Trouble in Paradise

In the last couple of weeks, I have been reading the handful of books that have come out in English about Denmark to cash in with the success of tv shows Forbrydelsen and Borgen. Two of these books were written by visitors or recent immigrants, so a lot of the text is repeating what they have heard. For example, Danish people like interior decorating because their daycares and schools are decorated nicely.

Danish classrooms
Danish classrooms
Typical classroom in Denmark
Typical classroom in Denmark

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

And I had to put the book down and breathe for a minute or two. Danish classrooms are functional, they get the job done… but beautiful? Who are these people feeding these quotes to foreigner journalists?

There are a lot of quotes like that out there. One chapter is about how Denmark has a wonderful welfare system because of the efforts of collective bargaining. And collective bargaining is so strong because of the efforts of Grundtvig, the 19th century school reformer. According to legend, his dream was to teach Danish people to think critically and ask the right questions in order to keep them safe from tyranny; a legacy that lives on even today.

Except. Not quite.

I can’t just upload a random picture from a few years ago to refute this, so I will have to take this part by part.

The history of the things that make Denmark attractive

In the late 1800s, there were strikes after lockouts after strikes. In 1899, a compromise was struck which ultimately ended in a system with maternity and paternity leave, sick pay, holiday pay and all the benefits that are lauded as Denmark doing things right.

This will have been a hard battle. These rights did not just appear just because Danes are so much better at democracy or seeing things realistically. People fought for these rights at great personal expense.

Whether you can credit Grundtvig’s ideas in those early stages, I do not know, I am no historian. But for the collective bargaining that was to come, having a general public that was educated in thinking critically will have helped.

Shut downs

Grundtvig’s aim is being actively frustrated right now and this threatens everything that those trade unionists 100 years ago were working for.

I read a book by an American woman about her experience at Christian college. Mostly what was taught were arguments to shut hard questions down.

In Danish schools, also, there is a similar movement but not for Christianity. Children are certainly taught to question but they are also taught the standard retorts to shut the question down when it gets too close to the bone.

These are (in no particular order)

  1. Even though Denmark is not perfect, it is still the best because some other countries are much worse
  2. Nowhere is perfect
  3. We have it pretty good here
  4. At least people are honest here
  5. We didn’t have any problems until outsiders spoiled everything

There are two interlocking reasons for the importance of these retorts.

Danishness as Religion

Firstly, Danishness has been elevated to the status of a religion. People do not feel Christian, they feel Danish. Questioning anything about Danishness is on the level with blasphemy. One housing association decides that an outside Christmas tree isn’t necessary for their community, the national media reports on it. One daycare facility decides that it’s just easier to serve vegetables, fish and chicken to their kids because they cater to kids with dietary restrictions, it is the end of the world because what happened to the pork? Some immigrant parents don’t come to twice annual meetings for all parents at their kid’s school, Danish parents pull their kids from the school even though there is nothing else wrong at the place.

Conviviality

The second reason is conviviality. It is important to always maintain conviviality. If one were to have a deep conversation, it might make someone uncomfortable or god forbid start an argument. Conflict must be avoided at all costs, so these arguments are stopped before they are started with the same old shibboleths. (An exception to this is when people are made uncomfortable by use of irony or politically incorrect statements, fuck conviviality in those circumstances)

If that is how you want to run a country, fill your boots. There are consequences. If you never have to ask hard questions or think deeply, your muscles atrophy.

I was sat in a large conference room with educated, politically active adult Danes. It became abundantly clear that while the majority were not exactly stupid, this lack of facility with difficult, conflict provoking concepts had disabled many of the participants in the discussion.

The course leader showed us a way of looking up information that is a matter of public record. One participant said “But why wouldn’t management just show you the accounts?” thinking this was a wonderful example of Danish humour, I turned to her, winked and said “Yeah, right(!) Good one.” She looked back blankly.

It just had not occurred to her that people often have things to hide. That people can be dishonest. That some serious Game of Thrones shit is going down most of the time.

Not being able to think of original arguments or look for hidden agendas has meant that the Danish government have been free to pull a fast one for a long time.

Worsening Conditions

All the things Guardian journalists like about Denmark are under attack. They are under attack for the same reasons they don’t exist (or are not as good), in countries like the UK: they make labour cost too much. They make the country unable to compete globally.

Danes have great parental leave benefits, great support during unemployment, holiday pay, decent wages and pensions. This is because Danish workers are not just grateful for having a job in the first place, they have unions that meet every couple of years with the employers and secure these rights.

But this is unsustainable, so the government has been weakening the unions for a while so they can do what they want. And no one has the ability to fight back.

They are able to complain about immigrants and their foreign ways. They are able to say how their country is one of the best. They are not able to see the way they are being tricked or how their services are being ruined in cost cutting measures. The things that make Denmark special are the very same that are being dismantled. Not enough people understand how powerful they are and how they could stop it. And for that, I blame the teachers.

School Reform: Private Schools

Private Schools

What surprised a lot of foreigners (including me), during the lockout was that private schools were affected at all. The reason for this was that most private schools receive funding from the state. Teachers at private schools which are financed in this way are state employees.

One thing that gets forgotten in all this is who exactly was affected. These plans were drafted to change how folkeskole schools worked. These are free of charge schools maintained by the town councils. When we talk about school reform, we usually only mention these folkeskole schools and how it has affected them. But this has also affected the private day schools, the boarding schools and the language schools.

Terms and Conditions

Historically, private schools have had different working terms and conditions than teachers in folkeskoler. This makes a lot of sense in terms of boarding schools, where teachers are on-call at different times of day and have a different set of duties and tasks. It makes some sense in terms of private day schools too, they run things differently so they perhaps need a more flexible framework.

Now, the systems are almost identical. The changes made ‘for’ the folkeskole reform have affected the private sector. Each private school in Denmark had a choice:- go with the default system (as in ‘normalised’ working hours) or negotiate a local agreement balancing the needs of the staff and management.

