They may not mean to, but they do.

 

larkin

They fill you with the faults they had… 

 

Philip Larkin was right. How many times have I heard teachers lament the negative impact some parents have on their children? Teaching would be easy, if it weren’t for the parents has been a commonly expressed mantra across the variety of schools I have worked in. But, in my opinion, some parents are more harmful than others. 

I’ve worked in ‘challenging’ schools within ‘tough’ areas of the city. I have, as have many teachers, done my very best to support children from struggling families. Families who live their lives as victims of chaos. The chaos that comes with living alongside poverty, addiction, abuse, dysfunction and fear. This is where, as a teacher, you are motivated by equity and a desire to restore safety to the lives of powerless children. It starts with how you work with their parents. Informally or through the ‘system’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the parents can see the light and are desperate to get closer to it; sometimes though, they appear to be content in the dark. In these cases, you will sometimes walk away, after a long day at work, shaking your head muttering ‘What chance has the kid got with parents like that!’ 

Don’t judge a teacher for thinking this. It’s a private thought – a momentary exclamation of frustration – that will allow them to come back to work the next day refreshed and ready to support without judgement or prejudice. Whether you agree or not, with the reality that schools are now expected to take on more than their fair share of society’s burden, you cannot take on this responsibility if you don’t, at some level, care. Of course, you care for the child but you must also extend that care to the parents. The ones that, to a tabloid reader, are the problem. They are not ‘the’ problem; they are problematic. Empathy, although difficult to maintain at all times, is key if you’re going to keep the window of chance open and maybe make a difference to the child. For these children are not just victims of their parents’ faults. They are victims of circumstance and they are worth fighting for. 

 

They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you. 

 

Do you remember David Laws? He once promoted ‘sharp elbowed middle-class parents’ who would fight for their children’s interests. He said that every parent should be like this. Now, whereas I’m not suggesting Laws meant that every parent should be a self-centred prig, I would argue that there is a growing parental body who have sharpened their elbows to samurai levels. Parents who have mistakenly confused ‘being aspirational for their child’ with bestowing their child with godlike status and expecting everyone else to do the same. Parents for whom social decorum and basic etiquette are things that they have neither the time nor inclination to pass onto their children. Parents who would happily take their local primary school to the court of human rights if it meant being able to get their way. 

Their children are victims of middle-class parenting gone awry: where 21st century commodities have spawned an unrealistic sense of entitlement. They have absorbed the promises of the modern bourgeois lifestyle (through social media, advertising and ever-advancing technology) and applied them to the world of parenting. Like a hungover Pinterest binge, this form of parenting is immersed in the modern sensibilities of instant gratification, unsustainable indulgence and a lack of responsibility. For these kids, childhood has been replaced by a set of whims that must be met, insular demands that must be granted. A twisted version of growth-mindset where the only thing that is allowed to grow is the ego of the individual. 

This is the contactless cohort. Children who believe that the world should be at their fingertips just because they want it. Parents who abandon practicalities when it comes to what they think others should be providing for their children. Children who believe that they have all the rights but none of the responsibility. Parents who tut at the mum in the supermarket for allowing their toddler to eat the chocolate before paying for it, whilst their own seven-year-old sits in the car updating their snapchat profile. These families may spend all their time taking selfies, but they are all too heavy-handed with the filters to be able to see their true image. 

I believe that these children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to life’s realities. They have become blinded to its dangers by their parents’ misguided priorities. These poor kids delude themselves that they invincible. They are impervious to guidance and yet often crumble in the face of criticism. They imagine themselves to be cynical and all-knowing when in fact they have merely been over-exposed. You could say that they have grown up too-fast but it would be truer to say they have grown up too artificially. They haven’t so much missed their childhood as grown up thinking they were always too big for it. What do you expect though, when you’ve been raised by sharpened elbows? 

 
Man hands on misery to man… 

 

There is some scepticism around the growth of mental health concerns in schools. Lines have been blurred between mental health issues and an expectation that children must have the emotional competency of Buddah. Mindfulness and growth mindset have been offered to the teaching establishment as silver bullets against children’s unhappiness and apathy. The contactless cohort of parents fully support this concept and are only too happy to pass responsibility onto schools. We’ll pass on the misery, you deliver the cure. 

