The Best Job In The World?

Christmas is a lonely time for many people because it’s when they feel most disconnected from the world around them.  At Christmas we should be happy and those that aren’t are Getting Life Wrong.

Rubbish.  Fundamentally, people aren’t any happier at Christmas than they are the rest of the year.  They’re just pretending to be, just as thousands of teachers pretend they think teaching is “The Best Job In The World” because by admitting they think otherwise they break an unwritten rule.

It’s not hard to see why so many feel this.  The best teachers in popular culture are invariably those utterly besotted with their students and in love with the craft.  The popular image of a good teacher is deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness; exhausted, ink stained, on the verge of a breakdown but pushing on through for the kidz.

Heart-warming and familiar as this cliché is, it is at best unsustainable and at worst immensely damaging.

The stereotype makes being a good teacher seem more a set of innate personal qualities and talents than the product of years of practice, training and development.  This is off-putting to many people with the potential to make decent teachers.  When I tell people what I do the most common reaction is “I just couldn’t do that because..”  followed by a list of unpleasant challenges.  The issues are always those that frightened me most when I first trained, before I learned how to address them.  If we allow teaching to be mythologized people will believe it beyond them before they’ve really begun to consider it properly.

Such cliches also invite pointless martyrdom.  Many of those choosing teaching do so believing the only way to do it right is by complete sacrifice to The Cause.  This can be a significant driver of workload.  Teachers spend red-eyed hours making resources, marking for the sake of it and endlessly tinkering with PowerPoint fonts because they’ve come to believe the more hours you do, the more you care and the more you are the better the teacher you are.  Exhaustion becomes a badge of virtue and quickly becomes an end in itself.  Those unable to sustain such extreme hours feel they’re failing and some drop out.

Of course, teachers aren’t solely to blame for this.  Government and unscrupulous SLTs take advantage of martyr syndrome and, in the past, I’ve heard those who should know better unashamedly say “if you expect a social life don’t be a teacher.”  It’s important to consider the wider implications of statements like this one.

Those who buy into the idea of teaching being The Best Job In The World often see a distinction between actual teaching and the educational structures around it.  Films, books and TV nearly always cast the children as joyful and the institutions around them as mind-crushingly evil.  This means onerous and often pointless administration tasks are regarded as the price that has to be paid in order to enjoy teaching children.  I’ve heard teachers say “yeah, all that form-filling is awful but it’s worth it for the kids,” as if one couldn’t exist without the other.

All of this is damaging education because it’s making it too easy to believe if a teacher doesn’t feel it’s the best job in the world then they aren’t cut out for it.  Of course, some aren’t and would be better suited to another, but others might just have a set of particularly hard classes that year, or a new family, or be going through a divorce.

If we want to recruit more teachers and retain the ones we have, we need to be more open, honest and realistic.  Most teachers start badly and get better.  Sometimes teaching’s great and sometimes it’s awful.  One year might be fun and the next, not so.  One boss might be inspiring, their replacement deflating.

Christmas is a lovely time of year but if you aren’t enjoying it you aren’t alone and it doesn’t mean you never will again. Don’t give up on it.  Much the same could be said of teaching.

You really should teach.. The Titanic

The Titanic might seem an odd choice for #youreallyshouldteach.  Most of us have taught it, often badly, as a standalone throwaway lesson just before Christmas, or we’ve set it as a cover lesson because it’s interesting and accessible but seemingly unconnected to anything else. I’ve never done it justice, but a blog post by Sally Thorne got me thinking about how I could, in the future, teach it more meaningfully.

By teaching the Titanic too superficially I think we miss an important opportunity.  In this post I’d like to explain why this particular shipwreck casts such a mysteriously long shadow over British history, why perhaps it shouldn’t and why we should teach it anyway.

The story itself is familiar enough to not need much description.  On Sunday 14th April 1912 the biggest ship ever made hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.  The Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats on board and as a result, only 32% of its passengers were rescued.  Over 1500 people either drowned or died of hypothermia in sub-zero temperatures.

While the disaster was at the time the single biggest shipping disaster in history, I don’t think this in itself explains why it has so markedly fascinated successive generations.

To understand the enduring appeal we should look at it in context.  The disaster happened in 1912, just two years before the outbreak of the Great War.  Over time, rather than fading as many events seem to do, the Titanic seems to have grown and grown in cultural significance.  A lesson on this could help children consider why.

The Titanic was a product of time and place both enormously self-confident and increasingly concerned about its place in the world.  The largest, most luxurious liner ever made was a symbol of a nation at its apparent absolute zenith.  The language used to describe it is hyperbolic culminating, of course, in the “unsinkable” claim that has come to define it.   It’s difficult not, however unhistorical it is to do so, to see this as a challenge to God, echoing the same themes explored in the Tower of Babel in Genesis.

