What transferable skills do teachers have?

It’s the second week of the Autumn Term. Many teachers’ positive attitudes towards the new school year are no doubt being challenged for the first time since the restart. Perhaps you’re one of them. Perhaps the first onerous and nonsensical diktat has come through from your SLT or academy trust. Perhaps you’re starting to wonder if you are going to be able to build a special bond with Pocahontas-Marie after all, or maybe she’s going to make life as miserable for you as she did for Ms. Jenkins when she was in Year 3. Maybe, after six weeks of careful if subconscious rose-tinting, the reality of the state of the professions has simply dawned on you anew and your thoughts return to that question you’ve come back to so many times in the past: “what else could I do?”

At this point a full disclosure is required.  Right now, I am sitting next to an ocean-fed volcanic pool in the beautiful garden of the villa in Hawaii where, for the next two weeks, my wife and I are enjoying our honeymoon. Until 7 weeks ago both of us were senior leaders in London primary schools with significant challenges. At the moment our only challenges are avoiding the mosquitoes and the risk of sunburn that comes with the tropical Polynesian climate. For several reasons (outlined here and here) we took the decision last year to quit our jobs and travel the world. We both have bits and bobs of paid work lined up for the year ahead but it’s not enough to live on and for the moment we’re relying on savings, wedding gifts and the rental income from our flat in North London. From our travels, we’re seeking escape and adventure but also a bit of time for reflection. When the money has run out, what should we do next? Before we committed to this decision I worried that this question might niggle at us like a loud ticking clock but, the more I’ve thought about it, the more confident I’ve become that what we face is an exciting choice, not an intimidating deadline.

I don’t want to talk other teachers into leaving the profession, but I also don’t want children in our schools taught by people who only carry on doing it because they can’t think what else they could do with their lives. If that’s you, I want to offer you some reassurance. You couldn’t quit teaching tomorrow and become a heart surgeon or a premier league footballer but, with the skills you have, the majority of jobs out there are yours to choose from. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of seven transferable skills a person gains from a career in teaching.

1.) Project Management.

Many people who think they do demanding project management jobs have never organised a school trip. If you can arrange a visit for a day (or several days) for a group of children and ensure they are all safe, supervised and benefitting educationally from the experience, then there are a whole host of other initiatives you would be capable of organising: conferences, entertainment events, holidays, weddings, training sessions and corporate away days. Project managers are required in many different sectors and no one manages a project as thoroughly or as meticulously as a teacher. And managing a project involving a group of adults who are unlikely to try and escape or wee in the plant pots? Easy.

2.) A Rhino’s Skin

Whether it’s receiving feedback after lesson observations, responding to candid remarks from your students or conversing with that parent through gritted teeth, one thing you need to survive as a teacher is a thick skin. If you’ve lasted more than a couple of years in the profession it means you’ve succeeded in dealing calmly and professionally with levels of personal criticism unheard of in most walks of life. If you decide on a career in the hospitality or retail sectors, no customer will ever say anything to you quite as cutting as the remark about your hair that boy in Year 6 made that time. And if you go into politics, no room of angry voters will ever be quite as hostile as a room full of parents who want to pick apart the new homework policy you’re seeking to introduce to your school.

3.) Dealing with Pressure

Imagine this: a job where you’re set targets that you can meet if you do enough of a certain thing. Guess what? That’s most jobs. The targets teachers are set in their annual appraisal tend to relate to the progress of specific groups of children (often measured in extraordinarily bogus and outlandish ways and which may not be achievable no matter what the teacher does.) If your job is to plant shrubs, your targets will relate to how many shrubs you planted. If your job is to fix washing machines, your targets will relate to how many washing machines you fix. Even if you work is another area where meeting targets depends on other people, like sales, you’re unlikely to come across a target quite as absurd as when you “agreed” that 90% of that class would achieve age-related expectations in maths by the end of the year, despite the fact a third of them couldn’t read well enough to access the test paper, four of them spoke no English and one of them just spent the entire year rocking back and forth on his chair and quietly repeating the word “moist” whatever you said. Lots of jobs have their pressures but few compare to those you find in the classroom.

4.) Presentational Skills

Kind of obvious but this is something that normal people stay up all night worrying about. All teachers are used to standing up in front of groups of children to convey information or explain concepts. Most also have at least some experience doing this in front of groups of adults during INSET sessions. Doing what many people anxiously call a “presentation” is this: teaching a lesson to a room full of people who already understand quite a lot of the subject matter, who are themselves held responsible for ensuring they understand it and who all, to some degree or another, actually chose to be there.

