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.


Filed under Uncategorized

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.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.






Filed under Uncategorized

In the Name of Hope. Northern Rocks 2014.


It was a normal Saturday night. The X Factor/Voice/Britain’s got Talent was on the telly. I was on twitter. Mr. Kidd was staring at the ceiling in existential angst. A DM from Emma Hardy popped into my in box. “Did you go to the thing in Southampton today – it sounded great”. I hadn’t been and nor had she. It was too far and we had a little moan that so much good stuff was taking place in the south. We should do one up here one of us said. So I tweeted it. And within 24 hours we were turning speakers away. Within weeks all 500 tickets had gone. We called it Northern Rocks. And it rocked.



I’m not going to write about who said what – already brilliant blogs documenting the day are coming out and Emma and I will reblog them on the Northern Rocks site. And within days the workshops will be popping up on YouTube. I’m going to write about what this event stood for.

It stood for the North. Rock solid, salt of the earth, no nonsense north.

It stood for independence. A reclamation of pedagogy, of practice; a chance for teachers to come together and genuinely discuss how they can become pedagogical activists, fighting for the education they know that children deserve.


It stood for coming together – rising above political differences of opinion, above binary positioning, above power struggles and ego in order to show unity. If Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians can do it, we can all do it.

photo copy 2

It stood for hope. Hope, don’t mope; reform, don’t moan.

It stood for generosity – of the spirit of good will. And that spirit was evident at every turn – the generosity of the panelists and speakers; of Leeds Met and Jo Pearson who donated the spaces; of Caroline Lenton at Crown House who donated the time and printing of the programmes; of Daniel Britton who set up our site and managed all our technology; of Cathy Cross who responded to my fears that the space would look bland by making a wall out of hula hoops, clothes racks and conducting tubing; the firewall of helpers who sacrificed their own day to troubleshoot, protecting Emma and I from stress by solving problems before we were even aware of them; the generosity of 500 people who gave up their Saturday to attend.


It stood for love. A love of learning. A love of children.

It stood for friendship. New friends and old ones stood in front of us as we quaked in our shoes and they made us feel we could do anything.


It stood for head-heart-hand humanity. We talked, we listened, we debated and learned. But we also made and played, laughed and sang.

Hywel singing

It stood for all that is good about our profession – collaboration and community.

Me and Mick

Whether you were right or left leaning, traditional or progressive, somewhere in the middle or in a muddle, there was a sense yesterday that we really were all in it together. And it was a beautiful thing. On Friday I said I would never do this again. But I found it was like child birth – despite all the screaming and the pain, when you hold that baby for the first time and look into its eyes, you know you would go through it all again, and more. So….watch this space and thank you from the bottom of my heart to you all.


Filed under Uncategorized

RefreshEd York

Maybe it was the sunshine. Maybe it was not feeling queasy for the first time in a week. Maybe it was the chance to work alongside John Tomsett for whom I’d happily lie down in the middle of the M1, but I made my way to York for ResearchEd on Saturday morning with a smile on my face. And I was not disappointed. It was a lovely day. There were some significant improvements on the first ResearchEd that made the event seem more balanced, inclusive and rooted in teaching. Perhaps starting the day with a key note from someone who has dedicated their whole life to educating young people made all the difference.

John Tomsett

I learned that if you do or say something to irritate John, he’s not likely to argue with you, get angry or vengeful. But he’ll wait a while and then gently tease you. His gentlemanly and subtle ribbing of Ben Goldacre’s frankly rude responses to his requests for information were hilarious. Similarly, his  subtle juxtaposition of David Didau’s statement that “compromise is the last refuge of the unprincipled” with his own leadership ethos rooted in humility, flexibility and understanding (often involving compromise) exposed the folly of that statement without having to attack it at all. When it comes to choosing someone to negotiate the Palestine/Israeli conflict I know which of those two I’d send in.

John has clearly set up an ethos and set of values in his school where human development is seen as a right of all – staff and pupils; where high levels of challenge are balanced by an attempt to, as far as possible, bring about success within a low stakes culture. Removing fear, said John, is essential if teachers are to improve. It was an example of how humanity and kindness can sit in an easy and productive relationship with rigour and improvement. A compromise one might say.

So I was bouncing with optimism as I went off with @emmaannhardy and @heymisssmith to the next session – with lead Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt.

“No-one” said Mary “ever sets out to do a rubbish job and they should never be put down.” I wish she were our Ofsted inspector thought everyone in the audience. Well if she was, you’d better be on your game! Mary is humane, empathic and sharp as a razor. She  took us through what she called the importance of ‘micro-research’ in schools and classrooms without once relying on notes. “Great leaders”, she said “notice things” and so do great teachers. Mary argued for the importance of being attuned to what is taking place in the classrooms. To act upon what is noticed. To ensure that your time is not wasted writing the same things over and over and over again in children’s books. What are Ofsted looking for? Feedback that is being acted upon. Pupils premium money having an impact. High levels of challenge in classes and deep understanding, which “must trump content coverage every time.”