We like to see the passenger list was a microcosm of trans-Atlantic society; the rich in unimaginable luxury, poorer passengers seeking a fresh start in a country still young enough to be considered a new world.  Of course this isn’t really accurate but as a society we still seem desperate for it to be true.  A quick internet search reveals the proliferation of urban legends regarding who and what was on the ship, the most enduring that Pablo Picasso’s artwork was on board.

Self-confident as Britain was in 1912 it was, paradoxically, racked by insecurity.  Germany and the United States were overtaking it and this, perhaps, explains why being the largest and most well-appointed liner ever wasn’t enough; it also needed to be the fastest.  The need to prove the Titanic, and by association Britain’s, superiority was to be the ship’s fatal flaw, leading to the recklessness that caused Captain Smith to ignore iceberg warnings and pile on more and more speed.  It’s interesting to see how the way in which Smith and the men who built the Titanic have been portrayed so closely mirrors the popular view of “donkey” generals in World War One; fundamentally decent but stupid men blinded by an arrogance that apparently typifies the age.

The voyage can be seen as a metaphor for Europe’s stumble towards war in 1914 as the rich, heedless of all warnings ordered full steam ahead.  The casualty figures from both the Titanic and the war show it was the poorest who were to suffer most.

There are more compelling, misleading parallels between the early weeks of war and the first minutes after the Titanic hit the iceberg.  In both, nobody seems aware of the scale of the impending disaster; on board the Titanic passengers threw snowballs while in 1914 young men rushed to join the army, keen for adventure and sure it’d all be over by Christmas.  Then, as the tragedies unfold we like to think we see the Best of British.  In the midst of horror order endures; women and children to the lifeboats first as the band plays on and, for King and Country, the stoic and brave British lions eventually triumph over the German forces.

Interpreted like this, the Titanic isn’t history at all.  It’s a moral fable about the arrogance and folly of the rich, the innate nobility of the poor and, like J B Priestly’s Inspector Goole, an unheeded warning of what was soon to come.

So if the reason we think the Titanic is significant aren’t historical then why teach it at all?  I think we should because it can teach something profound about historiography.  Many events in history only become significant because of what happens after them and many interpretations society makes are driven not by an objective analysis of the sources but by an innate desire humans have for meaning, even when it doesn’t exist in the way we want it to.  We should teach it because the dark glamour of the story itself will mean it will inevitably remain part of our cultural consciousness and the way it is interpreted will continue to change as our society does.  If we approach the subject this way, perhaps we can use it to show children the importance of looking past dominant interpretations to the sources themselves.

We can use the Titanic to show that what everybody knows happened is often not what really happened.  We can use it to demonstrate that sometimes what we want to have happened gains supremacy over what actually did, and we can use it to explain why.  If we do this well, I think it’s worth a lesson.

Assessing Assessment. A Testing Journey

When I began at my current school, testing in KS3 history was piecemeal.  Sometimes students were assessed on extended writing pieces on selected topics from the curriculum.  These pieces of work were open book with students allowed their exercise books and any other material they’d used in lessons.  In other assessments students weren’t expected to write at all; for example, in Y9, students took part in a debate on whether the “Lions led by Donkeys” interpretation of generals and soldiers in World War One was fair.  In these lessons teachers assessed students on their verbal contributions.  All KS3 assessments were leveled using the now extinct National Curriculum Levels.

This system was damaging planning, teaching and learning.  With no formal tests or proper examinations in KS3, the curriculum was presenting students ‘Theme Park’ history.  Students dipped into various topics but were not supported in making meaningful links between them, or retaining learned knowledge over time.

This generated enormous problems in KS4, where the assessment system was markedly different.  From the beginning of Y10 students were given half-termly mock GCSE exams based on the content they’d covered in the previous six weeks. The disconnect between these two systems was devastating.  Students felt they were improving at one thing, choosing the GCSE course, then finding what they’d got better at in years 7-9 was of almost no use to them.  Pupils were climbing one ladder, then being told that ladder didn’t exist any more and presented with a new one they knew nothing about. Many quickly became despondent.

A consequence of this inherently flawed system was dramatic underperformance in final GCSE examinations, which seemed mysterious to SLT who quite understandably could not understand how students assessed at Level 6 in Y9, were getting E and F grades at the end of Y11.

To address this we began by bringing KS3 assessment in line with KS4.  At both KS3 and KS4 students were given knowledge organisers and assessment preparation sheets before each exam, which formed a basis for revision.  KS3 assessments all became half-termly exams with the questions worded the same way as they were on GCSE papers.  We also revised KS3 Schemes of Work and planning to ensure that the focus of each lesson were the second order concepts identified as GCSE Assessment Objectives.

These changes improved results, with last year’s GCSE cohort, the first to have studied our revised curriculum, albeit only in Year 9, doing significantly better than the years that preceded them.  Despite this improvement, results were still well below national averages.  There is still a lot of work to do.