5.) Influence and Authority

You remember all that time you spent building a rapport with that challenging kid? Let’s call him Edward. You remember how, over time, you learnt what made Edward tick and what would make him kick off? You remember how, in the end, you had him more or less doing what you expected of him? Right, now imagine doing all of that with someone you or someone senior to you chose to employ knowing that, in the end, if they didn’t fall in line they’d be fired. People make millions writing books about influence and authority full of content most teachers learnt in their first term. If you can teach, you can manage and you can lead. Of course you’ll need to think about how to package that message at interviews as many of those on the panel at an interview for another management job would like to imagine that what they do is harder than teaching (don’t correct them until you’ve signed the contract.)

6.) Numbers and statistics

This has become an increasingly important part of the British education system as a succession of governments have sought to replace children with numbers. Particularly if you have held an SLT or higher-ranking middle leadership position in a school, dealing with data, statistics and EXCEL spreadsheets is likely to have been a significant part of your role. Imagine if you took all those skills you’ve applied to school assessment data in the past and applied them to something that actually meant something? Those skills could be put to good to use almost anywhere, from scientific research to accounting to charitable fundraising.

7.) A Growth Mindset

This is the big one. If I learnt anything from being a teacher it’s that what determines our success as learners, more than anything else, is our attitude. Aptitude exists too (It would take more years of practice than a human lifespan to make my tennis-playing ability as good as my knowledge of British history, for example, and I know people for whom the reverse would be true) but, all too often, the biggest stumbling block I encountered to children’s progress throughout my teaching career was what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed minset.” Our society celebrates and encourages the view that certain types of people are only inherently good at certain things. I’ve spent the last few years trying to challenge this assumption in my students; I’m going to spend the next couple of years challenging it in myself. A plumber is somebody who learnt to plumb, a surveyor is somebody who learnt to survey and the conductor of an orchestra is someone who learnt to conduct. Investment bankers like to boast of their talents to justify both their existence and their salaries, but all of them are merely people who learnt a particular set of skills that almost anyone could have learnt given the time to do so. Some jobs include skills that take many years to learn while some take only one or even less. You could choose one, put aside a few hours a week, and start now.

If you’re a teacher now and have been for a long time, you will probably never be an Olympic gymnast or an astronaut, but the list of options blocked off for you is absolutely dwarfed by the list of other paths still waiting to be explored. Your career as a teacher hasn’t closed doors. It’s opened more than you realise.

The Fire that Burns Against the Cold

Today my twelve-year career as a primary school teacher comes to an end, for now at least. This is an occasion to pay tribute to the remarkable men and women of one of the most underestimated and misunderstood professions in our society.

In Game of Thrones, new recruits to the “Night’s Watch” swear the following oath:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins.

 It shall not end until my death.

I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.

I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

I shall live and die at my post.

I am the sword in the darkness.

I am the watcher on the walls.

I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.

 I pledge my life and honour to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

At the most tiring and stressful times in the school year, teachers often imagine they have sworn an oath such as this. The rules that apply to ordinary citizens about working hours, about what constitutes a reasonable deadline or about what level of abuse and unkindness one should be willing to tolerate at work become suspended because we’re “here for the children.” It’s one hell of as life, and politicians have been making it harder and harder for several years, usually without any benefit to the pupils and often to their detriment. I’ve written about this, I’ve explained why it’s unfair and I’ve got all of that out of my system. You can read about it herehere and here.

But now the end has come, I’d prefer not to use this moment to have a moan. Instead I want to pay tribute to the quite brilliant men and women in the profession I’ve been so proud to be part of for the past twelve years, first as a lowly PGCE student and eventually as a deputy head. Yesterday, when finding myself the butt of the joke during a bit of ribald staff room banter, I told some of my comrades-in-arms (in jest, of course) that my next blog post would be entitled “why my colleagues are all complete twats.” If that is true (and, in a way, aren’t we all complete twats?) they are the most noble, compassionate, hard-working and perceptive bunch of complete twats you’re ever likely to meet.

