An open letter to Gavin Williamson from an unqualified teacher.

Dear Gavin Williamson

I’m writing to you because I think that you could be the man who saves Britain. I see the potential of a bright political future for you, and will set out a ten step plan of action. If you want to skip my damning indictment of current education policy and get straight so solutions, please do, I tend to get carried away when I’m passionate.

I applaud the recent government U-turn on deciding not to ignore the awful starvation reality that faced our nation’s most vulnerable children. With collaborative efforts, good people have decreased the global starvation rate to just 11%, down from 28% in the 1970s. It would be abhorrent to fail the global effort by ignoring those starving in our own country. But while we are acknowledging the plight of children whose poor fortune to be born into less luxurious circumstances than you or I, let’s talk about how this pandemic has affected those students who most need the structure and opportunity of school.

I will admit I was surprised, Gavin. It is good to see that behind the government’s display of incompetent bravado and outright dishonesty in the handling of education, Brexit and the pandemic, there is a suggestion of at least one molecule of empathy. I hope to persuade you not to immediately rebury your conscience, as surely you must have done prior to acknowledging children don’t deserve to starve due to systemic failure to address poverty. Now that your eyes have been opened to the glaring moral deficiency of such a situation, we really do need to discuss the catastrophic failure of the wider educational system. It is now eight years of failure to recruit enough teachers to be in classrooms. That means for eight years, we have not been employing the finest teaching workforce. In stark contrast to other countries, our teaching workforce does not even stretch wide enough to give every classroom the teacher it needs. I’ll assume your response here is “Gosh Russell Wellbeing, YouTube sensation, how did we get here and how can I fix it?” Let’s start with those same students we just decided not to starve.

Many of these children will still be in states of severe distress due to exam pressure. Exams that you (Gavin Williamson), I (Russell Wellbeing, YouTube sensation), as well as every teacher and parent know, are not the be all and end all of life. Many will have extremely unsafe home lives where they must sacrifice their childhood to care for family. Many have undiagnosed special educational needs. Many have severe mental health needs. Many will have all of the above and a whole host of other problems too. These kids are at the mercy of an educational system that is a crumbling relic of a Victorian workhouse past, held together by the few remaining teachers strong enough to weather impossible 60hr/week conditions.

I recently had almost 200,000 views on a tweet sharing an article from 2013 about how Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings set a clear direction for education.

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This is not a popular, scientific or ethically justifiable argument.

This guardian article indicates that the direction they set was based on Cummings views on “genetic superiority.” This was reported in the Guardian in 2013, and has contributed to the horrific failure of the last eight years of education policy. When Gove’s new “more challenging” maths GCSE was released, four years into the eight year recruitment crisis, it saw GCSE pass levels awarded for just 16% in the paper. Shaun, the teacher in the classroom next to mine declared in disbelief, if you only knew 16% of his name you’d not even have “S”. But the reality of these changes, and the consistent dramatically negative feedback from teachers having to follow these guidelines, was given absolutely no importance. Below is a question from the new foundation paper, Gavin. Can you answer it? This is from the “easy” paper, Gavin. We make children with severe special needs take this exam 3 times, and declare them to be a failure every time they don’t pass.

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Now imagine trying to console a student with severe emotional damage who is crying their eyes out because their test results told them they were a failure. It isn’t right.

Your relentless push for using data to extract every last ounce of progress has brutalised students by putting them through regimented regular testing starting from as early as six years old. (Year one). Six year olds do not need to be tested Gavin. Eleven year olds do not need to be put in after-school and holiday “interventions.” They do not need to assemblies that tell them if they do not succeed in SATS that will affect their secondary setting and therefore they will get bad grades, no job and fail at life. To present that as a truthful or accurate narrative to an eleven year old child should be a criminal offence.

And yet this is standard practice at many primary and secondary schools. Fear is a powerful motivator and it gets kids better results, an easy win if you actively ignore the severe mental health impact. It is a powerful motivator for teachers too, reforms you brought in mean that teachers must be afraid of not receiving pay rises for high enough grades, even when they have only just joined the profession. They must also be afraid of being deemed “unsatisfactory,” a label that only destroys the spirits of teachers and schools alike, a “Sword of Damocles” above the delicate and nonlinear process of improvement.

The science is clear, Gavin, on how much damage these practices are doing to our current students. I have sat in university lectures and been told that as many as 33% of our students in our classrooms may be self-harming, and how we need to look for the signs. I added it to the awareness list which includes also being a constant watchman for any signs of bullying, grooming, radicalisation, gang activity, drug activity, negligence, mental health and undiagnosed special educational needs. The constant moment to moment inspection for any sign of the previous does slightly interfere with trying to teach trigonometry to twelve year olds but one needs to rush through the curriculum if we are to cover everything. If we miss anything out it could be our fault that all our students fail. But you can rest your worried conscience, Gavin, as the wealthier kids will have it patiently explained one to one by a tutor. The really wealthy family’s kids will be at a private school that will be free of interference from some government bozo sat in an office somewhere who has never taught a day in their life.