Local Understandings

Some schools tried the ‘middle way’ of not doing the default system but not signing a local agreement either. This is a risky strategy for schools because teachers are able to demand in this case, via the union, that the default system be followed. If schools try to provide terms and conditions that are worse than the default arrangement (for example, not paying staff properly for going on overnight trips. Under the default system overnight trips are completely unaffordable), then the union can demand the ministry look into it. Across the country, a lot of union time is being spent on making sure that teachers are not being required to work for free in order to make ends meet.

But what is increasingly happening is that teachers are accepting this practice for the good of the school, for the good of the students.  Teachers are being asked, for example, to be on site between 8am and 3pm and the extra hour per working day is to be spent on planning at home. If the job actually requires more than that, too bad. Not the school’s problem. Or teachers are given a list of duties and told their working time is 42 hours per week (we aren’t paid for our weeks off, we just work longer hours in term time), and to figure it out for themselves. If they can’t, too bad. Not the school’s problem. The schools claim they have individual agreements with each of the staff and if the teachers can’t get everything done in the time allowed then it is on the teacher.

If these teachers are anything like me, they did not go into the job so they could keep a spreadsheet detailing the hours they actually worked. They did not go into teaching so they could stop halfway through a task because they’re not getting paid for it any more. They did not go into teaching so they could nickel and dime their school. Teachers also tend to be compliant with authority. They want their classes to succeed, they want their lessons to go well, they want to do the best for their students. They are not going to want to make waves and advocate for themselves.

The trouble now is that the system necessarily makes teachers have to choose between their work-life balance and their students’ success. If a parent is impatient with the amount of time their child’s teacher spends on preparation or other tasks, they won’t get mad at a system that is not fit for purpose. They will get mad at the teacher for putting themselves first. Meanwhile, the teachers that go the other way are at greater risk of burn out due to their higher workload. (Not that a year or two with a high workload usually burns people out, you can sustain it for a little while at least. But when exactly does the workload come down after you demonstrate you can get everything done and not cost any more money?)

Plenty of choice in the “burned out teacher” image search     Image credit: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/self_compassion_for_teachers

Pay

Private school teachers are paid less in basic pay than teachers in folkeskoler. This has been true for a long time. There is a pay supplement that must be negotiated every year that is intended to be used to bring the two salaries in line. For a long time, there was a minimum base for this supplement but before the lock-out this minimum was removed. It was never intended to be zero but it is perfectly permissible for schools to award nothing at all.

Before the lock-out, you could argue that with the two very different terms and conditions, pay could be lower. You could say that private school teachers do not work as hard or for as long as folkeskole teachers, hence the lower pay. But after the lock-out, these terms and conditions were made exactly the same. So, now the argument is that class sizes are typically smaller in private schools, hence the lower pay. But now some private schools are filling up at the expense of class sizes in the folkeskoler. Besides, a lot of the work of the teacher does not have much to do with the size of the classes. Class size affects time spent on marking, data entry and school-home contact. It’s a matter of a few dozen hours a year. There is no way those hours are equivalent to a 2-4k pay hit per month. It is starting to be indefensible for private school teachers to be paid differently than those in the public sector in a lot of private schools.

What is also starting to happen is that new private schools are opening all the time because of the increased demand. Running a school is ridiculously expensive, especially in the early start up period because of low student:staff ratio. In the first year of operation, the pay supplement does not need to be negotiated, it is usually zero. After that, it must be negotiated but the answer can very well be “nothing this year, our budget won’t stretch to it” and there is not much the teachers can do other than ask for outside arbitration. Many teachers just don’t bother because they understand the pressure their school is under. On a school-to-school basis, this seems reasonable. No teacher wants to demand that they are paid more if it means that their workplace disappears.

You know when you’re too close to a problem to see it clearly? Magicians use this to their advantage. And so it seems, do politicians. The scale of this thing is what is important. It is not about individual schools or individual salaries. More and more teachers in Denmark are private school teachers, and increasingly they are being told there is no money in the budget to pay them the same as folkeskole teachers. More and more private schools are having financial difficulties. Some go bust. Others chunter along, getting away with paying their teachers less than they would get in a public school because they are allowed to and because no one wants to make their own school go under.

Private school teachers have the same terms and conditions, often the same class sizes, sometimes more duties and responsibilities as in the public sector. But if they advocate for higher pay, they could sink their school. A higher proportion of Danish children are taught in private schools and even though the state pays the school to educate these students, if budgets can’t stretch to paying the going rate in salariesthe government are not paying enough. And this is happening on an alarming scale. The shortfall in the state budget is made up with the salaries of the private school teachers.

Teachers tend to be risk averse people, they are not entrepreneurs for a reason. Having a market where workplaces regularly go bust and many people in your trade are unemployed makes workers much more pliable.

“I wasn’t trying to make an instruction manual”

There are too many private schools, so ends can never be expected to meet. These schools ought to fail but are kept afloat by teachers playing nice and agreeing to being paid less for the same work as down the road.

As more and more teachers in Denmark are in this sector, this means the average wage for teachers in Denmark is dropping. I doubt the resolution to this will be increased wages for the public sector, somehow, I think a case will eventually be made to normalise folkeskole salaries in line with the private sector some time down the line.

Was the plan to make folkeskoler chaotic and unworkable all along or is it just a happy coincidence? Was the game plan all along to reduce the spend on education by pushing children into schools with cut-price staff?

If you look at each issue in isolation, it just looks like regular incompetence and poor planning. The change over to unlimited number of lessons, the reduction in preparation time, the mess with the ‘normalisation’ of hours, the inappropriate application of the public system to the private, the poor implementation of inclusion in public schools, the poor implementation of extra numeracy and literacy, the rise of the local ‘understanding’ as opposed to negotiated agreements, the drop in average teacher pay, the rise in numbers of private schools in financial difficulty, the rise of unacknowledged overtime, the increase in teacher illness and absence… all of this in isolation is unfortunate. But as a gestalt, this is horrifying.

