FE Teachers under Siege – power, compliance and professionalism

cookingThis is a paper given for ResearchED at BSix in Hackney today which explores relationships between FE teachers, their employers, and Government in the light of changes in education policy and funding.


In the session I described what we mean by education professionalism, and map out some of the key Further Education policy milestones that have come about over the last two decades. I explained how the direction of travel in policy terms is contributing to a fragmentation of Further Education teacher professionalism in general. I gave examples of how this particularly relates to the arguments surrounding FE teaching qualifications and their organisation. This is linked to educational theory and disputes about the role of knowledge in education, as well as debates around the idea that high quality teaching can be competency-based in any useful sense. Finally I made a number of suggestions about future policy and practice that could help FE teachers reclaim their profession for the benefit of all.

What do we mean by teacher professionalism?

Professionalism is a difficult concept in education and there is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of the term. Generally speaking, a common understanding is that being a professional involves, amongst other things:

SLIDE 1 (See the previous post for ppt slides)

  • setting your own fees,
  • setting your own conditions for work,
  • sharing a codified body of knowledge,
  • having a role in determining who can join the profession, and
  • engaging in self-regulation.

In their book Teachers’ Professional Lives (1996), Goodson and Hargreaves call this classical professionalism, and in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (1957) the sociologist Durkheim considered that a professional needed to act as a bridge or social intermediary between the state and the citizen. This suggests a public service or altruistic element to the role. The sociologist Talcott Parsons also viewed professionalism along these lines.

The Goodson and Hargreaves version arguably represents an idealized form of professionalism. The problem is whether it is school or at FE college, the reality of teaching is often very different from that.  Etzioni (1969) probably hit the nail on the head when he described the teaching profession, along with nursing and social work, as a semi-profession (Goodson and Hargreaves call this ‘complex professionalism’). In this understanding of the term, the professional typically has a very complicated workload, and works within a complex organization, usually under the control of others. In other words, the teaching professional is significantly less autonomous than, say, a solicitor in independent practice or even an aromatherapist. It is here where the two conceptualisations run up against one another, and it is here where we see the potential for conflict between professionals and the state. 21st century teachers see themselves as higher order professionals, whereas in the Etzioni sense at least, society probably sees them as semi-professionals, insulting as that may sound.

It wasn’t always the case, however. In my book Teachers Under Siege, which was published a decade ago now, I talk a lot about the way teaching has changed over the last half-century. Teaching used to be something of a high-status profession, but over time this has changed and its status appears to have been degraded over the years. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is the intrusion of certain kinds of Government policy. Different governments latch onto education as a way of easily creating a sense of momentum, something the anthropologist Levi-Strauss described as a ‘hot’ chronology (as opposed to a ‘cold’ chronology, where people potter along steadily and less appears to happen during a particular timescale). If this Governmental desire for the appearance of change and activity is combined with a free-market, post-industrial conceptualization of the purpose of education, teacher professionalism runs into difficulties. This is because teaching isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a solely instrumental activity, and teachers can’t be all things to all people at the whim of a government. Yet all too often, teachers seem to have been made scapegoats for failings in the wider economy. To a large extent, this is the recent history of education professionalism as we know it.  The Cambridge academic John Beck saw this as harmful and made this argument:

…once education has become so thoroughly subordinated to such instrumental purposes and agencies, what may be left of education itself? … [this] may portend not merely a fashionable ‘makeover’ of education … but rather, a far more significant and insidious process of takeover, in which any significant set of educational values may be increasingly at risk’ (Beck, 1999, p.224)

So on one level, the problem of contemporary teacher professionalism is really a problem about teacher autonomy and values, which are continually being eroded, as governments increasingly regulate what teachers do. These are not the only factors, however. The problem is also about uncertainties surrounding the role of professional knowledge in teaching. If we want to understand this, it is useful to look at the work of Basil Bernstein. In his seminal book Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity; Theory, Research, Critique (1996) Bernstein said that externally regulated knowledge requires a kind of professional inner emptiness, and what he described as a detachment of knowledge from the knower. In the context of contemporary education policy, this means that the knowledge teachers are supposed to have is meant to be neutral and the same from teacher to teacher, so that teachers are infinitely interchangeable. Knowledge therefore becomes a kind of commodity, and teachers are seen as mere technicians delivering it. They do not have any particular ownership of such knowledge, not in a personal sense, anyway. As a result of this, we have seen the associated rise of trends in different sectors, such as a desire for lists of teacher competencies, where different aspects of teacher knowledge can be neatly ticked off. So let’s explore the impact this movement towards changes in regulating professional knowledge has had on FE teaching in recent years.

A recent history of FE teacher professionalism

Over the last two decades, there have been a number of initiatives aimed at introducing teacher training to the FE sector, with a review to introducing increased regulation, introducing more consistent standards and reducing fragmentation across the sector. This represented a clear move away from vocational or occupational standards as forming the primary basis for professionalism. The question is, of course, how successful the initiatives were in achieving this. The rather overwhelming timeline for the introduction of professional standards was as follows:


1999 Further Education National Training Organisation (FENTO) established, an employer-led body

2001 DfES publishes statutory instrument giving legislative authority

2002 DfES publishes further standards and requirements for teachers of adult basic skills

2003 OFSTED condemns FENTO, stating that training was too variable,there was inadequate support, and few opportunities for further development. There was also a lack of subject mentoring and little in the way of observations and feedback.

