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Where it's @

news | Published in TES magazine on 23 November, 2012 | By: Richard Vaughan

Whether it is cathartic or caustic, informative or indulgent, writing online about life in schools is soaring in popularity. Richard Vaughan reports on the rise of the teacher blogger

They sit alone in front of their computer screens. Tap, tap, tapping away in solitude, telling their readers of their working lives, sometimes offering glimpses of their joy but more often than not venting their anger in a stream of unedited prose.

They are often, but not always, hidden by a mask of anonymity. Safe behind the veils of their personas, they upload their revelations of what life in a school is really like and, by doing so, enjoy a status not unlike a masked crusader, a superhero. They are the teacher bloggers.

Once the preserve of a particular group of eccentric individuals, usually men, back when the internet was still called the world wide web, blogging has now asserted itself as a mainstream practice. By the end of 2011, NM Incite, a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey that specialises in social networking, tracked more than 181 million blogs around the world. Since the late 1990s, blogs have become increasingly powerful tools and something many teachers have become more aware of.

But what makes bloggers tick, and why do they feel the need to spend their increasingly scarce free time in front of a computer screen writing about work?

“Frustration, mainly,” Andrew Old says, bluntly. Old is one of the most popular and widely followed teacher bloggers. Like many bloggers, he operates under a pseudonym, which he says enables him to speak his mind freely, while protecting his school and his pupils from being identified. In short, it allows him to be as caustic as he likes without redress - something that can become addictive.

“I had just finished working in a school that I had found a particularly unpleasant experience, so I wanted to have an outlet and talk about my experiences and that started to attract attention,” he says.

To begin with, Old’s posts were mainly on the subject of behaviour, or rather the lack of it, and how received wisdom on the subject among teacher trainers and education experts was far from reality.

Exasperated by the continuous criticism levelled at teachers that they were to blame for bad behaviour, Old took to his computer and quickly found scores of like-minded souls who were similarly tearing their hair out.

The blog soon became a meeting place for teachers and began to evolve, moving beyond being only a place for one teacher to vent his spleen over bad behaviour in England’s schools, to a talking shop that led Old to become one of the most outspoken commentators in the education debate.

“I hardly write about behaviour any more,” he says. “I generally use the blog as a place to sort out my own ideas, to get my own thoughts down in writing. I find it really rewarding and people have said they are delighted to have someone like me speaking with such openness.”

With the rise of microblogging and social networking, Old’s audience has widened and he now has the virtual ear of education policymakers and politicians themselves - you can often find him spatting away on Twitter with, for example, Sam Freedman, a senior adviser to secretary of state Michael Gove.

Despite this prominence, Old describes himself as “just a frontline teacher” who is quite traditional in how he teaches. And despite being a Labour supporter, he has found himself agreeing with the current government on its approach to standards in schools, albeit very critical of its preponderance toward structures such as academisation.

“I think the reforms around the curriculum are very positive but the focus on structures will have absolutely no effect. What is very negative is the approach to teachers’ pensions and the attempt to give senior management more powers,” Old says.

“But cracking down on grade inflation and removing the equivalencies between GCSEs and vocational subjects, that does strike a chord. I mean, Every Child Matters (Labour’s attempt to integrate social work and education) was just a disaster,” he mutters.

From private blogger to public figure

His views led to a bond with one of the most well-known teacher bloggers of recent times. Writing under the guise of Miss Snuffy in the online diary entitled To Miss With Love, Katharine Birbalsingh charted the intimate details of a South London comprehensive and where it was going wrong.

Her blog attracted thousands of readers. Many were devoted champions of what Miss Snuffy was doing, revealing the “real life” of an inner-city school in a challenging neighbourhood.

Unapologetically brutal in its judgement on the state of the country’s schools, the blog was so popular that it prompted the Conservatives to ask Birbalsingh to give a speech on her experiences at the party’s first conference after coming to power in 2010.

In her address, the French teacher declared that her time in the classroom had led her to believe that England’s education system was “broken”, and she called for the return of rigour, discipline and respect. Education secretary Gove nodded and applauded her every word.

Her appearance was lapped up by her true blue audience and the right-wing press, propelling her to relative stardom. The speech eventually cost Birbalsingh her job but that only added to the legend that had built up around her - that she was a brave whistleblower who had used the internet to speak out against the supposed mediocrity in the country’s schools.

She was handed a blogging position on The Daily Telegraph’s website, a book deal was signed compiling her blog posts and she became a talking head for radio and TV on the realities of teaching in tough schools.

Bloggers such as Birbalsingh and Old, who take to their keyboards out of frustration and a desire to shed light on the realities of teaching, have opened the doors for many non-teachers to blog about their own, often myopic, views of the state of the country’s schools. For example, author and journalist Toby Young often used his now-defunct blog on The Daily Telegraph’s website to lambaste schools on everything from the lack of Classics to the overabundance of A grades.