And, here’s the rub: their inability to reflect on their parental choices really is creating a new wave of mental health concerns. Their child’s inability to cope, when the real world beats their augmented reality into submission, is something teachers are having to grapple with every day. However, the parents only demand is that we combat their child’s emotional fragility, they are less interested in us addressing the cause of it. We are expected to build resilience whilst never being allowed to reframe their sense of self-entitlement.  

And so, it becomes a vicious circle. Except, instead of being victims trapped in a cycle of circumstantial chaos, this contactless cohort are victims of their parents’ boundless expectations. They are caught between an unshakeable belief that they are entitled and an inability to measure perspective: all they have heard since they were very young is ‘whatever you want, now!’ 

I am deeply worried about what the future holds for these children. We know, from statistical evidence, what the future may be like for many children who, by our current measures, are disadvantaged and vulnerable. But, for the contactless cohort, we will be entering uncharted waters as they enter adulthood. Will they ever shake off the shackles of unrealistic expectations? Will they forever believe that the world is theirs by right rather than through toil? As they become parents themselves, how sharp will their elbows become? What new misery will be handed down to their children for  teachers to fix? 

Because it will be up to us. Concern for the emotional well-being and mental health of children will only rise and we will respond. Any opinion we have of the parents, standing outside the school gates, must not deter us from caring and taking on the challenge. It is our duty to unlock those gates and set up lines of communication that are professional, open and honest. Some parents will embrace us, some will despise us, but all will know we are there. We can never give up because we have to believe that we can make a difference. Even when the tools at our disposal, for getting these children ready cope in the real world, are about as effective as toothpicks against a dragon.
 

This be the verse. 

There’s no such thing as a stupid question

Let’s play a little game. Sounds like fun don’t it? First, let’s see if you’re tall enough to be admitted onto the ride:

Question:  Are you, or have you ever been, a teacher?

If the answer is ‘yes’ then please move onto the next question.

Question: Do you use Twitter for self-elected professional development?

If the answer is ‘yes’ then you may be a little too high-brow for this game.

If the answer is ‘no’ then please move onto the next question.

Question: Do you use Twitter believing yourself to be more cleverer and amusing than the average tweecher?

If the answer is ‘yes’ then OH BOY is this the game for you!

Are you ready?

Ok, here it is (this is so funny, clever and exciting I can hardly swipe straight!)

Question: What is the worst behaviour you’ve encountered where the student involved was not permanently excluded?

*sits back and waits for all the funny and outrageously unacceptable replies that are going to prove my point, if only I was actually declaring the point I was trying to make before posing my question.*

Answer: A pupil tried to burn down the curtains.

*snigger* OMG that’s unbelievable! And they weren’t expelled? That’s mental!

Answer: A child punched, spat, scratched, swore and stabbed me.

*splutters with indignation* And they weren’t chucked out on the spot?

Answer: A child lunged at me and then threw a chair at my privates.

*reaches for the ‘like’ button* This is exactly what I’m talking about!

Ahem… Excuse me for interjecting, but…

I can only presume that you are attempting to raise the tragic, and depressingly inevitable, point that there are indeed some incredibly damaged young people trying to cope within the education system. And, I can only imagine that your motivation in asking Twitter for examples of behaviour committed by young damaged human beings, was to highlight a simple point: damaged children are not getting enough support.

Obviously you’re not asking the question in order to suggest a contrary point of view that these children are beyond the compassion, empathy, hard work and behaviour management skills of regular teachers. You wouldn’t be suggesting that children should be expelled and excluded for matters that are out of their control to serve the convenience of trained professionals who would rather not try something beyond their normal routine. You certainly wouldn’t be trying to hint that leaders are spineless worms who care more about exclusion rates than developing a professional body who works tirelessly to support the damaged and disenfranchised.

Of course not.