 The Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones is a band of grim-faced outcasts charged with defending the lands of the living from the mysterious threats that lie north of a vast and ancient wall. They keep the kingdom safe without most of its people appreciating, or often even knowing about, the many sacrifices they make. Teachers aren’t the only people who could be compared to the Night’s Watch on this basis. Doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, paramedics, fire fighters and members of the armed forces as well as many other people who work in both the public and the private sector no doubt feel the same way about their work all too often. But sometimes (and with so many of the services provided by those other people having been cut) it really does feel like our schools sit on the front line between civilization and chaos. For many children from the most vulnerable backgrounds it is their teachers who give them their sense of morality, stability and aspiration. In fact, never mind that; sometimes it’s their teachers who give them their breakfast. Society has started unravelling at an alarming rate and it was never completely healthy to begin with. The extent to which this is happening isn’t always obvious to the public at large because, in between them and the consequences of this unravelling, are the teachers (and teaching assistants) standing guard- the shield that guards the realm of men (and women!) For some children these exceptional individuals are fairy tale heroes; rare beams of sunlight or sparks of inspiration in the otherwise dull, uncertain and sometimes even downright terrifying world in which they live.

And that isn’t the half of it. The mental and intellectual strain and creative energy required to teach well, even (if not especially) at primary level, is well beyond what anyone would imagine who has never tried it. Understanding the characters and needs at work in a class of 30, ensuring they are all catered for and homing in on the particular misconceptions that act as barriers to their learning is methodical, forensic work. The stereotypes many of the public have of kind, mumsy ladies in floaty skirts giving children pictures to colour in, or bearded hippies strumming away on a guitar without any particular aim or purpose present a completely false impression of life in a modern primary school. If it ever was like that, it definitely isn’t now, and hasn’t been at any point during my career. The teachers I’ve worked with have tended to be fiercely intelligent, ruthlessly critical people, sometimes to the point of cynicism, but always with their obligations to the young people they teach at the forefront of their minds.

 I don’t know exactly where I’m going from here or what happens next. Having lived my whole life up until now according to a heavily-regimented three-term year, that is remarkably liberating. But I do wonder where else in the world I will encounter such good and admirable people as my brothers and sisters in the teaching profession: a brave and industrious fellowship of brilliant, gritty people for whom I will never stop fighting. To all of you out there, serving the people of this country with little or no thanks from many of them, I see you. You are strong and powerful, even though you never get to feel like it. You are wise and innovative, even though your political overlords go out of their way to make you feel stupid and ineffective. You are the hope and salvation for so many children who rely on you even though they and their families may never give you the credit. Like the sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch, you are the fire that burns against the cold and I will always be proud to have served alongside you. Have a wonderful summer holiday- you deserve it.

And now my watch is ended.

Five Reasons why these Test Results Tell us Precisely Nothing.


In the aftermath of the publication of Key Stage 2 assessment results on Tuesday, much of the criticism by unions and other teaching organisations has, quite reasonably, been that the government’s new tests are too hard, that they are setting children up to fail and that the content is not relevant to children’s lives. While valid, all of these criticisms are merely components of a much broader concern: that the all-important performance data the test results create no longer tells us anything useful. Educational policy, Ofsted judgements and funding decisions will no doubt continue to be made on the basis of this data and yet, for the five reasons outlined below, that data is not worth the paper it’s written on. 

1. The reading test doesn’t assess the National Curriculum. Or reading. Or anything.

The level of vocabulary required to access the reading test (example: “rehabilitating the image of the dodo”) was what one would previously have expected from a university-educated adult. Without such a level of vocabulary (precious little of which was included in the DfE’s assessment framework or the 2014 National Curriculum) children were unable to answer most of the questions. The logic of using test results to hold schools to account for the extent to which they have done what they have been asked to do is flawed at best, but when they are holding schools to account for something they haven’t been asked to do, the process is completely absurd. Children whose parents do not speak English or do not routinely use a broad vocabulary will not typically be able to access this test however good their schooling has been. These children may be well on their way to being well-educated adults who will have a vocabulary that broad when they leave secondary school, but to penalise them and their teachers for the fact that this process is incomplete at the age of eleven is ludicrous. It assesses nothing but the demographic make-up of a particular school.

2. Writing assessment is in chaos.

The entire process through which children’s writing is assessed has been reduced to a (very easily-manipulated) system of box-ticking. A child is given a score based on how many times they have used particular grammatical devices and punctuation marks without any consideration of whether the writing actually conveys meaning with clarity or engages the reader. The national data suggests schools have been able to meet these requirements but they have only managed this by modelling and redrafting writing in children’s books in such a way that the child’s input into the process is barely required at all. It is almost insulting to suggest that a school which has produced copious evidence of its compliance with this nonsense has served its children better than one which has spent its time actually teaching them to write.

3. The political manipulation of the results is painfully obvious.

If the government had maintained the imperfect but generally age-appropriate assessment mechanisms for 11-year-olds bequeathed to them by the last Labour government, I suspect results would have continued to rise over the last six years as schools have continued to improve despite, rather than because of the government’s reforms. As budgets are slashed over the next couple of years and the exodus of teachers from the profession picks up, one assumes the steady rise in standards we’ve seen over the last nineteen years is about to go into reverse.