2004 Government publishes monitoring targets and new policy document Equipping teachers for our future

2005 FENTO abolished and replaced with Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK). New national standards brought in with a view to raising professional status of FE teachers.

2006 Publication of LLUK standards. Publication by DfES of Professionalisation of the learning and skills sector

2007 LLUK publishes mandatory units of assessment, QTLS (Qualified teacher status for the learning and skills sector) also introduced

2008 Reforms implemented.

By any stretch of the imagination, this series of events looks disorganized and somewhat chaotic, taking nine years to get some kind of consistent training initiative off the ground. In a recent article in Research in Post-Compulsory Education, Jonathan Tummons maps out in considerable detail the move towards frameworks for professional standards for FE teachers in England, through the eyes of serving FE teachers. He finds three significant factors influencing an apparent lack of progress:

  1. Frameworks were largely voluntary, which allowed employers to maximize flexibility, but teachers were rarely properly consulted.
  2. No fewer than three different sets of professional standards were imposed on the teaching workforce since 2000, and sometimes they were confusing.
  3. Throughout, teacher training arrangements within the sector generally appeared to be fairly incoherent – different academic levels, different credit structures, and different assessment regimes.

In addition, Tummons points out that training was invariably underfunded, poorly integrated with HR functions in colleges, and showed a high degree of fragmentation in the profession. Professional bodies came and went, employers dominated the field, and the role of professional knowledge remained unresolved. This was the perfect example of a ‘hot chronology’, with a congested timeline, in which there was the impression of Government action, yet nothing much was apparently achieved.

What did this mean for FE teacher professionalism?

The drive to introduce some form of accreditation for all FE teachers partly came in relation to the Kennedy report Learning Works: Widening Participation in Further Education (1997). In this report, there was a call for social cohesion and a move away from seeing education purely as an economic good. Within this framework, FE teachers were seen as a therapeutic tool of sorts, steeped in public values, but at the same time responding neatly to what potential employers wanted. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to have been a coded picture painted of the identity of learners. Non-participants were tacitly defined and stigmatized as being outside society in some way, as they weren’t actively helping their own situations. Participants were supposed to finance their own training, yet it was supposed for be mainly for the benefit of employers, belying the arguments made for avoiding purely instrumental learning. If we are going to look at how this impacted on the identity of individual students, we see those not coming along to sign up for FE courses as somehow out of touch, and behind the times, and those engaging with FE as in touch, and with the times. This is similar to what is called ‘rational actor theory, based on the assumption that people know what they are doing and act logically at all times. Often they don’t, often there are good reasons for them not choosing certain things, but this is generally disregarded by the system. And that certainly happened within FE.

So we see FE regulation in the 21st century rapidly becoming a messy hotbed of conflict and tension – students being labelled in particular way that may not have made much sense in real life, and teachers being expected to comply and conform with infinitely variable changes of policy and expectation whilst seeking to corral their students, in Government policy terms, at least. And all this was being done as a free market approach to FE was being extended, with colleges becoming autonomous from Local Education Authorities, and competing for resources in an entrepreneurial field. This led to extensive fragmentation of the sector, and of the role of the FE teacher in general. Managerialism had started to take over in the professional domain.

In a journal article by Norman Lucas from 2013, we see how this played out in practice. He writes about how the 192 professional standards that were eventually development as part of the move towards certification where not just statements, they were broken down into much smaller units and linked to performance criteria. This ended up being highly prescriptive so the requirements became an in end in themselves. The apparent weakness of employer organisations, trade unions, and professional FE organisations meant that challenging this competency-based approach in any useful way proved impossible. In turn this led to a poor occupational culture for trainees and anyone engaging in CPD, with only very limited opportunity for mentoring, something that is still resented today. Hence instead of being education and empowered, FE teachers were simply being trained to be compliant, and to achieve objectives on paper. Training had frequently become a stick to beat over the proverbial heads of FE teachers, instead of being properly valued in its own right.


The period between 1999 and 2008, and subsequent deregulation, was certainly a tumultuous one for FE teacher professionalism, and recent budget cutbacks can only have exacerbated the problem. Sue Pember of FE Week threw down the gauntlet recently after Sir Michael Wilshaw publicly criticized the FE sector. She said, “What vocational education and training in England needs is policy stability and sustainable funding.” This is well-observed, but we need to think about what else has gone wrong, and how this night be addressed. Firstly, we see that there has been a major societal shift, as FE finds a new role in an increasingly market-driven sector.  Teachers are required to be infinitely retrainable, responding immediately to direction from the Government of the day. This might be convenient, but it is dangerous. This is because it encourages educators to ignore their inner compass regarding ethical practice and high quality professionalism, in favour of a fluctuating, externally-driven framework for their activities.

Moving forwards

The key factor that differentiates FE teachers from secondary school teachers is the idea of dual professionalism, as discussed in the 2013 It’s About Work report published by the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning. A dual professional is both an occupational specialist as well as a pedagogical one. Developing skills in both, and balancing them accordingly, is something that takes time and support, things which have not always been in good supply. Yet it is here where we might find the way forward from the certification mess towards a more useful model for FE teacher professionalism in the future.

