Thursday, January 24, 2008

Turning teachers into spies and snitches

UK schools minister Jim Knight wants teachers to monitor their pupils' every antic and the behaviour of their parents. We should give his proposals a big red cross.

By 2010, all secondary schools in England will enable parents to obtain daily class reports on their child's every move at school. Each pupil's attendance, behaviour and academic performance will be put online by 2012, allowing parents to check their progress daily. Apparently, the idea could end parents' evenings, with teachers instead providing daily updates on `real-time' reporting systems. The schools minister, Jim Knight, insists that the daily reports `should not add to staff workloads' (1). One thing is for sure - pupils, teachers and especially parents are all set to lose out by such creeping surveillance.

Although a necessary and useful feature of the school diary, annual school reports on all the pupils you teach are inevitably time-consuming. So how daily school reports on a child's `achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs' would not add to a teacher's workload is never properly explained. More worryingly, daily reports could also be used as a further disciplinary threat against teachers in the same way that a failure to keep existing school records already is. The existence of such a scheme will also contribute to classroom disruption, as pupils will be more preoccupied by the content of a daily report than the content of a textbook.

A daily report will also erode further any space that a pupil needs away from the prying eyes of mum and dad. It is only in exceptional circumstances that parents need to be informed by the school about poor behaviour or lack-of-progress issues. A recording of every slightly cheeky comment, minor disruption or wind-up with other pupils will be counterproductive because it will inevitably undermine the development of a good working relationship with teachers. It will also undermine a teacher's authority even further in the classroom, as they will be perceived as babysitters merely keeping an eye on kids for their parents, rather than getting on with the job of teaching knowledge and understanding. And far from creating a climate that develops mature behaviour in children, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

It is a fact of life that adolescents can be obnoxious and mean to teachers and each other. Teenagers only grow out of playground spite when they begin to have an awareness of how their actions impinge on others. That awareness can only develop via the push-and-pull of the classroom and the schoolyard. It cannot be magically switched on via a stern email home. Indeed, school pupils develop a `conscience' when they're aware they have transgressed the `acceptable' boundaries that have developed between teachers and among their peers. If every minor action automatically results in a parental ticking off, pupils will never develop the skill to judge how they behave in situations outside the home. The result is to infantalise teenagers even further and, even more alarmingly, the measures will put parents on almost the same level, too.

Tucked away in the blather about `improving parents' access to detailed information about their children', Jim Knight let slip that `schools could also monitor how often parents checked their child's progress'. The idea of schools monitoring parents monitoring teachers' reports monitoring their children's behaviour seems like something dreamt up by the Stasi in Stalinist East Germany. The obvious and creepily threatening implication here is that parents must be snooped on by schools in order to check that they're acting as `responsible' parents. As it happens, the vast majority of parents have an in-built radar regarding whether their children are progressing well or not at school and care deeply about their welfare. When they are concerned, they will simply phone up or visit the school to enquire accordingly. How dare the government imply otherwise and that it is somehow up to local education authorities to coerce parents into showing `concern' about their child's education?

Already a number of measures are in place that reveal deep contempt for parents. Increasingly, parents have to sign homework sheets to show that they've checked their children's work. And in September 2007, Ed Balls gave headteachers the power to obtain parenting orders forcing them to keep their expelled children indoors and off the streets. A failure to do so could lead to prosecution, a œ1,000 fine and a criminal record (2). Although the online reports are only in their initial stages, it is inevitable that they will come equipped with some draconian log-in code in the future. Is it too fanciful to suggest that a child could be suspended or expelled if parents `fail' to check out the daily `progress' reports? Or that fixed penalty notices could be served up by local judges if parents don't comply with the measures?

As an indicator of where the wind is blowing on social control, it was very significant this week that while the police's pay rise was shunned, secondary school teachers received theirs - with a bit more than expected on top. Clearly, if teachers are expected to be both social workers to children and state snoopers on parents, the government has to make sure it's in their best interests to do so.

Leaving aside the huge waste of teachers' time and efforts involved in this ridiculous and pernicious measure, it will also socialise future generations to see routine surveillance as normal, while tightly binding parents to the state in ways that might prove impossible to log-off from.


