Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter’

As I feel the need to stand on my soap box and get something off my chest this week I apologise in advance for  my work-related rant and won’t be at all offended should you wish to click away now…

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

So, two weeks back into term time and already I have signed a petition to remove the Secretary of State for Education. I don’t add my name to anything lightly but I really do think it’s time for Gove to go. His unrealistic and ever changing demands on teachers is creating an exhausted, de-motivated and de-moralised staffroom; the delivery of our national curriculum with its incessant assessing puts unnecessary pressure on students, creating stressed and apathetic pupils. Do children actually enjoy school these days? Ask a few – I did – and they looked at me as if I’m barmy. As far as many of them are concerned, it’s a place to meet their friends – what goes on in classes is just a damn nuisance.

To maintain league table positions, schools have to chase grades. Targets are imposed on students and it is up to the staff to make sure these targets are met, never mind the anxiety felt by hard working children who aspire to, but sometimes fall short of, their aspirational targets. The government recently implemented performance related pay for teachers. In any other profession or line of work (except perhaps the front line of the health service) I’d say this is more than acceptable – in the corporate world it is probably essential. But teaching?  Where we are dealing with the lives and minds of young people? I don’t think so.

Some kids, however hard they work, however much they try, however much guidance they receive from dedicated teachers just aren’t going to reach that magical A-C banding which means that staff, not fulfilling their quota of ‘passes’ will find their pay packets lacking. This system is just crying out to be abused by unscrupulous heads of department who could cream off top students for their own classrooms thus ensuring a constant flow of suitable, remunerative grades.

A-C grades at GCSE (exams taken at age 16) are the keys to moving onto further education and eventually university. Grades convert to points which in turn, convert to cash for funding. It is not unusual nowadays for many top level students to achieve ten A or A* grades at GCSE, which is great for the students and for the school coffers but how does this happen? Are that many students good at everything? In my dim and distant past people generally leant towards either maths/science or English and the arts with only the odd few who were more than competent at everything. What can this possibly mean? Are we breeding a race of super students now who are as good at creative writing and art as they are maths and physics? Who can turn their hands to practical subjects and still be ace at computing and chemistry? No of course we aren’t. Our national curriculum is tailored to ensure that kids jump through hoops with the drained direction of their dedicated teachers.

When they’re not taking exams, pupils are being constantly assessed. I’m sure this has always been the case – just not so obviously to the students as it is now. The students are shown a framework for success criteria and in some cases, the mark scheme, before they even open a book and assessments are churned out in every year group, from ages 11-16, sometimes as close together as one every three weeks in one subject alone. Multiply that by the number of subjects on the timetable and you have one hell of a lot of assessments not to mention BORING BORING BORING.

To what end? Where’s the learning? More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, where’s the fun? It seems to me that we are only teaching them to pass a test, to excel in assessments and that any actual knowledge they may acquire is a happy additional benefit. I wonder if this is all a government ploy to create a generation of analysts… because that’s what they are learning – to analyse, not to create. Short sighted, in my opinion. Eventually, without creators, there will be nothing left to analyse. Rather like when our government got rid of all the manufacturing industries. They really don’t think things through, do they?

During my schooldays which, incidentally, I loved, we were afforded the opportunity (and the time), in English classes, to spend whole lessons discussing books plays and poems around set texts. We were taught to love Shakespeare and poetry before we had to start picking it to bits: we were given a lifelong love of literature which is why I get so exasperated with our older students who think that reading seven novels about an irritating little bespectacled wizard is sufficient recreational reading material for a potential A* student. (I ranted controversially once before about Harry Potter, which you can read here if you’re interested).

My Art lessons were peppered with visits to galleries and History to museums while Geography offered field trips which included wading around in the River Dart and getting lost on an unknown fell in the Lake District. We survived without need for all the health and safety legislation required now to take groups of students anywhere remotely interesting.

(Actually a colleague and I did manage to evade the red tape once and take a group of our students to the theatre. This trip is probably worth a post in its own right, as it turned out).