Can it be all down to incompetence and a failure of forward thinking? And is that better or worse than some of these terrible outcomes for students and teachers were planned all along?

School Reform Folkeskoler

Folkeskoler

Several changes happened all at once in Danish folkeskoler. This sort of ‘shock and awe’ tactic is becoming more common in political governance. Politicians make a huge crisis (or wait for a huge crisis), and then make all the changes they want. All at once. People are so turned around by the crisis the changes become a ‘new normal’.

The major changes were to the working hours of teachers or ‘normalisation’, beginning ‘inclusion’ (where special needs students are taught alongside students with no particular educational special needs), more focus of numeracy and literacy, longer school days, introduction of homework clubs and new ‘activity’ lessons added to the timetable.

Normalisation

The ‘normalisation’ 8am-4pm thing in folkeskoler has meant that teachers have not been able to do their preparation properly without doing unpaid overtime. If you only have 15 minutes on a Monday for preparation because you’re teaching or in meetings, you’re not going to get a lot of prep done for Tuesday. As much as you can prepare a week (or weeks in advance), sometimes things happen in lessons that should inform your planning for the next lesson. For example, you are teaching how to solve polynomials and realise your students don’t know how to do long division. You have no long division lesson plans ready to go because it’s usually the teachers in the grades below that cover that topic, you need to think carefully about how to teach this skill to your students. If the next lesson is the next day: too bad under this new system.

If you have a lot of long essays or tests to grade, you can either grade them all in one go and not have any time left over for lesson planning or you can do a handful at a time in short spurts. It’s a horrible choice. Option A: your under prepared lessons will be crap in weeks you have a lot of marking. Option B: your students will get inconsistent grades and get their work back long after they have forgotten all about it. Option C: work unpaid overtime and get it all done.

If you have a lot of parent-teacher conferences in one week or a lot of ad hoc meetings or you receive a large order of equipment that needs to be put into cupboards, then your planning time gets wiped out in these weeks too.

The reason that teachers worldwide typically plan at home, after school hours, is that grading and lesson planning is very taxing. It can be creative, it is usually done with respect to several inter-related factors and you often need undisturbed quiet to do it. Teaching itself is exhausting. You have to keep  your sense of humour and proportion up even in the face of extraordinary provocation. You have to make decent human connections with several young people. You have to run activities that will best help these individuals learn. You have to fine tune these activities on the fly. You have to ask and answer challenging questions. You have to be a performer, a professional and a person. If you think you can go from a high-impact lesson on radioactive half life with 9G where you kept them active and on-side for 90 minutes and then go to your desk and plan a lesson from scratch for 7B on the Haber process where you will have the same level of activity and engagement then you have a lot more juice than I do. What I typically like to do straight after teaching is have a nice cup of tea and zone out. I plan my lessons when I have recovered, usually after dinner or at the weekend. If it’s in the school day at all, it’s before any lessons have happened.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/saxonmoseley/

In short, this thoughtless change has been disastrous for many schools and their students. It’s all very well saying that teachers are ‘normalised’ with other state employees as compensation for the changes the lock-out brought but if they are not able to provide the usual level of service without working for free, then this is nothing like compensation. This is just a way of obscuring unpaid overtime.

Some teachers, it is worth mentioning, prefer this system. They like how they can say ‘done with school now!’ and can go relax when they finish their working hours. But I wonder how they manage to get everything done. How is it done? I don’t think I could do it. Not in weeks where I have to write reports or go on training and probably not in ‘ideal’ weeks where I don’t have much to do. How are they managing, these teachers who don’t mind this new system?

The unions can do nothing right now because their war chests are depleted. It’s not like they can threaten strike action. And so the politicians keep coming with new reforms:- inclusion for those with educational special needs, more focus on literacy and numeracy, more hours in school. Nothing particularly controversial but they have made it clear they do not want teacher input on the implementation of these changes. So, these reforms have been a load of bollocks.

Inclusion

Inclusion without proper resources and training is not doing anyone any favours. The special needs students either get sent out of the lesson every 20 minutes or they get a crappy make-work task to keep them busy or they have a great lesson but the other kids get short changed. Something has to give.

Special needs inclusion is something that I believe in. It is the way to go for most students, I think. But you can’t just drop kids with learning difficulties or emotional disorders into a room with 20 other children and call that ‘inclusion’. Inclusion necessarily means you are planning separate activities according to your students needs. Inclusion means you have other adults in the room to support learning. It means you have some basic understanding of the different disorders and how they make learning difficult for the student.  You know, so they are ‘included’. Otherwise, it’s ‘mainstreaming’, if you want to get technical. ‘Mainstreaming’ is when you just put all the kids together in one place:  the lack of special needs will rub off onto the kids with problems!

Tada!
Tada!

Without this input of funds for training and extra members of staff and time for preparation, your special needs students are going to struggle. Your students with no particular educational disabilities are also going to have a crap time because so much teacher in-lesson-time is spent on preventing or dealing with problems relating to having one or more children in the room who can’t read or sit still or remember instructions or deal with strong emotions.

Numeracy and Literacy

As for increased focus on numeracy and literacy, who can argue against that? If Denmark is spending so much on education, you would hope its students would be able to demonstrate basic skills, right? But if 4 hours a week with your math or Danish teacher isn’t raising your attainment, why would 5 hours? If students in Danish schools are not doing well with basic skills it is not because they don’t get long enough in the classroom, it is their teachers are not doing the things that will help them improve.

Oh, unhelpful teacher, what will you do next?

Much research has been performed and analysed to tackle the question of what helps students learn best. All I am asking, from the bottom of my heart, is that the people implementing changes in Danish schools just read it. This is about the most frustrating thing about teaching. So much time is spent talking about stuff that makes little or no difference to students’ attainment while the things that do make a difference are completely overlooked. There are several interventions and techniques that are shown to improve how well students learn.  It’s not like the research is secret or hard to read. People just cannot be bothered. Increased contact hours is an overly simple solution to a complicated problem. Which is why it is doomed from the start.

