On Scottish Independence

I don’t usually blog out of the sphere of education, but just this once, I feel compelled. I have no Scottish blood in me, but am married to a proud Scot and so our children are potentially facing a future of having a dual nationality. We live in England and have no vote, but we’ve been following the debate with great interest and excitement.

Our marriage works like this. I am hasty and impulsive. My husband is careful and considerate. Had we lived in Scotland, I would have been running down the street with blue stripes painted on my face shouting “Yes” and he would have sat patiently waiting for me to run out breath before asking lots of what if and why questions. We work together well as a team – I think his care and attention has probably saved my life on more than one occasion. And right up until this week, he’s veered towards the No campaign. He doesn’t like unknowns. And despite the fact that he can never bring himself to support England in any sporting event, he’s had a strong feeling that the Union is better together. At least he did. But now he’s asking different kinds of questions. After astonishingly flawed ‘Better Together’ campaigning and shocking coverage by the BBC, we’re both starting to talk about the following:-

1. There is oil. It’s a matter of how much, but when it runs out….

2. We’ll need alternative forms of energy. Eventually the whole world will run out of oil. What then? Hydroelectricity, wind power? Come to Scotland.

3. Some scientists predict that water will be the commodity deemed most precious in the future. There is a lot of water in Scotland.

4. Could 1-3 explain why politicians in Westminster (in the drought prone South East of England) are so desperately running around, scaremongering Scots into believing that their economy is doomed without England?

5. If Scotland was committing economic suicide; if they are the over subsidised parasites who should count themselves lucky to have such a benevolent system of governance – a view that the BBC seems to have given priority to – then why are the English not waving goodbye and hastily erecting immigration borders? We don’t seem to be that fond of ‘scroungers’ as a rule. Yet we’re begging them to stay. My considerate husband is wondering what Scotland has that England is desperate not to lose.

6. The ‘No’ campaign has pissed him off. From the Prime Minister who seemed to do his research on “how to talk to Scottish people” by watching Billy Connolly and Kevin Bridges DVDs to the bully boy tactics of using business to do your dirty work. As our government leaned on the Spanish and any business open to manipulation to force the result they wanted, the shape of his mouth started to shift from an O to an E. He has watched in dismay as the arguments he would have mounted have been replaced by “How Effing Dare You!” Asda, a multi-national American owned company can’t cope with supplying groceries to a smaller nation? Really? Well, we’ll have to buy our Irn Bru from Tesco. Bullying won’t work. Have you ever listened to the words of ‘Flower of Scotland?”

7. The BBC has covered the whole issue so badly that they have driven hoards of Scots into thinking they’d be better off without them and that independence might be one way to get rid. The fact that the loss of the BBC was mounted as a negative by the No campaign made my husband snort with derision. “Scotland might get a national weather forecast if they were independent” he noted as once again the weatherman said “we” were in for weather that clearly only referred to the South of England.

Still, he wavers. Because he has been a Scot living in England for most of his life now. His wife is English (though to be honest, if they go independent I might start a campaign to move the border south to Watford). His sons were born here, educated here and definitely feel British. He feels sad that it may have come to this. But one thing is certain, the debate has exposed how very patronising the English government has been. It has exposed woefully inadequate understanding in our media. It has exposed the folly of being unprepared for how a passionate people who love their country might respond to negative “you’ll never be able to pull it off” campaigning. If the ‘Better Together’ campaign had looked at this from the angle of we need you as much as you need us, we might not be seeing such a close race. Instead, the campaign focused on “you are better off with us and would be idiots to leave”. Red rag tactics. It’s not called Scotland the Brave for nothing.

So on Thursday, we’ll pull out the sofa bed, snuggle up and watch the results come in with mixed feelings. And whatever the outcome, good on you Scotland for making politics feel as fresh, exciting and relevant as it has ever felt in my lifetime.


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Finger Clickin’ Good…

I’m not afraid of a twitter scrap – or any scrap to be honest – but you have to think carefully before you take on people who you a) respect and b) suspect are cleverer than you are. And so I’m not sure if I was foolish to question the defence of the practice of finger clicking as a collective show of approval by Harry Fletcher Wood and Laura McInerney. But I did, and now I have to explain my concerns as some of the twitterarsy joined in with complaints that my concerns were ‘ridiculous’. Perhaps they are. But here they are:-

Before I start, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to read this really interesting account of a visit to King Solomon Academy in London by David Didau. When I first read it I thought it just sounded weird and cultish but then someone tweeted a link to a video clip (which I can no longer find, so please supply if you have it) and I have to say it looked very sweet. When a child says something or does something admirable, the rest of the class clicks their fingers softly in approval. It looks like a little cloud of butterflies as their hands lift into the air and they, well, click. I was almost seduced – what harm could it do? But then, I’ve tried to train myself to look beyond what is sweet in my teaching and to ask “Why?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”

Culture is a complex adaptive system – an eco system of sorts, in which each element is more than the sum of its parts and in which there is constant emergence and growth. We’re not talking chaos theory here – I’m not suggesting that those soft little butterfly clicks are causing havoc in the Caribbean right now, but that we need to think really carefully about how cultures grow, read each other and inter-relate. In KIPP schools, where clicking originated, and there, at KSA, there is a strong drive towards developing a micro-culture within the school with the power to over-ride the external culture of the child. Within this culture, there is a strong drive towards group identity and belonging. Shared missions and goals. For these schools, the goal is to get to University. And there is no excuse for being poor. The results are impressive, and as David’s blog suggests, the buy in to this micro culture is universal.