Against that background, the Year 1 phonics check provides us with a clue as to what the government is really up to. This new test was introduced by Michael Gove to test the extent to which children in Year 1 could “sound out” phonetically regular words and “non-words.” Each year the test has, by fairly common agreement among teachers, got slightly easier but the pass mark has remained unchanged at 32/40. Already Nicky Morgan is using this as evidence that the government’s education reforms have improved early reading. Clearly, this process is now also at play in Key Stage 2. The inaccessible vocabulary in the reading test will no doubt start to retreat over the next couple of years allowing more children to reach the expected standard every May. Graphs will be produced on the basis of this as the Tories head into the next general election showing how attainment in primary schools has risen year on year during this parliament, even if the quality of children’s education is actually dropping.

4. The practices encouraged by these tests are not good for our children and a strong performance in them may indicate poor educational provision.

Many schools in the state sector have the power to turn down certain pupils. Academies can claim that they are “unable to meet the needs” of particular pupils while faith schools can insist on only admitting children whose families subscribe to their “religious ethos.” The many cases in which this is simply used as a scam by school and families unlike to ensure an almost entirely sharp-elbowed middle class intake are well-documented. In a climate where these new Key Stage 2 tests are the benchmark of success, the incentive for these schools to ramp up their deployment of these tricks is enormous. Judging a school on how middle-class its Year 6 pupils’ parents are is a recipe for division in our already precariously unequal society.

Whatever pupils end up in a school, the way in which we are judged now means our perceived success has nothing to do with the extent to which we encourage children to enjoy learning, to develop skills that will help them get a job when they are older or even remember how to read, write and do maths after the tests have finished. We are being forced to hot-house children so that, for four days in May when they are eleven years old, their heads are full of formal written calculation methods and SPaG terminology like “relative pronoun” and “past progressive tense.” It doesn’t matter if they remember it after that and it doesn’t matter if they know anything else (like where the UK is on a map of the world or how to reach a compromise with another human being). This sort of cramming was already, in my view, a questionable way to organise the structure of secondary education (I knew all sorts of things about Physics in June 1999 that I have never known before or since) but in primary school I think it is seriously damaging.

5. The testing regime rewards the cheats and punishes integrity.

We live in an era where primary schools and the careers of their head teachers stand or fall on the basis of their Key Stage 2 results. The way they are used as a starting point for Ofsted inspections means that what happens during the four days the tests are administered matters more to a primary school’s perceived “success” than the other 187 days of the school year put together. At my school, we administered all the tests completely in accordance with the rules set out in the DfE’s Test Administrator’s Guide but we only did this because our professional integrity matters to us, not because there is any serious mechanism compelling us to do so. The procedures for ensuring compliance with the rules are virtually non-existent. Apart from brief monitoring visits by local authority staff (whose own objectivity could surely be questioned given their precarious position in relation to the academisation agenda) for a handful of schools on one of the days the tests are taking place, there is nothing to stop unscrupulous staff from providing their children with an unfair advantage. This could range from breaking the rules slightly by implying a child think again about a question they have got wrong to outright cheating by correcting or supplying an answer.

I’ve heard a number of stories of schools where this sort of skulduggery is considered a fact of life. When the mark schemes were made available on the DfE website last year, I was at an event with teachers from an academy in North London and I heard one say to another, referring to one of the answers: “oh good. That’s what I told the kids.” Just this week, a colleague of mine asked a teacher from another school how they had got such astronomically high maths results and was told: “we just make sure they get every mark in the arithmetic test.” When confronted with such ominous statements, one is often inclined not to dig too deep and of course both of these instances could turn out to be perfectly innocent if we knew exactly what they had meant. Yet in an age where schools are increasingly being run by multi-academy trusts with their own agendas that rely only on results, it is easy to see how corruption could start to take root and ultimately become routine. Those of us who play by the rules are starting to feel like utter mugs in this brave new world.


Calls not to “politicise” the assassination of an MP are weasel words by the architects of hate

A lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years have made me uncomfortable. One of the less important ones is the growing fashion for writing gushing obituaries on social media about dead celebrities. Like so much that one criticises, I’ll probably find I’ve done it myself at some point but it still doesn’t seem particularly healthy. We first started treating grief as a public recreational activity when Princess Diana died and we’ve never really stopped.