This has led to is greater use of private schools. More and more private schools are opening up to cope with increased demand. This has some interesting knock-on effects on the private sector.

Part One: Introduction

Part Three: Private schools.

School Reform

Those familiar with recent Danish politics will know that there have been some major school reforms. But even the informed observer, for example, those who work in education might not know the breadth and extent of the changes.

In April 2013 there was a lock-out. This is when employers prevent unionised employees from working and taking a wage during a dispute in a negotiation. This is subtly different from a strike. A strike is where unionised employees withdraw their labour during a dispute in a negotiation. Funny how everyone keeps calling it a strike now it’s passed into memory. I met a man who worked for the Modernisation Ministry and had been involved in the dispute. He called it a strike. It matters. This terminology matters.

Definition
MANISHA VAGHELA

The dispute was over two relatively minor points. Point 1:- should older teachers have a reduced timetable with no reduction in pay. Point 2:- should there be a national upper limit on lessons taught per week and a set amount of lesson preparation time.

Almost immediately the negotiations broke down. They broke down so fast the unions called shenanigans on the process. Evidence came out that interested parties such as the education ministry and finance ministry were involved in preparing and briefing ‘the employers’ (a federation of borough council politicians), in such a way that the negotiations would fail. The ministries had big plans for Danish schools and they were not going to wait for union buy-in.

A lock-out was unthinkable in March 2013 but went on for nearly a month. This wiped out the unions’ strike funds. No one expected such an extreme measure, especially not one that lasted so long.

When the government stepped in to ‘break’ the deadlock, they did so in a way that would fig-leaf the things they were not supposed to do. They were not supposed to act as puppet masters to the employers, they were not supposed to have managed the negotiation process from start to finish. They were supposed to be independent interested parties. To mask their interference they needed to give something to both sides.

The employers got their demands about senior working hours and preparation time. The major concession the government made to the teachers was curious: they would no longer have to work beyond 4pm on weekdays. They would not have to work evenings or weekends any more. As if this is something that teachers would actually want(!) Where do they get their ideas from?

from buttgenerator.com
from buttgenerator.com

Teachers in Denmark have been working with this new system for five months now and some interesting knock on effects have come up. Some of these will have been planned and some of them will be pure happenstance. It is hard to know the difference sometimes.

The changes were a lot more wide ranging than many people appreciate. It did not just affect schools run by the town councils which are free of charge called folkeskoler, but also the private schools, the boarding schools and the language schools. This is such an epic blog post I’m going to have to split it into parts.

Part Two: Folkeskoler

Part Three: Private schools

News Translation: Self Defeating School Reform

I read an article about how the school reform has affected the Danish state schools which have to implement it. I thought it was too interesting not to translate.

Some background: The government wants to overhaul the state school sector. They want a lot of changes, a lot of improvement. They want inclusion of special needs. They want to save money. They want teachers to do more things. They want students to learn more and do better in international comparisons.

Fair enough, sounds like standard government fare.

What they did was introduce all the changes at once. Longer school days, more time in the classroom for teachers, inclusion, new subjects, new emphasis. In Denmark, employers also need to run structural changes by the unions and come to an agreement together. The government/employers bypassed all this when the unions raised concerns about the potential loss of preparation time if there was no upper limit on time in the classroom by forcing a month long lock out.

When the government ‘stepped in’ to break the deadlock between the employers and the unions, they knew they had to appear impartial and not as if they had orchestrated the whole thing from the beginning, so they gave some concessions.

One concession was that teachers would have longer working days, sure, but they would not have to work outside those hours AT ALL, not without overtime payments.

In other words, teachers come in at 8am, leave at 4pm and THAT IS IT. No writing reports at home, no marking essays at the weekend, no lesson planning while watching Borgen. Everything done at work. Everything.

The following article is about the mess this has made in one school.

Before I let you read it, I want to say that this has not just affected state schools. The working conditions of the state school teacher are the same as the private school teacher and even the teachers of adults, like in language school.

I have met a few people working at other private schools, and many of them are in permanent crisis. Some schools have worked out a system that bypasses the madness, others have entered into an understanding that teachers have a list of things to do and they just do them, no matter how long it takes which can result in no upper limit on workload, which means that some people are working 50-80 hour weeks just to get it all done. In DENMARK, where work-life balance is king. If they complain, they are told it is their time management at fault.

(For reference, if they work in weeks where students are not there, they should be working around 37.5 hours a week. If they don’t work in those weeks, it is more like 42 hours. And some periods in teaching life are busier than others, so it can be more like 45 in certain terms and less in others)

Still others have the 8am-4pm system like the state schools. I read about one school in the union magazine and they seemed the happiest of all. Busiest maybe but much more secure in what they were doing.

This is what you get, by the way, when non-experts get to decide stuff like this without consultation. I’m not saying teachers are the best placed to make all the decisions, we are probably too close to the problem, but they are at least able to say things like “Hey, that’s not going to work, for the following reasons:-” if they are consulted first.

Here is the article:-

KARSTEN BRÄUNER, state school teacher

The introduction of the state school reform on 1st August 2014 created the most comprehensive and abrupt changes of the role of the teacher in the 200 year history of the Danish state school, first and foremost as a consequence of the ‘normalisation’ of teachers’ working time which the administration together with the association of borough councils (KL) implemented by law.

The changes raise the question about whether schools after the reform have the resources and are furnished with a structure which ensures consistently high quality teaching in day to day lessons. If the day to day doesn’t work, the school doesn’t work.

How has everyday school life been in the reform’s first two months? So much as has been said in such divergent terms that it is impossible for outsiders to get a clear answer. Nothing less than concrete examples from the reality in schools can serve as an answer to the question.

The examples shouldn’t be a scattergun, unsystematic reduction of the reality they should describe. Only comprehensive, coherent examples have the gravity to show themselves trustworthy and of documentary quality.

With the following day to day account of my preparation time in the period 1st September to 10th October, I hope to make such an example.

