Models of derision

This morning I woke to the news that the new Head of OFSTED, Michael Wilshaw, had made another new pronouncement on the quality of teaching and leadership.
One section from the Sunday Telegraph article included

Sir Michael Wilshaw said he wanted “less tolerance of poor leadership,” adding “everything flows from poor leadership, that just has to be said.”
His comments were supported by figures from Ofsted showing leadership in 24 per cent of schools – the equivalent of 5,500 establishments – is rated less than good. One per cent of schools are rated as having inadequate leadership, and in a further 23 per cent the leadership is said to be “satisfactory”. Sir Michael told the Sunday Times he plans to replace the “satisfactory” category with “requires improvement”, saying the current label “falsely denotes acceptable provision.”

Looking at what he has said it is possible to argue that he is coming from an evidence based view and should be regarded as having real relevance. But there are important reservations to be had over the way in which judgements on leadership are reached and the potential variations in judgements of inspectors. If you have not read the article written about Professor Dylan William’s view on school inspection in the TES on Friday I think that there are some very salient points in there not least the response by OFSTED which ignores his criticism of the methodology and difference in inspector approaches but focuses on the research based development of the Evaluation Schedule.
The reason I quote both of these articles is actually down to the way in which recent public pronouncements have been greeted by people working in the teaching profession. As someone who has worked in school improvement, other than a break for a teaching post, since 2000 I do feel that I have a sense of where morale lays – it is not often that I see teachers flickflacking down the corridor in response to the latest speech from the Secretary of State but I do feel that many teachers feel that they are under the largest intentional and targeted attack on their profession since the early days of Chris Woodhead.

The public utterances of Gove and Wilshaw in the last months made me think of the keynote speech delivered by Professor Robin Alexander at the 2009 United Kingdom Literacy Assocation (UKLA) International conference where he looked at the language of policy. The speech was entitled “Speaking but not listening: Accountable talk in an unaccountable context” containing a very pertinent discussion about the terms we attribute to different types of talk.

Alexander referred to the ‘discourse of dichotomy and derision’ stating that

…the phrase (discourse of derision) comes from Jane Kenway via Stephen Ball (1990)  – is illustrated weekly at Prime Minister’s Questions and spills over into ministerial and departmental responses to anything that has been said and done which is off-message. If you do not like it, ridicule it.

This is, of course, what we encountered last week when Michael Gove described opponents of the academisation of Downhills Primary in Haringey as ‘Trots’. We are in times where the Secretary of State is an incredibly skilled orator (as is Nick Boles – PPS to Nick Gibbs) and so the presentation of the argument is often an example of supreme  presentation. Gove believes unequivocally that what he is doing is right but it is fascinating to see how he destroys the opposition to any of his arguments. It could be argued that it is being made easier by the absolute lack of meaningful opposition provided by Andy Burnham and Stephen Twigg. As someone who spends a lot of time discussing the use of ICT in teaching and learning I found myself in the position of watching Michael Gove tackling the ICT curriculum and agreeing with much of what he said but also found myself despairing of his use of language. The headline phrase was that too many ICT lessons are boring – again announcing change through decrying the past.

In terms of discourse Alexander stated that…

the discourse of dichotomy reduces everything  to mutual exclusives, to a choice between grossly oversimplified alternatives, to the politics of them and us. This is a tendency which, sadly, is all too common in education as well as politics – teacher centred versus child centred, traditional versus progressive, children versus subjects, process versus product, knowledge versus skills, teaching versus learning, basic versus breath – although in the policy domain, where adversarialism is fundamental and endemic, it is even more pronounced.

Again this is something that we would all recognise from the comments made by Wilshaw and Gove striving to show that there is a clear difference between what they believe in and everyone else who is clearly wrong.

So why is this important? Firstly, I worry having read blog posts such as one posted today by Phil Allman in which he listed the attacks on the profession in recent weeks and admitted that if he had his time over again he wouldn’t have become a Head teacher. I also have heard friends who are seeking to leave a profession which they love as they can only see things getting worse. These are not incompetent, feckless or lazy teachers but damned good (or even outstanding) teachers who give everything and cannot believe that the Secretary of State is not only allowing but orchestrating attacks on all teachers.

Secondly all of this has taken place whilst I have been formulating ideas around influences on speaking and ideas for quite a while – most of this time has been spent being a grumpy old man lamenting the quality of the models of speech on television. I will post that later in the week but will look here at other models of derision and dichotomy.

So if you look at all of this, how does it link to the children we teach? Well my concern is that what we in the teaching profession are receiving from the Minister for Education and the Chief Inspector can be seen to be replicated in children’s viewing. If you consider the viewing habits of children at the moment I am sure that a significant proportion will spend their weekend evenings watching one or all of different celebrity or talent shows – again if you look at the pantomime style presentation of the panellists it could be argued that we should be able to see it for what it is – pantomime. However some of the comments are set out to create a sensation and are therefore controversial. Are we not then giving children a model of speech at all levels from parliament, politicians to their favourite TV shows where people deal with disagreement through opposition and derision.

What would you say to a child in a drama activity if their response to someone disagreeing with them was “Ah but you are clearly an idiot!”? I wouldn’t expect the average ten year old to have a sufficient understanding of history to pluck the term trot but the sense is absolutely the same.

So it is easy to criticise the Simon Cowells, Jason Gardners and Craig Revel Horwoods of this world for their dismissal of people with cutting and potentially hurtful remarks but actually the question is what do we about it when we know our children are witnessing it? Well that is another blog post.


3 Responses to “Models of derision”

  1. Pete Yeomans
    February 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    Hi Bill,

    The great purge is beginning. The weak will not survive, there will be some collateral damage, but no revolution is bloodless.

    In 30 years Gove will either be the saviour of English education or he will be guilty of destroying the thing we all hold dear.

    We must decide is school about fixing the terrible injustices we see perpetrated on children – or should a different part of the state be dealing with that?

    I’m sad for your friends, but I’m looking forward to children facing the possibility of a brighter future and I’m dreading the possibility of the future being a wasteland.

    Hold on to your hat.

    • Bill Lord
      February 5, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      The question is whether we can afford to lose good and outstanding teachers from the profession, Pete. They are people who trying to create a bright future both within their schools and also for their pupils – Gove has bought himself 10 years before he claims his work can be measured so the wasteland may be another Secretary of State being held to account.

  2. Martyn Wilson
    February 6, 2012 at 2:34 am #

    The “derisive” approach to educational “improvement” began many years ago; even before Chris Woodhead. I recall sometime around 1985 our local MP speaking to a packed hall of our parents about the failings of the education system and of teachers. As I recall it was a precursor to the introduction of the first “National Curriculum. The impact was far reaching in our school. Within twelve months our Head of History and our Head of PE had left in disgust and distress; one to return to the world of publishing he had left and one to become a school grounds-man in a private school. They were both outstanding teachers in their late forties with outstanding track records in their respective areas. In Britain it seems that we are unable to attempt improvement in our services through debate and consensus but find it necessary to resort to polarisation and abuse. It inevitable creates a silo mentality in which the main focus at the “sharp end” is to avoid taking any more responsibility than is absolutely necessary; a safety first “box ticking” approach to every task.

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