It’s hard to argue against a drive towards this goal (well, actually it’s not, but that’s for another blog) – or at least to argue against schools who try to create purposeful climates and shared belonging for their pupils. Most strive for it. But there are some difficulties with making this so pervasive that normal human signals, signs and gestures are reprogrammed to create shared identity.

Firstly, in multi-cultural schools, such as these, children are already assimilating a minority culture into a majority set of norms and values. Navigating this is tricky and understanding the similarities and differences of those cultures is essential in securing future stability. The work of balancing different cultural needs, values and signs can be stressful for children. So there may be temporary relief in being drawn into a new, inclusive micro-culture in your school. It could be so attractive that it becomes necessary to you. And leaving that culture – moving on into a world in which no-one understands your clicking for example can lead to a feeling of isolation. You know that feeling when no-one gets you? Well multiply that by 100 when you arrive at your destination – never doubted – University, clutching your examination results and you try to fit in. What children need, is not simply to be driven to the door, but to be helped to understand how the world on the other side operates. People on the other side of that door tend not to click (unless they are highly impatient and want to get your attention – imagine the cultural gaffes; there’s a comedy sketch in there somewhere).

The 50% drop out rate of pupils from KIPP who make it to college is well publicised. In fact in 2012, the schools secured a $3.6 million grant to find out why. The reasons will be complex of course – but given the financial support, the academic level of qualification and so on, KIPP kids should be better equipped than most FSM kids to see it through. I suspect that one element of this research will discover that not feeling that one fitted in was a key factor. School cannot be a pure sanctuary for kids – lovely as this sounds – it’s a passing place; a ceremonial preparation for life. If we rewrite the codes and cultures of life, I worry that we simply create children who miss the old ways, who struggle to understand how others communicate their approval/feelings/routines and who fall out of step.

The other concern centres more around the impact of the body on the mind. Embodied cognition is a relatively new field of study and new discoveries are coming along all the time. But what is clear is that children become incredibly adept at reading other’s gestures in order to decide whether or not they are to be trusted (Hattie and Yates, 2014), and in order to better understand what is being said (Goldin-Meadows et al 2005, 2013). Add to that the findings of Masson Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which the body is seen to react and prime to verbal cues even in abstract sentences (for example the words ‘delegated the responsibility’ led to the muscles in the hand priming themselves for a gesture of giving) then we have to carefully consider the wisdom of reprogramming the gestural codes we have established over millennia. If we accept the research that children will quickly and subconsciously read and respond to minute gestures and that these gestures create strong physiological responses, then should we be creating small numbers of children who carry completely different physical and psychological codes? What misunderstanding might occur? Who knows.

It might all be fine. Sweet. But we don’t know. And so for now, just to be on the safe side, I’ll stick to smiles and nods and applause.

Trailer:- Next week’s blog. “Hey You, Poor Person. I am Here to Save you From Yourself.” Or something similar.


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What should we do about ITT?

I’m not sure about the word training. I trained my toddlers to use a potty. And we’re about to get a puppy and I’ll have to train that to do things as well. Not to eat my kids’ homework and so on. But why do we use the word training for teachers? It connotes compliance and technical competency in simple actions. But surely we want a profession that questions, thrives, grows and lives with complexity? Is training really the right word?

In the light of the Carter review there are many people considering what the best course of action for teacher training is now. Some have argued that teachers should just learn on the job. Like they do in MacDonalds. Others that the focus for the PGCE should be 90% subject specific (ignoring primary and special education almost entirely). Dominic Cummings has collated an excellent blog with many wise and thoughtful contributions from across the profession and this is well worth a read. But I think we’re missing a trick in simply asking what we should do with the current model. I think we need to go right back to basics. We need to ask what would need to be done in order to ensure that we have a profession that is:-

1. Knowledgeable

2. Respected

3. Autonomous

4. Trusted

Mere ‘training’ will not meet these goals on its own. Like Alison Peacock, I think that we need to rethink the notion of qualified so that once we are given QTS status, this simply marks the beginning of our professional journey and that this is something that continues for life. I think, like Tristram Hunt, that being ‘qualified’ should be a bare minimum requirement for all teachers and that this qualification should mark a level of competency that runs way beyond a subject specialism to knowledge about children, psychology, behaviour, assessment, pedagogy and curriculum design. I believe that teaching is every bit as complex and important as medicine. And a darned sight more important than law. And it should therefore carry the same status. And so, I would argue that three things need to be done:-

1. More time allocated to the qualifying period.

Rather than arguing about the benefits of this or that route, I think all should be subsumed into one university based, two year Masters course. It is nigh on impossible to cover all that needs to be covered in a one year PGCE, hence arguments about where emphasis should be placed. Some of the most successful courses are those that take the UG route for primary teachers – the B.Ed. It used to be the case that most of these courses were 4 years long, but tuition fees put many students off applying so they reduced to 3. What if the fourth year led to a Master’s qualification? Certainly, many of my former fourth year students at MMU were writing at Masters level for their undergraduate dissertation.