I know things have moved on substantially since I was at school – of course they have and facilities these days are fantastic. Just what is the point of it all if the learning is secondary to the testing? I wonder if, a few years down the line, our students will remember anything about their schooling or whether their memories will be of one long assessment – and how sad if that is the case.

Hopefully equilibrium will be restored next week but in the meantime, should you feel inclined to sign the Remove Gove from Office petition, you can do so here and if you’d like to read my poem on ‘Free Range Children,’ just click here.

Phew, that feels better…

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This week I successfully managed to alienate a whole classroom of fifteen year olds while provoking, at the same time, a sensational reaction.  Part of their controlled assessment for GCSE English is to write two creative pieces: their task this week was to nominate something they’d like to see banished in the 21st century and present a reasoned rant to back up their choice. As I often do, to help get them started, I joined in and wrote down my list of possibilities. Naturally the National Curriculum was high up there but when asked, I announced that my item of banishment would be Harry Potter.

As the tumbleweed gathered apace on the playing field outside, a collective gasp went up in the room and thirty pairs of eyes swiveled around and glared at me with cold accusation. Uproar quickly followed. They couldn’t have been more shocked had I said I’d bare-handedly strangled the neighbour’s cat. (Who is also on my list – well, something has to be done about the malevolent little mogg-ster – any reasonable ideas of ridding my garden of this pernicious paw-padding pooper will be gratefully received).

But I stand by my choice. I have nothing against J K Rowling – good luck to her with all her millions– she invented her characters and extended plot-line, saw a niche in the market; got stuck in, found a fantastic publicist and the rest, as they say, is history. What I object to is the furore that surrounds the series and the height of the pedestal on which it has been placed. In my opinion, it is not particularly well written; it is boringly repetitive and actually, isn’t even original.

What’s it about, really?  Children at boarding school. So was Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes; Enid Blyton wrote two separate series – Malory Towers and St Clare’s; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer wrote sixty story books about the Chalet School. The protagonists are always good, sometimes led astray by more interesting friends; there is always a bully; there are always eccentric members of staff. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So then, to make it more out of the ordinary, JKR factors in wizardry and witchcraft – what a coup – no-one has done that before. If I was Jill Murphy, author of The Worst Witch series, I might have something to say about that. Creator of six books published between 1974 -1980, plus a TV spin-off, Murphy enjoyed brief success with her character Mildred Hubble studying at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches.  Hmm…I rest my case on that one.

So, back to Harry Potter. Translated into sixty-seven languages and with more than 450 million copies sold, that makes it the best-selling book series in history. Impressive statistics, granted. I am in a tiny minority, obviously, but I take heart that the series is not without criticism from people with some clout in the literary world.  AS Byatt said that (The Harry Potter Saga) was “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”, while Anthony Holden, in The Observer mentions “pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style”.

Stephen King, although predicting that Harry Potter “will indeed stand time’s test and wind up on a shelf where only the best are kept” also declared that he was “a little tired of discovering Harry at home with his horrible aunt and uncle”, the repetitious beginning to all seven books.

People will argue that the Harry Potter books have got their children reading. Well, of course that’s a good thing.  Anything that gets a child’s interest should be lauded but it ought only to be used as a springboard to more challenging literature. I don’t want to hear that little Johnny has read the Potter series over and over again, knows all the films backwards and has reached every conceivable level on his wretched Potter computer game. By all means let little Johnny read about Harry – and then move him on. Leave Harry on the shelf for the under twelve’s; don’t dress up the covers for adults to read on the train – that’s like covering Fifty Shades of Grey in a Jacqueline Wilson dust jacket and passing it to your thirteen year old daughter for perusal.

So what is it that really irks me? The thought that a generation of children (and their parents), have been manipulated by media frenzy into buying into what is, after all, a mediocre product. Would I, on reflection, ban Harry completely? Probably not – keep the books in their place on the lower shelves but get rid of the merchandise, the themed world, the computer related items and the razzamatazz that goes with it all.  There is however, no such thing as bad publicity. Seems I’ve just hoisted my own petard.

Such is life.

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