Last year I think I managed to work out what was going wrong.  Although our revised KS3 curriculum is giving students more practice at how to answer historical questions, its modular nature meant that students were not tested on their ability to recall knowledge over longer periods of time.  Students appeared to be doing better than they really were, because tests scores reflected only the material most recently covered.  This problem wasn’t isolated to KS3 as in KS4 students were being tested the same way.

This year, we refined our system again by adopting a model I first saw blogged about by Michael Fordham.  Now all students are assessed, every half term, on everything they’ve covered up to the point of the test.  This means that students are now expected to revise all content, not just the content they’ve covered most recently.

We’ve just entered our second set of data and results are already interesting.

Our first half term data looked largely as it did under our previous system.  This, rang some alarm bells with SLT because some students, especially the most able, performed considerably higher than they did in other subjects.  This was because students were being tested on material they’d learned perhaps only a week before, so had no trouble recalling it.

Fortunately I work in a school with a very understanding, open and reflective SLT and they were willing to indulge me on the understanding of a prediction; in history, under the new assessment system, test scores would dip as students are tested on knowledge over a longer period of time, then steadily rise as they understand the importance of revision and got better at it.

Data 2 has just gone in and I’ve had a dig into the scores of my classes.  I’ve found the first part of my prediction (that scores will initially go down) was sort of right in some cases, but mostly wrong.

Firstly, as predicted, the scores of lower achievers did dip and their exam papers shows that it was the questions on older material on which they did worst.  Although initially a bit depressing, it’s important to remember that while scores might have got worse, achievement really hasn’t.  Our new system has helpfully exposed the weak long term memory of our lower achievers and now we can be sure this is something we need to work on.

My second finding was more unexpected. The scores of mid-achievers didn’t dip very much and in some cases actually improved slightly.  I’ll need to look in to why this was the case but I’ve already got some lines of enquiry I’d like to pursue.  The first of these is the simplest.  Our mid-level students have better memories than we thought they did and were more responsive to our explanations of how much content they needed to revise than we expected them to be.  If this is true, our expectations have helpfully been raised.  The second is that my teaching has changed and now more emphasises the importance of long term recall.  I’m sure there’s something in this; knowing that my classes are going to be assessed on a greater body of knowledge has resulted in more low-stakes testing and more frequent references to previously covered topics. I’d be very surprised if this hasn’t made a difference.

My final finding has been rather thrilling.  The scores of our more able have improved significantly.  Their answers show this is because their greater knowledge base is allowing them to form connections and meaningful comparisons between different periods because they have deeper wells from which to draw water.  In one particularly good answer, a very able Y8 student compared Elizabeth’s success as a monarch with that of Henry VII, which we covered at the beginning of last half term.

Many of the conclusions I’ve drawn probably look very obvious and I do feel slightly foolish for taking so long to realise that the implementation of a knowledge based curriculum and a summative assessment system would be beneficial.  Without wanting to sound presumptuous, I urge any history department, or indeed teacher, to at least trial this method with one or two classes.  Results really do look dramatic and it frustrates me it took me so long to arrive at this system.  Of course, there are reasons for this and some of these infuriate me.

But that’s not the focus of this post, which I want to remain positive.

Of course we haven’t cracked it.  But we’re closer.

Reasonable exceptions can be made.

My cousin once announced to my brother and I that if he were to die suddenly and unexpectedly, he didn’t want anyone to be sued regardless of the circumstances.  My brother and I had a lot of fun with this, coming up with various extreme examples of when this might be inappropriate; drunk airline captain deletes autopilot and then jumps to safety in the only parachute on board was my particular favourite.

Of course we were being silly and the extreme exceptions to my cousin’s  point didn’t really contradict it.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘no excuses’ ever since the Michaela event last Saturday.  A point made very clearly was that any school without a ‘no excuses’ policy to discipline was, by definition, a ‘some excuses’ institution.  While the logic is irrefutable I think it’s too polarising and believe it possible for a school to successfully maintain a policy of ‘excuses only in the most extreme of circumstances.’

A few years ago I was supervising the final write up of my Y11 classes controlled assessment.  This was in examination conditions and was strictly timed.

One typically fairly hardworking girl, Sally, spent the first half an hour doing absolutely nothing.  Cross and worried I challenged her quietly. “Sally,” I said.  “Open your folder now and start.  You’re wasting time you won’t get back.”

Sally erupted.  “Fuck you and fuck this school!”  She screamed, then jumped to her feet, knocking over her table and scattering her folder and the sheets over the floor.  She ran out into the corridor.

The silence in the room deepened and then, from outside came the kind of heart-wrenching, gut-heaving sobs that sound more animal than human.  By the time I got to her she was curled into a ball below a display board rocking with uncontrollable shock, grief, anger and hurt.  Doors up and down the corridor popped open.  Sally screamed again “leave me alone” before venting a string of swear words directed at the school, me and the world in general.

I eventually got Sally into my office where she wept and wept and wept until her form tutor was hunted down.  Then Sally spent the rest of the day drinking tea and disclosing a story that, suffice to say, was one of those that requires a long run and a short cry before you can face the child again.

