Gladder than ever that I don't teach Science

I was asked today what was in the centre of the earth. (This is a year 11, asking, by the way. Well, that's not that bad, you may say. I may not have known what was in the centre of the earth at 16. And at least this kid has the sense to ask. Just wait.)

"Um, I think it's rock, and molten lava, but I'm not sure, I'd have to check."
"rock? lava? mmm" He considers this possibility. "I don't think so, Miss"
"Nah. I reckon it's full of angels and demons, you know, getting ready for the end of the earth. When the angels are going to shank up dem demons. And dinosaurs, I reckon dinosaurs too. And Kunta Kinte."

The rest of the class was more quiet than I've ever known them. We sat there for a moment, utterly baffled. This kid was totally serious.

And then his mate pipes up: "Naaaaah, what you thinking blud! What's they all going to breath down there?"

Vindicating Dawkins

I'm being forced to teach RE this year (this is what happens when your results are awesome - all your key stage three classes get taken away, and you end up only teaching exam classes. A victim of my own success, me!)

Anyhow, so today's lesson finds me trying to teach a bunch of Nigerian Christians (among others) about reasons for believing, or disbelieving, in God. This includes evolution and the big bang. You would not expect this to be a problem, in 2010.

Lawrence: what, so you're telling me the world was started by an explosion?
Miss: well, that's what scientists currently believe, yes
Lawrence, in the most incredulous tones ever: what, so like, little things, like atoms, can start the whole world? So you mean the whole world is made of atoms? You're trying to tell me that this chair is made of atoms? And trees, in the forest, they're made of atoms? And I'm made of atoms? Whatever Miss! I know you's an athiest, but you should at least try to make it believable!"

The Nigerian Christians all laugh hysterically, like I've suggested they're all made of playdough, or rice crispies, or unwashed socks.

I genuinely cannot believe this happened. I've been doing this five years. Not a lot shocks me. This had me properly speechless.

Of course what I should have said was "YES! That is EXACTLY what I'm saying, you fucking maniac!"

The Holocaust - It ain't like it's intrestin...

I have a couple of stories I tell at various points when teaching human rights. They're magical. I'm not entirely sure why they work so well. And I'm not entirely sure that I should share them (what if they loose the magic?!) but this morning they led to a vaguely amusing anecdote, so I'm letting them out of the vault.

Today's magic story was used on my new bottom set year 10 class. There's a picture of a very sad, very tired looking little girl on the board, and they've been discussing what might be going on. (Well, I say that - most have been having their phones confiscated, or being stood over and glared at until they'd written the date and title, or discussing who poked who on facebook last night.)

So I start. Talking loudly enough to be heard over those who are still murmering to each other.

"This is a little girl on a death march. She's Jewish, and the Nazis made her walk thousands of miles, from Germany, all accross Europe, to Poland." (At this point I show them on the map of Europe on the wall - kids in my school have a shocking level of knowledge about where Britain is on a world map, let alone central European countries). "Look - you can see that she's exhausted. That's because she's walked so far. And look, there's snow on the sides of the road, up to here. It's winter, so the snow is higher than her at points. She's been walking for days, carrying everything she owns, everything she might need for the journey. If her little brother is getting too cold and tired, and falls down, or her elderly grandmother can't keep going, she won't be allowed to stop, and mourn them, she'll have to keep on going."

By this point, the story has never failed to get every kid in the room to a point where they're staring up at me, open mouthed, in total silence. Even the most hardened wannabe gangster wants to hear how this ends.

"And finally, imagine, she gets to a camp. And she doesn't know what's happening, but she's told she's going to be able to have a shower. She can finally get warm and clean. She's told to tie her shoes together and hang them on a peg, to put her clothes on the same peg and remember which one it was. To put her jewelry in her pockets so it's safe. And then she's told to go into the shower rooms. But instead of water, coming out of the shower heads, it's poisonous gas."

During a magical story is pretty much the only time I can pause for effect. At any other time, a pause is an invitation to madness.

"Hitler and the Nazis murdered six million people like this. Not just Jewish people, but also gay people, disabled people, travellers - all sorts of people who were different, and so he denied that they were humans at all."

This morning, at this stage, this red haired kid sitting at the front (not by choice!) shook himself out of the magic story stupor a couple of seconds before the rest, and looked around.

"Skeen you lot, what you doin, sitting wiv your fucking mouvs open like fishes, like you's fuckin interested. It aint interestin, I aint interested. Skeen blud."

I actually laughed out loud at this, which is something you shouldn't ever do if you want to build positive relationships with mental children. "For God's sake Charlie, it's ok to be interested, you were pretty open mouthed yourself. But that just shows you're human."