For Post Grad routes, I’d argue the case that we need a two year qualifying course with a third year in situ as an NQT. Why? Because anything less leads to less secure knowledge of subject specific content; of understanding of pedagogy and of a range of contrasting settings which allow the profession to see the range of provision available. Such a two year course might look like this:-


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But of course, this would be expensive, right? Well, yes. But the NHS fund university education for their future employees in a lot of areas. It’s considered an investment. What might the wider cost benefits be? Well, we know that the impact of a highly effective teacher on not only the educational outcomes of a child are significant, but, as Dylan Wiliam frequently points out, there is also an impact on the future health and wealth of the child (Levin et al 2007, Hanushek and Wossmann, 2010) – i.e. a future saving of public funds. In addition, what are the costs to the public purse of the high turnover of teaching staff that we have at present? Our current “get ‘em young, burn ‘em out and replace” policy cannot be sustained. Because sooner or later those burned out teachers will start to talk to others thinking of entering the profession and what we need more than anything right now is positive discourse.

2. Universities need to have credibility if they are to take responsibility for a Master’s level profession.

As in any workplace, some workers are better informed than others about their practice. Universities are no different. It seems to me that there has been an element of confusion over the years about what makes a good ITT tutor. I would argue that there are three components necessary to good practice:-

1. Relevant and recent teaching experience (perhaps all ITT tutors should be partnered with schools and work in one for a day each week?)

2. Knowledge of recent research and a minimum of a Master’s qualification. Some tutors I know still talk of VAK learners – because this was all the rage when they were last in the classroom and they have not considered the importance of keeping up to date. There needs to be closer alignment of university educational research departments and ITT provision, ideally with the ITT tutors engaging directly with research.

3. Close working relationships and partnerships with schools. This is something that many universities do well, but the input into professional training should extend beyond students into CPD. Too many universities are slow to pick up on this strand or they completely price themselves out of the market. This should be a professional partnership that opens up, for example, Athens access to partner schools and their teachers.

3. Schools (like hospitals) should have a professional duty to contribute to the training of the next generation of teachers.

When I worked at MMU, we had to beg schools to take our students. Some did not get placed until the day they were due to start their placement causing stress all round. And we had to rely heavily on stalwart schools to take on extras. In my opinion, no school should be allowed a Good or Outstanding grade from Ofsted if they shirk their responsibility to train the next generation of teachers – a pool that they are reliant on for their future success. It is a common misconception that “University based routes” do not provide on the job training – they do. But the problems they face in placing students undermines the quality of that on the job experience.

I realise that these are just thoughts, but they are what I believe is necessary to ensure the outcomes I outline at the beginning of this post. We cannot have an ITT system, as we do at present where there are deemed to be First, Second and Steerage class routes into the profession. The public need to have confidence in the quality and integrity of the profession. To do that, there needs to be the same demanding high level of challenge in all routes.

Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, qualification is just the beginning. In her essay on a Royal College of Teaching, Alison Peacock outlines a membership progression of this professional body that would begin with Asssociates (on qualification) and end with Fellows for those teachers who have demonstrated a contribution to the profession in terms of practice and research that is both nationally and internationally recognised. Such high aspirations for the profession are to be welcomed and I really believe that when we have this level of quality in the system, we will no longer speak of training – we will talk about teacher development.


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Another Day Out…At Ofsted.

I liked Mike Cladingbowl, National Director for Reform at Ofsted and was very glad of the chance to meet with him last Friday. For a start he bought the biscuits himself. He also has the kind of naughty little twinkle in his eye that makes you think he would be good company in the pub. And there is something of the bruiser about him too. I think if I were in a street fight (I’m from Burnley and live in Oldham, so it’s not that unlikely), I’d quite like him to have my back. I’d rather not be fighting him though. He’s convivial and generous, but no idiot and I had the clear impression that if he wants something to happen, it will happen. This, of course can be problematic for someone who doesn’t listen, have empathy or accept advice (a recently departed Secretary of State springs to mind), but here I think we have that rare person who is principled, determined, tough and humble enough to listen and to consider what he hears. Our meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. He stayed for close to three hours and they had to throw him out of the room in the end. You could not have had a bigger contrast between that encounter and the earlier one we had at the DfE with Liz Truss.