Bias against whites in British arts funding

By Jeremy Clarkson

Here in Chipping Norton, there is a picture-perfect little theatre. It's exactly the same as a London theatre, with a balcony and a bar, only it's much, much smaller. You really do feel, as you perch on your primary-school chair, gazing on the Punch and Judy stage, that you are locked in a Cotswold-stone dolls' house. It's an enchanting place and everyone round these parts is very proud of it. So consequently everyone is very cross that the Arts Council recently announced it would no longer be supplying 40,000 pounds a year to help fund it.

And Chipping Norton is not alone. Even though the Arts Council has just received a 50m income boost from the government, it has sent letters to 194 mostly provincial playhouses, galleries and so on, saying they no longer fit with its "agenda". "Hmmm," I wondered, "and what might this agenda be?" So I checked, and it seems that to get funding these days what you've got to be is black or mad or preferably both.

For instance, the Arts Council has recognised that there are very few people from ethnic minorities in senior positions in the arts, but instead of thinking: "Aha. This shows that very few black or Asian people are interested, so let's concentrate on the white middle classes", it has now become involved with several schemes to get inner-city kids out of their big training shoes and into an Othello suit.

There's more. The Arts Council has never offered to translate my books into Urdu. Or Jilly Cooper's. But it "remains committed" to spending a fortune supporting ethnic-minority writers. Indeed, it claims to have six priorities in place at the moment. And of course "celebrating diversity" is one of them. Not at all surprisingly, "celebrating Mrs Thatcher" isn't one of the others.

The council spends nearly half a billion pounds a year and, so far as I can tell, in 2007 most of that was given to Benjamin Zephaniah and others in exchange for some ditties about how awful the slave trade was and how everyone in Britain ought to commit suicide.

But wait. What's this? It seems there was some money left over to send a bunch of kids from Calderdale to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is a field full of what look like big bronze sheep droppings. It's not my cup of tea but no matter - the droppings were sculpted by Henry Moore, so that sounds fine. Sadly no. Because afterwards the kids were taught about rap music and how to graffiti a wall. That has absolutely nothing to do with the arts at all. It'd be like teaching kung fu at a flower-arranging class.

Here on the Chipping Norton arts scene things are rather different. Plans for 2008 include a play about space travel, devised by Niki McCretton, who I'm afraid is white. Then there's a tribute to Abba, who were a very popular Swedish pop group featuring no disabled Bangladeshis, and a talk by Arabella Weir, who is the daughter of a notable diplomat.

There are films too. But none, so far as I can see, is Brick Lane or that tosh from Al Gore. And then of course there's the Christmas pantomime. Much loved by Douglas Hurd, who never misses it, and 7,000 children, all called Henry and Araminta, it's a professional show featuring traditional storylines at this Christian time of year. You can see immediately why none of this fits in with the Arts Council's "agenda". And I'm afraid the concert planned for next Saturday doesn't work either. Yes, the pianist, Helene Tysman, is foreign, which is good, but I'm afraid she's only French. And that's hopeless because they had an empire too, the bastards.

What the management should be doing to maintain its grip on the Arts Council's funding is hosting a celebration of haiku poetry, in silence, by the Al Gore polar-bear workers' collective. Of course nobody would come, but hey - serving the needs of the area? Since when did that ever matter?

It does, and that's why I'd like to conclude with some words of encouragement for the management of Chipping Norton theatre and the other organisations around the country that don't fit in with the Arts Council's taste. It is extremely likely that you will be better off without the council's 40 grand a year. Because tied up in this rather small chalice is a ton of poisonous red tape demarcating what you can do, what you can say and how many ramps have to be fitted at each urinal. You can wave goodbye to all that BBC-regional-news-tick-the-ethnic-boxes nonsense when you replace the lunatics at the Arts Council with a set of different benefactors.

I know this because just last week I spent some time with some chap from a notable charity. Each year, it needs 4million pounds to stay afloat, and none comes from the government. "Trust me," he said. "We don't want even 4p of their money. It's always more trouble than it's worth."

Or you can look at the Millennium Dome. When it was run by the government the dome was full of faith zones and Cherie Blair, celebrating diversity. And it was a disaster. Now it's in private hands it's full of Led Zeppelin and recently became recognised as the most popular concert venue in the world.


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