Tales from the Dark Side

People who have known me for some time could point to many statements about me they could confidently attest to be true: I am tall. I am sometimes rather scruffy. I like Indian food. I do not believe education should be selective, either in terms of children’s supposed academic ability or their family’s ability to pay.

However, the reason this is the first blog post I have written in some months is that, during this prolonged period of silence, I have done something I never thought I would. I have, as many of my former colleagues have put it, “turned to the dark side.” That’s right- I am now teaching Year 5 at a selective, fee-paying school.

“No!” you, my loyal readers, are no doubt crying, “how could you do this?” Well, I have been trying to prepare a carefully-worded defence of my decision but in truth it comes down to something very simple: Ofsted and national curriculum assessments have conspired to impose on state primary schools a system in which I no longer enjoyed working. I left. I still like teaching and it’s still the most effective way for me to make a living. I don’t think doing what I’m doing is any more or less harmful to our social fabric than giving up teaching altogether. My days are more enjoyable and less stressful and I have a greater degree of professional autonomyanakin-1936228_960_720. So here I am.

I would still like to use this blog to support other teachers, especially those working in less comfortable conditions than my own. Instead of epic viral rants, however, my focus will be on actually doing the job- sharing resources and research, pooling ideas and discussing pedagogy and practice.

I believe that, for the majority of my subscribers, this blog will continue be interesting and entertaining. However, my revolution is over. I’m 34 and I go to garden centres on Saturdays.

Conservative Minority Government: Where does all this leave our primary schools?

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow primary school teachers (or ex-primary school teachers) who don’t follow British politics as a spectator sport in quite the way I do and who are feeling understandably confused. As expected, Theresa May is still the Prime Minister and Justine Greening remains Secretary of State for Education. On the face of it, we’re still where we were before, right? Well, not quite. If you’re someone with an interest in primary schools who’s feeling a bit confused about where the untidy General Election outcome leaves us, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what we still don’t know.

1.) New grammar schools: dropped.

Theresa May no longer has the support she needs in the House of Commons to allow the opening of new grammar schools. Even among Conservative MPs, there was considerable unease about new grammars, with rumours flying around that Justine Greening herself was opposed to the policy.

I have all sorts of general objections to the idea of building new grammar schools. Most evidence seems to suggest they hinder rather then promote social mobility and entrench inequality at a time when the nation is already horribly divided. Countries whose education systems outperform our own mostly adopt what we would call comprehensive models.

From a primary perspective, as well, I think this is excellent news. The rite of passage that was once Year 6 has already been destroyed by poorly-designed tests and the bogus data they generate (see next section.) The thought of preceding that with relentless preparations for 11+ exams doesn’t bear thinking about. Now, at least, there is only one round of high-stakes testing at the end of Key Stage 2 for schools to worry about. Which brings us to…

2.) Gove’s mad SATs: still here for now.

Sorry, folks. There will be no immediate respite from the nonsense of the SPaG test or the maddening data game. Despite all the evidence that primary assessment data isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, the government would rather have make-believe objective information than no objective information at all. Children in Year 6 will, for now, continue to sit the tests and schools will, for now, be judged on the results by people who don’t have even the most basic grasp of statistics.

The Commons Select Committee report on primary assessment published towards the end of the last parliament suggested that some politicians are at least aware of the problem. I don’t suggest you read the whole thing but the recommendations section is genuinely encouraging. In their manifesto, Labour pledged to enact the recommendations of the Select Committee report had they won the election but they didn’t win the election and at the same time as Labour didn’t win the election, in an unfortunate irony, the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee lost his seat to the Labour challenger. So that’s all a bit of a mess right there.

The winds of change are blowing but the Assessment House that Gove Built stands stubbornly upright for now. Keep making noise and keep the pressure on; this government is weak and change is attainable. You can find out more about this issue by going to see one of the UK’s most celebrated education bloggers discuss these issues live. More dates in London and hopefully elsewhere will be announced shortly- tell your friends. It’s the best primary assessment-themed night out you’ll ever have.