There were two strands to the conversation. Mike was keen to clarify the latest thinking from Ofsted and to clear up some myths. This meant that he talked quite a lot and was keen to ensure that we had the information that we needed. The second strand was for us to put forward our concerns and observations about the impact that Ofsted had on our schools and on our behaviours in schools and to ask questions about how changes to the curriculum and assessment structures would impact on the inspection process. My colleagues have already blogged about much of this – @cherylkd and @jordyjax have covered the impact on SEN and PRUs more specifically and @leadinglearner’s thorough post outlines the reactions to worries about the impact of this year’s GCSE grades on school inspections really well. So I’ll just give headlines and my own thoughts in response to what was said on the day. Most of you will already know that:-

1. Inspectors will no longer grade individual lessons.

My Facebook timeline is going to be free of all those little “I got Outstanding” posts that are understandably full of relief but also, unfortunately, ensure that we end up colluding in the system we say we deplore by feeding the monster. This unreliable grading system, that for years has set teachers up in competition with each other and which has given some less scrupulous management teams sticks to beat staff with, has gone. But Ofsted will still judge the impact of teaching on learning. This in many ways casts an even brighter searchlight onto data and it is important to bear in mind that in terms of numbers and figures, we are now looking merely at KS to KS progress measured by raw scores. There is, as Stephen Tierney points out, a clear distinction being made between attainment data and assessment evidence. And this evidence will never be found on a spreadsheet and not always in a child’s book. Learning doesn’t happen in books. It happens in heads. The worry about how Ofsted will know that children are learning in the absence of levels is already leading many schools to throw ridiculous expectations at staff in terms of recording children’s work in books and insisting upon unsustainable marking expectations – in some cases triple marking, or insisting that books are thoroughly marked every week. For a secondary school Humanities teacher with potentially 300-400 pupils, this is clearly impossible. Even in primary, a marking load like this is unsustainable. Mike was very sympathetic and was clear. An inspection team will not only look at children’s books to assess their progress. They will …. wait for it …. talk to children. If you are clear about what you want them to learn and they are able to articulate the fact that they are learning it, then you have evidence. Out of the mouths of the babes will come your inspection grade. And yes, of course work in books is important – Mike spoke of wanting to see evidence that children are taking pride in their work – that they pay attention to it and do it to the best of their ability. In my experience, this happens when they care about and enjoy what they are doing. Keep a scrap book for their ideas to be scribbled in. Keep a portfolio for best work. That’s my tip by the way, not Ofsted guidance! But most of all, make sure they know what they can do, why they are doing it and what they need to do to get better.

2. Schools overcomplicate the complex.

Learning is a complex process, but schools make it too complicated. Falling over themselves to second guess what Ofsted want to see, they too often lose sight of the purpose of the education they are supposed to be providing. In a nutshell, Mike was clear. Teach them stuff. Make it engaging enough to be remembered. If you do this, you have little to worry about from Ofsted. Inspectors do not get up in the morning rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of undermining the confidence of teachers. Talk to them. Tell your story. Know your children. Have a clear moral purpose. Don’t cheat and lie to please them. Love your kids. Have high expectations. Know your data. Be brave. Under the new framework, inspectors have more freedom than ever before to take your school’s context and story into account. They are not so bound to the rule book as they were, so make sure they know the narrative curve of your intake and that you have a clear vision and that you know where you’re going and how you intend to get there. And make sure that the vision is shared not only with staff, but with parents and pupils so that they can articulate why it is you do what you do.

3. Good is good.

@Cherylkd has outlined this policy well, but basically if you are good then you’ll have a light touch visit from HMI once every three years. If you want to move to Outstanding, you can call Ofsted and request a full inspection. That’s up to you. But the aim is to divert attention, time and money away to those schools who need to move towards a Good grade. And for those schools, the process is to be less punitive and more collaborative. There is a return to the support role that HMIs used to have in schools in offering advice and guidance. There will be a sustained relationship, working together towards improvement. This seems to me to be a much healthier and more collaborative approach to school improvement than we have previously seen.

4. The tests are not the curriculum.

There will be a focus on ensuring that children are getting their entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I have to say that this has been a real bug bear of mine for years – that those children, usually from deprived backgrounds, who come to school with a poverty of vocabulary and general knowledge, are invariably the ones removed from the foundation subjects (where those very things are often built) to take part in literacy and numeracy intervention classes. The gap widens. And it is a common experience as many parents of Year 6 children will know, for subjects like PE, Music, Art and the Humanities to largely disappear in the run up to SATS. It is an insanely counterproductive measure. For success in the the literacy SATS themselves often depends on having a vocabulary and level of general knowledge that allows a child to access the question. The focus on ensuring a broad curriculum will hopefully bring those practices to an end. And schools who are innovative and rigorous in their approach will find that children thrive in numeracy and literacy when they see those skills embedded and utilised in other subjects. I hasten to add here that all of this is my rant. He just said that it was vital that children access the full curriculum. But hip hip hurray anyway.

