Hope and laughter

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Ted's TES column ran for just over a quarter of a century. His was a voice of sanity in a profession that often seemed to have gone mad. Here are some extracts from 25 years of vintage Ted

'Catch as Kant can': from Ted's first TES column, September 5, 1980

Part of the project was to watch teachers starting off with their new classes. We observed 100 lessons given by experienced teachers in the first few days of the school year and then 200 lessons given by students at the beginning of their teaching practice. The differences were quite staggering. Few experienced teachers realised how quickly and competently they had set up relationships, established rules, put out messages. By contrast I saw one student teacher dismantle a well-established successful laboratory class within 15 minutes of her first lesson. Pupils were wrestling with each other for Bunsen burners where previously they had worked in an interested and orderly manner.

Perhaps one day a teacher will be the guest "expert" on the Generation Game instead of a meringue-basher. When he has explained Boyle's Law and asked the audience 70,000 questions, the contestants will dress up in funny costumes and explain the second law of thermodynamics. Game two could be open-heart surgery.

'Olympic feat': March 11, 1988

Was I really the only person who spotted it? When that heroic British Olympic ski-jumper launched himself into the affection of millions of people around the world, even though he came last, and was given more attention than the rest of the competitors put together, did the truth escape every other viewer?

I refer to the screamingly obvious fact that, no matter what he chose to call himself, this spectacular last placer was in reality none other than Kenneth "the Eagle" Baker. Anything for a bit of favourable publicity.

Just think about it. All he had to do was stick out his chin a bit, put on pink glasses, have a crew cut, and Bob's your uncle. What gave it away for me was the commentator who said he was hurling himself optimistically into space hoping to land on his feet - the best description of the 1988 Education Bill I have yet heard.

'The farce of the flashlight brigade': November 4, 1988

There was a distinct sense of gloom among the conference of primary heads I was addressing. They had just heard on the radio that Mr Bun (Kenneth Baker), fresh from his trans-Siberian tour of photo opportunities, had announced in his speech to the Conservative Party conference that he was going to restore traditional teaching to primary schools, whatever that might have meant. Most seemed afraid that he might be knocking on their school door the next morning, accompanied by his usual posse of photographers, cracking a horsewhip and shouting, "Chant your tables, you swine".

It set me thinking about what a daft and over-simplified debate it had all become. The very word "traditional" immediately secures knee-jerk reactions. Mutter it to one group and a round of drinks will follow to toast solid British virtues such as industry, determination and thoroughness. Utter it in different company and the jeers will ring in your ears as people assume you are out of date, backward-looking and embarrassed to the tips of your sensible shoes. I reflected on a class of seven-year-olds I had been teaching. Had I been traditional or progressive, or, for that matter, did anyone give a hang? I had told them things, which sounds trad enough, but we had done a fair bit of group work, so perhaps I am progressive. On the other hand, I had told some of the groups what to do, so I must be a traditional progressive, apart from when they are allowed to discuss the task I have set them with fellow pupils, because at these times I am a progressive traditional.

'Who put the ass in assessment?': February 16, 1990

There has been a great deal of public and press concern that the new ailment which has been found in cattle could be caught by humans. The symptoms are unsteady gait and uncontrolled lassitude. A related form of the illness has now been detected in teachers. I refer, of course, to Mad Curriculum Disease, the symptoms of which are unsteady gait and uncontrolled laughter.

I first realised I had Mad Curriculum Disease when I noticed people giving me strange looks as I lurched around unsteadily while laughing uproariously at my latest mailing from the School Examinations and Assessment Council.

If you have not already received your Guide to Teacher Assessment packs A, B and C, then get hold of these three gems quickly. They don't actually cure Mad Curriculum Disease, but they do confirm whether or not you have got it.

Take the first of the three exceedingly glossy brochures in your right hand, open it at the first page where Philip Halsey, chairman and chief executive, has his cheery "welcome aboard" statement and progress through at a steady pace, deciding at the bottom of each page whether to laugh or cry. I decided to laugh, Phil, that's why I am currently in the Mad Curriculum Disease isolation ward. The doctors tell me that, when they first brought me in here, I was not sure whether I had been reading about measuring children or measuring curtains. The first rib-ticklers were the various checklists. Honestly, Phil, I couldn't keep a straight face.

From the moment you defined the word "recently" for me, just in case its meaning had eluded me over the years, I was doubled up. The problem was that I couldn't think of any serious answers to the checklist questions.

For example, in reply to the item, "Was the child puzzled, worried?" I wrote, "No, but I was".

Finally, Phil, thanks for the mnemonic you made up to help me remember everything in your three packs; you know, INFORM, where each letter is the beginning of a telling phrase. The Mad Curriculum Disease has really got a hold on me now, so I'm not sure I've remembered it all perfectly, but I think it started with: Is this monumental bullshit really necessary?

No one who applies it to the letter will remain sane. For goodness' sake throw it in the bin and start again.