3.) Budget cuts – unclear

Headteachers have become increasingly concerned about the horrendous shortfalls already appearing in schools’ budgets and by the way these would be exacerbated by proposed funding formula changes. Many primary schools have Tory councillors or even MPs on their governing bodies and there was disquiet among some backbenchers about this even before the election.

There has been no indication from Theresa May that she has any intention of backtracking on plans to raid school budgets, but it is hard to believe she would have an easy time uniting a majority of the House of Commons behind cuts as serious as those being talked about a couple of months ago. This gives us some hope that, even if budgets can’t be protected in their entirety, the damage may not be as severe as once feared.

4.) The Narrowing of the Curriculum- apparently that’s our fault anyway.

Before I start this final section I must point out that, even though they very clearly aren’t, Ofsted are completely independent from government.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, recently upheld the time-honoured Ofsted tradition of identifying a problem that Ofsted itself caused, blaming schools for it and then promising to punish them for it.

This time it was schools who teach to the test. Ms Spielman rightly outlined all the reasons why rigidly teaching to the test is bad and made it clear that Ofsted would penalise schools for teaching to the test. However, she also appeared to indicate that Ofsted would continue, as it always has, to penalise schools for not teaching to the test as well.

Some things never change.

We need to talk about the voting age

None of the reasons given for denying teenagers the right to vote makes any sense at all. Some teenagers know next to nothing about politics but this is also true of many adults. Teenagers don’t have enough life experience to be able to understand everything at stake in an election but who does? There are plenty of situations that can require teenagers to pay tax and they have a bigger stake in the effectiveness of public services than the majority of the population. The only real argument for keeping the age at which citizens acquire the right to vote at 18 is that it’s what we’ve done until now. That’s never a good enough argument.

Children are held responsible for obeying laws over which they have no say from the age of 10. They can join the army and fight for a country that denies them full citizenship from the age of 16. They are deemed responsible enough at 17 to manage the potentially lethal risks of driving a car but not to choose their local MP. This is completely incoherent.

One assumes the actual reason this government, and the older voters who keep it in place, oppose lowering the voting age is that they suspect it would skew the electorate leftwards. From my experience as a teacher, I have observed that children of all ages tend to have a greater intolerance for unfairness than adults, who have become more resigned and cynical about injustice. The notion that being greedy is undesirable and that sharing is desirable drives many tantrums among young children and much of the rebellion and frustration that we associate with adolescence. The conclusion of this is fairly inevitable: one imagines a lowering of the voting age would benefit left-wing parties. But disenfranchising someone purely because you think they’ll disagree with you is what dictators do.

Many people on the right of politics are equally resistant to the idea of pupils being taught about their place in society and the political system at school. This is why citizenship is disappearing from our schools and replaced with meaningless grammar tests. Their fear, I suspect, is that teaching children about democracy in a thorough, meaningful way would give teachers room to “indoctrinate” children. Conservatives and traditionalists in Britain are convinced the teaching profession is full of Marxist ideologues trying to spread their ideology to the next generation. It has to be said, Labour’s rather cringeworthy party political broadcast last week depicting a primary school teacher lecturing her pupils about the virtues of Jeremy Corbyn really didn’t help.

In truth, very few teachers I know cared about politics much at all until 2010. If they’ve become left-wing since then, it’s mainly because they’ve witnessed the Tories’ utter incompetence in administering the education system. For the Tories to accuse them of left-wing bias is like trying to drown someone and then accusing them of being irrational in their fear of water.

Exactly how low the voting age should be lowered is a matter of debate for another time. My personal view is that the Age of Criminal Responsibility and the age at which a person can vote should be the same: if you’re old enough to be deemed able to understand the law, you should be able to participate in deciding the law. However, I realise that’s a radical shift I’m highly unlikely to see in my lifetime. But denying 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote is a gerrymandering of the system; a deliberate disenfranchisement of people with a legitimate right to a voice for purely political reasons. It’s an outrageous injustice we tolerate only for the reason so many other injustices are tolerated: it’s always been like that.