Sally’s pain and hurt was not a small one.

Of course, I paused the timing on Sally’s controlled assessment.  I made what I’m sure was a reasonable exception.  A week later, Sally came to me before school to apologise for her behaviour.  I didn’t give a consequence.  I told her the apology was appreciated and that she could forget about it.  We moved on.

Anyone regularly reading this blog will know I’m strongly against differentiating expectations of behaviour.  But sometimes dreadful things happen and, occasionally and rarely, it’s not a failure of a school to make short-term adjustments. If I reacted the way Sally had while at work because of a situation like her’s I’m certain the school’s response would not be to discipline me.  If we can be understanding of adults, surely we can be of our children too? I think it perfectly possible for a school to maintain an overall philosophy of ‘no excuses’ while being flexible enough to make exceptions in exceptional circumstances.  I am certain that other children understand this and that not punishing Sally wouldn’t cause a predominantly ‘no excuses’ system to fall apart.  Extreme exceptions don’t invalidate an overall philosophy.  They just make it human.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood what no excuses discipline means and used too extreme an example.  If so I’m happy to be put right.  But if I haven’t misunderstood, I’d like to hear opinions on how it should have been applied to Sally.

Are we having fun?

“Hi Sir!  It’s the last day of term!  Can we have a fun lesson?”

“You have worked hard this term and I do want you to think I’m fun.  History isn’t fun so here’s a video that pretends to be about history but is really just for fun.  But if the Headmaster comes in then pretend that it is about what we’ve learned so I don’t get told off, which wouldn’t be fun.”

“Great, Sir, Thank you Sir!  Oh, Sir, videos are such fun!”

“Quiet, children, let’s watch!  Get ready for some fun!”

“Aw, Sir!  This is a cartoon for babies!  This isn’t fun.”

“Sorry, Tanisha, I thought you’d enjoy it because it’s a cartoon and cartoons are fun.”

“Turn if off Sir, this isn’t fun!  Can’t we watch a proper film?  Something fun?”

“Oh well I suppose if you’re not enjoying it I better change it as I did promise this lesson would be fun.”

“Don’t turn it off, Sir!  Tanisha might not think it is fun but I think it is fun!”

“Dear me, this is confusing.  Is this fun or not?”

“Can Emily and I draw a poster with your stencils while everyone else is watching the film?  Then we’ll all be having fun!”

“That’s a good idea, Tanisha.  You and Emily can have fun making the poster and everyone else can have fun watching the cartoon with the incidental link to the history we’ve covered.”

“Sir, we think the video is boring too, but we don’t think making a poster is fun.  Can we make a board game with the scissors and glue, you know, for fun?”

“OK, if you want to watch the fun video with the incidental link to history you can.  If you don’t want to do that then you can choose to do something else you think is fun.  That should be fun!”

“Sir this isn’t fun because we can’t see the paper to make our poster because the lights are off for the film, which we don’t think is fun.”

“Sir this isn’t fun because the people talking while they make board games means we can’t hear the video, which we note is actually about a cowboy mouse.  I was looking forward to learning more so now I’m not having any fun.”

“Sir this isn’t fun because now you’re shouting at us because Josh stabbed Jess with the scissors because he thinks that’s fun.”

“Whose fault is it that this isn’t fun?  Not mine!  I planned lots of fun!”

“Sir, this really isn’t fun because you’re cross and we’re cross and nobody had fun and nobody learned anything.”

“I wish I’d never bothered trying to make this fun. This has been no fun.”

“No, Sir.  It really hasn’t been fun.  You’re no fun when you try to be fun.”

Gary Whitehead and why I won’t differentiate for economic circumstance.

I have a twenty-year-old memory that makes me burn with particular shame.  After a night out, my friends and I went for a curry.  Tipsy and slightly maudlin after making a string of failed passes at women five years older than himself, Gary Whitehead made an emotional confession.  “One day,” he said, “I want a really classy bird.  I’d treat her well, I’d take her to a proper classy restaurant like Harry Ramsden’s.”

Oh, how I hooted with laughter “Haw! Haw! Harry Ramsden’s!  Fish and chips!  You think fish and chips are classy!”

Gary smiled and laughed along, but went very quiet.

Once, he invited me to his house to eat lunch and it was there I began to realise how different my world was to his.

At around noon his dad, in shorts, a T-shirt and a dressing gown, was already drinking cheerfully from a can of lager.  He offered us both one.  Gary didn’t have one but I did.  A joyful riot of preschool children ran unsupervised through the half-painted living room.  “Shut the fuck up!”  Gary’s mum yelled happily, “we got guests!”

“You’re a bit posh you are!”  Gary’s dad commented and, seduced by the glamour of it all I exaggerated my accent and drank a second can to better fit in.

I hate that version of my sixteen year old self.  Entitled.  Smug.  Ignorant.  Judgemental.  But I wasn’t too thick to get it and after that day I didn’t make any more jokes about Harry Ramsden’s.

