Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why I'm Striking

I usually use this blog to reflect on my teaching practice and document my progress as I strive to become a better teacher. However tonight on the eve of tomorrow's strike I feel I need to explain why I feel so strongly about the issues involved that I am striking for only the second time in my life. 

First a little background. I'm 47, a widow and a single parent. I took my degree in Computer Science and Manufacturing as a mature student ( obtained a 2.1 if Mr Gove is interested ) and worked for HSBC for 13 years as variously an analyst programmer, process manager and project manager before deciding to retrain as a teacher in 1995. My reasons for doing were hopelessly idealistic - I wanted a job which made a difference and gave me a an opportunity to pass on my lifelong love of learning. Thanks to the additional bursary of the (now scrapped) Fast Track teacher training scheme I was in the fortunate position of being able to afford a sizeable pay cut in order to put this idealism in to practice.

During my time at HSBC I managed teams of over 90 people and developed IT systems which have been rolled out across the country. I was eligible for annual bonuses of nearly 40% of my annual salary and I still have the non contributory final salary pension which was part of the recruitment package when I was first employed ( since closed to new recruits ). I worked hard, was successful  and regularly got high achiever ratings for my performance reviews ( resulting in higher bonuses ). I sometimes had to work late and occasionally at weekends when there was an impending deadline but I never had to work as hard or for as many hours as I now find myself doing week-in, week-out as Subject Leader for ICT. I try to keep Friday nights and Saturdays free ( although at times of pressure this slips ) but other than that I am working every evening until at least 10pm and most of Sunday. At least half of most holidays I am also working. It's a punishing schedule and not one I could envisage continuing with until I'm 66.

Part of the reason for the long hours is that I'm passionate about my subject and keen to be involved with national collaborative projects such as the #ictcurric resource bank. However a large proportion of my time is spent marking coursework ( I have 7 100% coursework classes in KS4 alone ), writing reports, producing resources and planning lessons. ICT is a fast moving subject and I need to continually update my subject knowledge. I've only been teaching 5 years but in that time I've taught 7 different ICT courses at KS4 alone. And don't get me started on the ever changing whims of central government, the changes in goalpost and the jumping through hoops that we are continually subjected to.

Despite all this I love my job and would not wish to leave the teaching profession. For better or worse this is what I signed up for and I still derive great job satisfaction from seeing students I have taught succeed. Only last night I had a former student contact me via Facebook to tell me that he had obtained a merit in his BTEC level 3 course. However I feel that the current government has no respect whatsoever for teachers and is treating us with utter contempt. We are subjected to constant sniping from the education secretary who seems to see no value in any any form of education which does not mirror his own public school experience.

The pensions issue is the final straw. Teachers had their pensions reviewed in 2006 and agreement was reached then to make them affordable and sustainable. Now the government has turned round and wants us to pay more (up from 6.8% to 9.8% of annual salary), get less and wait longer. I'm likely to be paying an extra £80 a month ( when my salary is frozen for 2 years ) and lose £1800 per year in pension if I retire at 60. Can you imagine buying a personal pension and having the insurance company deciding to impose such change of contract terms? Teaching takes energy in the classroom and a massive workload outside the classroom - I cannot envisage being able to carry on at the current rate when I'm 66. Presumably this is what the government is banking on with many teachers being forced to take early retirement and therefore reduce their pensions still further. 

When you apply for a job you take into account the whole benefits package. When I worked for HSBC it was a non-contributory final salary pension, annual performance related bonus and a good salary. Even though I have now left they are honouring the pension terms they offered me at the interview. In general though the usual agreement in the private sector is larger salaries but lower pensions. In contrast the public sector generally offers lower salaries but has a more generous pension scheme - it's a trade off - now we are being asked to take the lower salaries and a lower pension. Put simply it's not fair.

As a final note - tomorrow's Independent front page:-

So tomorrow I will be on the picket line and on the protest march. I do not feel I have any choice. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hobson's Choice?

I've not written any posts for months. Too many challenges at school with OFSTED breathing down our necks and too many other calls on my time. Also, to be honest, at times I've been struggling to remain optimistic both about my own practice and the state of ICT in education in general. However the fog is starting to clear a little and it's time to start thinking about planning for next year. By far the biggest decision I have to make is what to do about the core ICT course for KS4. 

Currently we are delivering OCR Nationals as core ICT for all of year 9 and 10 for one hour a week and BTEC IT for Practitioners as an option for year 10 and 11. As I've previously written I find OCR Nationals to be all that is wrong with ICT qualifications - students following a ticklist, taking screen shot after screen shot to prove what  they already know. It was depressing to hear from a fellow ICT HoD that her school was having to resubmit their unit 1, in part,  because the students didn't have a screen shot of having opened a file ( to join the screen shots of finding a file and selecting a file to open ). Similarly we have been picked up in the past for not having a screen shot of before the student has created a folder or showing what happens when you put the wrong password into a password protected document. What possible educational value does this serve? 

So I've been looking for alternatives most of the year. The first thing I had to find out was whether I had a choice to make. With the eBacc not including ICT and the future of vocational qualifications in the balance post Wolf Report there are tales on the internet of schools dropping core ICT at KS4. Given some of the difficulties we've experienced this year with reluctant recruits I wouldn't be totally heartbroken if SLT went for this option. However I received assurances that core ICT would remain and that I was free to decide what course to deliver.

So over to me. Got to admit an early contender is do nowt ( as a former project manager I was always told that you should give this option serious consideration ). When I started as subject leader in September every single course was new to me - OCR Nationals ( old and new spec ), AS Edexcel Applied and at my instigation the new spec for BTEC ICT Practitioners. I had to write all these courses plus a total rewrite of year 7 and 8. I'm tired and I don't want to write anymore courses this year. We need a year of stability without more changes. Added to which I have a cast iron excuse - there has been no decision by the government re vocational courses - what's the point of writing another course that might have to be scrapped once the government finally get their act together?