16 and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote and schools need to prepare their students to appreciate the gravity and solemnity of that privilege with a balanced programme of study about democracy and the British political system. Young people could actually register to vote at school to get them into the habit of doing so.

If we want young people to behave as responsible adults, we might want to start by treating them as such.

The Mr Spock Fallacy

There is nothing illogical about fun, humour and forming good human relationships- and there’s nothing cool about being crap at maths.

I haven’t watched Channel 4’s Countdown since it was presented by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. Apparently one of the presenters is now someone called Rachel Riley and all I know about her is that she wrote this rather marvelous article in this week’s TES. Maths has an image problem in British culture. Perpetuating this problem is a national sin many otherwise very clever people frequently end up committing usually, I suspect, without really thinking about it. For most of us, our own experiences of maths lessons at school were such that we see learning the subject as a totally different process to learning more creative or expressive skills such as speaking, writing, drawing or debating. Perhaps because of the way these other disciplines are traditionally tested (and the knock-on effect this has on the way they are taught), many people have come to commit what I call the “Mr Spock Fallacy” in their attitudes to maths and I will need to explain this in more detail.

In the original series of Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise had two main confidants: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (an endearingly flawed, emotional character who for many people was the most relatable character on the show) and Mr Spock: an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan. In Star Trek, one of the characteristics of Vulcans that distinguishes them from humans is their devotion to logic above all else. Yet the conclusions Star Trek drew about what prizing logic would mean are very strange. For  a start, Mr Spock is almost completely humourless. It’s repeatedly suggested that this is because humour is somehow “illogical.” Is it? Humour must have evolved for a reason, it seems to enhance the quality of our lives and many of the best jokes require clever sleights of logical thinking in order to be understood. Mr Spock rarely shows affection to other people, he rarely seems to want to have fun and often appears visibly annoyed by the frivolity of his crewmates when they engage in such things. Again, no convincing reason is ever offered as to why these dispositions should follow from a commitment to being logical.

This perception reflects a problematic bias many of us have if we grow up in the UK. You may have been familiar with the characters I’ve discussed for years and never thought to question those assumptions about Mr Spock before. I know I didn’t for a very long time, growing up watching Star Trek reruns avidly on BBC2. This is because the depiction of Mr Spock in Star Trek conforms to the story we have told ourselves repeatedly about being logical, mathematical or scientific and so no part of our brain usually feels the need to challenge it. We have come to instinctively associate being logical with being cold, unimaginative and serious and we have cast creativity, enjoyment and expression as being somehow illogical. To say you are “crap at maths” is like saying “I’m more like Dr McCoy than Mr Spock.” Of course all of this ignores the fact that Dr McCoy is a doctor and would have had to study maths and science extensively just to be accepted into Starfleet Medical! But the serious point is a significant one: creativity, imagination, making jokes, having fun and expressing our love for one another are entirely logical. To succeed in maths is merely to better-understand the world in which they rightly (and logically) flourish.

The challenge for educators is to break down the associations we’ve built up between maths and seriousness/coldness (as opposed to between arts subject and fun/imagination.) Some ways to do this are:

  • using role play in maths to demonstrate how it can support creative or imaginative enterprises such as starting a small business, measuring up and building something you’ve designed or planning a fundraising event.
  • encouraging pupils to have a debate in maths about a controversial topic using statistics in a rigorous, meaningful way to support their arguments.
  • Providing pupils with open-ended questions that lead them to aesthetically-pleasing mathematical conclusions such as producing a golden spiral, using geometry to create satisfying shapes or finding equations that can be plotted as lines on a four-quadrant coordinate grid to form a particular image.
  • Exploring the way maths occurs in nature (this is a fun place to start.)
  • Prioritising the sort of open-ended discussion that has sometimes been the preserve of arts subjects in the past by requiring pupils to explain their methods, assess one another’s conclusions, find a faster way to a given answer or testing the hypothesis of another learner.
  • Bringing more fun to maths lessons with resources about topics that interest pupils, competitive games and open-ended problem solving tasks.

