The Demon Headmaster- Satire or Instruction Manual?

Back in the 1980’s grateful English teachers seized upon “The Demon Headmaster” as an engaging playscript for Key Stage 3 classes. It started life as novel by Gillian Cross, but it was the script that was most in demand. We taught it as a satire, a bit of light relief. Its shelf life was extended by the TV version in the nineties, and its dystopian vision of the school of the future, run by crazed, sinister and nameless aliens retained its appeal. It was a clever, far-fetched, mad idea that teachers and school leaders might have strange ideas of power and control over unsuspecting humans. It allowed for the perennially attractive idea of a resistance movement, secretly fighting against the monolithic powers of darkness and oppression. And just like “The Handmaid’s Tale”, it’s back, with added relevance for the strange times we are living through. Strangely, it’s set in an Academy, with a robotic Head teacher who has weird ideas of how to treat children and staff. Where do they get these crazy ideas from?

How we laughed at the idea of silent corridors, kids chanting oppressive mantras in the playground, a Headteacher whose big idea was the importance of order above all other things! Little did we know that it was destined to be a set text on NPQH programmes, a sort of “Headteachering for Dummies” guide. Senior leaders everywhere, who are trying to hold the line of ethical leadership against the rising tide of the New Authoritarianism, stand firm! You may get your feet wet, but the tide will turn.

Gove’s Greatest Gaffes

Number 3. The Free School Programme

Another great example of ideological correctness trumping effectiveness. At a time of unprecedented austerity, His Goviness decreed that Free Schools were The Answer, and hang the expense. If they were the answer, it must have been a very silly question. On the back of zero credible evidence (I’m discounting the report in Which magazine comparing the best school systems in the world that came between the list of best small family saloons and the best bagless cylinder vacuum cleaners) Gove pumped billions of pounds of tax payer dosh into this madcap scheme to let anybody set up a school. You could use any derelict building in the High Street (and, let’s face it, the supply of derelict buildings rocketed round about this time) to put the students in and you could get any Tom, Dick or Harry to teach them. If you remember, this was also the time of Gove’s other stroke of genius, getting ex-service veterans fast tracked through teacher training, to sort out local-authority -sponsored feral student behaviour.

There didn’t even seem to be a fit and proper person test, similar to the one that so effectively inoculates Premier League football clubs from being taken over by dodgy Russian oligarchs, drugs barons and people with pending court cases regarding human rights abuses. ( Oh. Hang on a minute…) There quite clearly couldn’t have been such a test, because the poster boy for this libertarian movement was Toby Young, a man whose brain could not cope with the onerous task of  tweeting messages while considering , at the same time, all social norms of acceptable behaviour with regard to women and minorities.

In a report published in Schools Week in January this year, ( )

 it was revealed that between 2010 and 2017, the DFE spent £3.6 billion on setting up Free School. A quarter of it was spent on Lawyers’ fees. £3.6bn! That’s nearly four bungs to the DUP. At a time when class sizes are rising, teacher pay has been frozen for years and class teachers are resourcing teaching materials out of their own pockets. Value for Money, as Conservative spokespeople are wont to say. Value for Money my arse, as Jim Royle was wont to say. You can’t put a price on ideological purity.

The Brain-Bit

On the back of the recent suggestions about banning mobile phones in schools, I had a discussion with some of my Year 8 students. In the middle of the discussion I noticed one student wearing what looked like a Fitbit. In days of yore, I would have automatically assumed that they were simply wearing a watch, but those gadgets have gone the way of the propelling pencil or the C90 walkman. No-one seems to do watches anymore. To make sure, I asked and was surprised when about fifteen kids put up their hands to show that they did have a fitbit.