I stayed friends with Gary in sixth form.  I sat next to him in ‘A’ Level geography and we did Bradford’s pubs and clubs together at the weekends.

Gary and I both did fairly well in our final exams.  We went to different universities and lost touch until I ran into him at a train station years later.  We talked about mutual acquaintances and caught up.  I’d been a teacher for three years by then and was just about to begin a VSO placement.   I talked too much about myself and by the time Gary had a chance to tell me what he’d done since leaving school there were only five minutes left before my train.

“I work for Barclay’s,” he told me.

“That’s great, Gary,” I said, checking my watch, “whereabouts?”

“All over really,” he said, “I’ve just finished a master’s and I’m training to be a regional manager.”

And that was the last time I saw him.

I’ve thought about him often since then, marvelling at a myopia that meant I went to a school for six years without ever realising the extent to which it was changing lives and transforming communities.  Somehow, I managed to coast through my secondary education without realising that the outstanding results being achieved by my poorer classmates weren’t normal.  When the school published a list of names of hundreds of young people who were the first from their families to go to university I didn’t get it.  “So what?  I thought.  How’s that any different to me going to university?  We sat the same exam!”

But I get it now.  My school knew what it was doing.  It neither made nor accepted excuse.  I was treated, the child of two doctors, in exactly the same way Gary was, whose dad didn’t work and drank.  I mocked Gary and his Harry Ramsden’s because I didn’t know he’d been brought up any differently.  The school had the same standards for both of us and never wavered, never let Gary off homework because he had no desk to work at, never let him swear because his mother did and punished us equally for having a sneaky lunchtime pint before our General Studies lesson.

That’s why Gary, with disadvantages I didn’t have, earns more money than I do, takes holidays twice a year, has separate rooms for his children and will send them to university.  That’s why, as a teacher, my expectations are neither negotiable nor differentiated.

And, in the years before it became an awful franchise, Harry Ramsden’s was classy.  What a prig I was to not recognise that.

A gold watch and a handshake: It’s time for Ofsted to retire.

As recipients of public funding schools need to be accountable and Ofsted, in the past, has been a driver of higher standards in schools.  Nobody wants to return to a system that doesn’t care about the academic failure of poorer children and schools neither can nor should expect to be able to function free of external monitoring.

Although Ofsted has good intentions it has come to the end of its usefulness in its current form, is being outstripped by changes transforming schools all over the country and is becoming an anachronism.

Ofsted was founded in 1992 when many schools were thought to be in a very bad state.  For decades the academic failure of poorer children wasn’t seen as much of a problem because low-skilled jobs in manufacturing existed, which didn’t require academic qualifications. By 1992 it was clear these jobs were moving abroad and a higher skilled workforce was needed for a service orientated economy.

Although this interpretation might be too general I don’t have any doubt that over the last twenty-five years Ofsted has made contributions to an overall improvement to schools.  The most significant was helping end a culture in which little was expected of the poor and schools were not held accountable for the quality of education they provided.  This resulted in examples of the most dreadful underachievement and Ofsted’s robust response should be praised.

Perhaps Ofsted inspectors in those early days considered themselves sheriffs in westerns riding into disreputable cattle towns to clean them up.  Poor management and teachers had to be fired.  Those who remained had, in many cases quite rightly, to work harder.  While unpopular with some teachers on the receiving end this was necessary and thousands of children have more meaningful lives as a result of Ofsted’s early work.

Huge improvements were made from a low base.  Then, as overall standards crept up, things became more complicated.

Ofsted’s success in some localities caused it to believe that the answer for poorly performing schools and areas was more of the same.  More firings!  Harder work!  Tighter rules!  Higher expectations!  Requires Improvement not Satisfactory!  Academy!  Lacking nuance and failing to recognise that unique areas may require unique solutions, Ofsted became a drill sergeant barking at failing recruits, screaming “Shape up or ship out!” in the faces of the already demoralised.

This approach isn’t working now and nor will it in the future.  Problems faced by schools in the East Midlands, coastal areas and the poorest parts of the north can’t be solved by just doing more of what worked somewhere else.  As it becomes increasingly clear that schools in some of these deprived areas are not improving Ofsted is losing the plot.  Wilshaw’s 2015 comment that Bradford’s schools “remain mired in mediocrity, failing generation after generation with depressing regularity” shows by just how much the point has been missed.  I am from Bradford, love it dearly and know it well.  Problems in my city are not caused by schools; they cause the problems in schools and claiming otherwise is a professional insult to many of those who teach there.  It’s also counterproductive because it puts off teachers who might otherwise choose to work in Bradford, especially as performance related pay now makes working in a struggling area a considerable risk.  Good teachers have left Bradford because of this.

Sounding a klaxon, as recently happened to Swindon, when an area underperforms is irresponsible if an integrated plan that recognises the unique issues presented by different circumstances isn’t in place.