David Guile’s very recent work into the Teach Too programme at Oldham College offers a useful framework for dual professionalism in relation to vocational learning. It recognizes the relationship with employers whilst at the same promoting solid pedagogical practice. He breaks this down into three main areas:

Arrangements: Formal partnerships between employers and learning providers, which may not be necessary but which can be desirable. These needs to be linked to other forms of collaboration, underpinned by a clear business case.

Activities: This implies clear benefits for learners twinned with a clear line of sight to potential employment.

Outcomes and impacts: This emphasizes collaboration, the development and design of innovative curricula and related qualifications, and support for occupational experts in delivering teaching, learning and assessment.

What might this mean in practice?

In the Teach Too report there are a number of reasons that this can play out within FE in a useful sense, which mainly boil down to careful collaboration and networking. For example:

  • Employers running workshops in an FE context
  • Employers contributing to module development and teaching
  • Employers helping to set benchmarks for occupational standards
  • Employers providing guest speakers
  • Lecturers and trainers providing workshops to help employers teach their specialisms
  • Lecturers and trainers collaborating with employers when developing CPD
  • Employers sharing access to state of the art, industry standard machines and equipment so lecturers and trainers can revise modular content to take account of technical advances
  • Mutual work-shadowing to develop and consolidate relationships between FE and the workplace
  • Collaborative working on projects

This kind of close relationship between FE and the workplace will help to recalibrate FE teacher professionalism with the outside world, rather than relying on the kind of messy certification structures I outlined earlier. This allows FE teachers to bring a new professional confidence to the table, situated within occupational contexts, with intrinsic guarantees of quality and reliability. This can in turn be supported by unions and professional FE organisations.  Examples of how this might be further supported by FE institutions include:

  • Systematic organisation of subject-based training as well as continuing professional development, so that both occupational standards and the role of knowledge are linked closely together, rather than being separated. There needs to be respect for the highly personalized and nuanced knowledge developed by FE teachers in during the course of their professional lives, and training should build on this rather than be distant from it, in the manner David Guile has suggested.
  • Restructuring FE to make for a fairer funding regime, more closely aligned to that experienced by schools and universities. This will allow for better long-term planning and enhanced career pathways.
  • Allowing FE teachers to have more say in the development of occupational standards at a number of different levels – local, regional and national.
  • Providing greater resources for liaison between industry, FE teaching and accreditation bodies so changes grow from a desire to serve local students and their potential future employers rather than relying on Government diktat.

The emphasis in terms of professionalism therefore needs to be on a kind of collaborative identity formation with lecturers and trainers working together with employers to develop frameworks for knowledge. In turn these frameworks for knowledge need to link to occupational standards, whilst at the same time being rooted in a dynamic model of pedagogical growth. So ultimately Further Education professionalism needs to be about knowledge relationships, not the imposition of policy from the top.


Further reading

Commission on Adult and Vocational Teaching and Learning (2013) It’s About Work: Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning (London: Learning and Skills Improvement Service)

Leaton Gray, S (2006) Teachers Under Siege (Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books)

Lucas, N (2013) “One step forwards, two steps back? The professionalization of further education teachers in England” Research in Post-Compulsory Education 18:4 389-401

Lucans, N Nasta, T and Rogers, L (2011) “From fragmentation to chaos? The regulation of initial teacher training in further education” British Educational Research Journal 38:4 677-695

Oldham College (2015) Teach Too: Employer led curriculum development and implementation in Digital and Creative (Oldham, Oldham College)

Tummons, J (2016) “‘Very positive’ or ‘vague and detached’? Unpacking ambiguities in further education teachers’ responses to professional standards in England” Research in Post-Compulsory Education 21:4 346-359


ResearchED BSix Hackney

I am speaking at ResearchED today, on FE teacher professionalism. Here are the Powerpoint slides, if anyone needs them. I will post up the talk later.




About equality, and Dame Ethel Smyth

john_singer_sargent_dame_ethel_smythI find the quest for equality tiring sometimes. I am currently nearly fifty, and many of the same problems seem to exist as when I discovered gender inequality at the age of seven, during my campaign at junior school for girls to be allowed to carry chairs to and from the assembly hall on the same basis as boys (went down like a lead balloon with my female classmates, that). The continuing gulf between the genders was brought home to me last week when someone gushed that it was only a matter of time before I became a Regius Professor. ‘Ain’t going to happen” I replied. “Firstly, I am female, and if you have noticed, the statistics aren’t on my side. Secondly, I work in Education, which is seen as a Cinderella subject by many, so considered not worthy of such august academic titles” (UCL doesn’t seem to have any Regius Professors at all, being a mere parvenu, only founded in 1826).

Another issue that annoyed my seven-year-old self recently was the report in the New York Times that for the first time in a century, an opera composed by a woman was to be performed. A century, ladies and gentlemen. The Met is about to perform the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin”. The last time the Met deigned to put on an opera composed by a woman, it was Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903, an opera which smashed box office records. Since then, silence. The Met clearly believed that in over one hundred years not one single opera composed by a woman was worth staging.