 I didn’t know Jo Cox and, although I’d heard the name, even as a member of the Labour Party I couldn’t have told you before yesterday which constituency she represented or which particular issues she was known for championing. And yet, unlike anyone else in the pantheon of 2016’s dead celebrities that I had never met, her death got to me. For the rest of the day after I heard the news, I felt distracted and agitated by it and I found myself welling up as I heard some of the reports.

By explaining why this was so and by expressing the emotions I felt at hearing the news, I will be accused of “politicising” a political assassination by a desperate but powerful rear-guard action on the right-wing of British politics. On social media and in the tabloid press they are spinning their vile rhetoric anew, seeking to minimise the capacity of this horrific crime to shine a light on the hatred and fear they’ve been whipping up in our society over weeks, months and years. Typically, a political assassination is politicised by the assassin, not the outraged supporters of the target. The weasel words of the apologists who try to defend the indefensible make me sick to my stomach.

When I was 12, my father died with no warning whatsoever. It’s not what people often imagine if they’ve never experienced the sudden loss of someone close to them; the anguish and torment that people often assume would be the logical response comes later and more slowly. Sudden death leaves a gnawing, burning sensation that never really goes away rather than delivering an immediate sucker punch. The first few days are all numb disbelief. All the more remarkable, then, that Jo Cox’s husband Brendan was able to issue such a coherent response within just a couple of hours of his wife’s cold-blooded murder:

“Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.

She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”


Hate was the catalyst. We should be deeply suspicious of those who would prevent us from naming it and finding its source, or cry “mental health” as a smokescreen (as though they’ve ever given a toss about mental health before)- gun control campaigners in America know all too much about that sordid deflection tactic. Three separate witnesses report that the alleged killer (I won’t name him) shouted either “Britain First” or “Put Britain First” as he killed her (update 18/06/16: the defendant has appeared in court and given his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”) There has been a clamour by the far right (especially the group actually called “Britain First”) to try either to deny his links to right-wing politics altogether or to obfuscate about it. This is pathetic. These are the very people who routinely criticise moderate Muslims for failing to condemn Islamic terror loudly enough. It would be the easiest thing in the world for these people to say something along the lines of: “if, as the evidence appears to be suggesting, this individual was acting out of a twisted interpretation of British nationalism, then we wish to emphasise that he does not act in our name and we condemn it utterly.” Instead they attack the “left” (read: everyone that thinks things are going too far when MPs get gunned down in the street in broad daylight) for “politicising” murder, blaming the witness reports on “mainstream media lies” and even, in some cases, suggesting the murder itself was a “false flag” operation by secret agents working for the EU! These are the lengths people on the right of our politics will go to in order to shirk the responsibility for what is happening in our country.

And what exactly is happening? Let’s assume, as I desperately hope we can, that this is an isolated incident; merely the most extreme element in the pervasive web of fear and hatred being spun throughout this country. Why now? What has happened to ratchet such sentiments up so high? Yesterday Nigel Farage unveiled an advertisement which looked as though it had been directly photocopied from a snippet of propaganda used by a group of people in the 1930s I daren’t mention for fear of invoking Godwin’s Law. This was only the latest act in a deliberate and orchestrated campaign to whip up hatred against immigrants and foreigners by a group of people who wish to persuade us to leave the European Union: to “take back control”, to “make Britain great again”, to stick it to Johnny Foreigner and put Britain, well, first. In an atmosphere of ignorant tabloid rage, whipped up by poisonous demagogues like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, an already hysterical referendum campaign is becoming a battle for the survival of some of this country’s most basic values or, as Martin Kettle  argues in today’s Guardian, a battle between the press and democracy itself.

It’s not just those on the “Remain” side of the EU debate who believe things have gone too far. Even in the pro-Brexit Spectator yesterday, in a piece for which author and publication alike should be greatly commended, Alex Massie observed: “if you shout ‘breaking point’ over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.” Those who are deliberately and knowingly encouraging aggression and antipathy towards entire groups and communities to suit their own political aims now have the gall to turn round and accuse everyone else of “politicising murder.”

Jo Cox’s alleged killer did not represent the campaign to leave the EU but it is becoming increasingly clear that he was a symptom of the same hate it’s been peddling. This hideous referendum has unleashed a wave of xenophobic bile we must fight with all our might. Jo Cox believed that and paid for it with her life. She wasn’t just another celebrity whose death can be dismissed with the usual barrage of safe platitudes and uncontroversial praise through amateur Facebook obituaries. She was assassinated for her beliefs and if pointing that out is politicising her death, then so be it: let’s politicise, as loudly and as unashamedly as we can. Politicise it until it can’t be politicised anymore: for democracy, for Ms Cox and her family and for the dream of a better world that was her life’s work.