There are many more examples and please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments. Of course, all of the above rely on the solid teaching of basic mathematical principles so they can be applied. This will often mean learning by rote, working independently and demonstrating understanding through measurable assessments with right and wrong answers. But if we want to create a generation of competent mathematicians and improve our national conversation about STEM subjects in general, we need to challenge some of our assumptions about how different types of subjects should be taught and assessed. Of course the problem affects both sexes but, in my experience, it is a bigger problems for girls than for boys. I believe addressing this problem effectively would be a great way to promote gender equality and yield more female scientists and engineers in the future.

Just as learning to write well requires a rigorous body of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation, learning to do maths well requires a body of knowledge about place value, calculation and mathematical notation. But just as learning to write then lends itself to poetry, persuasion and storytelling, maths lends itself to hypothesizing, debating and exploring possibilities. Being crap at maths is no more something to be proud of than being crap at writing. If you’re creative, imaginative and free-thinking, your ability to express those attributes can only be enhanced by being good at maths.

We must challenge the Mr Spock Fallacy in ourselves and others. Being crap at maths doesn’t make you more fun or more of a “people person.” It just makes you crap at maths. It’s highly illogical, Jim.

After the Flood: The Future of School Funding

I was recently asked why I hadn’t written anything on the school funding crisis, given that it is the biggest emergency currently facing Britain’s schools. I guess there are two reasons: the first is that even resolving that immediate emergency isn’t going to save our schools unless we solve the other problems too (most obviously the teacher exodus and an assessment system that simply doesn’t work.) The second is that it is almost too obvious to write about: it should go without saying that, if we want good schools for our children, we have to pay for them. I fear the time to avert crisis has passed so, rather than howling at the moon, I want to consider how best we should look to rebuild from here in the future.

Schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20. That may not sound like a lot until you understand that schools tend to spend upward of 80% of their budget on staffing alone. Unless you expect a school to cut its budget on absolutely everything else by 40%, this means staff redundancies at a time when many schools already feel understaffed in the face of some of the challenges they face. Cuts to other local authority services, especially in areas such as Childrens Services and family support, mean that schools are having to take on a wider range of functions to support their most vulnerable families. At the same time staff costs are increasing and added burdens like the apprenticeship levy are eating away even further at the budget.

Most schools cannot address these sorts of cuts without significantly reducing the strength of provision to their learners. The “low-hanging fruits” of efficiency savings are already picked. The government’s response is simply to deny that school’s budgets are being cut at all and point to their spending on wasteful vanity projects such as selective free schools as evidence that they are investing properly in education. By the time there is any realistic of a political sea change, schools will be standing in a landscape transformed. With such tremendous pressures on their budgets and the communities they serve, there is simply no way our schools can compete with more successful countries in the OECD’s international rankings in the way the government hoped. When the next set of PISA tables are published in 2019 it will be clear that the agenda begun by Gove and continued by Theresa May’s government has failed and that schools are deteriorating. At this point campaigners and opponents of government policy must be ready to take advantage of public demand for a new approach and new investment. The old world has fallen. We must now turn our attention to how we can best rebuild our education system when the flood waters start to subside.

Something we must acknowledge is that when education was more generously-funded a decade ago, money wasn’t always well-spent. ICT systems were often installed in schools without appropriate training or technical support needed for them to make a sustained impact. Additional adults were sometimes appointed as “solutions” to difficult pupils or groups and, while some of these individuals were worth their weight in gold, the contribution of others was sometimes more questionable. The government frequently published detailed, prescriptive documents that did little for schools than increase their administrative burden and which must have made someone a small fortune in printing costs. Teacher training in England and Wales was atrocious. The content of the PGCE course was concerned more with learning acronyms and the names of strategy documents than with pedagogy. Teachers with vast gaps in their subject knowledge or even a lack of proficient English were sometimes waved through with little additional support. In-service training was mostly composed of isolated courses completely disconnected from teachers’ classroom practice. There is so much that can cause disagreement in education: to what extent should children be segregated by ability? What should be the balance struck between different subjects? How much priority should be given to language and STEM subjects over sport, practical skills and creative arts? But there is surely one point on which almost everyone can agree: good education needs good teachers. In future, that’s where the investment needs to be.