This suggests unusually warm congratulations are due to to Kaija Saariaho on this remarkable achievement  of breaking the gender duck in New York. We should certainly all rush out and buy the CD, or download it, or whatever gives this remarkable composer the most handsome royalties. In the meantime, I thought it might be of interest to reproduce here the content of a talk I gave here on Dame Ethel Smyth, so we get a sense of how enormous her impact was at the turn of the 20th century, and how much we lost in the meantime. I hope you enjoy it.

There is only one theme tune that broadcasters reliably call upon when Suffragettes are mentioned, and that is a rousing tribute from 1910 known as March of the Women. This forthright ditty acted as a call to arms for a generation of activist women swathed in purple and green sashes. The first verse of their anthem urges us to


Shout, shout, up with your song!

Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;

March, march, swing you along,

Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.

Song with its story, dreams with their glory

Lo! they call, and glad is their word!

Loud and louder it swells,

Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!


Inspiring words indeed, with a melody that is more than worthy of the sentiment, yet comparatively little is known about Ethel Smyth, their composer-in-chief.

It would be fair to say Ethel was a colourful figure by the standards of any age. The daughter of an army officer, she was internationally recognized as an opera composer, author and suffragette. She allegedly showed Mrs Pankhurst the best way of throwing a brick through a plate glass window, in response to a chauvinistic remark made by Viscount Harcourt, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. She fell in love in her seventies, with Virginia Woolf, who described the experience as ‘being caught by a giant crab’. She kept sheepdogs (usually named Pan) and conducted her own works dressed in a kimono. By 1922 she had been made a Dame of the British Empire, in return for her services to music.

Ethel was in many ways a woman of her time, whilst also being a seer of a more egalitarian future. The fourth of eight children, she was the product of a private boarding school in Putney, in the early days of secondary schooling for girls. The curriculum was relatively broad, including chemistry and astronomy alongside two foreign languages and the ubiquitous (for then) sock darning. By the age of seventeen, however, she had focused her attention on music and persuaded her military papa to send her Leipzig to study it. Whether this was as a result of a governess arriving in the Smyth household who had studied there herself we do not know, but it seems more than likely. Yet later in life Ethel was to present this as a kind of adventure in which she had run away to Leipzig, perhaps so she could have been seen more seriously in terms of fighting the suffragette cause. The irony is, of course, that had she been a boy (as perhaps her father might have preferred), this opportunity would have been denied to her entirely and she would have been facing a military career rather than a musical one.

Once in Leipzig, Ethel felt a degree of disgust for the other women students, on the grounds that they were lacking ambition and only wanted to become music teachers. This period of fraternization with the female conservatoire contingent did not last for long, however. Soon she had been taken under the wing of the renowned composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who apparently taught her for nothing. Indeed over the years she was to become extremely close to Herzogenberg and his wife, Lisl (Elisabeth), as their domestic world seemed to have a lot in common with her own experiences of home life back in England. In years to come, Lisl was to write her tender letters, full of concern, and during an occasion of serious ill-health, Lisl would nurse Ethel back to health with great care and affection. Ethel in turn held Lisl in high esteem. She described her as a ‘musical genius’, especially appreciating Lisl’s ability to sight read from manuscripts. Her musical judgement, critical faculties and excellent all-round knowledge of music contrived to make her, in Ethel’s eyes at least, the perfect musician, even if Lisl’s performance lacked some passion and came across as rather cold. However there was another key aspect of the relationship that was to prove very important for Ethel in terms of the development of her career. This was the fact that the Herzogenbergs were close associates of a number of leading musical figures of the time, including Brahms and the Schumanns, as well as Lili Wach (born Mendelssohn-Bartholdy). This meant that Ethel was brought into contact with inspiring musicians on a regular basis, which was to have a profound effect on her.

The Herzonbergs contrived to bring Ethel into the Leipzig musical world. On one occasion, Lisl showed Brahms one of Ethel’s fugue exercises to look at, and he seemed quite absorbed in its analysis, which Ethel interpreted as Brahms forgetting the fugue was written by a woman. Ethel then ruined the moment by asking what she later described as a pointless question, namely whether it mattered if she wrote what she wanted as opposed to writing what her teacher expected. Brahms’ reverie was interrupted and according to Ethel, he became patronising. This probably tells us more about Ethel than it does Brahms, in that she clearly spent a great deal of time being aware of her gender, and feeling she must counteract it, very different to the approach of her musical near-contemporaries, such as Clara Schumann. Lisl and Ethel did manage to wreak a degree of revenge on Brahms on another occasion. Lisl showed him a two-part invention in the style of Bach that Ethel had written for Herzogenberg, and passed it off as a new find of the Bachverein, in the early days of J S Bach’s work being collated and revealed to a wider audience. In the piece she had incorporated an unusual harmonic device, unknown in Bach’s time, yet one within reason that he could have anticipated. Brahms exclaimed in delight, “The fellow is always hitting on something new!” Eventually the secret of the real composer emerged, and Ethel was praised. So we see a high degree of technical skill on her part, and perhaps feel a little more sympathy for Herr Brahms.