I argue that the example not only exposes one individual teacher’s situation but in its basic substance paints a picture of the situation for all state school teachers, as they have all been affected by the same reform – some harder than others.

Preparation time is the day’s non-teaching time minus the time that goes on ‘other activities’, mainly parent evenings, curriculum plans, school reports, planning of overnight trips to Brussels,along with team, teacher and ad hoc meetings. And also the specific time that is for preparing tomorrow’s lessons.

On paper, my maximum prep time for 26 lessons: Monday 70 minutes, Tuesday 90 minutes, Wednesday 55-100 minutes, Thursday 0 minutes, Friday 0 minutes – 215-260 minutes in all. From that, you need to take 45 minutes per cover lesson, which I have about 1.5 of.

Preparation time is absorbed in periods of administrative tasks. Parents’ evenings take up all the preparation time on the days they are scheduled and writing 253 school reports in two weeks leaves little time to prepare in the same period.

The day’s preparation time status refers to the contribution from the previous day’s preparation and d!oes not include any contribution of planning during lessons.

Monday 1.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 0 minutes.
Tuesday 2.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 45 minutes.
Wednesday 3.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 15 minutes.
Thursday 4.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 30 minutes.
Friday 5.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 8.9.: Preparation free day (national reading day). Preparation time for Tuesday: 60 minutes.
Tuesday 9.9.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 10.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 15 minutes.
Thursday 11.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 0 minutes.
Friday 12.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 15.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 15 minutes.
Tuesday 16.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 15 minutes.
Wednesday 17.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 10 minutes.
Thursday 18.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 15 minutes.
Friday 19.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 22.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 0 minutes.
Tuesday 23.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 24.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 1 hour and 30 minutes (unexpectedly no meetings).
Thursday 25.9.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 10 minutes.
Friday 26.9.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 29.9.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 10 minutes.
Tuesday 30.9.: Poorly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 0 minutes.
Wednesday 1.10.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 2 hours 30 minutes (meeting free as usual).
Thursday 2.10.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Friday: 0 minutes.
Friday 3.10.: Well prepared. Preparation time for Monday: 0 minutes.
Monday 6.10.: Unprepared. Preparation time for Tuesday: 60 minutes.
Tuesday: 7.10.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Wednesday: 30 minutes.
Wednesday 8.10.: Improperly prepared. Preparation time for Thursday: 60 minutes.
Thursday 9.10.: Preparation free day (guest teacher). Preparation time for after the holiday: 0 minutes.
F!riday 10.10.: Preparation free day (motions day). Preparation time for after the holiday: 0 minutes.

The goal of the reform was to make schools better through more exciting and varied teaching. Teachers’ reduced preparation time makes it impossible for the school to meet up to this aim.

The teacher is required in a high degree to follow the textbook slavishly, and avoid piecing their teaching together from different materials, organising activities, including movies and making their own resources etc as there was time for before.

Because of the reduced preparation time, the work of the teacher consists greatly of starting the students off at the start of the lesson and afterwards sitting at their desk behind their books and computer, to be able to prepare for the next lesson as well as possible. The teacher is still available for the students when they have questions but in a much lesser degree than the previous proactive initiator and supervisor. You can hardly call this teaching.

This is especially hard on weaker students. The reform inhibits the inclusion attempts by worsening the teacher’s opportunities to plan and implement differentiated instruction.

As well as this the reform doesn’t give the teacher more time with students outside of lessons. When the lesson is over, the teacher rushes back to his work room to get as much out of the insufficient preparation time as possible.

For the same reasons, the reform does not improve the extent of collaboration between teachers either. Teachers have always learned from and inspired each other. But with the reform, there is less time for cooperation. The time can only be taken from preparation time but the teacher has nothing left to give away when there is already not enough time to prepare adequately for the ongoing lessons.

Movement class and lesson support, the reform’s two wildcards, are squeezed as a result of the inadequate preparation time out into a position of a marginalised activity. No teacher with respect for herself and her students regards these activities as important as the core teaching in the subjects.

When teachers already have not got enough time to prepare for core teaching, then there’s definitely not enough time in the bank for movement and lesson support, so they fizzle out both professionally and educationally.

Even assuming that movement and support lessons could be a success, the two activities do little to deliver the aims of the school, compared to the loss of preparation time for core teaching.

In summary, it could be could be said that the reform establishes a teacher role which makes it impossible for the teacher to deliver the reform and the reform undermines itself at key points.

The problem with preparation isn’t only that the resources are reduced but also that the structure is atomised which results in wasted time from incessant stopping and starting, coming and going and endless unexpected interruptions. This can be quantified.

Previously, teachers had effectively 10-12 hours preparation a week, but could prepare more in some periods and less in others, depending on need. Today, the teacher has in reality 2-4 hours to prepare for up to a quarter more lessons than before the reform and with monstrously poor flexibility. This makes the teacher’s opportunities to prepare, reflect on and assess work competently virtually non-existent.

Before, teachers could collect in a class set of essays on Friday, grade them on Sunday and give them back on Monday. Now, teachers have to do the task – that takes about all of 1-2 weeks’ preparation time – over the course of three to four or more weeks, when it is possible. Fifteen minutes here, half an hour there, so the students can hardly even remember what they wrote when they get the essay back.

Preparation isn’t just getting ready for a specific upcoming lesson. Preparation also includes participation in courses and independent professional development to establish and expand your academic foundation, keep abreast of new materials for the subjects they teach and much more.

This ‘back catalogue’ of knowledge, insight and competences, that teachers previously accumulated year after year – and as such is the 90% of the professional iceberg hidden under water – will not be given priority in the newly reformed teacher role. This will create a significant professional downturn over time.

Education Minister Bertel Haarde wanted to define the nature and extent of the teacher’s work at the end of the 80s. A teacher said at the time to me “If my employer doesn’t trust that I’m doing what I should, he’ll get only what he’s paying for.”

That development has reached its inevitable nadir with the new law. But the government and KL have chiselled their definition of working time as ‘8-16’ in the teachers’ consciousness. Teachers are only at work when they are at school.