In Finland, that beacon of effective education in Europe, all teachers have the equivalent of a masters qualification. They pursue tailored programmes of professional development throughout their careers so they feel able to teach all the necessary aspects of a rich, varied curriculum- including using those expensive ICT systems in a way that will actually benefit learners. Finnish teachers are well-remunerated for their work and as a consequence their best and brightest young adults are often motivated to pursue a career in teaching.

This is an ideal we should all be able to get behind. This government isn’t spending enough on education and a rough couple of years lie ahead for our schools. The last Labour government spent more generously but not always on the right priorities. When the pendulum swings again and the debate on education moves into its next stage, let’s make sure the arguments we’re making are smarter than ever before. Public support for more investment in schools should be easily obtained, but we must ensure we argue for investment in the right priorities, and this time build a system that can’t be torn down so easily.

Inclusion Confusion

Should we stop talking about “behavioural needs” in primary schools?

Inclusion is something of a sacred cow in British education nowadays and this piece will divide opinion considerably. Before I begin, I think I need to state a few things clearly. The basic principle behind the Inclusion agenda is noble and good. When my parents were children, their peers with physical disabilities were often educated in separate institutions because many mainstream schools couldn’t meet their needs. A consensus has emerged since then that barriers to children attending mainstream schools should be removed and this is right. Huge progress has been made on making schools accessible to disabled people (though more work can and must be done.)

During my career I have had the privilege to help children with serious physical and other disabilities flourish at primary school. I fear for the future of the provision that facilitated this given the significant real-terms cuts to school funding currently being undertaken by the government. However, my experience has also convinced me that we have spread the “inclusion” net slightly too widely. At some point we have to distinguish between people’s needs and their choices- and that includes children.

I believe that it has been unhelpful to describe behavioural difficulties as “behavioural needs” because it has blurred the distinction between someone’s needs and their choices. Especially in primary school, when these issues can most easily be turned around, staff have been encouraged to use the language of Special Educational Needs to tackle these difficulties and this hasn’t always been appropriate. Parts of the Inclusion agenda, especially in the way it is applied to learners with behavioural difficulties, are used by the right to justify under-funding in education and by the left to avoid facing up to some difficult realities. This is causing some members of the public to lose faith in comprehensive education altogether. The alarming lack of resistance to new grammar schools we are currently seeing is one consequence. For the sake of our children, both sides of the political divide need to come to a realistic settlement.

Working in primary schools in and around London for eleven years was an enormous privilege. Even now, despite the awful assessments overshadowing Year 6, the experience children in an English state primary school have now is so much better than what most British adults were subjected to themselves: more rigorous, more fun and more effective. Most primary school teachers I have worked with are incredibly good at managing pupil behaviour. Imagine trying to keep control in a room full of the same 30 adults all day, every day for a year. Doing that with children isn’t easier- it’s actually considerably harder. But they do it. Day in, day out, your children’s teachers successfully command their domains, justly and benevolently for the most part.

Sometimes, however, a child arrives at school who routinely behaves in a way that undermines the learning of other pupils, even after all conventional means to address the problem have been exhausted. I’m not talking about children who are usually a bit cheeky or behave badly as part of a particular group. I’m talking about the tiny minority who simply can’t handle being in a mainstream school without resorting to violence or other equally disruptive behaviour. In eleven years in three schools I can think of thirteen such children out of well over a thousand and, if that’s representative, we’re talking about just over 1%. Often but not always as a consequence of their family background (addiction, cultural misunderstandings, poverty, domestic violence, you name it), turning them around in a mainstream school is an expensive, time-consuming, disruptive endeavour that is often, sadly, highly unlikely to succeed even for that child, let alone for the other children from whom the teacher’s energy is diverted. For the other learners in the school, it can be very damaging. The boundaries set by schools and parents are one of the most important things children have. If they see these being constantly undermined, it erodes their confidence and can have a detrimental impact on their behaviour. This is me, a waffly edu-blogger, describing what the guy down the pub calls a “bad influence.” It’s an awful thing to say, and it sounds like I’m writing children off (I’m not) but we must see the bigger picture. For public consent in an inclusive education agenda to be maintained, we have to convince the majority of helpful, supportive parents that it isn’t going to negatively impact their own children. This is something we have sometimes failed to do and the result is public opinion swinging towards the cruel crudity of selective education.