"It's ok" says the second hardest wannabe gangster in the room, in complete seriousness. "We won't tell no-one."

A sign of Things to come...

I love my job, but sometimes I do wonder just who I wronged in a past life.

I was in a meeting today where we were looking at data and backstories of the most troublesome kids in our new tutor groups. After doing everyone else's group, the Head of Learning says: "Oh, actually Miss, could you just nip down to learning support at some point tomorrow and talk to them about your class? It would take far too long to discuss your class just now. There's only two that haven't got statements."

A whole new class of crazies. Wonderful.

How the other half live

Sometimes, when I think of my friend who teaches Latin in an independent school, I wonder what on earth I'm doing trying to get politics into tiny criminals. Just think how much more valued I'd feel at a nice selective school full of middle class kids whose parents realised school was relatively important (I think to myself, on a bad day). But then my Latin teaching friend posts things like this as her facebook status, and I realise it's all much of a muchness!

Miss Magistra was jolly amused by the idea, propogated by one feckless Year 9, that the three types of Roman bath were the tepidarium (yup, fine) the fundamentarium (where one washes one's fundament?) and, best of all, the cruditarium (which is presumably full of hummus).

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All outstanding schools to be offered the chance to become Academies

I've been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the conclusion that either I am being an idiot, or Michael Gove is. If anyone can point out why its the former, I'll be happy to listen, because I'm not one hundred percent sure I'm not missing something.

Firstly, if you believe academy status to be a good way to "fix" a "failing education system", why only offer it to the succesful schools? I suppose you could answer this by saying "oh, it's just easier to start here, soon everyone will be an academy!" But it just seems strange to me that you start your giant educational reforms in the schools which are already working well. 

But secondly, and more crucially, is the question of how academies are actually different from maintained state schools, and whether this change will have the desired effect of raising attainment and helping kids flourish.

It seems to me that the current best Academies are working for reasons that are unconnected to their academy status. You're setting up a new school, in a fantastic new building, in a socially deprived area. You hire lots of bright, motivated young things excited about this challenge of setting up a new school. At this stage, you're already more than half way there, and it's nothing to do with the fact that it's an academy.

Then you think about how you make your academy "different". Easy, right? You have "freedom from local authority control", so goodbye to all those dratted... educational psychologists?

I'm not clear about what "control" local authorities actually exercise over maintained state schools. I'm no expert on this, and willing to be corrected, but it doesn't seem to be much at all. The things that constrain us as teachers and managers are national, not local. National league tables, Ofsted, HMI inspections, and national legislation on things like literacy and safeguarding. There are of course arguments to be had about whether these things are beneficial to kids (and my response to the list above is, respectively: No, Not in it's current form, No, Yes, Yes) but freeing schools from local authority control will not change those things. Academies have as much duty as any other school to pass Ofsted (and sometimes they don't) and to follow the law on things like Every Child Matters. 

"Ok", you say, "well at least I'm freed up from that horrendous national curriculum. Out with silly, pointless PSHE and in with Latin!" This is bollocks for a range of reasons. Firstly, contrary to what you may have read in the Torygraph, the national curriculum is designed to be relatively adaptable. Schools can decide how they cover the topics (through discrete subjects, learning areas, assemblies, tutor time, etc) and some topics (like PSHE) are unstatutory (that is, you don't have to teach them if you don't want to).My school is undergoing a massive curriculum review, and none of the significant changes that we want to make are being constrained by the national curriculum. Secondly, the national curriculum ensures kids get a well rounded education, no matter what kind of loony head teacher is running their school. Religious nut? You still need to teach Science, and round-earth-Geography. You can add things to the national curriculum if you think your kids would benefit from it. I know lots of state schools that teach Latin and Mandarin.

But the biggest point here is that the successful academies do not change the curriculum beyond recognition. Furthermore, the West London Free school (run by a group of parents) has just spent three weeks thrashing out it's curriculum, and seems to have created, wait for it, the national curriclum plus Classics. Congrats guys, time well spent. None of the things they want to do would be impossible in a maintained state school, we just would have got there a little quicker.

Lastly, Academies have the freedom to regulate teachers' pay and conditions. This one might have an impact. We can save the debate on performance related pay for another day, but it's clear that being able to change pay structures or benefits packages might help you attract good teachers. If that is the point, why offer this ability to schools who are already succeeding? Surely all this is going to do is cause a brain drain from schools which need excellent teachers, to schools who are doing just fine.

Besides, all of this ignores the fact that Gove has promised these two freedoms (to change the curriclum and teachers pay) to maintained state schools. It's therefore becoming harder and harder to get a cigarette paper between the two systems, and here we come back to my original question: am I missing something? What's the point?