Inside Finland’s Miracle

This week I had the privilege of travelling to Finland to find out what makes their world-beating education system tick- and what the UK could learn from their achievements.

As Finland slides into view, Paavo Piik, an Estonian theatre director I’m working with, smiles and gestures towards the coastline. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land!” To teachers all over the world, Finland has become a byword for getting it right in education. I’m exhausted after two back-to-back early mornings but that doesn’t dampen my excitement as our ferry approaches the end of its two-hour crossing from Tallinn and Helsinki takes shape in front of us. I’m halfway through my final term as deputy head at an inner London primary school and since I started teaching in the British system twelve years ago, and throughout all the frustrations that has involved, I’ve always wanted to come and see this for myself.


I’m here in my half-term at the invitation of the Theatre of Europe. We’re creating a show exploring the challenges facing educators, particularly in the UK, through an international lens. My companions are all Estonians: Paavo is a director, Paul is a producer and Arun is a filmmaker, here today to document our visit. We’re visiting two schools in very different settings before meeting Krista Kiuru, the former Finnish education minister. One of our aims is to learn the secret of their success: how do they achieve such apparently high standards (Finland consistently outperforms the UK in the PISA international rankings) while ignoring almost all the instruments a succession of British governments has insisted on using to achieve the same goal? In Finland there is no statutory testing until children are sixteen, they have no formal inspectorate and teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit with almost no interference from government. The pressures and anxieties that are causing an unprecedented number of British teachers to leave the profession simply don’t exist here. These facts also make us keen to play devil’s advocate as we explore this apparent Nirvana first-hand: what’s the catch? Surely nothing in life is this simple.

Our first stop is Siltamäki, a small town just outside Helsinki. The first people we see are a kindergarten class sitting outside singing with their teacher. Estonian is pretty similar to Finnish and Paavo is able to inform me that the song (sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”) is about a duck who goes “quack quack quack.” Straightaway it looks like a British education minister’s nightmare: a group of children doing something “fun” and “woolly” rather than “rigorous.” I can almost hear the them scoffing in my head. The children sit close together but in whatever position makes them comfortable, facing whichever direction they please. Everyone looks remarkably relaxed.

The principal meets us at the door and I’m amused by her demeanour, which is considerably more familiar to me and is probably the same all over the world: formidable, energetic and intensely proud of her school. She doesn’t really care who we are: there’s a film crew in her school and she’s determined to show off its achievements. They’ve been working on a musical production, and she shows us some of the children’s artwork it has inspired. In everything she says, she keeps coming back to the musical which seems to have been the focus of the school’s work for weeks if not months.


“I pity the children who don’t like musicals!” Paul says as we’re led into the hall to watch a snippet of the production itself which is being rehearsed. Every child in the school has made a contribution and everyone is involved in its performance and execution. Standards (meaning actual standards, not test results as that word has come to mean in the British system) are extremely high. Without a national assessment agenda, there is far more room for children to follow their interests and that is true in this performance: some of the children are hunched over a laptop controlling the videos they’ve filmed and edited with remarkably high production values, others are on the stage in beautifully-crafted phoenix costumes performing a dance while about twenty others form an extremely impressive band including singers, percussionists and a variety of instrumentalists including a tiny boy with a bass guitar who is cooler than any British person will ever be. The only children in the hall are those needed for this particular section of the performance and all of them are involved- no one is sitting around waiting for “their bit.”

“This is all very nice,” the acid tone of the Tory minister I’m carrying around in my head says, “but children need to learn basic skills. Where is the rigour?” I finally sit down with one of the children, a sixth-grade girl who is twelve years old and one of the few ethnic minorities in the school. I’ve just seen her singing beautifully in the show but once again the Tory minister in my head pipes up: “we as a nation can’t compete in the global race by singing.” so I ask her what her favourite subject is.

“Maths,” she replies immediately, “it’s really fun and you have to think in lots of different ways.”

I smile and complement her English (plenty of English twelve-year-olds can’t speak English as confidently.) Some children must find that difficult, I say. Of course, she replies, and the teacher spends extra time helping those children. The same is true in all the subjects they study. They spend plenty of time studying what we in the UK would call “core subjects”; they just don’t get themselves wound up about it by assessing them obsessively and crowding everything else out of the curriculum.


