gibbon before she posts that letter. According to the intranet, it's been signed by her and 'all staff at Greenfield Academy'."
"You what?" gasped Simon. "I never read that far. Bloody cheek!" he swore as he departed in search of our controversial leader.
"Wait for me," I called after him. On reflection, I think he's got it spot-on.
There has been a large backlash against the "lunchtime lockdown" policy imposed by Mrs Gibbon to encourage the school's healthy eating policy.
Aside from the anonymous telephone calls that she has been receiving at home in the very depths of night (suspicion falls upon Joe Fitzgerald, the long-standing proprietor of "Joe's Juicy Joint"), she has had a barrage of complaints from an enormous cross-section of parents, each and every one quoting the European Court of Human Rights as their next legal recourse if she did not back down.
I think the battle was finally lost when she called the council offices and asked for an expression of full support from the director of education, leisure and children's services. He had obviously been in receipt of similar communications and advised a strategic withdrawal.
So the lockdown policy is being rescinded with effect from next week.
It has been quite an opening to the academic year, with what seems like one constant theme in every discussion and each event: for every step forward that has been taken, we have taken two steps back. Alas, for as long as I have been teaching, it seems to have been ever thus.