'Digging holes in maths tests': February 18, 2000

The maths test set by the Teacher Training Agency for student teachers brought a tear to my eye. Good old TTA. All those "realistic" sums based on the mathematics that teachers are supposed to know, like working out scores on tests, reminded me of sums in my childhood. "If it takes two men four hours to dig a hole 6ft square and 3ft deep, how long will it take nine men to fill a bath?" Well, it was something like that. My whole childhood seemed to be full of men digging holes and people filling up baths. I loved it. "Realistic maths", that's what it was all about.

Indeed, you may have been wondering why every town, city and country area in the whole land has been dug up during the past year or two. Don't believe anything you read in the press about laying cable for the communications revolution. It is all lies. Not one inch of cable has even been laid. In fact, it is people of my generation, digging all those holes we practised so long for in our childhood. Me and my mates will be round to fill your bath some time next week.

'Busy baby has no time for hugs': March 31, 2000

Why do so many parents feel they should be getting young children up to genius level? I was wondering about this while looking at some American products that involve playing videos to babies as young as a month to bathe them in Shakespeare and Mozart.

Is it a feeling of guilt, that you are letting your offspring down if you leave the Merchant of Venice or The Magic Flute until their first birthday?

As the father of three children I remember the competitive conversations well.

"Oh yes, our Samantha was walking at 10 months and knew all her letters before she even started school."

"Really? A bit slow then, was she? Our Jason could walk at nine months and was reading when he was three."

I always wanted to join in with, "That's nothing. Our Josie was doing triple somersaults, with pike, in the womb. Then she emerged, at birth, reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus, singing arias from Le nozze di Figaro in Italian," but I never had the gall. And even if I had done, someone would have trumped it.

There is a balance between being a conscientious parent, giving your children the best start in life, and hovering anxiously over them from birth in case they fall short of genius. Too much of the latter end of the scale may throw the delicate switch that separates curiosity from boredom.

Family games, conversations, storytelling, rolling around the floor, hugging, playing peek-a-boo, having a laugh, singing, are not just old-fashioned pastimes, they are biologically and psychologically effective ways of developing the body and the intellect.

Put the baby genius kits in the bin. The real world is much more fascinating than its synthetic equivalent.

'Take Tony Zoffis's bullets away': September 22, 2000

Apparently the armed forces are so short of money they cannot afford to pay for ammunition, so somebody has to shout "Bang!" instead. "What do you do in the army, then?" "Er, I'm the bloke who shouts 'Bang!'"

I have been baffled for some time about a man whose job it is to shout "Bang!" at those working in education. I kept hearing his name - Tony Zoffis - over and over again.

"Where's that funny idea come from?"

"Tony Zoffis."

According to journalists this Tony Zoffis firmly believes that attacking teachers pushes you up the opinion polls, which is sad if true. But what was the origin of the name Zoffis? Italian, maybe? Then it dawned on me.

There should be a glottal, if you'll pardon the expression, after the "z"

sound - Tonyz (glottal stop) Offis. At last it made sense. Tony's Office, the Prime Minister's hidden coterie.

'Woodhead was my sick joke': November 17, 2000

I want to confess something. I invented Chris Woodhead. There, I've said it. We satirists can sometimes get desperate, so one day I made him up. He was, so to speak, my Piltdown Man.

The idea was meant to be so transparent everyone would recognise it was a spoof. The ultra-progressive teacher, teacher trainer and LEA administrator turns into a traditionalist, scourging teachers, teacher trainers and LEA administrators.

Easily bored, he went on, in my storyline, to write for a Conservative newspaper, become a consultant to a Conservative PR firm and then a Conservative peer, Screaming Lord Woodhead. Incredible, I thought, no one will fall for it.

Even the name was a clue. Unsure whether to call him Chris Smartguy or Sid Turniphead, I settled on a compromise. I thought I had overdone things sufficiently for everyone to rumble, but somehow he just grew in my fevered imagination until people assumed he was real.

The hardest moment came when I had to take part in a debate with him at the London Institute. Talking sense one minute and bollocks the next, running up and down the stage so fast that no one noticed there was only one of us, was absolutely knackering, but I must have fooled those present, since I beat myself by 900 votes to 25.

And posing for all those photo opportunities, dripping with gravitas, sometimes wearing climbing gear and severe spectacles while dangling from a cliff, was absolute murder.

I have begun to pen myhis devastating memoirs: "Went into the office, hammered the teaching profession, went home, climbed up mountain, climbed back down again, played with train set." Alas, like him I'm bored already.

'Choose bog standard diversity': March 9, 2001

I was glad that both David Blunkett and John Prescott were quick to disown the notion of the "bog standard" comprehensive.

It should never have been used in the first place by Mr Bogstandard, the government's chief spinologist, because it was wrong. The day I see two identical schools is the day I will cartwheel the length of the high street.

So what is identical and what is different about schools? They follow the same national curriculum, the same tests, and primary schools are all supposed to have the same structure for their literacy and numeracy hours.

These things, you will note, have been externally imposed by successive governments, so are we also to see the end of the bog standard literacy hour?

I think we should embrace diversity wholeheartedly, simply because the alternative is uniformity, a killer concept in education. But if we do so we must live with the consequences. A diverse system produces people who can think for themselves. Good. So diversity it is. That's solved Mr Bogstandard's little problem, then.