Treating those of us who care very deeply and work very hard as if we were wholly responsible for the multi-generational underachievement of entire areas is just plain silly.  Expecting us to act as whipping boys for the effects of social and economic inequality is unfair.    Clearly, much more needs to be done to address the shocking inequality in our education system but Ofsted’s approach, once helpful, has become a hindrance.  Instead, it is in an encouraging growing dynamism within schools themselves which offers the most promising solutions.

Pioneering free schools, greater freedoms, more readily available research and social media are proving transformative and Ofsted is struggling to respond.  In the past recommendations were top-down and almost always involved doing more; more marking, more lesson observations, more data analysis, more intervention, so on and so on till burnout.  This might be understandable in educational systems in which teachers don’t do enough but if this was ever true of England, it isn’t now.  Schools and teachers are thinking and questioning and, while Ofsted’s openness and willingness to engage is laudable, it’s resulting in a greater lack of clarity.  What is good marking?  What is good teaching?  What is good behaviour?  How much data is too much data?  What is the right way to use it? How can an inspectorate answer when there isn’t a consensus in the profession itself?

Faced with an ever growing range of ‘right’ answers and increasingly sensitive to accusations of being partisan on teaching styles, Ofsted is falling back on a tried and tested response; the proof is in the pudding so look to results.  If outcomes are good then so is the school.  If outcomes aren’t good, or at least rapidly improving, it is not a good school.  This seems logical in that expecting one general inspectorate to assess the educational quality of schools with philosophies as diverse as Michaela and School 21 is unrealistic and complicated by observer bias.

Unfortunately, simply looking at results doesn’t work, given that there is evidence suggesting a primary cause of favourable Ofsted judgements at secondary level is the prior attainment of pupils.  Good teaching does not always equate to good results in areas with deeply rooted socio-economic problems extending beyond the school.  Although there will always be heroic exceptions it does appear that the lower attaining a school the more likely it is to be classed as inadequate, regardless of whether or not it is fair to place all the blame for poor outcomes at the school’s front gates.  Progress 8 shows that Ofsted does recognise this, but the measure is riddled with problems and does not provide a reliable enough framework to measure schools against.

In addition I think suggesting (prescribing?) changes is probably too deeply coded in Ofsted’s DNA for it to lose the habit without a complete overhaul.  Alex Ford’s work on how inspection regimes drive marking policies shows that even under the new regime, many inspectors are still recommending more detailed written feedback as a way of improving poor schools despite a paucity of evidence this makes any difference.  Ofsted’s often repeated claim that inspection doesn’t increase workloads is also eroding its credibility because it is so demonstrably untrue.

It’s all a bit of a mess and it’s not hard to understand why.  The educational landscape has shifted dramatically since the 1990s.  The world is complicated and it just isn’t possible to take a look at some data, inspect a school for two days and find simple solutions that bring about immediate improvement.  But there’s good news.  Ofsted doesn’t need to.  We don’t need to be scared into caring because we do, deeply.  Many of us working in schools are children of the Ofsted revolution and products of its success.  The blob is dead and Ofsted should take pride that the children who attended the schools it inspected in the past have developed into innovative and creative teachers.  We know lives are at stake and we are as desperate as Ofsted is to do better where we can.  We don’t need a monster to hold us to account because we’re doing it to ourselves and to each other.

Times have changed and we need a different approach.

More needs to be done and a more sophisticated inspectorate is needed to do it.  We need surgical tools not blunt instruments.  It’s time to give Ofsted its gold watch and a handshake.  Put it out to pasture.  Call off the attack dogs and let the old beasts slip quietly away to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

Please read!

Tom Sherrington on problems with Progress 8.

Alex Ford on how outstanding schools and inspection regimes impact on marking policies.

My best friend is progressive..

The best teacher I know is American.  His name is Ben and we met in Ethiopia in a bar.  I hired him more on a hunch than anything else.   In his first weeks at the school he generated more complaints than the rest of our staff put together.  “He makes us sit outside if we haven’t done our homework,” was one of the first.  “He says my daughter is lazy and won’t let her back in his room until I’ve come to see him,” was another.

But gradually the complaints dropped away, replaced by increasingly glowing testimonials from his students.  The one that got me especially interested went something along the lines of, “he’s different, but once you get used to him you learn more in his lesson than anywhere else.  He doesn’t really do much teaching.  He says it’s our job to learn and his job to help us do that and if we aren’t it’s our fault not his.”

When we scheduled the first lesson observations of the year, I asked for him because I sensed something very different was happening in his room and wanted to see it for myself.

That lesson, after twelve years of teaching, remains the best I have ever seen.

The class came into the room talking quietly and went straight to a work station to pick up one of a range of worksheets, before finding other students who’d collected the same one.  These students then went to sit together.  Ben took worksheets off some and gave them others.  “You know this one’s too easy for you, May,” he said.  “Ahmed, this one’s too hard,” he said to one boy, “you only chose it because you want to work with Sagnii.  Stop being stupid, take this one and go and sit with Yokab.  You’re here to learn, not to play with your friends.”  None of the children he challenged argued; Ahmed grinned sheepishly and did immediately what he’d been told.