It could be that, through your glib questioning, you are publicly lamenting the lack of specialist provision that may be able to support and nurture the individuals who have suffered – through no fault of their own – incredible trauma and tragedy that has rendered them unable to function in a socially acceptable way. It could be that you are trying to highlight the plight of these children through the probability of a teacher not being able to get through their 40 minute geography lesson that took them all of the weekend to plan. (Although that weekend was five years ago, but, you know, facts and direct instruction don’t require updating so there’s no reason why the teacher should have to do anything different.) Or possibly, you’re depressed that social mobility has not happened at quite the pace you thought it should have by now, and you’re irritated that your brethren have got to try and teach a plethora of poor and thick chavs who would rather spend the lesson mimicking their feeble voices rather than listening to them?

If that’s the case, I get it. I hate the fact that there is not enough specialist provision too. I agree that the future for these children does not look bright. I’m angry that thresholds have risen whilst early intervention provision has been squeezed to frighteningly low levels due to a case of ever decreasing funding. I concur that it’s a right pain in the Goves that poor people are going to remain poorer for longer despite the wonderful lessons we try and plan for them.

And, if that is why you asked the question, I’d really like your thoughts on this one, where are these children – who display socially unacceptable and disturbing behaviour – going to end up if we just exclude them? Somewhere? Nowhere? Or does it not matter as long as you get to teach the way you were promised you’d be able to when you graduated?

Judging by the snide and witty comments that accompanied some of the answers to your question I’d guess that none of your answerers care about the complexities your question raises. Well, they care that life in the classroom is harder for them with these kids in tow, but not so much that life itself is hard for the children that dare to ruin their day.

To those people I say: Oh I know their behaviour is scary. I know their attitude is aggressive. I know they can wear you down. I know it can sometimes feel unsafe and, of course, ‘what about the other children?’ All I can say is that if you dare to empathise you’ll be a step closer to understanding. And then, you might be able to do something that makes a tiny, almost insignificant, difference to the way you interact with them. And that might not make every minute of your time with them a disaster. It’s hard work but, sometimes, it works. Most of the time it won’t. Over time, it probably will. When it really doesn’t get better, they will get excluded. When this happens you’ll feel a great sadness instead of relief. Trust me, having been there: sadness feels better.

So, Mr Clever Question Master, develop your professionalism and go through all the responses to your question that sought to blame the child rather than admit their job was hard and let them know the real reason you set the question: To raise the issue of the difficulty of teaching complex human beings who have had a horrendous start in life. Clarify that you didn’t ask the question to give tired/knackered/incompetent teachers an easy ‘get out of detention free’ card by flippantly responding to your question under the delusion that it erased all professional accountability and compassion. Maybe, for some of the people that then hilariously insulted damaged children and/or the teachers who believe that this is a fight that can be won through pedagogy and classroom management, you could block them, permanently, for being unprofessional.

Or, you could just save this in the ‘one where the Headteacher thinks I was wrong for asking the question in the first place’ file.  

Uncle (OFS)Ted

im-sorry-that-i-ruined-your-party

I consider Ofsted to be something of an abusive relative. Like a crap Uncle who only visits every fourth Christmas but never fails to find some way of upsetting you. Sometimes this Uncle is an aggressive drunk; impervious to reason or logic and quick to violence should you look at him funny or fail to laugh at one of his jokes. Other times he takes on a passive/aggressive tact: smiling sweetly at the dinner party as you update everyone with the story of your life achievements so far before saying: ‘Well, I’m glad you consider yourself to be a success.’ Occasionally, even when you have done something truly incredible, he will be the one reminding you – and everyone else – of the time you wet yourself on the trampoline during your fifth birthday party. Yeah, it’s pretty safe to say, I don’t look forward to uncle Ofsted coming to stay.

As a result, I try not to think about it. I find this is the best strategy for focusing the mind on what really matters, not to mention the improvements to my sleep pattern. That is why I will never have any interest with Ofsted preparation. In my experience each inspector has been so different that any preparation, in hindsight, has been a total waste of time. It is also the reason why I refuse to lower myself, and my school, to their standards. As in, you won’t find an Ofsted category anywhere on my SEF. Why would I? Why would I use a word that an inspector can twist and use against me should the mood take them? I have my standards. How they compare with Ofsted’s is their concern and not mine.