5. A good school is more than a set of results.

“Schools are a human business – it’s all about people and sometimes the relationship between inspectors and head teachers has been like having two people who instead of using language to speak to each other, try to converse in a currency.” In short, Mike’s view is that the inspection process should be about a professional dialogue between human beings who respect each other’s professional integrity. Head teachers can be very unwelcoming. They can hide behind files and data and spreadsheets (currency), avoiding dialogue and similarly inspectors can use data to avoid the meaningful conversations that might lead to an enhanced understanding of a school’s context. Talking to each other is vital – all inspectors are being retrained in this respect but a canny Head will learn to take the reigns and to tell the inspector the story of their school. There is a move towards a more narrative reporting process than a data driven one (although results will ALWAYS matter) – there is a recognition that there are stories behind results that may need to be told. Similarly, there is a story about the life of the school that moves way beyond grades. How is your school preparing children for life? How is it building moral purpose, character, experience?  In the words of Mike Cladingbowl, “I want kids to be happy and to be able to live full lives. To be able to form secure attachments and relationships. How do we put this at the heart of education? What kinds of schools do we want and what kinds of people do we want to come out of them? … We need to have conversations about the purpose of schooling, and while they are there I want them to be excited. I want them to enjoy it. You ARE allowed to have fun!”

In the next few months, as the academic year progresses, there will be a number of stakeholder events hosted by Ofsted. They will be for teachers, senior leaders, parents and pupils. They will be about generating a conversation about what we want from our education system. This really excites me. I genuinely feel that we are moving towards a more open and collaborative period in which, yes, of course expectations will be high, but there will also be more professional trust and interaction. This can only be a good thing, and I was very grateful to be part of one of the groups hearing these thoughts for the first time. Thanks to Mike and his team for making the time to talk to us.



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My Life in Books #blogsync August 2014.

They say that a child who grows up in a household full of books grows up to be a reader, but there were not many books in our house when I was very young. My Dad loved reading, but his father had burned all his books in a drunken temper not long before he met my Mum. By the time they had me, were married and had set up home, there wasn’t much money for books, so instead he told me stories. And then one day he came home with a large cardboard box. I was seven. “It’s time you became a reader” he said ” and you’ll never be lonely.”

He had spotted a pile of Enid Blyton’s in a charity shop window and bought the lot. Everything from the Famous Five to the Faraway Tree. He was right. I was never lonely again. For the next five or so years, every bit of pocket money went on Enid. I didn’t even think that there might be anyone else writing for children out there and I loved them. And then one day I fancied a change. By then, my Dad’s own bookshelves were full and so I stole his books and read under the covers until my eyes watered. They were not really books for children – Stephen King, James Herbert, Dennis Healey. I went from macaroons and ginger beer to killer rats, the occult and some fairly steamy sex. Still, it widened my horizons.

We didn’t have to study English Literature at my secondary school and growing out of Enid Blyton had left me with a bit of a gap in my life. I read a few romantic novels, devoured Sue Barton, Student Nurse books and dreamed of marrying a doctor (because of course girls couldn’t be doctors could they?) and saw reading as a means to escaping what was a fairly shitty number of teenage years. Plagued by bullying and abuse from my piano teacher, to say I was troubled would be putting things mildly and by the time I went to sixth form I was struggling to cope. I picked English Literature because after music, there was nothing else I really wanted to do. When we were asked to list the books we had read in our first lesson, I could see the distaste on my teacher’s face. “You’ve got some catching up to do,” he said, handing me Jane Austin’s Emma. And the world tipped on its axis. I loved it. I loved her. I couldn’t read enough so he fed me more. Thomas Hardy (my middle child is named after Gabriel Oak), Anne Bronte and then her slightly inferior sisters. I lapped them all up. I’d had no idea there was such beauty in the world and I thrived. Not a single book was on the syllabus. And when my clarinet teacher fondled my boobs and told me it was a breathing excercise, I packed Music in altogether assuming it was populated with nothing but dirty old men and I applied to university to study Literature.

I loved reading – all of it. The A level texts I studied became favourites – Lear, the Wife of Bath, the Ancient Mariner….but at university we had free choice on texts and I fell in love with more books and characters. Gatsby, Willy Loman, Atticus Finch attached themselves to me like limpets. But it was reading Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple that pivoted me into a love of black American women’s literature. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison – here I was, a white girl from Burnley feeling more kinship with these abused female characters, struggling to find their voices in a world that seemed pitched against them than with anyone I’d ever read before. “And still I rise”, Angelou wrote and I realised that you did not have to carry your past like a burden. You could discard it and choose to forge forward. So I rose.

I couldn’t imagine marrying a man who didn’t read so when I met my husband and he was in the middle of Moby Dick, I envisaged a lifetime of companionable bed time reading. But it turned out that he’d been in the middle of Moby Dick for some time and it was another two years before he reached the end. It turned out he isn’t really a reader. But that’s ok because he’s happy to stare at the horizon on holiday in quiet contemplation while I devour books and our children get fed, clothed and bathed.