So, the employers have introduced the role of the teacher, which defines as a starting point for the operation of the school, that teachers are free after school ends. Even if it means the teacher comes entirely or partially unprepared the next day. A massive political own goal, where the negative consequences for development of state schools cannot be overestimated.

I teach history, but thought a couple of years ago that I didn’t know enough about the second Slesvig War. So, I bought and read – as is obviously a part of my job – Tom Buk-Swientys book “Butcher’s Block Dybbøl” and went to an evening event with him.

Today, I would have to ask my leader about using my working time to read a book and pay me a supplement for working after 17.00. It would take about 10-15 hours to read it, which corresponds to two to three weeks full preparation time. Would my leader assign me that time? And would he pay me the supplement. Hardly.

With the reform, the government and KL have shut down the completely crucial source of professionalism in Danish state schools: teachers’ commitment and self improvement.

The reform has redefined the teacher from a knowledgeable person with an open, ‘hungry’ and pro-active approach to reality, always on the way with new insights and competences, to a feeder that should stuff the national curriculum down the throats of students like corn into a foie gras- goose.

None of above statements come as a surprise to people with insight into Danish state schools. They warned but no one wanted to listen. From the ministry and government, over the association of borough councils to the school leader’s union, have all persistently persistently swept criticism aside with cheers of congratulation.

Even today, denouncing their reform’s standard bearing critics and keep blindly hold of their fantasy project, which they think can be driven to success with smart campaigns, slogans and starry eyed optimism.

But you need more than that. You can’t just solve structural and material problems with propaganda or turning a blind eye.

With their rhetoric, they are helping to raise parents’ expectations for a reform that is itself s!mashing the conditions needed for teachers to deliver.

The World’s Most Specific Minor Gripe

I love trying new things out with my students and in 2013, this means signing up to different websites to use in my teaching.

They all do something a bit different. Classdojo is for behaviour management through giving out points. Wikispaces is so that students can collaborate on their written work. Edmodo is facebook for schools. Showbie is a way of handing work in that you did on an ipad. For example.

There are many more and I use them semi-regularly. One problem is that children need multiple logins and they forget them very easily. Another problem is that there are so many educational apps and online services out there, they are really keen to keep you as a user.

What happens is that if you sign up, you get a cheery email from a named person offering help. Then if you do not use the app for a few days, you get another email from them. And if you email back to explain why you didn’t use the app yet, you get a form response not addressing anything you said. And you get regular updates (and you cannot always switch them off). And then in September, when I have been back at work for a month already, you get a bunch of emails about getting ready for a new term.

There is no button for deleting an account so once you’re in, you are in.

I have a filter set up now, so that I don’t have to deal with it but every time I set up a new account to check out the possibilities, the whole cycle begins again.

Shit advice

I have been feeling pretty zen about Denmark recently and have also not been reading the news (coincidence?), so I wasn’t sure what I could talk about.

Some of my hate-readers hate that I talk about my health problems. HEALTH PROBLEMS ON A BLOG? It almost boggles the mind. Well, prepare to be bamboozled.

My immune system is all like Clive Dunn in Dad’s Army, flapping around, telling everyone not to panic. There are few systems in my body that L Cpl Jones the Immune System has not whipped up into a state of frenzy. I am being treated for hypothyroidism, polycystic ovaries, insulin resistance and asthma. (Yesterday, I had a prick test, where they rubbed cat hair and mould into tiny cuts in my body to see if it got itchy. It turns out I am allergic to all of the things. They also gave me some drug which increased my lung function by 95% or something. Shit the bed)

Anyway, while I was at the thyroid appointment, I mentioned that I had put on a tonne of weight very suddenly and waah waah. The doctor (who I love), referred me to a dietician. And I went because although I know what I am supposed to eat, I am not really eating it because it’s really hard to avoid bread and potatoes in Denmark. Plus, sugar is NICE and if I gave up sugar fulltime, then what would the point even be? And I know I am supposed to balance my shit out with protein but how much nuts is that really supposed to mean because I am so over nuts.

The dietician was a disappointment, instead of finding out what I knew just questioned me on different headings.

“So, how much dairy do you eat?”

“I like Greek yoghurt and skyr, I guess?”

“OK, so try putting oat flakes on top of that to slow down the absorption. Only drink a small amount of milk, it contains sugar. What about potatoes?”

“I only eat a small amount of potatoes.”

“Only have three small ones unless you are active, then you can have four”

and instead of saying “You know what, you need to be eating like all of the vegetables and exercising a metric fucktonne because this insulin resistance is not going to go away without those changes,” she said

“So, you’re English, right? That must mean you eat a lot of white bread. Have you learned to eat dark ryebread yet?”

I said I didn’t like it but I only ate wholemeal bread and didn’t recognise the stereotype, actually. She was like “Woah, ok, mind blown”

I got out a book about insulin resistance and showed it to her, saying I had read it and understood the advice in it. She said her student had read it and she gave me a pamphlet about PCO and how insulin levels vary depending on what you eat.

Then she handed me this:-

Good LUCK, vegetarians
Good LUCK, vegetarians

For those who cannot read Danish, it suggests six slices of bread a day to someone with insulin resistance. And artificial sweetener in drinks. And slimming bars. You’re supposed to have 300g vegetables and can choose between processed meat, jam and cheese as toppings for the bread. Less a “healthy eating plan”, more a “eating disorder”.

I entered it in to one of those food diary websites to find out if it was nutritionally balanced.

Even though the plan was supposed to bring me below 1200 calories, if I followed the advice I would be eating 1400 calories. I would be getting 19g too much sugar, 49g too much protein and 754mg too much sodium. I would be getting 4g too little fat on this plan. As if dietary fat were the enemy in insulin resistance.

And I don’t even LIKE all those guidance numbers, they are a snapshot of the prejudices of the nutritionist that wrote them rather than any hard and fast rule about what you need to stay healthy.