The class settled into five or six different small groups, all working on a different worksheet.  They helped each other and a few moved groups after they’d finished their sheet.  This happened organically with no direction from Ben at all.  When asked for help Ben was initially dismissive, saying “don’t bother me if you haven’t taken a help sheet or asked your group.”  He was particularly withering to one young man.  “Of course you don’t understand it.  You didn’t do the homework.  I’m not going to help you.  Why should I do my job if you won’t do yours?”

Ben taught in the traditional sense only twice and both times he spoke for less than five minutes.  These two instances of direct instruction were when he’d looked at work and found sticking points that were confusing lots of students.  In his questioning afterwards he was more interested in why students had got stuck than telling them the right answer.  “Why did you guys find this hard?  Why did you get stuck there?  What could you have done to work it out?”

At the end of the lesson he made a note of which students had finished which worksheets but didn’t bother collecting them in.  Later he told me this was because he didn’t see any point.  “If they understood then that’s great, if they didn’t then they know to come and see me after class, if they copied then there’s no point looking at their sheet because it’s someone else’s work.  I won’t know for certain who’s really got what until the test next week.”

Ben’s class outperformed almost every other in the school in the external IGCSEs and he’d only taught them for a year.

I’ve been thinking about Ben a lot recently (which he’ll be thrilled to know).  I think he’d be classed as progressive and this bothers me because I’m increasingly sure I’m traditional.  It especially bothers me because he’s a better teacher than me.

Thinking about Ben has me wondering whether many problems with teaching happen not because of inherent flaws in ideology but because some teachers don’t have a clear enough sense of what they are, mix approaches and end up falling into the gaps between them all.   They attempt to merge activities from very different styles into one, not recognising that the pedagogy behind them might actually be contradictory.

Ben’s teaching style is best defined not by the progressive activities but by his absolute insistence on self-reliance in his classroom.  He has the clearest vision of any teacher I know as to what he wants from his students and everything he does demonstrates it.  Someone who once worked with him at a different school tells a great story in which after hearing a student complain that they felt too ill to work, Ben ripped a bandage off his hand to expose an open cut. “I’m still bleeding,” he said, “but I’m still going to carry on with my job.”

In his classroom inquiry learning isn’t chocolate boxy or safe.  It feels urgent, hard and a bit frightening.  Ben once told me he didn’t even like children much.  “I like it when I see children turning into adults,” he said, “I don’t like them when they’re childish.”

Had Ben not been so fiercely uncompromising the lesson I observed could have been a disaster.  It worked because it was part of a fully formed, well thought out educational philosophy of which progressive methods were only one contributory part.  This is important and relevant to much of the ongoing and stimulating debate surrounding traditional and progressive approaches to education.  I suspect Michaela is doing so well not because their philosophy is inherently better than everyone else’s, but because they have a positive, clear shared vision and are very effective at sharing it.  If one teacher tried to adopt Michaela’s approach to teaching in a school defined by progressive values they’d fail.

We are on dangerous ground when we attempt to synthesise activities from wildly different approaches into one without a clear understanding of the pedagogical gardens in which they originally grew.  Ben’s methods in my classroom would fail because I don’t share his vision and teaching like him would mean rethinking and retraining.

For all the benefits it brings Twitter can contribute to incoherent teaching because it removes activities and work from their origins.  For example, any rigour in a carefully constructed and well thought-out hot-seating activity is eroded by a photo and the inevitable brevity of the 140 character description.   As tasks are retweeted again and again, the rationale for them can quickly be lost.  Traditional approaches suffer too.   Teachers might well be horrified by the sight of Michaela children chanting drills if they aren’t aware of the caring context in which it took place.

A final danger of social media is that the seductive glamour of imaginative and creative tasks usually means they get more attention than good writing does.  This creates, especially among the less experienced, the impression that these sorts of activities are desirable in themselves.

Good teaching means knowing how we want to teach and why we want to teach that way.  It means considering everything we do carefully and asking ourselves and others whether we’re doing a new activity because it’s fun and novel or whether we’re doing it because it really works better than what we already do.  If we fail to do this we can become magpies in the worst sense, strutting proudly but mindlessly over our collections of shiny, worthless baubles.

And here’s Ben in action for the curious.



Please don’t take children out of my lesson.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I take Jimmy out of your lesson?  It shouldn’t take long, just ten minutes or so.”

Surely a reasonable request?  Schools are busy, multifaceted places, children have chaotic lives and sometimes it’s necessary to briefly remove children from lessons to pass on important messages.

I’m now not so sure unless the reason for the removal, no matter how brief, is an actual emergency.

Good lessons take students through progressively harder concepts and ideas and each new piece of knowledge builds on the previously covered material.  Removing a child for any length of time breaks the link and makes new material and tasks inaccessible.