As I’ve gone through my adult life, I’ve carried on reading. And I enjoy most of the holiday romps that others do, but it’s the books that make you think that I love the most. Those that bring other places, lives and times to vivid reality worm their way into my heart. Barbara Kingsolver’s searing tale, The Poisonwood Bible, the story of the life of a missionary family in the Congo felt like a grenade in my mind in terms of reframing the way I viewed western attitudes towards other cultures. And other thoughtful women have brought to life other times and places in ways that have radically changed the way I view the world – Amy Tan and Hilary Mantel for example.

As I’ve become a mother and teacher, I’ve discovered a whole world of children’s literature beyond Enid. From those that have my children howling with laughter, such as little moles with poos on their heads, to the wide eyed wonder of Harry Potter, I’ve had so much pleasure from seeing them become avid readers. And in class I’ve used books as portals to worlds way beyond those that simply analyse sentence structure or the use of metaphor. Books are the means by which children engage with lives and worlds beyond their own experience. And as I know, books can heal. Every Child a Reader is not an economic aim to me; not a matter of test results and future jobs. It’s a moral crusade. For if every child is a reader, there may be no place for loneliness in the world.


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Assessment as an Act of Love

Behold Zarathustra, new lyres are needed for your new songs.

(Nietzsche 1885/1995:220)


It was Rinaldi, in conversation about Reggio Emelia who argued that to assess a child – to sit beside them as the original latin suggests – is an act of love; an act of nurture – and in recent years there have been moves to make the notion of assessment more about development than end points – even as governments move in opposite directions. But too often, we fail to see that what we are doing when we assess formatively, is just push pupils down the yellow brick road to the exam factory. How often do our assessment processes really value the human being at the heart of the learning, or put them in the driving seat?

In school this week, we have been putting our Year 7s and 8s through their PDR process – (Pupil Driven Review) – and it has made me think that we are starting to get to grips with a model that is about growth and development not pruning into the shape we had in our minds to start with. The PDR is the end point of a year long curriculum in which pupils study their usual subjects but in which the RE, Drama, PHSE and English are pulled together into a programme called English and Philosophy. I’ve written a little about this here and its Triple A pedagogy, but this end point is a chance for the children to celebrate all their achievements and to think hard about what it is they need to work on. 

Before they start, they complete a 2,000 word (1,500 for Year 7) essay in response to a philosophical question. These can range in complexity from “Is the world a fair place?” to “To what extent are we products of our environments?” to ” Whose responsibility is it to effect change in the world?” They are expected to link these questions to the texts they have studied, knowledge gained right across the curriculum and their own research and ideas. Here are just a few snippets from children right across the ability range:-

“I am not the prettiest person and I have problems learning, but I am loved and I love other people and I think that makes me lucky.”

“I personally think forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of anger and hatred. Forgiveness just means that you’ve made peace with the pain, and you are ready to let it go and move on. As Ghandi once said “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  It takes a strong person to face pain head-on, forgive, release it and carry on as if nothing happened”.

“Reading Twelfth Night made me realise that love is a whole lot more complicated than I had first thought. From the outset, with the quotation “If music be the food of love, play on…”, Shakespeare sets out the idea that love needs some form of self control – a quality that Orsino is lacking. This self control is seen in Viola, sitting “like patience on a monument smiling at grief” and so Shakespeare offers us very different ideas of what love might be.”

In their PDR, they share snippets of this and other work they have done across the year and they share this with their parents, a teacher, three peers from their class and in some cases, an external community partner to the school. For three days, the timetable is collapsed and PDRs take over. So what happens?

The children prepare a 15 minute presentation in which they share their learning from the year and outline what it is they think they need to do over the forthcoming twelve months in order to improve. Learning is something we encourage them to think about in terms of life in and out of school and so they may refer to all kinds of other places and situations in which they feel they have grown or developed or been inspired. For example, one child said:-

“I work hard in school because I want to be a midwife and I know I’ll have to work for it. To be able to help a woman to bring a new life into the world would be a privilege. I knew this is what I wanted to do when I was able to assist my Mum when she had my brother – it was an amazing experience and showed me how much support women need at this time in their lives. I know it won’t be easy and sometimes things go wrong so I need to be strong for those people at that time. So I need to work hard on my Maths and Science, but I also need to be able to be calm and control my emotions.”

Needless to say, her Mum and I were a little teary. Not really in control of our emotions.