The discussion turned to speculation about what the next technological development would be. One student suggested the Brain Bit. At the beginning of every lesson, each student would be issued with a device worn on the wrist just like the fitbit. Instead of monitoring physical indicators like heart rate, steps, calories burned up etc, it would monitor brain activity. Every ten minutes it would silently display a one- word summary of the wearer’s brain activity during the last ten -minute slot. All of the summaries would be sent automatically to a screen on the teacher’s computer, so that they had instant access to the inner most recesses of each student’s internal life.

Possible judgements could be: Reflective. Deviant. Lazy. Vacant. Criminal. Genius. Methodical. Speculative. Daydreaming. Creative. Oppositional. Logical. Socialist.

Each episode of display would give the student the opportunity to self-correct, reinforce or modify their brain behaviour in the next ten -minute slot.

Thankfully, my IT skills are as poorly developed as my sense of entrepreneurial endeavour, otherwise I would be diligently planning world domination on the back of this idea. It’s only a matter of time before some visionary foists this on us.

The End of Civilization as We Know It – School and the mobile phone

A few years ago, when “Challenging “ schools were up to their necks in PIXL- inspired ingenious fixes to seemingly intractable underperformance in league tables, I had to deliver the IGCSE English qualification to those forty Year 11 kids who were amusingly labelled, “The key marginals”. This was when Michael Gove, having totally misunderstood the nature of the IGCSE because it was the qualification of preference of public schools great and small, was encouraging Bash Street Kids Comprehensives across the land to aspire to high academic standards and enter their feral kids for the IGCSE instead. (When he actually got round to reading some of the specifications and talking to a few people, it became clear why public schools chose to do it. It was much easier. Academic standards my arse, as Jim Royle used to say. More of this in the next edition of Gove’s Greatest Gaffes.)

I had attended the PIXL course, “How to deliver the IGCSE in ten minutes from start to finish” and was working my way through it with said forty key marginals in the Exam Hall. One of the coursework assignments we did (Yes, that’s right, Govey recommended doing coursework. As I said, he hadn’t bothered to do his homework.) was based on a ghastly article on the Mail Online about the iniquitous evil of mobile phones in schools, which suggested that up and down the country school students were viewing porn in the classroom and physically assaulting teachers who dared to challenge them. It produced great written responses from most of the students, once they had got their heads around the fact that the journalist in question seemed to be writing about a school system that only existed in her tabloid imagination. As one of the kids said, scratching his head in bewilderment, “Why didn’t the school just have rules about mobiles in the classroom and enforce them?” That was the system he was used to and, I suspect, the vast majority of students across the country as well.

The fact is that most schools have perfectly sensible and workable rules regarding mobiles and it really isn’t a big problem. Banning them belongs to the same school of over the top Senior Management madness as Corridors of Silence and Zero Tolerance. They are part of modern life and they aren’t going to go away. Teach students how to use them appropriately and get over it. Last week, just as this story broke , I had just had two fantastic lessons with Year 8 that absolutely depended on all of the kids using their mobiles for research. Be the adult in the room.

Gove’s Greatest Gaffes

Number 2. Introducing the e-Bacc

Coming in at number 2 is this, one of many incarnations of that curious phenomenon, the return to Michael Gove’s School Days. Many of Michael’s deepest instincts reside in his certainty that things used to be better in the golden age, before trendy lefty liberals dumbed it all down with stuff like, umm, Media Studies, and GNVQs in Peace Studies that were worth four GCSEs in the league tables. This was a brazen attempt to make everyone take Geography and Languages and the like, rather than noddy left wing subjects like Drama and Art. Although National College of School Leadership lickspittle clones cracked the whip and proudly boasted of how they had forced through these changes on their students and staff, many school leadership teams showed much more backbone and resisted, preferring to stick instead to a curriculum that was right for their children. Oh, the irony. The forces of darkness, who in their Thatcherite guise loudly trumpeted their commitment to “choice”, would not tolerate thick working class kids choosing “easy” subjects. Choice is all well and good, as long as the right things are chosen. A bit like the will of the people.

The Old Grey Owl