The thing that gets me about this plan is how artificial sweeteners are so glibly promoted. When even in people without insulin resistance, these additives make people’s insulin spike (the body goes “OH BOY OH BOY, SUGAR! Better call Mr Pancreas!” and then out comes Ms Insulin who knocks on all the cell doors and says “Open up for some yum-yums!” and also “Let’s put this sugar away for later!” and so if you have artificial sweeteners, your cells are like “Where’s the party?” and then “OMG I AM SO HUNGRY” and then you eat actual sugar which is then helpfully deposited in your liver to be transformed into fat and stored if you do not exert yourself in the next few hours/day. And if you tease the cells too much with this, they start to tell Ms Insulin to shut up which leaves more for transformation into fat for storage)

NO ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS.

Also, what the actual fuck is going on with all that bread, cheese and ham? What I really need is a way of getting decent sources of non-animal fat and protein into my body without taking in too much salt at the same time. The way you do this is: vegetables. (And seafood, I guess because although they are animals, they have unsaturated fat which is the best sort.)

Whatever. I had a week off of school (and commuting), and lost the weight pretty much. It was stress everyone! I am not making particularly bad choices when I eat usually, it’s just that I am more likely to pick something that is not great because I am feeling down or stressed. Plus, being hungry in downtown Aarhus means that I either get an unhealthy snack because that is all that is available or I wait over an hour to get home (which is bad for my hormones for other reasons).

The constant stress hormones mean that whatever I eat, I am more likely to store fat because my body believes I was in a marathon or a war or something.

Now, I didn’t expect Denmark to be ahead of the curve with the thinking around nutrition but I also did not expect a dietician whose ONLY JOB it is, is to know what sort of foods are healthy for particular groups to recommend a diet that would make me fatter, mess with my insulin and raise my blood pressure.

The science isn’t secret, the discussion isn’t new. She has even read the same books I have, in Danish (we exchanged notes), but she has been completely blinded to what constitutes a healthy diet by her culture.

Now, here’s the dilemma. Do I go back to the appointment and tell her off or just cancel it quietly? I mean, the first possibility will make for one hell of a blog post but what it will do for my stress hormone levels, I am not sure.

What was the lockout for?

For most of April, schools in Denmark were either shut or running on a much reduced timetable. This was because the boroughs called a “lockout”, which is an action employers can use against their employees during negotiations in order to force a worsening in pay and/or working conditions.

When the boroughs and government were asked to account for this, to give an explanation for forcing this action after the unions had given so much up in negotiations already, they explained that they needed to make these changes so that state school reform could happen. Even though I work at an independent school, I was still affected. Even though these reforms will have nothing to do with my school.

The reforms they wanted to make but could not pay for without worsening the working conditions of all teachers:-

  • Longer days for children
  • “Activity” hours, mandatory play-time lessons at the end of the day
  • More Danish and maths
  • Mandatory homework “club” (or study hall)

The “activity hours” were dropped a month after the lockout. Reason: several parties in the opposition did not like the idea and would not vote for it.

Now the mandatory study hall is being dropped. Reason: one of the opposition parties think it should be a choice for students.

What we seem to be left with is longer school-days and extra emphasis on the basics.

Where I stand on this is that it is not good enough just to have children in the room for longer. Danish school days are short but they are not the shortest in the world. If children are not getting to the required standard, it is not how long they have in class that is the problem but the methods used to teach them.

Inclusion is the same story. The Danish government does not want to pay extra for special needs provision so wants to have children of all abilities taught together. Fine. Finland do that and it is great. But you don’t educate special needs students just by having them in a different classroom with children with no learning difficulties. You need to know how to help children with diverse needs access the curriculum. You need to teach differently.

Putting children in a classroom for an extra hour or two at the end of the day and giving them five extra worksheets to get through is not going to raise standards. You need to teach differently.

What needs to happen in Denmark is exactly what no one is suggesting will happen.

They need to look at international research of what works. They need to run large scale trials in schools to see which things actually work in the context of the Danish culture. They need to decide what outcomes they want to see.

If it is greater numeracy and literacy then they need to train all teachers to increase those skills. In England, there are two phrases you get to hear a lot:- “All teachers are teachers of special needs” and “All teachers are teachers of literacy.” You do not get to hear that in Denmark because it is not true. And it will never be true so long as Danish teachers are untrained in these skills.

And I am not talking about a couple of dreary twilight sessions after lessons with a powerpoint and no activities. I mean there needs to be coaching and workshops and showing-not-telling.

Good teachers of literacy and numeracy need to be identified and trained so they can share their skills with their school (or even town).

And any of the other things that governments often think they want to see in their population, like creativity or leadership or teamwork or what-have-you, they need to take a backseat until the changes in teaching the basics have bedded down and become an integral part of the Danish school. No chopping and changing, if there is a new government halfway through the programme.

But none of this is ever going to happen.

They are going to make the school day longer. Teachers are going to carry on doing what they always have. For some children, that means they have longer with a teacher who knows what they are doing and for other children, that means they will be in school longer with someone who cannot help them.

How do they expect standards to increase? By magic?

9z versus China

The Danish national broadcaster had a show about how Danish teenagers compared with Chinese teenagers after 9 years of school. It came out around about the time of the lockout. I have only watched one episode.

Comparing school systems is a great interest of mine and there is much to be said about the differences/similarities between the Danish and the Chinese system. I am not going to touch those issues here though.

What I found overpowering about the show itself was how Danish the people behind it were. I can imagine if a French team had made the show, or Brazilian, or Japanese:- Comparing Denmark and China still but coming without the cultural baggage of being Danish. That would be a show I would love to watch. The show did not have the self-awareness to address this weakness of a lack of self-awareness.

If I had been in control, I would have changed a lot of the presentation.

For example, the show starts with the first school day in both schools. The Danish school is shown, with singing and flag waving and dancing. Then the stark lines of Chinese children standing in the playground chanting “We are proud to be Chinese”.