I beseech you to embark upon a small amount of research into the science underpinning the moment to moment functioning of our brains as they generate our conscious reality. A quick search (preferably on a search engine that pays tax) will lead you to Lisa Feldman Barrett’s incredible TED talk or book “how emotions are made.”

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This will fully blow your mind and change how you understand your brain. Exceptional work from an incredible scientist.

It will provide you the exact context for how the presentation of these untruths condition our nation’s children into obsessing over the rate of their academic progress. Particularly on how they differ from governmental targets that take no consideration for the divergent pathways of child development. But we have to relentlessly test and collect data as bad results can mean Ofsted show up unannounced like the grim reaper, looking for careers to scythe down in the school’s that struggle to turn their students into the most efficient fact repeating robots.

Why do students with severe special needs, who are inevitably going to struggle with the new challenging maths GCSE, get forced to do it by government edict? Why are all students forced to repeat them again twice when we know only one in six will achieve a passing grade on retake. The ones who retake are inevitably the ones who would have retaken by choice. But those without the skills required to study will face the punishment of being placed in the “failed group” and will sit and redo those exams the following year. Those without the grades they feel they need will find themselves isolated from their peers at a very sensitive time in their lives. I know this because my best friend from secondary school killed himself while retaking his exams. The school system successfully convinced him that life was not worth living without getting A grades. It did not convince him that he could achieve them. He chose oblivion instead. I remember the final time I spoke to him on the phone. So excited to talk about my life, I forgot to ask how he was doing.

If the way I describe the system sounds abhorrent and you doubt that the problem could really be as severe as I say, check out this article that details the failure:

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Responses to my question in the order they were given: failure to be supported, workload, failure of school to support again, Ofsted, leadership and Ofsted, government guidelines, low respect and pay, impossible government expectations, 50-60 hour working weeks, testing culture, lack of trust in teachers, DfE nonsense, 60 hour work weeks again, underpaid vs other STEM jobs, limited flexible working conditions, drowning in assessment and marking, government interference, workload and low pay and not enough support from school.

We are now approaching eight years of missed recruitment targets. Behind the atrocious numbers are all kind of coping measures schools have introduced – placing all the responsibilities I listed above on people who are vastly underqualified for the role. I know this because I turned up for two weeks work experience and found that by the end of two weeks, I’d been begged to fill a full teaching vacancy the school could not fulfil. It should come as no surprise that teachers are leaving a comprehensive system that has not evolved beyond its Victorian workhouse origins. Some schools must treat their students like prisoners just to maintain order. Morbid situations horrifically exacerbated by a complete failure to respond to the crying need for adequate mental health service provision.

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Every teaching post that fails to recruit, has to make due with whoever is on hand. Ask yourself – if a school only has one applicant – with a questionable past, but no other options, whose responsibility is it if a child gets hurt?

Living in the 24 hour news era is stressful and despite huge technological leaps that enable access to the sum total knowledge of the human race and connection to more people than at any time in history, many feel completely disconnected. The percentage of our population on antidepressants is shocking. Our school system is part of where this problem is created. It takes six months to get an appointment for mental health. I know well the excruciating consequences of this wait, and the extent of damage it can because I experienced it, and my students education suffered for it at a time when they needed me most. I knew exactly what I needed and already had a diagnosis. But my doctor could not prescribe the necessary medication, and convinced me to try anxiety medication. This was to allay the crushing reality of very appropriate anxiety having been given more responsibility than my experience or ability warranted. If we didn’t have a recruitment crisis, I could have taken the time I needed to recover off, knowing the students would have had a reliable replacement. But our country cannot hire enough teachers, so I dragged myself in on days I should have stayed home.

In the face of more responsibility than I could handle, I was desperate to see those relying on me succeed. I researched endlessly new teaching books and self development books to try to be a strong enough teacher that would see every single student he taught succeed. But there are no easy shortcuts. The only way to improve is by years of practice and training by those who have had that practice. The exhilarating but exhausting classroom teaching only ever gets easier and more enjoyable, yet the current governmental policies drive our most experienced teachers away. Schools actively search for experienced teachers, but the policy in addressing the recruitment crisis is to aggressively advertise throwing bursaries of up to £30,000 to convince new graduates to train to teach. There’s no obligation on them to ever step foot in a classroom. I know this because I’m receiving that bursary. I might get denied my qualification for speaking out here. Apparently, it’s not professional for a teacher to complain about the politics directly causing students and teachers to suffer for no benefit. But if that’s the price I pay for fighting for this nation’s children I’ll happily pay it. I’m not prepared to go back into the classroom until the system is fixed. Every year we see many of the most experienced and dynamic teachers leave the profession they adore crushed with outrageous workload, responsibility, and micromanagement.