You may think that I sound like a stroppy teenager. But, if you take Sean Harford at his word then it’s actually the correct approach. Focus on the right thing for your school and everything should be fine. Any visiting Ofsted Inspector will be able to see this, cross-reference it with the inspection handbook, and make their judgement accordingly. I say ‘their’ judgement because it is just that. It lives outside my concern. If it matches with mine, then hurrah! But by the time the report actually ‘goes live’ I will already be further along ‘my’ road and the report will be out of date.

Again, this is the right attitude, surely? I can’t imagine there are many Heads who, after receiving the highest accolades Ofsted has to offer, sit back in their chair and thinks ‘job done’. Likewise, if a report finds weakness, I’ll wager most Heads already knew about them and were already in the process of sorting them out.

So, if I’m so indifferent to Ofsted why do I actively dislike it?

Simple: when Ofsted goes wrong it can destroy decent schools and decent people.

Trust me, I have personal experience. Veteran blog readers (you fools!) will be aware that once upon a time I was visited by a rogue inspector who attempted to put my school in special measures. According to her, the school was inadequate in every single possible way. The draft report gleefully reported on a string of failures that, thankfully for me, were so inaccurate that I was able to overturn the report before it got published. Instead, I got given RI and was told to wait it out. A year later and a different team came in, judging the school to be good with a sprinkle of outstanding. And, guess what? During that year I didn’t do anything differently. Actually, that’s a lie. I did stop caring about Ofsted. But, I didn’t take on board any of the advice from the previous report. So, in that respect the Ofsted process had zero impact on school improvement.

But this monumental and embarrassing blunder is also not the reason why I dislike Ofsted.

I dislike it because of that rogue lead inspector. The first report she wrote was not only inaccurate but also contained sweeping statements that were rather personal about me. Had they had been published, the combination of the judgement and stinging rhetoric would, I honestly think, have finished me off. There would have been no way that I could have carried on in that school. Too many seeds of doubt would have been sewn. I dread to think what the local media would have done with it. If recent cases are anything to go by, I would have been subject to a one-sided front-page lynching. That is partly why I fought it. It was a desperate act to salvage my career and my sanity. Thankfully for me the lead inspector wasn’t just an unpleasant person, she was also rather stupid. It was quite easy to challenge the report and get it totally re-written.

The second report, that she was forced to write, was more accurate but was still relatively spiteful. I remember friends and colleagues at the time saying it was the worst sounding ‘RI’ report they’d ever read. But it was no longer newsworthy. People in the community read it, didn’t recognise the school it came from, and chucked it in the bin. Together we moved on, undisturbed.

But that experience has tainted me. It has made me eternally cynical about the way in which Inspectors conduct their visits and report their findings. If the process is genuinely about providing a consistent benchmark of standardised judgements about schools, and, identifying where improvements can be made then the Inspectors should carry this out without ‘fear or favour’. But, at present, some seem to relish the fear that they themselves wield a bit too much for my liking. These reports that seek to assassinate Headteachers are part of the reason Ofsted has become too high stakes and needs to change. All the new strategy plans in the world will not stop spiteful rhetoric, hell-bent on making a Head’s job impossible once the report has been published. All the pro-Ofsted propaganda on Twitter will not comfort a publicly humiliated Head.

Last year I felt invincible. I was in a strong position. I was leading a fantastic school and Ofsted probably weren’t going to come back for years. Now, I am in a new school. I love it. It’s a great school. But it’s in Ofsted’s sights. I feel vulnerable. I seem unable to take my own advice and ignore the shadow of Ofsted. I even considered buying a book about getting through an Ofsted, you know, just in case. But why? Why did I now care so much about Ofsted?

The answer is obvious: I like my job. I care about my new school. I know we’re going to do great things. I don’t want Ofsted to ruin it.

And that is what you do sometimes, Ofsted.

Like the Uncle nobody wants to end up sitting next to at the family reunion, you end up ruining the party, before making a swift exit, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.