Once their presentation is done, they sit down with their peer panel and feedback is given to them from their classmates on three areas – behaviour, progress and interpersonal skills. For me this has been one of the most powerful aspects of the learning. You know how you sometimes bottle it at parents’ evening and don’t quite tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth when it comes to the little darling? Kids don’t bottle it. We’ve done a lot of work on being positive and constructive, even as we criticise – building word stems to allow children to articulate their ideas. But once they get that in place, there’s no stopping them. You can see parents sit up as not an adult “who has it in for my child” tells them that there is a problem – but another child. A child who says:-

“You think it’s quite funny to make silly noises when the teacher is talking and you hardly ever get found out as they can’t prove it was you, but you stop the lesson. And you do it a lot. And to be honest, it’s starting to impact on how I feel about sitting near you because I just want to be able to get on. I like you but sometimes I’d rather not work with you.”

Once the peer review is completed, the classmates leave and the child is left with the parents and teacher and a pile of progress data, attendance data and behaviour data and we start the long conversation about school, life, hope and….data. Relationships are built – this is a good, decent half hour face to face with someone who knows your child – not a quickie in the hall. And proper targets are set as a result – targets that pull together the ideas of the child, the feedback of their peers and the reports from teachers and which try to look holistically at the social, cognitive and emotional development of the child. Is it perfect? No. But it’s better that sending a sheet of levels home with a list of Grades to Beat. It’s better than parent’s evening. It’s heartwarming and developmental.

And at the end, you notice the little things. The ruffling of the hair; a pat on the back; a thumbs up and you realise that here is an important moment for any child – the pride and approval of a parent or care giver. Because even if they did get a bit of a dusting down on behaviour, they still stood up there and presented. They still wrote a really long piece of work. They still were able to achieve something. They made their parents proud. And you can’t measure that.



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The Tide is Turning – Festival of Education 2014

I was excited about coming to the Festival of Education this year – last year the sun shone, the venue was beautiful and I got to ask a question directly to Michael Gove. This year the sun shone, the venue was beautiful and I got to ask another question to Michael Gove. But it was even better this year because it started with a McDonald’s breakfast in a car park in Camberley. And it doesn’t get much better than that. That Hywel Roberts, well, he knows how to treat a girl.



We were feeling ok – me, Hywel and Pepe, in spite of beer and curry and an England defeat the night before. And so the most tricky part was choosing what to see and who to hear. Last year I made a point of going to see people I knew I might disagree with – which is good for you, I know. But this year, I had reason to fear indigestion and so I made for people with whom I felt I had an affinity. I swerved Wilshaw and headed for Chris Waugh. And it lifted my heart.

Chris spoke so passionately about the need to make education about NOW – a subject very close to my own heart. From the moment they enter school, we fill children with a fear of future as if nothing they do now matters except in relation to the future they might have. Chris showed how in his school, the joy is in the learning now because it’s just really interesting. Who’d have thought it could be that simple? Make it matter now. And he showed us how. They have choice. They have attention – their work goes through a process of being shared so that they achieve the glow of publication. They have rigour and autonomy balanced in harmony. And it’s clear they have great, passionate and committed teachers. I left feeling completely uplifted and hopeful for our profession.

I have been dying to hear Tom Sherrington speak for ages. I even dragged him up to Leeds to talk at Northern Rocks and ended up missing it to chase lunch vouchers. So this was my chance. Tom spoke well of the absurdity of the either/or nature of the progressive/traditional debate and showed many examples of how both methods work in his school – a horses for courses approach which of course is true in most schools and even in many lessons. He showed how teaching is a symbiotic dance between these models depending on what it is you want to teach. One angry young teacher was widely tweeted expressing horror at the idea that some children might enjoy making a “maths hat” which Tom had shown his own son clearly had not. This, she said was a sign of low expectations in schools. But there was no explanation of what the hat was used for. Here were children aiming for Level 6 work with linear algebraic equations and in Tom’s opinion, setting a homework to make a Maths hat was an error. It may well have been, but what if the hats were to be worn for an intensive, ass kicking maths day of calculus? What if some kids made really good ones with complex sequences or equations on them? Who knows? I wish MIss Prissy Ass the best of luck with her teaching.

I was almost dragged kicking and screaming into a tent full of people who think that teaching has become ‘Progressively Worse’ over the past few years, but I resisted. Next door was something different. Hope, joy and children. So I went there instead. Peter Hyman used to be an adviser to Tony Blair and then he set up a free school in Stratford. What a breath of fresh air. His premise is that if we teach children to talk properly, they will write properly and thrive. I’ve been banging on about this for years – it forms one of the three strands of my Triple A pedagogy model and so I was all ears. What School21 have done though, is to map out and scaffold speaking and listening so thoroughly and rigorously that it blows all those poo-pooing “group work-child talk-and-peer review-are-rubbish” commentators completely out of the water. They’re only rubbish if you teach them rubbishly. I wish we could have torn the walls down between those two tents and shown those doom mongering nay sayers what those children could do. We saw a lesson – yes, with REAL children. Yes, at an EDUCATION event – fancy that. And those children were joyful, confident and articulate beyond their years. I hope they grow up to be politicians and change the face of this country. I have no doubt they could.