All of these are enforcing your government’s barmy obsession with global League table success for the lowest possible tax cost. Education is an investment. Investing in a world class education system means greater opportunities for every student in the country, who will be the wonderful taxpayers and nasty tax avoiding businessmen of the future. They will be the ones creating the biggest budget films, music, and other artworks of all history to date. They need a system built in nurturing them to trust in themselves and to look for the opportunities that fit with their passions. I have led young enterprise workshops where I taught street selling to a variety of students, who would then go out and make ten times their pocket money in one day.

Focusing on a narrow but ever-expanding curriculum actively gets in the way of these formative events. My proudest moment of my teaching career was a trip to parliament with the debate club. I gave up what precious little time and money I had to run that club, because I knew it made a difference to the students. Standing in the hall of parliament with my best and brightest students, I told them I honestly believed that they could one day stand in that hall, if they invested in themselves and pursued their dreams. The trick with a statement like that is that you must mean it. But I do genuinely believe that one voice can change a conversation. That if one voice can inspire others to join the cause, change can be achieved. Especially when that cause is the fact that every year for the past eight years, we have not only failed to recruit the best from a range of applicants, we still do not even have enough applicants to fill every position. Every parent, student, teacher, and decent human being should care about this. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you agree with my evaluation, help me share my experience.

That’s the good news Gavin. You can still be a hero. You can lay all the blame on the muppets that have been asleep at the wheel of education, actively ignoring and often directly exacerbating this crucial issue. You know who I mean, the ones pretending unions are some evil cash hungry monsters instead of the collective voice of our nation’s teachers crying out that policy decisions were crushing the aspirations of the next generation. You might want to act fast though, because the general pandemic handling ineptitude may well rub off on you, especially as you clearly are not listening to the concerns of the teachers who will have to be in those unsafe and understaffed classrooms. Even more so if you now expect the school system that could not staff classes of thirty, now to staff classes of fifteen. But it can Gavin, that is the brilliant thing! You can choose to stop the UK from pursuing the utter failure that is the current business as usual education policy. You can come clean about how shameful it is that you haven’t been able to get teachers for eight years and promise to put that right.

Getting it right isn’t that difficult. There are some fabulously easy changes you can make that would unite teachers, students and the parents who hatred their experience of school, who dread forcing their children into the same system that crushed them. There are many places in the world where this does not happen, and here’s how you do it:

  1. Public apology (this step is important, if you do it without the public apology it won’t look sincere)
  2. Throw the rest of the cabinet under the bus. Anyone can see the pandemic response has been catastrophic, but you will soon be the hero who saved the education system! Could be the next prime minister, personally I don’t think Sunak will be able to hack the top role anyway and at this point it feels almost cruel to see Boris wheeled out for the briefings and weekly beatdowns at an unnecessarily physical seating of PMQs
  3. Scrap the obsession with global League tables. Those League tables will be best dominated by making teaching an amazingly attractive profession with the most brilliantly talented staff. How can we compete on league tables when those charged with STEM education are often without STEM qualifications? But to get those staff to trust you, you are going to have to…
  4. Scrap Ofsted. I know that it is of great importance to hear how many schools fit into your little “who’s done the best box ticking” exercises that report every year better box ticking (a process streamlined by “academizing” those that are not ticking boxes.) It is the driving force behind the exam hell culture that is driving teachers away and students to suicide. It enforces a culture of inspection and distrust that ruins lives of teachers, students and parents. Now I hear you cry “We can’t do that Russell Wellbeing, you incredibly smart and handsome man, we have to check all schools are minutely micromanaged for the benefit of the students; what if a school doesn’t follow our minute micromanagement and doesn’t adequately train teachers in rural Wales to know how to spot Muslim extremism?” And I have an answer for that, you just have to…
  5. Take the existing framework of Ofsted and make it an advisory and supportive body. They will have the primary duty of training up local school governors, who are those charged with holding schools to account. They will have far more time and motivation to regulate, as well as having a much better understanding of the context of that local area. You can still release your barmy nationwide guidance, and they can check to see it is implemented in all its demented shortsightedness. Ofsted’s staff has such a wealth of incredible experience, without the fear of closure, schools that need help will be eager to ask and receive the coaching that can bring their students success. Schools do not want to fail students and will reach out for help if they know they will be supported. Ofsted will heartily appreciate this change as their current role is incredibly anxiety inducing for all involved and they want to see the education system be able to actually recruit enough teachers.
  6. Now, by this point Gavin, you’ll likely be Prime Minister, by virtue of being the only cabinet member who looks like he has any semblance of a plan of how to fix any of the policy areas the conservatives have been strip mining and disrespecting for the last ten years. But to really carve your place in history Gavin, you say that you are fixing education to promote equality. Say that you are doing this all because of the black lives matter campaign. The far right nationalists who are monosyllabically grunting for Brexit and attacking the police may be upset at first, seeing black people being treated like equal members of society. But in time they will love it too because they remember exactly how worthless the exam system made them feel and they don’t want to inflict the same on their kids.
  7. Bring the nation together by acknowledging that there can be some level of compromise on Brexit without betraying the nation. Deliver on the democratic mandate of Leave campaign promises to remain in the single market. Work on securing some sort of fast track and discounted visa system to find one tiny grain of pacification to the 48% who voted for Remain, but ultimately thought it was obnoxiously inappropriate to put such a complex issue to a public referendum. Especially when the machinations of companies like Cambridge Analytica are now public knowledge. It will also set at ease many of the 52% who voted Brexit because they thought it was a “safer option” or wanted a properly funded NHS, but who are now completely panicking at the introduction of substandard US produce and their desire for the ability to veto our other trade deals, or the prospect of rising prices at the start of the deepest recession in my lifetime and for a long while before. They might find it easier to keep believing the lies about how we were going to get easy trade deals, if they know they can still secure a fast ticket out of town if it does get dicey (like, for example, if the government looked the other way while gangs of fascists were roaming the street and attacking picnickers in London.)
  8. Having sorted out exams and Brexit, you will double down on your reputation as the “heroic saviour of Britain” and announce that you will fund education properly. Give even more to teachers by announcing to double their planning time. With the influx of teachers you will not struggle to fill these vacancies and by giving teachers the time to create incredible lessons and plan life-changing trips, you will do more than anyone else for our nations children. In teaching, there is so much that is more important than spending fifteen hours a week endlessly marking books that the kids will barely look at. Let teachers plan lessons that give students the kind of business skills that can make them one day consider hiring an accountant to “sort out” their taxes.
  9. Speaking of sorting out taxes, the public has not forgotten about the Panama papers, and the Cummings debacle should make clear to everyone that the entire system is undermined by anyone refusing to play their part. With the money that you generate by simply collecting the incredibly competitive corporation taxes, you will be able to drive the deficit down, achieving what the Tories have repeatedly promised but ultimately failed to do for what is now ten years. I am a maths teacher so I’ll illustrate with a nice graph the utter failure to fulfil those promises. People want to know where all this money went Gavin. We are more in debt than ever and our public services have never been more strapped for cash. Someone needs to address this horrifying graph. The Conservatives pitched themselves as “safe economic hands” but in ten years have completely failed to bring down the debt at all.7So we need to collect taxes but you may be worried about businesses leaving, because those businesses have been telling their mates in the media that if anyone asks them to pay tax they will leave. Bolstered by your adoring public, you will have the strength to tell Amazon that if they don’t want to pay tax they can “do one” because you know British entrepeneurs who are happy to pay tax and will register the domain name “westhamazon.co.uk” quicker than you could nip down to the devastated high street that Amazon destroyed. Any business that doesn’t want to pay tax isn’t helping the system and the vast majority of the public could not be more sickened by the failure to ensure everyone pays their fair share.
  10. Do a few shoutouts for my YouTube channel. By this point you will be the greatest politician of all time and you should give something back. So far I’ve had to come up with all the ideas. You’ll have to take it from there.

Students, parents, Europhiles, racists and teachers alike will sing your name in exaltation. They will call for national holidays in your honour. I’ll write a song in your honour and release it on my Youtube channel that I keep shoehorning into this letter. They will put up a statue of you and protesters won’t even want to pull it down, despite a largely chequered past of allegations of breaches in ministerial conduct, clear incompetence in dealing with both Russia and China during your time in the ministry of defence, and being instrumental in organising the DUP bung that enabled the continuation of May’s shambolic government.

But don’t worry about all those past failures, because with me running strategy, just like Churchill you will only be remembered for the good things you did and anyone who tries to bring up your questionable past will be denounced on the news for not being patriotic enough.

The days of you coming across like a Tarantula-owning Bond villain with will be a thing of the past. Maybe your ex -teacher wife will finally properly forgive you for your past indiscretions! I assume you managed to convince her that it would never happen again. I hope that you will take the same line on failing to recruit enough teachers, it is time to say “never again” to that too.

Kind regards,

Joshua Russell.

Twitter: @russellwellbe

Youtube: Russell Wellbeing

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