If I had been in control of the editing, I would have put it together to show the similarities and not the differences. Flag goes up in Denmark, flag goes up in China, teacher chants slogans in China, teacher sings slogans in Denmark, children standing outside in Denmark, children standing outside in China, children look happy in Denmark, children look happy in China, children look bored in China, children look bored in Denmark.

Another thing I would have changed was the panel of “experts” called on to answer questions about both the Danish and the Chinese system. They had the head of the teachers’ union and some guy from a Danish university. Not one Chinese educational system expert was called on. (Neither in the sense of someone in Denmark who has made it their life’s work to study the Chinese system nor in the sense of a Chinese person involved in running the Chinese educational system.) The questions about the Chinese system were addressed to 12 year old Chinese girls and Danish men.

Not to mention, the Danish university “expert” did not even have a very good handle on what goes on in the Danish system. In one part, he claimed that children from all levels and backgrounds are together in their class, resulting in them having a better understanding of the breadth of Danish society.

Except. Denmark has private schools. And Denmark has special schools. So, apart from the children who go to private school and the children who are in special school, the Danish classroom is a cross section of Danish society.

He just repeated cultural myths about Denmark without being aware of how poorly he understood his own country. So, I took his pronouncements on the Chinese system with more than a pinch of salt.

How can a tv programme claim that the Danish system sets Danish teenagers up as being better critical thinkers than Chinese teenagers when it cannot demonstrate critical thinking in the actual show?

The teenagers were asked some “general knowledge” questions, to show how ignorant the Chinese children are. The questions were

“Who were The Beatles?”

“What is a teenager?”

“What happened on September 11th 2001?”

The children were not asked

“Who is Teresa Teng?”

“What do we mean by adolescence?”

“What was the Cultural Revolution?”

Also, the icons to show the children’s performance have little cartoon figures with flags as t-shirts. The Chinese ones are bright yellow faced and the Danish ones are pink faced. (This is despite the programme going to extraordinary hamfisted lengths to establish that the Danish class in question has a lot of brown people, to pre-explain why the results will be so bad… because of diversity of “social” groups)

What the actual fuck, though? Both have slitty eyes, so I guess that’s progress of a sort, though the Chinese eyes are the slittiest.

Cartoon depiction of Chinese and Danish child
I facepalmed so hard, my hand got bruised

In conclusion, an interesting concept for a show, ruined by the lack of cultural understanding and critical thinking by the programme makers. Prejudices go unchallenged and are presented as self-evident truth, when a little digging would have found reality to be a lot more nuanced.

Danish Model Reprised

The Danish Model is a system where two parties: the employer and the employee can sit down and work out terms of employment. Compromise is expected. It seems to me that the biggest advantage of the Danish Model, is that the terms of someone’s employment is usually rather technical.

To someone outside of a particular job, the things that employees might stick on may seem overly pernickity.

Who really understands what anyone else does? Until you build code or fight crime or clean offices; you can only imagine (and romanticise the details).

As with all cases of confirmation bias, even as people patiently explain to you, for example: ‘no, that word means this’ and ‘that is not what people are fighting about’, people hear what they want to hear.

If someone has convinced themselves that all Danish teachers are lazy and useless, then no teacher (even a hard working, blameless British teacher), has any chance of changing their mind with their daring tales of hard work and success in the classroom.

If another person has decided that, as hard working as Danish teachers are, they are not working the same hours as everyone else then no clarification of what ‘normalisation’ is can ever hope to get through.

The government wanted to force these changes through. Had the Danish Model been allowed to run as usual, then the suggestions given by the government would have been weakened. Not by much, if you look at the course of the negotiations.

There were two things that the teachers’ unions stuck on.

1) Teachers over 60 should be allowed to have a reduced timetable on full-pay

2) Headteachers should not get the absolute final call on how to assign teacher’s activities. There should be an upper limit of lessons a week (25 hours) and a “pool” of preparation hours that the head can assign as they will.

The government, in their intervention, refused both. And so, now the terms of employment are that reduced timetables for teachers over 60 will be phased out and that headteachers can assign teachers to as many lessons a week as they want and (therefore), some lessons will have no paid preparation time at all.

Under the Danish Model, if the government has to break the deadlock, it cannot be one sided and both parties need to come away with something. I got a pay-bump of 300 kroner a month (Gee, I hope that’s after tax, I cannot WAIT to spend it), and the offer of extra training.

There was also an ‘assurance’ that teachers would not have to work evenings or weekends.

I doubt headteachers would want to treat their staff badly and would not want to overschedule their staff. But they will not be given enough money to be professionally considerate. And thusly, the buck stops with them (and not the government or the kommunes).

If I am given too many lessons a week to prepare for, then of course I will have to take work home. I just will be expected to work more hours than everyone else on my pay grade.

Most non-teachers have no idea what is about to happen to Danish schools. They are completely ignorant of how damaging these changes will be.

If this had run on the Danish Model, then teachers would have been able to modify the plans according to their professional needs and not solely due to budgetary requirements.

What gets me the most, isn’t the lack of sympathy strikes or the lack of peaceful direct action or the way that we have been taken for granted. It’s not people calling me lazy or a liar or freeloader. It’s not the loss of income. It wasn’t even misinformed people insisting that I could stop the lockouts singlehandedly by child minding teaching children in defiance of the rules.

What gets me the most is that the children of Denmark lost four weeks of schooling, so that the government could pretend that they were independent of these changes.

They wanted to bypass the Danish Model but not get in trouble for doing so.

They refused to release documents where the stated aim was “To prepare for the employment negotiations” because “they have nothing to do with the employment negotiations”. They insisted that they needed to do the intervention because “in the Danish Model sometimes lockouts happen and this has gone on too long”. They expected the people of Denmark to believe that they wrote 70+ pages of documentation about the new changes overnight. They claim that there is nothing odd about consulting the employers about how to make the intervention but not the teachers.

And, as usual, they got away with it because everyone is too apathetic to lift a finger to save what they say they believe in.

Four weeks with no schools, in a ‘democratic’ country.

For a game.

I am not sure who won but I know who lost.