Mary is funny – “what we do is not brain surgery and no-one is going to die so let’s lighten up a bit” but not frivolous. She is smart “we should pursue counter-intuitive lines of inquiry” but not patronising. She goes into schools all the time and picks up on energy and she was keen to point out that in schools in which there are staff rooms full of people having expansive conversations about education, there is good education being delivered. (Take note all you heads who are thinking of getting rid of staff rooms – encourage more collaboration not less of it!). It was a heartening talk and reassuring to note that there are people like Mary IN the tent….

Martin Robinson

Martin read a beautifully crafted and carefully prepared speech which showed an impressive level of erudition. I’m almost frightened to quote it, so particular is he about detail and you can view it online so I’ll focus instead on what I heard. Which of course is what I remember. Which of course is what I wanted to hear.

Standing at the exact mid point between myself and Old Andrew/Andrew Old/ Andrew Smith (depending on whether you encounter him on twitter, at conferences or on Radio 4), Martin showed himself to be that most unprincipled of men – one who has found a  position of compromise. The small cross on the floor his refuge as he took up a central position, arguing that education is not a suitable subject for science; that when Art is looked at objectively, it ceases to be Art and that education above all is about humanity – “from the shit on the sole of your shoe….to God.” Whoop whoop went the progressives.

But. “I’d rather my child was taught Shakespeare than One Direction” he said (so would I actually – is that a compromise?). And he doesn’t give a stuff whether she can tick off a box that says she’s a team worker (which is not the same as not caring whether or not she can work in teams of course). He was disappointed that she came home worried about climate change without knowing what a climate was. And in this example, he outlined the importance of embedding knowledge FIRST. Whoop whoop went the traditionalists.

This was such a clever and engaging talk that did make nonsense of the position that there is no mid position to be had. It drew on such a beautifully wide range of sources that in itself it exemplified the joy of knowledge. It was a pleasure to witness. I have only one observation…

If education should embrace the shit on the shoe right up to God, then we might have to scrape One Direction off our soles and pop them in the curriculum.

David Cameron

Whatta man whatta man whatta man whatta mighty good man…”

I first heard David speak at an Independent Thinking Big Day Out event a couple of months ago and left with tears of laughter and sadness staining my cheeks. So I knew I would be in for a treat. Here is one of the biggest problems in education – not David himself – but the vapid disregard we have for wisdom and experience in our education system. In him and others like Mick Waters and Tim Brighouse, we have wisdom and insight beyond belief. They have seen and lived through and influenced cycles of change that we could all do with understanding and it infuriates me that these voices get sidelined and replaced with new, “fresh” voices, straight from universities and think tanks every time there’s a new general election. It’s time we listened.

David understands children. He understands and loves them. How quaint. And this understanding has led him to create curriculum models that have conscience, happiness and yes, knowledge at their heart. Here again, we see a man who is educated – as comfortable quoting Camus as Salt ‘n’ Peppa – AND humane. He is wise. He is angry AND funny. He is uncompromising in his disbelief that compromise is ‘for tossers’ as he summarised the Didau position. I want to be in his gang. He makes my heart sing.

Debra Kidd

I heard she had silly shoes on.

Andrew Old

There was a conversation on twitter last night which went like this:-

Chas : Did you go to see @debrakidd

Andrew: No – she was on at the same time as @tombennet71 and anyway, why would I?

Debra: I liked Andrew’s.

I am unprincipled in my willingness to compromise. And I always at these events try to seek out an alternative view in order to challenge and develop my thinking. I always learn something and believe that it is a position of untenable arrogance to assume that this is not possible, even from people with whom I have deep disagreements. So I went to see Andrew. Glued to his chair, he proved that it is possible to engage without bothering to move – perhaps this is why twitter suits him so well. He can be funny and is good at finding a sharp quote or aphorism to prove a point. My favourite was “if there is no such thing as truth then the statement that there is no such thing as truth cannot be true.” Which is true. And funny. His talk was called ‘What we can know about teaching” (I think) but it was really “How I argue on twitter” – one rule of which was to engage “kindly” which surprised me as I have definitely seen an unkind side to Andrew’s debates. But there is no doubt that he is a thinker (if not a mover) and I enjoyed what I heard. I didn’t stay for the whole, and as Andrew moved between fallaciousness and fellatio showing a clip of Bill Clinton, I left. I was desperate to see Alex Quigley and so I shot off there for the second half and was glad it was streamed so that I could watch the first later.

Alex Quigley.

You can see Alex’s speech on the live stream and please do – here is a teacher bringing together the physical, cognitive, emotional and intellectual in his teaching so beautifully. From Goldin-Meadow to Lakoff, it is clear that he reads widely and that what he reads is applied to his thinking and his practice. What a lovely partnership this school has in Alex and John. I hope those children know how lucky they are.