Next we head upstairs and visit a lesson. The children are about eight or nine; each of them is at a computer and each of them is just playing Minecraft. The spluttering, red-faced rage of the minister in my head is not even comprehensible now. The class teacher, a long-haired, tattooed guy in a t-shirt who would look more at home at a metal concert than in a primary school classroom, explains what they’re doing. Each student is helping to design and maintain a city. They each have a different role in overseeing the effective administration of the virtual city and all of them have unique problems to solve, all of which are controlled and monitored at the teacher’s terminal. We ask the teacher what subject the children are doing and he shrugs. It’s not something he really worries about. They’re learning about the world they’re going to have to live in and the problems they might have to help solve when they’re older. He tells us he loves Sid Meier’s “Civilization” computer games and I nod enthusiastically. I’ve often said those games taught me more as a teenager than any subject I learnt at school.


This free-flow approach to the curriculum is the next step in Finland’s evolution as the school’s vice-principal explains to us when we emerge from the class. I’d read about this in the UK news a week or so before our visit but she is able to explain it with a clarity the British media always seems to lack when reporting education stories. Of course there is a compulsory framework, she tells us, but it’s a basic outline and the rest is about the teacher’s creativity and the interests of the students. I ask how this curriculum is to be enforced. How does the government know that the basic offer (such as essential maths and Finnish language content) is being delivered? We’re told that schools are required to publish their own curricula on their websites (ha! You DO have to do something we have to do!) which is shared with parents and must be agreed with the education department. And that’s it. That’s Finland’s accountability system.

We thank the staff and we’re left with considerable food for thought as we drive away. What we’ve seen was wonderful but could it work with the levels of inequality we have in England? Or in the multicultural communities that inner London schools now serve? That’s what we’re going to find out. Our next destination is Aurinkolahti, a multi-cultural primary and secondary through-school in inner-city Helsinki. There is a new challenge here. Only 5% of Finland’s population was born overseas, even that figure is a considerable increase compared to a decade ago and the country’s ethnic minorities are heavily concentrated in this part of its capital.

Again we’re met by the principal but this time she immediately delegates the job of showing us round to a group of students. These are teenagers who’ve recently done something for the very first time: national tests. It’s the last week of term (I’m told Finnish schools have seven more weeks of holiday than we do in the summer, as well as shorter days and more breaks- well of course they do) and many of the younger children are on trips. This visit is an opportunity to see the results of Finland’s education system: its sixteen year-olds who are the “Finnished product.” (sorry)


Over the hour that follows my mind is completely blown. Throughout the school there are dozens of sixteen-year-olds, from a wide range of social and ethnic groups, doing quite literally whatever they want. Some of them are lounging around on bean bags chatting or reading, some are playing sport in the gym and the majority are engaged in their own business using the school’s generous resources: there are students in the best-equipped design and technology workshop I’ve ever seen working on their own projects with a range of tools and machinery, there is another group in a maths classroom working out how to program a robot to walk and dance, there is a group of girls in the art studio producing beautiful portraits and another group gathered around a stage making props and costumes for a performance.

No one is running, no one is shouting and there is no sign of any tension or argument. Wherever we go, we meet young people enthusiastically wanting to show us what they’ve been doing. They recently went on a school trip to London and they play us a video they’ve produced of the trip. In temperament, they’re as sweet and polite as the most pleasant primary school classes I’ve taught. In intellect, they just seem like well-rounded adults.

This is the last week of term and it isn’t typical. Before their exams, their timetable varied between three and six hours of classroom learning a day and they attended subject lessons like anyone else. The difference is that the exam syllabus was only one part of what was valued in those lessons. I ask how their exams went and, with a shrug, they say they were fine. Paavo asks whether the exams are important. They tell us they can be and that universities “take an interest” in the results. Some of them are planning to go to university and some of them aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to have very specific plans for the technical courses they intend to go on to based on the skills they’ve had the opportunity to develop at school.

Life isn’t perfect, they tell us, and of course adolescence isn’t easy anywhere but, the more I speak to these remarkable young people, the more I realise the concept of the “teenager” isn’t inevitable. The stroppy, rebellious, antisocial youths prone to cruelty and excessive risk-taking we see all too often in most English-speaking societies aren’t inevitable: we have created them. Their behaviour is a choice we have made and continue to make. As I’m led around this school, I’m torn in two by two equally powerful but competing emotions. I’m utterly inspired by the sight of what’s possible when young people are nurtured and empowered rather than patronised and scrutinised but I’m also furious with my own compatriots, realising how stupid and primitive we Brits really are when it comes to one of our most important responsibilities: the education of our young. I feel like a time-traveler visiting the future from an earlier and more savage age.