And so it was with a spring in my step that I went into the afternoon sessions. I really wanted to see Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn because I like what they say and what they stand for. I sort of wished there had been a real debate with some of the market reformers on one side and these two on the other but they laid out convincing arguments why market led education has failed. In a nut shell:-

1. Children are not products.

2. They don’t tend to be predictable enough to generate profit.

3. Market driven education systems tend not to actually perform well on international comparison models.

4. Markets don’t tend to value the unmeasurable things like happiness, or the hours a teacher might put in with a bereaved child, or the school play for example, and so they tend to be lost.

5. It’s just really wrong.

Melissa outlined convincing evidence of the above, far less flippantly than I have summarised them, but one shocking piece of information really leapt out at me – that in the much acclaimed KIPP schools, with their zero-tolerance policies on behaviour, there has been a sharp increase in the expulsions of children with specials educational needs and from ethnic backgrounds. For an organisation that claimed to exist in order to improve the life chances of the most challenged in society, this is a damning indictment of how image overrides integrity in the pursuit of PR and profit.

Now then, if you’re a teacher, you don’t miss a chance to hear Dylan Wiliam speak. And as one who likes spectator sports, you’d be mad to miss the chance to see him talk to the man who dissed Assessment for Learning – David Didau. I bought popcorn. It was slightly disappointingly without controversy, but not at all without interest. David very eloquently and reasonably outlined his concerns about AfL in that he has seen it poorly implemented in schools and also explored whether or not we could really be sure that we can ever see learning in a single lesson. We simply don’t yet know enough about how the brain learns to be certain that any method or process is effective. These were fair points and Dylan conceded that there was sense in them. But he also outlined the importance of articulating learning and encouraging children to identify and tackle their misconceptions. There was a nod from him to Guy Claxton in recognising the work that Claxton did in bringing the importance of ‘Resilience’ into our teacher consciousness – a fact that many seem happy to ignore in their disparaging critiques of his work. David Didau, who has himself been highly critical of Claxton winced at this point. All in all, an interesting discussion, the three key points of which seemed to be:-

1. Kids forget most of what they learn (though if that’s the case then they haven’t learned it, surely?)

2. Any initiative is poor if it is poorly implemented (and AfL was very poorly implemented by the government of the time)

3. We don’t really know how children learn. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to figure it out.

I  was in need of cake so I missed a session in order to fortify myself for Michael Gove. And I’m glad I did because he was really, really late. Anthony Seldon did an absolutely sterling job of dragging moderately famous people out of the audience to keep us occupied. the first of these was a man in goggles who is in charge of ‘Have I Got News For You.’ I should really know both his name and his job title, but as my tolerance for West London media types is generally low, I know neither. He warmed quickly to the idea that he had a captive audience of well over 1000 people and got carried away. There is a fine line between comedy and cruelty and he sprinted well over it with comments about Alistair Campbell too crass to repeat. How Fiona Millar did not leap up, pull back his goggles and let them snap with a slap to his smug little face, I will never know.

Next up was the toilet-weeping-song-writing Teach First teacher from the BBC 3 documentary Tough Young Teachers. He was self effacing, sweet and slightly bemused to suddenly find himself in the spot light so Teach First founder, Bret Wigdrotz came up. I’ve had a burning question about TeachFirst for years and I got to ask it :- “If you had the chance to rename TeachFirst, would you try to avoid the connotation that you teach until something better comes along?” The answer was yes, it was a mistake. I would have liked to ask more, but I wanted to ask Michael Gove one too and I’d hate to be a questioning hog so I sat down.

The main man was still absent and so RM books and Crown House gave us all a glass of wine while we waited which was good of them and then in he came….

Last year, Gove was interviewed by David Aaronovitch, whose questions were so cheeky that they acted like calamine lotion on the audience. This year, emboldened by a glass of wine, piqued by the Secretary of State’s inability to tell the time (we do that in Year 2), the mood was more hostile. @heymisssmith led a spirited dressing down on the use of belittling language that Michael Gove has used in the past. “It is not true!” he protested, “I love teachers.” There was a Phonics Phight with primary teachers heckling him as he tried to explain why he didn’t trust them enough to release the pass marks for the nonsensical phonics test. They booed and hissed him. Pleadingly, he turned to the audience – don’t you want your children to get C grades in their Maths and English GCSEs he asked thousands of middle class parents. I would have liked to know how phonics helped you get Maths GCSE. I had a more pressing question to ask though – I didn’t want to attack the man – I want to know what he intends to do about Ofsted. I explained that one of the reasons that schools were not embracing the ‘freedoms’ he claims to have given us is that we are still jumping to Ofsted’s tune – what was he going to do to ensure that schools were truly free to innovate? His answer centred around recent moves to ensure that there is no dominant preferred teaching style that inspectors will be looking for. But he avoided the real issue – data. It is the deathly dance of data that is really killing creativity in our schools. And I still have no answer for that….

I wish I could have stayed another day, but I had Mummy stuff to do. Thank you to the organisers and to Wellington College for a great day.






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