Other composers provided encouragement to her as well, including Grieg, who in 1879 described a set of variations she had written as ‘charming’ and said that he looked forward to her next piece. However it was Tchaikovsky who had the most significant impact on her work at this stage, encouraging her to study orchestration on her own. This led to a number of works including Serenade (1889), a four-movement overture for orchestra, which was praised by the composer Arthur Sullivan and performed at the Crystal Palace. This paved the way for her Mass in D (1891). The music analyst Donald Tovey included the Mass in his Essays in Musical Analysis alongside Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Joachim, Parry and Bantock, on the grounds that it was ‘God-intoxicated’. We must bear in mind that the scale of such an achievement is immense – this was at a time when other women composers could barely get their work published on the grounds of commercial and personal prejudice. Yet in spite of this, Tovey holds it up as an example of a locus classicus in choral orchestration. He even goes so far as to make parallels with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This seems justified to some degree, as it was indeed a bold and forthright work. At the time, Archbishop Benson remarked that in it, God was not implored, but commanded to have mercy, such was Ethel’s use of a large and enthusiastic brass section in the orchestra. This was a very far cry from the polite and relatively inoffensive parlour songs and piano pieces being written by many other women at the time.

Upon Ethel showing the Mass to Levi, he declared that she should write an opera. (Levi was another composer who had initially declared disbelief on hearing that pieces by Ethel had been written by a woman). Eventually Ethel would write Fantasio (1898), then Der Wald (1903), which was produced at Leipzig, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House, and particularly warmly received. It has remained the only opera written by a woman to be performed at the Met, over a century later. The peak of Ethel’s career was to come with her next opera, The Wreckers (1906), which is still occasionally produced today. The opera is set on the Cornish coast in the 18th century, around the time of the Wesleyan Revival. The people of the area believe that the wrecks on their shores are a direct gift from providence. However the ships have been passing by the dangerous coastline, and the people are near starving as a result, so they pray for sailors that they can murder and rob. There would be no pretty parlour romances here. In the opera, Ethel combines the Germanic tradition of composers such as Wagner with the English dramatic and musical characteristics. She does this cleverly, in the manner of Benjamin Britten with his opera Peter Grimes. This includes the use of chorus and off-stage singing as an accompaniment to the singers on stage, as well as portrayals of the sea in interludes, and the idea of someone in the community representing the ‘odd one out’. Sir Thomas Beecham was to acknowledge the vigour and rhythmic force of the music in The Wreckers, claiming that it equalled anything else which had been written in England at the time.


The Wreckers staged for Bard Summerscape, 2015  (Photo by Cory Weaver)

By 1910, Ethel’s friend and librettist (and perhaps her lover) Henry Brewster had died, and after losing direction, she turned to the suffragette movement, joining Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and abandoning her music activities for two years while she was devoted to the cause. It was during this period that March of the Women appeared, and it was during the two months Ethel spent in Holloway prison after WSPU activities that she was witnessed conducting other suffragettes singing the song out of her window with a toothbrush ‘in a Bacchic frenzy’, as reported by Sir Thomas Beecham after he visited her. Briefly returning to composition, Ethel wrote one more opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-1914), before her hearing started to fail. Ethel then turned to writing and produced ten mainly autobiographic books, kept a number of Old English sheepdogs and remained indominitable.

Normally it is unproductive to compare the work of women composers to that of men in an historical sense, because the structure of society at the time was such that it is hard to form a useful opinion about their perceived calibre. However in the case of Ethel, her music was certainly taken seriously and her legacy remains. Michael Hurd, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, puts it well, in describing her music as representing an important part of the new seriousness of purpose that characterized the renaissance of English music. Whether she would have been able to contribute more had she been male is open to question. We have to bear in mind that Sir Thomas Beecham announced “There are no women composers; there never had been, and there never will be”, yet at the same time Ethel’s work was being played internationally at leading opera houses. Audiences welcomed her music, despite the fact that they had grown wary of pieces by women on the grounds that they could be somewhat diffident in style, and perhaps of a lower standard. This was not likely to be due to any lack of talent, but instead related to the fact that many women had inferior access to the important educational and social networks that they needed in order to develop to an internationally recognized standard.  Domestic duties and childbearing also impeded artistic progress. Consequently women were expected to produce inferior work, but when they exceeded expectations, they were applauded just as men were. Any prejudice was therefore much more complicated that we might realise.

There is an important lesson here regarding funding for the arts (and perhaps academia) moving forward. Unless we allow women time and space to develop as composers in their own right, and on their own terms, they will never be able to compete on the same basis as men. The fact that it will have taken over a century for the Metropolitan Opera to produce another opera by a woman tells us a great deal about how little progress has been made in this regard. We must, therefore, continue to urge women to March! March!

Book tickets here for L’Amour de Loin, from $27














Guest post: abdication altercation in Tokyo

palaceWe have a guest post this week. My eldest son, Conrad Leaton Gray, is currently in Tokyo. Today he found himself unexpectedly taking a ringside seat at an historic event. He writes about the apparent age divide regarding today’s official announcement, that the Japanese Emperor is struggling to continue in his role.

I woke up this morning in the capsule hotel crawl space, as if awoken from stasis on the Starship Enterprise. The lights slowly came on in my pod as I stirred and quickly shuffled out of my personal zone (effectively a broom closet in which somebody had decided to throw a rather nice mattress). I walked into the swimming-pool-changing-room-esque hotel foyer and everything seemed entirely predictable and ordered as I got my clothes out of the obligatory storage locker.