Next we interview two teachers; one teaches maths to the older students and the other teaches English and German. We’re astonished that they’re happy for this to take place with an audience of about twelve of their students. This is a testament to the relationships between teachers and students here: they are friendly, informal and authentic. There are no uniforms for the students, teachers wear whatever makes them comfortable and everyone calls everyone else by their first name. The teachers talk completely candidly about their job including its challenges (even Finnish teachers have some paperwork- there’s still no way round the need for safeguarding procedures, for example) and the changes on the horizon in terms of the creative, topic-based curriculum. They love their job and, while they still feel pressure, I can’t help feeling that it’s the right pressure: to make learning inspiring for their students and to ensure they’re motivated to be the best they can be, not just to be good at exams but to be thoughtful, focused, friendly and skillful in a range of disciplines.


Somewhat stunned by what we’ve just experienced, we get back in the car and, after a brief stop for lunch, we’re off to the Finnish parliament building for our final appointment: a meeting with Krista Kiuru, the former education minister and one of the architects of its current evolution. We sit around a table in the café and reflect on what we’ve seen during the day. I’ve met quite a few politicians and she has the same studied charisma and careful presentation that I’ve observed in all of them but there’s an authenticity and warmth about her that her British counterparts often lack. There’s also genuine and unmistakable passion as she warms to the theme of Finland’s education system. What’s amazing is the lack of complacency; she doesn’t want to talk about Finland’s achievements but about what it needs to do to be even better.

Scoring well in the PISA rankings was never Finland’s primary objective- its aim was to create a better life for its young people and its performance in the international tables was just a welcome bonus (which makes the remarks of Gove, Morgan and Cameron about Britain’s drive to climb those same rankings look even more absurd) but, having achieved what they did, they were then a little spooked when they dropped slightly between 2012 and 2015. Yet Krista’s response to that drop is to insist the Finland needs to go even further down the road it is already taking: to put even more emphasis on student motivation, engagement and well-being.


Finland is still haunted by two US-style mass shootings in quick succession in 2007 and 2008 in which a total of 20 students at a high school and a technical college respectively lost their lives. This has made it easier to argue for an system that puts student’s happiness at its centre and what is most remarkable about Finland’s education agenda is that it enjoys complete cross-party support. Krista’s Social Democratic Party is out of power now and the government is dominated by the centre-right. While this brings frustrations (for example, Krista believes the new administration is failing to provide sufficient funding to schools with additional challenges presented by immigration and inequality like Aurinkolahti) the basic direction of travel has the agreement of everyone in the Finnish parliament. Rather than becoming the political football education represents in the UK, Finland’s school system has adopted a consistent direction of travel, agreed in collaboration with teachers, to which the entire country has seemingly signed up. Paavo asks if Krista is certain that the new reforms can make standards even higher and simultaneously make the education process even happier and more inspiring. Her answer is simple: “it must.”

I want to talk to Krista about the challenges we would face in exporting the Finnish model to the UK. I tell her that our Tory government have always insisted we must learn from the best international examples and I ask her if she ever had any contact from British ministers asking for her advice when she was education minister. She just laughs, shakes her head and looks at me with what I can only call pity. As well as education minister, Krista has also been Finland’s housing minister; she talks briefly talks about how Finland has striven to ensure socially mixed communities and how important this has been to the smooth functioning of their education system. I want to talk about this further, especially as housing is something we’re making even more of a mess of in the UK than education, but we’re out of time. Paul has already gone to get the car and he texts to tell us we need to leave or we’ll miss our ferry. Our seven hours in Finland have absolutely flown by.


Minutes later, we’re sitting quietly aboard the ferry, individually reflecting on everything we’ve seen and heard. I walk up the deck and watch Finland recede into the distance. So much of what I’ve witnessed has only been possible because of Finland’s unique circumstances. It has an adult population that values education more than the majority of British adults do, it is a far more economically equal country than the UK and it has a parliamentary system that encourages gradual evolution rather than dramatic ideological swings. Yet there is so much I’ve seen that we could start doing tomorrow in the UK if only there was the political will.

In the UK we’re failing our young people. We’re clobbering them with an enormous, prescriptive barrage of exam content and building our entire system around that content, rather than the students themselves. It isn’t going to change tomorrow and it isn’t going to change next year. But, turning my back on a remarkable country and facing into the powerful breeze from the open sea, I try and find a reason for a little optimism. No one knows what the future holds, even our politicians. That imagined government minister whose voice was rattling around my head earlier suddenly seems so utterly small and pathetic. Our government have no answers to the big questions about education in the 21st century and they get laughed at by the people who do. I decide there is only one conclusion I can allow myself to draw from today: the promised land is out there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and maybe one day we’ll get there too.