The yin to Young’s yang comes in the shape of journalists Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn and teacher Francis Gilbert, who between them blog on the Local Schools Network website, which promotes the idea of parents sending their children to the local state school. But away from the Left v Right political skirmishes, there are some bloggers who take to the web for far more noble purposes.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Suffolk, says he never intended for his blog to become a big deal, but with the change in government and its manic approach to reforming the entire educational landscape, he soon found that his posts became a type of self-help group for heads - a headteachers anonymous, if you will.

“I was always a bit wary of blogging,” he says. “I thought that if you spent a lot of time doing it, it would lead to accusations that you were not doing your job properly. There was also a little bit of: ‘How pompous am I, thinking I’ve got something interesting to say?’”

It was only when changes began to happen around his own subject, English, that he felt he had something to offer to the debate. This intensified with the summer’s English GCSE marking fiasco, which resulted in pupils gaining C and D grades when they would have secured Bs and Cs had they sat the same test in January rather than in June.

The scandal left many schools facing the prospect of being classed as failing as their pass rates took a substantial hit.

“When the GCSE thing happened I wanted to put stuff up so people could comment without putting their heads above the parapet as well as giving me a chance to vent my spleen,” Barton says. “I would speak to other heads and put their comments up verbatim.”

The blog quickly became something of a network, giving heads the chance to speak out against what was happening without putting themselves in the firing line.

“I was getting messages from headteachers who said they would often find themselves sitting alone, crying because they no longer liked what they had become,” Barton says openly. “It gives a sense of what it is like to be a headteacher these days.”

“There is an element of a self-help group about it, particularly as there is a growing climate of fear at the moment, even if that is overstating it slightly,” he admits. “Under the previous administration there was always the strain and pressure of being a headteacher, but there was a feeling that you were part of a greater network of schools, be it specialist status or whatever. Now people are writing about the sense of isolation that is part of being a head these days.”

While Barton refuses to admit it, there is also a sense of duty about his blogging. His decision to speak out about the GCSE debacle came out of an obligation not only to his pupils but also to the many followers of his blog.

This sense of responsibility is something keenly felt by SchoolDuggery, who is a different kind of blogger in that she operates almost entirely on Twitter. As a chair of governors and a parent, SchoolDuggery has a vested interest in the state of schools. And with more than 22,000 followers on the microblogging site, she has a potential audience that rivals a small news outlet.

“When I wasn’t working, it did feel as though it was a duty,” she says. “I am now employed two days a week so I can’t give as much time to it, and I feel as though I am neglecting it. But before, it did feel like something I was obliged to do.

“The first thing I did when I woke up, before I got out of bed, was reach for the phone and see what announcement had been made. I knew from what people would tell me that I was their source of education news, so it feels like a responsibility.”

Indeed, during the coalition’s first year, when education reforms were being introduced and implemented at a relentless pace, SchoolDuggery felt that her Twitter feed was carrying the duty to report on the changes more than the mainstream press.

“The press has caught up a bit but for the first year of the new government I don’t think they were paying enough attention to the juggernaut of reforms that were brought in under Michael Gove,” she says.

The power of Twitter

“Twitter was much more aware of it. People on there were saying: ‘This is really significant stuff. Why aren’t people talking more about education? It should be front page news.’”

The rise of Twitter has had the biggest impact on the teacher blogger’s reach. Before Twitter was created, setting up a blog and tapping away about your thoughts and feelings was akin to popping a message in a bottle and dropping it in the ocean. But Twitter changed that, giving people direct access to journalists, politicians, policymakers and, of course, other bloggers.

According to Laura McInerney, a former teacher and prolific blogger on education policy, the introduction of Twitter was a game changer.

Having graduated from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, McInerney signed up to Teach First and spent six years teaching citizenship and social sciences in an East London comprehensive.

Like many teachers, she had a keen interest in the decisions that policymakers and politicians were making, but felt she had very little opportunity to engage in the debate and give her thoughts on how a certain policy might work in practice. Her blog was an attempt to redress the balance, and Twitter has given her the opportunity to direct policymakers straight to it.

“It is very hard to be at consultations or meetings about various education policies as a teacher,” McInerney says. “Headteachers have much more flexibility, but as a teacher you spend 50 to 60 hours a week in school. I was lucky because I was a Teach First teacher in a school in London so had a little more access, but it was clear that no one was asking teachers about policies.”

McInerney took it upon herself to change that, and to comment on what she saw as people sitting in offices coming up with policies, rather than speaking to teachers at the chalk face.

“I am not a journalist, so I can’t ring people up and quote them, but what I can do is tell you what it is like to be in a classroom and to think through how a policy might work if it does come in,” she says. “I can look at it and say: ‘This is what has been intended but from my experience this is the likely outcome.’”