In Japan there is always a total sense of order, as if somebody decided to turn school into a country. Things being orderly and controlled is considered the natural way of things. This understanding of order ties in closely with the importance of tradition, things are done in a particular way and differing from the norm is frowned upon in the same way one would frown upon a student in a group who leaves the rest of the group to do all the work. Everyone acts how they should so society functions normally. Whether society functioning normally is ideal is another issue entirely, and one not often considered worth mentioning.

This idea of the collective runs through Japan to its core. Even the drunken antics of young people are compartmentalised and put in particular districts at particular times. Blood runs thicker than saké, so to speak. You perform as you should and do as you must. Fulfilling one’s duty is absolute.

Today my own duty was to be a tourist. I had to do touristy things, be generally interested, and take as many photographs as was possible without my camera breaking down to the sheer heat and humidity. My intention was to go and see several notable sights around Tokyo ranging from the Shibuya crossing, to the Akihabara Electric Town, and finally to visit the Imperial Palace. Having trudged around Tokyo all day and having gotten lost several times (with little help from my phone’s online maps, which marked Shibuya crossing as being an over an hour’s walk away from where it actually was) I arrived at the Palace in all its majesty. And I just so happened to be in the right place, at the right time.

Being outside the Imperial Palace, a building that resembles the lovechild of Disneyland and a child’s playing card tower if the child then became a samurai, would have breathtaking at the best of times. Being outside it during the Emperor’s announcement today, that he was struggling with his official obligations, gave me a unique insight into peoples’ reactions to the address.

Usually the Palace’s attraction represents a point of interest for tourists, with them bumbling around bewildered at the fanfare. It also serves as a point of pride for the locals. Today, however, it served the additional purpose, this time of a symbol. It symbolised the beginning of a period of political disarray, on par if not greater than if the Queen of England herself had proposed the same thing. But, as with all things Japanese, it did so with significantly less gravitas and a far more humble approach.

Nevertheless the atmosphere of shock was palpable. Opinion as to the announcement seemed divided between the generations, like a living room filled with a family competing to play their favourite board game; Granddad’s game is old and traditional, mum’s is a bit more up-to-date but nobody besides her likes Monopoly, and the kids are intent on trying something new. Even those in the smoking areas outside the Palace had turned their heads towards it in a moment of societal reflection. Change to the social order is never considered a good thing in Japan, and to have the Emperor, the figurehead of tradition, ignite the fuse of change is unheard of. Older individuals seemed shocked. One older woman sitting outside, with a wizened look on her face and glasses thicker than the Palace walls, observed, “Things should be done as they always have been, it is tradition… tradition should not change for politics.”

This feeling was echoed by many older people I spoke with both at the Palace and around Tokyo today. Upsetting the social norms seemed to be something they were deeply afraid of, akin to worried parents scared about letting their children seeing the wrong scene in a film in case they ‘might get the wrong idea’. Beyond grumbling many felt hurt at the fact one could be too old to lead, as if they were all immortal and any discussion of degradation was taboo. However it was not an opinion that was held by younger individuals, leading more modern lives that rely less on tradition and follow traditional affairs less intently (and often don’t have the time to care for Royal matters). One man, a young businessman with a provocative hat that matched his tie,  and a constant grin attached to his wiry face, whom I spoke to at Tokyo station exemplified this by saying,”Japan is now a modern country, the emperor is very old and it makes sense for him to hand over control.”

The general consensus among the younger population of Tokyo appears to be that of respect to the Emperor and agreement that this was a wise decision, all hopeful for changes to be made to the constitution. It is easy however to see why many people are sceptical; encouraging entirely new things, such as changes to the Japanese constitution, is something which usually demands great caution. Changes to social order in Japan happen at about the same speed as it takes to set up a rail pass at the airport; you’d probably get there quicker if you set off straight away going by mule. But whether young peoples’ progressive opinions are enough considering Japan’s largely ageing demographics is another matter entirely.

It’s also notable that these are only the opinions of those who live in central Tokyo, the opinions of other cities and of rural Japan are likely to be more conservative. Therefore the Emperor’s address runs the risk of being extremely  controversial. And the Japanese are not fans of controversy. You’d probably have an easier time of going around asking if anyone would like a firecracker suppository than asking them to speak against the grain.

Whatever the outcome, this announcement is bound to lead to significant changes in Japanese politics. Every person here in Tokyo has thoughts on the matter, and no outcome will please everyone. The eyes of the world, particularly of Japan, watch intently.

Thoughts after the death of Jo Cox

I am 48 years old and one of my parents is German. For those of you who don’t really appreciate what that meant for someone growing up in the north of England in the 1970s and 1980s, it meant being at the brunt end of a lot of casual white-on-white candleracism. I spent my days in infant and junior school surrounded by boys drawing endless pictures of Action Man in various World War 2 scenarios surrounded by tanks and machine guns, making stuttering machine gun noises with their mouths as they did so. Occasionally the same boys would label me a ‘Nazi’, with their knowledge of Germans being largely drawn from the black and white war films that seemed in endless supply on BBC 2 (a genre described as ‘Naughty Germans’ films in our house). They felt this status gave them licence to steal my PE kit and throw it over the church wall, something which I kept quiet, but which was eventually discovered by the school authorities (with a satisfying result, as the bullies were thoroughly disciplined, and I was no longer in trouble for ‘losing’ my things). Later on we moved to a nearby market town. A couple of neighbours routinely sent their children over to trample on my mother’s bedding plants in the front garden, until they were spoken to. There was a fairly nasty anti-German incident at my parent’s workplace. At secondary school, there was the usual female-on-female adolescent bitchiness, but it was usually underpinned by laughing at my slightly Germanic pronunciation of one or two words picked up at home (pizza, kilometre), my lovely but slightly foreign clothes, often bought while we were visiting my German grandparents, and my ability to speak and think in more than one language. Once some of the worst culprits (army brats with fathers stationed in Monchen-Gladbach and the like) strapped me into a large laundry hamper and rolled me painfully over and over, just for the hell of it, largely just because I was a new kid and a bit different. If you were perceived as foreign, or even worse German, you were fair game, it seemed.