However in my heart I know that this is a truly poor course that adds little to students knowledge and understanding of ICT. And it is unlikely to survive post Wolf report. OCR have already said that the last registration in it's current form is August next year. Can I in all conscientiousness subject another year group to this course? And on a purely practical note we currently have 17 level 2 classes on 100% coursework courses being delivered and marked by just two teachers - the marking load is crippling.

So what to put in it's place? I've blogged previously about trying to combine Functional skills and the Diploma linked level 2 project. My concern with this is putting the whole year group through a 2 hour exam. Even if there is a level 1 and 2 option the logistics of putting over 160 students through an exam that requires access to ICT suites with no more than 15 students to a room in a one week window is challenging to say the least. Also the course would need to be very carefully written to ensure a meaningful course. 

I really like BTEC First IT Practitioners which is what we deliver as an option at KS4. You can make it a really techie course by choosing the computer systems and installing hardware options. It is also flexible enough to go for a more creative option with animation and computer game design. For a couple of my students it's also a business course by choosing units such as the Doing business online unit. However it is not suitable for core ICT. In the time available ( one hour a week for 2 years ) we could only offer the compulsory first unit - Communicating in the IT industry and one optional unit which would not give a very rounded course. Also unless we also ran the level 1 option it would not be suitable for the whole cohort. Given that we teach mixed ability groups this could be difficult to manage.

I've had a look at BTEC IT Users which is a possible contender. At level 2 is has a 1/2 GCSE equivalent Award ( 70-80 GLH ), a 1 GCSE equivalent Certificate ( 120-130 GLH ) and a 3 GCSE equivalent Diploma ( 280-285 GLH ). There are also foundation and level 1 options available. There are 3 fundamental units which cover Functional skills so could put higher ability students in for the exam. However these are not compulsory and there are a wide range of units to choose from, including Using Collaborative Technologies and a Specialist Software unit which allows you to use any software to meet the criteria ( Scratch or other game design software for example ). According to the flyer it has been developed in consultation with employers to address skills gaps. My thinking if we go for this option is an initial unit taught to all students and then using a google site and the VLE to offer range of units that students can work more independently on. This would allow the more able students to achieve the higher awards and allow them to tailor the course to their own interests. However there seems to be little in the way of resources available from Edexcel ( few model assignments and the only text book available is foundation and level 1 ) and it would mean a lot of work in developing the assignments. It's also 100% coursework so no let up in our marking load. I emailed Edexcel a couple of weeks ago querying whether a student could be entered for both the BTEC IT User and BTEC Practitioner course and have not received a response so far. As I've no plans to change our option course this is a crucial piece of information. 

The BCS Digital Cre8tor course is a course I have a soft spot for. It has modules on animation, photography, videoing, audio and moving image language as well as units on creating DVDs, multimedia presentations and sharing online. All the resources are available online and students are able to work independently to complete the projects. It has 1/2, 1 and 2 GCSE options and is an engaging course which also lends itself well to enrichment day and after school activities. However it covers none of the MS Office / traditional ICT skills, a good thing in some ways but it is preparing the students sufficiently for using ICT in other subjects and in the world of work? It would also cause some logistical challenges re practical work.

The most controversial option I'm considering is the EDCL also from BCS. Prior to becoming a teacher I worked for HSBC for 13 years and the bank sponsored all employees to take the course. It is well known and well regarded by employers and covers all the basic skills required for ( non IT specialist ) employment. The Complete Learning Solution package is £55 per student ( OCR Nationals is £42.50 ) and includes online resources, unlimited access to diagnostic tests and exam fees for each of the 7 units ( resits £5 ). Exams are online and on demand and there is no coursework hence reducing the workload for the department. The first 3 units are at level 1 and result in a certificate of ECDL Essentials. These units cover basic housekeeping / file management ( a weakness of many students ), using the internet and emails and safety and security. Certification at this stage means that even with the whole cohort taking the course they should all come out with something ( OCR Nationals minimum grade is a Pass at level 2 ). The next 4 units are at level 2 and cover Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentations and Improving Productivity with IT. My thinking if we went for this option is to use the diagnostics to identify gaps in knowledge and concentrate on teaching students what they do not know rather than getting them to prove what they already know ( a key OFSTED criticism of ICT teaching ). With the online exams on demand more able students could fast track through the course leaving time for more engaging activities. Ideally this could be Digital Cre8tor ( though cost may well be a factor here as DC would be an additional £39 per student ). So why is it a controversial option? Possibly because there is no figleaf of higher order thinking skills or 'engaging' projects to work on. It's a skills training course pure and simple and as ICT teachers we don't like to see ourselves as simply MS Office application trainers. If you've read any of my previous posts you will know that it is antithesis of everything I'm trying to achieve as a teacher. And yet this year trying to cram a cohort of reluctant year 10 students through the 1 GCSE OCR Nationals in one hour a week ( with very little work having been completed in year 9 ) I am often not even achieving the training of MS applications objective. Many of my students probably could not complete the same task independently a week later - we have simply produced the screen shots required to obtain the qualification. Maybe ECDL is the more honest qualification - it does what it says on the can and doesn't pretend to be anything more. 

I've other options still to research. Nick Jackson has suggested MS Office Specialist Certification or Adobe certification. GCSEs I've discounted as a whole cohort core option but maybe I need to look again. Trouble is I'm running out of time and may end up with the default 'do nowt' option of another year of OCR Nationals. 

Any comments or suggestions much welcomed.