A link to her blog can then be fired straight at the decision makers and policy advisers to the education secretary, often via Twitter. And very often they respond.

“When I blog I always try to say something new. I am not writing to try and get hits just for the sake of it, but to say something useful, to add something to the debate,” McInerney adds.

“Add something” is what teacher bloggers certainly do. They illustrate, whether the reader agrees with them or not, just how much power a teacher, a computer and an internet connection can wield.

Although it might start out as a cathartic process to air their frustrations, their fears and even their surprise - or as a stand against what they see as injustice - their words and a cable link to the world wide web mean that they can capture the attention of the very highest levels of society.

Indeed, the quiet tap, tap, tapping of their keyboard can quickly become a clamour along the corridors of Whitehall and the offices of Fleet Street. And they can make a difference.

TOP TRUMPS ON TWITTER AND IN THE BLOGOSPHERE

@toadmeister

  • Toby Young
  • Journalist, author and free school pioneer
  • Readership: 9
  • Political sway: 8
  • Teacher allegiance: 2
  • Chalk face experience: 1
  • Aggravation: 10
  • Twitter following: 32,040

@Miss_Snuffy

  • Katharine Birbalsingh
  • Teacher, former blogger and starting a free school
  • Readership: 7
  • Political sway: 9
  • Teacher allegiance: 5
  • Chalk face experience: 7
  • Aggravation: 9
  • Twitter following: 2,788

@RealGeoffBarton

  • Geoff Barton
  • Headteacher, blogger and TES columnist
  • Readership: 6
  • Political sway: 5
  • Teacher allegiance: 8
  • Chalk face experience: 10
  • Aggravation: 2
  • Twitter following: 7,053

@oldandrewuk

  • Andrew Old
  • Teacher and blogger
  • Readership: 5
  • Political sway: 4
  • Teacher allegiance: 8
  • Chalk face experience: 8
  • Aggravation: 6
  • Twitter following: 1,803

@SchoolDuggery

  • UK Education Matters
  • Mother, school governor and tweeter
  • Readership: 8
  • Political sway: 2
  • Teacher allegiance: 6
  • Chalk face experience: 1
  • Aggravation: 5
  • Twitter following: 22,146

@miss_mcinerney

  • Laura McInerney
  • Former teacher, blogger and PhD student
  • Readership: 2
  • Political sway: 3
  • Teacher allegiance: 9
  • Chalk face experience: 7
  • Aggravation: 6
  • Twitter following: 2,263

@tombennett71

  • Tom Bennett
  • Teacher, blogger and TES behaviour guru
  • Readership: 5
  • Political sway: 4
  • Teacher allegiance: 8
  • Chalk face experience: 8
  • Aggravation: 4
  • Twitter following: 4,285

@FrankChalk1

  • Frank Chalk
  • Teacher and blogger
  • Readership: 8
  • Political sway: 3
  • Teacher allegiance: 9
  • Chalk face experience: 9
  • Aggravation: 6
  • Twitter following: 185

@ewanmcintosh

  • Ewan McIntosh
  • Former teacher and technological whizz
  • Readership: 8
  • Political sway: 7
  • Teacher allegiance: 7
  • Chalk face experience: 7
  • Aggravation: 3
  • Twitter following: 15,287

@informed_edu

  • David Weston
  • Education consultant, former teacher and blogger
  • Readership: 7
  • Political sway: 2
  • Teacher allegiance: 6
  • Chalk face experience: 8
  • Aggravation: 1
  • Twitter following: 4,045.

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as yet unrated

Comment (6)

  • @FrankChalk1 ???

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    11:10
    23 November, 2012

    crackerjacks

  • @FrankChalk1 who hasn't posted on Twitter in three months - some recommendation.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12:04
    23 November, 2012

    eyebeams

  • Attention seekers. Rather like Tw**terists.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    17:08
    23 November, 2012

    One Horse Town

  • Sam Freedman has left the DFE and now works for Teach First.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    12:48
    28 December, 2012

    Andy_91

  • There is much good work that is produced by teachers, members of SLT & Heads in both state & independent sectors. Witness #SLTeachmeet earlier this month. The best blogs are not necessarily known to Whitehall, Fleet Street or the highest levels of society (whatever that means) but those written with integrity, transparency and in a spirit of collaboration as they have been since the early 2000's.

    We all have our own lists of people that we follow. I'm not sure we'd agree who are the most influential. Regardless of their Top Trump scores.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    19:40
    29 December, 2012

    neiljones

  • Not sure what point you are making - these are blogs that are written with integrity, trnasparency and in a spirit of collaboration.
    Thank you for excellent article.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    20:59
    25 April, 2013

    gcf

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