'Projects come out of the closet': October 25, 2002

The news that primary teachers are beginning to do topic and project work again is most welcome. Young children enjoy getting involved in something that relates to the real world around them and it was a pity that teachers were ever made to feel sordid and unpatriotic for following their professional instincts.

Some children remember their projects for years after they have left school. My most memorable was on York Minster at the age of 10. Although we were each given our own bit to research (I had the magnificent Five Sisters window) the whole class knew the place inside out.

When we eventually went to visit it the guide was astonished at these little junior school plebs from 50 miles away pontificating about architectural styles, freely using the terminology of cathedral architecture. Years later, when it was partly destroyed by fire, I could sense my former classmates weeping collectively at the desecration.

'Now we are all virtually real': January 17, 2003

There was once a proposal that Ofsted should conduct virtual inspections of schools. No longer would the registered inspector and chums descend with clipboard and stopwatch, trying hard to be jolly and unthreatening. Instead a distant, invisible Mr Gruesome would log on to the school's database from his remote terminal, soundlessly scouring test scores and mission statements.

League tables, especially of primary schools, are a good example of virtual reality. A school with 10 pupils taking key stage 2 Sats does well one year. Wonderful: 100 per cent at level 4 or above, top of the league.

Medals, awards, status, honours duly follow.

The following cohort of 10 pupils in Year 6 is not so good. Disaster. The school is now sinking, recriminations abound, the poor beggars who missed their level 4 are stigmatised, for they have let the side down. In reality the school itself is probably no different from the previous year, but the virtual version of it is now a flop.

I occasionally meet people who have been shredded of their humanity, but the good news is that many teachers and heads have managed to retain it.

Without humanity no one will be able to tell the cyber from the actual.

Real or cyber?

1. Two committees are set up to look at the problem of duplication.

2. The Prime Minister's education policies are drawn up by a journalist.

3. A school with one part-time pupil receives a full-scale Ofsted inspection.

4. Two political parties bombard schools with paperwork and then both say there is too much bureaucracy.

All these are real. You and I, however, are cyber. Aaaargh! We have just completed an illegal operation and will be terminated. Log off.

'Lay down your prescription':March 28, 2003

I really wanted to believe the Government's hint that the days of prescription were over, that "weapons of mass instruction" were banished forever. The unhappy truth became apparent during and after Christmas in a welter of announcements.

Primary teachers would have to do yet more phonics; heads and governors were harangued to meet their targets. We must have more tractors, even if they are piled up in the backyard.

It would not be so bad if telling teachers what to do actually worked, but it doesn't, as schools in Wales have demonstrated by improving numeracy and literacy faster than in England, without the heavy hand of government. The key ingredient, trust of professionals, is simply missing.

'Ticked off with tedious tests':July 4, 2003

In order to make children more creative we should set them a tedious and pointless task, so they have to think imaginatively to avoid dying of boredom. My 2004 all-subject key stage 2 test paper does precisely that: Answer all the questions.

Time allowed: an eternity.

1. Write an essay on one of the following utterly pointless topics: (a) how to fill in a form (b) scratching your bum (c) a day in the life of an Ofsted inspector.

2. Make a pupil achievement tracker for your teacher out of milk bottle tops.

3 (a) If it takes a reception teacher five minutes to observe one child and tick one box, how many minutes will it take to tick 117 of these for 30 children every term? (b) How many people would it take to dig a hole for all the reception class teachers in the country to bury themselves and their foundation stage profiles in?

4. Design an exam that no one wants. Go down to the bus station and sign up people to mark it. Lose half the papers. Invent some scores. Compile a league table of them. Send your league table to Margaret Hodge and ask her to say something stupid. Then write a letter to the Prime Minister asking if you can be head of his policy unit.

'Retro reforms of Lord Zoffis':May 20, 2005

The good news is that Tony Zoffis has finally been smoked out.

The bad news is that he has been made Lord Zoffis of Bedlam and given a job as a minister of education.

For years Andrew Adonis, or Andrew Bloody Adonis, to give him his full name, was able to generate barmy ideas for the Prime Minister without having to stand up in Parliament, be quizzed by Jeremy Paxman, or defend his policies at national conferences.

When the AS and A2-levels were introduced, there was mayhem, with some candidates taking five exams in a single day. A few even stayed overnight at a teacher's house for security reasons, because they had to delay taking yet another paper until the following day.

While the education system creaked and lurched along the edge of a very steep cliff, Tony Zoffis was assiduously peddling a third A-level, the Advanced Extension exam, the so-called world-class test for 17-year-olds.

If it had taken off - most schools quite sensibly avoided it - the whole exam system would have collapsed, through timetable chaos and lack of examiners.

Now he will at least have to speak in the House of Lords, where there are some smart people to cross-question him. Whether or not King Henry VIII ever tapped a piece of beef with his sword and said "Arise Sir Loyne" is disputed, but if a monarch can knight his dinner, then a prime minister might as well ennoble his butler.

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