Here’s an example.  In my lesson on contenders to the throne in 1066, I expect students to begin by reading about each and then ask them to write descriptions.  In the second task the children in my class would be asked to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each contender’s claim to the English throne.  The first descriptive activity might only take ten minutes with an able group, but without doing this the second task would be impossible.   A child who is taken from my lesson for the first ten minutes would find it impossible to catch up without one-to-one personalised intervention from me.  This intervention would inevitably take time away from my teaching of the class as a whole, slowing the learning of everyone in the room.  I would need to make a difficult judgement; do the needs of the one child outweigh those of the rest of the class?

Of course I don’t think it is always inappropriate to remove a child but think it important to recognise even small interruptions have very profound effects on learning.  A very short appointment to reschedule a mentor meeting can easily result in a loss of learning far greater than the ‘it’s only ten minutes’ implied in the email arranging it.

So please excuse me if I pull a pained face when asked if Tyrone can go to pick up his lunch from reception. It’s not because I’m being deliberately awkward, it’s because I care about Tyrone.  I know he needs his sandwiches but he also needs to learn his history so, if at all possible, please find another way to get then to him.

And finally, and thankfully this hasn’t happened to me in years, please don’t come into my lesson to scream about something that happened in yours, or to fling a detention slip at an already furious child.  It might feel good at the time but it completely wrecks the learning atmosphere and does nobody any good at all.

Come on.  We’re both better than that.






You really should teach.. Arbella Stuart

On the 25th September 1615 Henry VII’s great-great granddaughter Arbella Stuart died quietly in the Tower of London.  It was an ignoble end for a woman who had once been considered likely to succeed Elizabeth I as Queen of England.

Things could have been very different.

Arbella’s mother died in 1582 and she was raised by her grandmother Bess, at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.  Until 1592 she was regarded as a legitimate successor to Elizabeth and was brought up as a princess.  She was literate, could speak several languages and played a range of musical instruments.  Elizabeth herself sometimes invited Arbella to her court, which must have been seen, however obliquely, as a careful endorsement of her claim.  It is even possible Hardwick Hall was reconstructed so magnificently because Bess believed it would, one day, become a royal palace for her granddaughter.  But after 1592 the winds of succession changed direction and lacking influential backers Arbella’s claim drifted away.

Arbella might actually have been pleased. For a potential heir, marriage was problematic because any children, particularly boys, would become heirs themselves.  However, any hopes she had were dashed when it became clear she would never be allowed to marry while Elizabeth was alive; although Arbella had no designs on the throne, others might try to use her children as political pawns in savage Tudor struggles for power.  Instead, Arbella was kept in Hardwick Hall in gilded confinement, becoming increasingly desperate with each passing year.

Arbella must have hoped for a change in her fortunes when James VI succeeded Elizabeth in 1603.  Initially James appeared to be sympathetic and invited her back to court.  Arbella appears to have been loyal to the new king and dutifully reported a serious plot against him which, if successful, would have made her Queen of England at last.  Her spirits must have been raised further when James did appear to consider a few marriages for her, but all came to nothing.  By 1610 Arbella was thirty-five and desperate; the cogs of power had not only moved her away from the throne but also locked her into a life of futile, glittering irrelevance.  Arbella’s claim was just too strong for her to ever marry and when King James discovered she had secretly married William Seymour, sixth in line to the throne, he reacted ruthlessly.

The couple were imprisoned separately but continued to write to each other.  In response, the King ordered that she be moved to Durham.  Perhaps knowing this would be last chance at happiness, Arbella disguised herself as a man and escaped to a port where she waited for William to join her.  He managed to escape from the Tower of London but not in time to catch Arbella’s ship to France.  Instead he boarded the next outgoing ship, to the safety of Flanders.  Arbella’s ship never made it.  Within sight of Calais it was overtaken by King James’ men and she was returned to London.  She never saw William Seymour again.  There is some evidence that even this didn’t completely crush Arbella’s spirits.  In 1614 she was caught trying to sell pearls given to her by Queen Elizabeth in happier times and was suspected of trying to raise money for a final escape attempt.  Any such attempt, it if existed at all, came to nothing and she was even cheated on the deal.

Giving up on life as well as marriage, Arbella stopped eating and died.

Arbella’s story reveals the dry, silted streams far away from the well charted rivers of Tudor power.  Her story teaches us that then, just as now, for every glorious winner there were forgotten losers.  Arbella teaches us not all Tudor ends were sudden, dramatic or bloody.  Some were longer, more pointless and perhaps crueller in their obscurity.

Walk Hardwick Hall on a late autumn afternoon when the tapestries close in and the faded golds and greens stifle and suffocate as the light ebbs away.  In this darkly glittering, poisonous air you can still see Arbella pacing the shadows, eyes sharp and waspish as she searches for a way through her twisted maze, the sun setting red as the cold night finally ends all her hopes.