These were my small battles and probably made me more resilient than I might otherwise have been. Other people have different battles, worse battles, the type Jo Cox was fighting for on a much larger scale, so my experiences feel fairly trivial in comparison. But during the 2010 and 2015 election campaigns, and more recently the referendum campaign, I have become aware of the ugly head of intolerance, racism and jingoism rearing its head again. Many of the things Jo Cox stood for, and that I believe in deeply, such as equality, respect, human rights, and a sense of collective purpose, seem to have evaporated from the national debate. They have been replaced with quite unconscionable policies that allow individuals and groups casually to humiliate and disadvantage whomever is the fashionable scapegoat du jour at home and abroad. This is done whilst submitting without protest to the social, political and financial demands of a relatively limited number of supra-national organisations whose oligarchy speaks of ‘leveraging philanthropy’ whilst actively avoiding taxation and failing to recognise the far-reaching social consequences of their various behaviours and decisions.

Please join me in my outrage along with a desire to influence this for the better. Let us make our national polity reflect the best of human nature, rather than the worst. Let it start now. Otherwise Jo’s death really will have been in vain.



Why are academies so expensive?

moneyI think academies are proving to be more expensive than we can realistically afford. A while back I posted something facetious about academy funding, breaking it down very simplistically and pointing out we could have taught every child in Britain to ski had we decided to spend the money otherwise. I would like to develop this now in a more serious way, and in doing so I have to fully acknowledge an anonymous assistant who has painstakingly helped to extract these figures from the DfE’s various publications (anonymous because this is the Internet). We start with this statement, relating to the £8.3 billion that had been spent on the project between 2010 and 2012.

“Of this £8.3 billion total, £6.4 billion was offset by money recovered from local authorities, or was distributed to schools on the same basis, irrespective of whether they were maintained schools or academies – for example sixth-form funding or the Pupil Premium for children from low income families. The Department provided a further £0.9 billion directly to 103 academies for whose pupils it does not allocate any funding to local authorities, this making recovery unnecessary”.

Department for Education and Education Funding Agency (2012) Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme


Interpreting this, we see that academies are being funded centrally, children are attending academies, and the per capita cost is being clawed back from the local authorities. Nothing controversial here. However let’s move on.  ‘A further £350m was money the Department was not able to recover from local authorities to offset against academy funding’. So here we have a statement pertaining to the actual costs of setting up the programme. Let’s look at those in more detail.

£49m on central programme administration. There are two organisations involved in the setup – the Department for Education and the Young People’s Learning Agency, and this has come about because the DfE did not have the resources to do it alone. What it has meant is that there are very high communication costs. The overall cost could have been a lot lower if a national quango had been set up to do the job.

£338m on transition costs, of which £279m seems to be spent on ‘pre-opening and start-up finding to sponsored academies’. So these are large grants paid to schools before and after opening such as school improvements (which presumably should have been funded by other routes) and the problems of high overheads as pupil numbers were building up. Remember, it was not long ago that a condition of being a sponsored academy was that philanthropic donations covered costs such as these.

£92m on academy insurance. This seems reasonable on one level but not when you consider that Local Authorities are able to amortise risks and do this considerably more cheaply.

£22m on support for academies in deficit. Once again, reasonable on one level but not necessarily the cheapest way of achieving the same objective.

£68m reimbursing academies’ VAT costs, so essentially this is just money on paper and not relevant to the overall calculations.

£29m on other grants. Lack of transparency here.

£21m double-funding academies and local authorities to ensure financial sustainability of various local authority services. Unavoidable in the circumstances but this is duplication.

£59m protecting academies from income volatility problems, again an example of something that would be unnecessary if there were no conversions.

So how much of this is actually reaching pupils? This was just for the period 2010-2012. Now we have a situation where the academicisation policy has been scaled up massively, and with it the effect of the leaky financial pipe has presumably been exacerbated. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why school budgets are becoming increasingly stretched (in addition to the impact of National Insurance increases and so on). To me, these figures show so much duplication of effort and increased legal/accountancy/insurance costs that it hardly seems worth the candle when you could have simply reformed Local Authorities instead.




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The seven deadly sins of academic writing


Like a lot of university lecturers, I mark many essays. And I see a lot of rookie mistakes being made by students who are normally very intelligent, but when faced with an impending assignment, suddenly forget how to formulate things properly on paper. I therefore present the seven deadly sins of academic writing so that students can learn what drives their tutors to distraction, allowing them to avoid the main pitfalls. See it as insider knowledge, a kind of Urban Dictionary of the Senior Common Room.