It’s not actually the fault of the schools. In some local authorities, a school, especially a primary school, is pretty much hung out to dry when it gets an unusually disruptive pupil. Permanent exclusions are often made almost impossible because there is simply nowhere else for the pupil to go. Academy chains are often much more willing and able to exclude, but then the pupils end up back in a local authority school and we’re back where we started. It can be extremely detrimental during an Ofsted inspection to have recent exclusions on your record. All of this means there is often, in reality, no ultimate sanction at all. We got nothing- and those troubled children know it. I’ve seen the moment some children in Key Stage 2 realise that the school’s rules are actually enforced by nothing but good will. At this point they systematically prod those boundaries, displaying their fragility for all the other children to see.

Draconian punishments and harsh discipline don’t help either. The vast majority of primary children thrive much better when the rules in their class are agreed with a friendly, approachable teacher who shows patience towards their mistakes. Anyone who worked with me knows that, despite the authoritarian tone of this piece, I always preferred gentle persuasion to scary strictness as a teacher. The problem is that sometimes a pupil comes along utterly committed to undermining this structure. They need to be given chances to change and adapt and the school should do everything it can to support that, involving its Special Educational Needs team for a period of time if appropriate. However, everyone in the school must know that, at some point, that child will be held accountable for their choices if they don’t change. Maybe one day we can find a utopian alternative to that inconvenient reality, but I think we need to park our ideals for a moment and get real: protecting the needs of the many matters more than accommodating the poor choices of one or two.

What am I proposing instead then? What should we be doing that we aren’t at present? Some local authorities, but an ever-decreasing number, operate Pupil Referral Units (PRUs.) These provide an education to the children in the area with the most challenging behaviour. They take only the most extreme cases (rightly) but usually only once they are at secondary school, by which time the problems are much harder to resolve. Pupils typically attend sessions at these institutions as visitors when problems are starting to spiral out of control in their mainstream school. If the problems persist they become permanent attendees, although in many cases they remain officially registered at the mainstream school they came from. Once effectively excluded and doing lessons at the PRU, these students are usually given targets and a roadmap back into mainstream education.

What is needed is at least one adequately-funded version of the PRU in every local authority. It needs to work with schools to identify problems quickly- even at the age of five if necessary. It needs to work hand in glove with social services to support the family and the child together. It needs to bring children in quickly but make it easy and appealing for its pupils to get back into mainstream education- so long as they start adhering to some very basic norms (respect for others, non-violence etc.) More than anything, it needs to be generously-funded and equipped to accommodate all the children who require it and to attract skilled leaders and staff. Most controversially, perhaps, referring a child to the unit must be possible without parental consent- the decision to exclude a disruptive pupil is about much more than that one child. Far from writing these children off, we should throw the kitchen sink at helping them out- all of society will benefit if we do. Meanwhile, the vast majority of children can feel safer and learn with fewer disruptions in mainstream schools. And let’s be honest here- once they’d seen one of their classmates packed off to the PRU, they might just have a renewed respect for the very reasonable boundaries in their classrooms and playgrounds.

Children value fairness more than anything else. When they see someone sabotaging their learning, they don’t think it’s fair. When they see someone getting away with doing horrible things they would never do, they rightly wonder why. Their parents wonder why as well. In order to rebuild public trust in the Inclusion Agenda, we must ensure children understand that they are ultimately accountable for their own choices. For the right, that is going to mean paying more than you might want to on supporting vulnerable families. For the left, it’s going to mean revisiting what we really mean when we talk about “Inclusion.” We can strive to accommodate every child’s needs in mainstream schools. That doesn’t mean we should tolerate all their choices.