Citation bombing

Like its visual cousin photo bombing, this describes the phenomenon of students finding a juicy quotation and then ramming it into the text with no preamble or explanation, leaving the quotation just to speak for itself. Usually appears with about twenty other quotations doing the same thing, as a string of apparently unconnected mini-plagiarisms without any critical analysis linking them, that makes a lecturer’s weary heart sink.


We need to think about children’s verbal experiences of school. “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). Early Years classrooms are often focused on play-related activities.

So here we have three sentences, two of which might just make sense in terms of an essay and then the random Basil Bernstein bit in the middle. Just because it sounds clever, it does not mean you have to squeeze it in there. It won’t help you impress us. You need to make it work harder. This is really what we are looking for in a student essay:

Children from different backgrounds respond to school in different ways, and some will find the medium of instruction difficult compared to their experiences of home. The sociologist Basil Bernstein argued that this can be related to social class. He showed through his research that middle-class children were likely to have distinct advantages when it came to understanding the complexity of their teacher’s speech, and the various concepts that were being expressed, as they were more likely to have experienced this at home. Bernstein termed this ‘elaborated code’, as opposed to ‘restricted code’, which uses fewer words and a more simplistic syntax and conceptual frameworks. As Bernstein explained, “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). If we are to extend this idea it would mean that in early years settings, play-based settings may well offer potential scope for helping children unfamiliar with the type of speech represented by elaborated code to access these complex conceptual hierarchies in a more structured way. In order to achieve this, educational programmes need to be carefully planned and implemented with a transition to elaborated code in mind.

Inverted comma spillage

Similar to an oil spill on a motorway, this is when a student is temporarily transported back in time to the 1940s-1950s linguistically. Every ‘term’ that is potentially to be ‘interpreted’ in more than one way or vaguely resembles some kind of ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’ if you dig deep is ‘surrounded’ by inverted commas in order to ‘hedge’ the writer’s ‘bets’. (See what I did there?). Avoid.

Op. cit. and ibid.

Sometimes students over-cite their limited range of references, with the same three or four authors popping up again and again, every other line. Reading academic journal articles might be partly to blame here, as in the social sciences there is a convention which means you cite the author’s name afresh each time it comes up, and the effect is exaggerated when a student is only working with a very limited number of sources. However in essays, and particular in dissertations, it is important to familiarise yourself with the use of op. cit. (from the Latin opere citato, meaning ‘from the work cited’) and ibid. (from the Latin ibidem, meaning ‘the same’). You use op. cit. when there has been a gap between the original reference and where you are now, with other authors in between. You use ibid. when it is the same as the reference you last had.

Narration disease

This is when students simply write out long lists of information from the literature with no critical analysis, interpretation or insight. Guys, we already know this stuff, we work with it all day. We can even look it up if we want to. What we are looking for is an intelligent analysis of what it all means. Compare and contrast things, bring authors together, synthesise or apply different aspects of knowledge, craft your writing so it brings deeper meaning to the topic. Feed the beast, please.

Religiosity or ideology outbreak

However meaningful and enduring your favourite religious text is, it does not count as an academic reference unless the essay is specifically meant to analyse it, for example as part of a theology or divinity course. Therefore simply citing from the Bible or Koran in support of your arguments is not sufficient. Moreover, even if your assignment is being marked by someone of the same faith as you, it will be marked as having a defective bibliography if you only draw on a very limited number of texts, unless it is clear close reading has been part of the brief (and this is a particular skill more commonly used in literature courses). Similarly, using respectful phrases such as ‘Our Lord’, “Peace Be Upon Him’ and so on each time you invoke a religious figure is not a suitable form of expression for academic essays, however well-intentioned and devout. Your job as an academic writer is to distance yourself from religion and ideology and assess texts as objectively and dispassionately as you can, regardless of any personal feelings in the matter. This is actually a good discipline as you are then forced to think your position through a lot more carefully, and harness stronger arguments. You can still draw on your beliefs, but they need to be more conventionally expressed and draw on the broader academic literature rather than purely religious texts. Incidentally, this also would apply if you were an avid follower of Marx, Juche or whatever.

Id, ego and superego

Many students are not sure how to position themselves within an essay and whether they can use the pronoun ‘I’. Where it works well is when it is clear you are offering a personal insight that clarifies a theoretical point. This rises above the commonplace and counts as the application of knowledge, something we might call a measured, controlled, superego approach. What works less well is when students ramble on about their own lives for half the essay in a narrative way, and this is mainly off-task. It comes across as indulgent, and we might call this a rather self-interested ego approach. What really comes across badly is the use of bold pronouncements in academic writing. In some of the weaker essays I mark, these come across as assertions that because the author has twenty years’ classroom experience as a practitioner, for example this means they know more about education than the authorities who have carried out seminal research studies. For the purposes of theoretical psychoanalytical completeness, I would call this an id approach, being apparently unaffected by logic or reality. So the secret when referring to yourself is considering how you would link it to a reference that adds to the debate. If you can do this easily and effectively, it is most probably an appropriate use of the pronoun.

Apostrophe catastrophe

What can I say? It beggars belief that intelligent postgraduate students with at least 14 years of schooling behind them are not always able to use the apostrophe properly. If you can’t, read Lynne Truss’s amazing book Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Her blog is here: http://www.lynnetruss.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=8


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