It was, as I said, a lovely day. I met people I have long admired – both speakers and tweachers. I learned a lot. I compromised. I laughed. And I’ll return – to the next northern version at least. And now I’m so looking forward to Northern Rocks. Though I won’t be catching any slow trains!




Filed under Uncategorized

Progressively Predictable

I’m not going to review Robert Peal’s book for Civitas, because if you want to know what I think of its arguments, you can read this on Toby Young’s pamphlet also written for Civitas or this on Christodoulou’s book, published by The Curriculum Centre who are supported by Civitas. All three make the same arguments. All three are published by organisations close to Michael Gove. All three have received acclaim from people praised by Michael Gove as being excellent teachers. Yadda yadda. Talk about framing the debate through your team mates. What it makes me think though, is ‘what’s so wrong with being progressive’? And what does that actually mean? And having done a bit of reading, I think I quite like the idea of being progressive. I think I’m progressively becoming more progressive.

According to cognitive psychologist George Lakoff (you thought that Daniel Willingham was the only cognitive psychologist in the world, didn’t you?), being progressive is much misunderstood. He defines progressive values as:-

“The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation”.

Lakoff’s argument is that political debate, whether it be educational or ecological, tends to be framed around moral values which roughly fall into the ‘strict father’ model or the ‘nurturant family model’ – often described as traditional/progressive or conservative/liberal. His concern is that the former is highly skilled at controlling the debate by claiming the moral high ground while at the same time, ridiculing the opposition to such an extent that the debate is not about two sides debating, but about one establishing the ‘common sense’ narrative while the other scrambles around, denying their position and trying to claim common ground, losing all sense of self and value in the process. To this end, we see teachers, and I have done this, claim ‘I’m not progressive – I see the value of both sides’ while the traditionalists say ‘whatever’ and stride forward taking control. But let’s look again at that definition. What is actually wrong with empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication and legitimate authority that is open to interrogation?

Young/Peal/Christodoulou all claim that the ‘problem’ with education is child-centred progressive ideology. What exactly is wrong with making education child centred? This is not the same, as I keep saying as ‘child led’. To place a child at the centre of education is to surely meet its needs? To prioritise the child’s needs over, say, the market? To have authority is not anti-progressive – but to have authority without legitimacy is. What might that legitimacy be? That your authority rests on acting in the best interests of the child, and not of the league tables/Ofsted grading/lastest government whim? That you might be answerable to parents and children in order to have your authority legitimised? In many ways, this is what Demos proposed in their report on the problems with Ofsted. Is that really not better than having your authority legitimised by people called Michael?

We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold. When I look at the number of people trumpeting this ‘blob’ fear, there are few. But they are very noisy. And almost all of them are now bound together by the same free school – Michaela – either as governors, managers or teachers. Some even write under two names to make it look like there are more of them. Those in the know call that astroturfing and there is no doubt that there has been a very clever manipulation of social media to create this noise.

I worry. I worry that we are losing confidence in the face of a baying crowd. I worry that too few of us realise the connections between this neo-liberal noise and the dominant market forces lobbying education. I might be getting paranoid in my old age, but here are some facts just about one of those companies – Pearson.

1. Pearson are trialling a ‘Pearson School Model’ in six secondary schools, which delivers a computer based curriculum containing Pearson materials.

2. Pearson funded the research that said that GCSEs were suffering from grade inflation.

3. Pearson own Edexcel and have the contract to assess SATs results.

4. They own most of the textbook market – and Liz Truss has publicly given her support for a return to wider use of textbooks in our schools.

5. Pearson works with TeachFirst on ‘My Education’ a project to promote the voices of young people to demand a ‘more rigorous’ education. That sounds like a good and harmless idea until you look at what happened in the US with the ‘Students for Education’ campaign, funded by private organisations like Pearson in order to create the effect of a student-led grassroots campaign in support of market driven educational policies. The students were easily manipulated into believing that they were championing improvements in education – not unlike some of those inexperienced teacher-come-think-tank-mouthpieces we are seeing at the moment.

6. Pearson works closely with TeachFirst. And the American equivalent of TeachFirst, ‘Teach for America’ has a Pearson company CEO on its board.

7. In the US Pearson run over 50% of the standardised tests set by states and provide the curriculum materials to go with them, creating a profit in excess of £2 billion.

8. Had Michael Gove been successful in reducing the examination system down to one board, Pearson owned Edexcel would have been the most likely successor.

9. Sir Michael Barber is the Education Advisor to Pearson. He is also the author of the widely quoted McKinsey report used by government to promote the notion of international comparisons as a means of measuring educational effectiveness.

10. It stinks.

So I think, so what? What can I do? Well, I can carry on teaching in the way I know works for my students and myself. I can carry on reading a range of cognitive and neuroscience and draw my own conclusions. I can make sure I find out who publishes and funds the latest ‘must read’ and figure out if there has been a responsible and critical editorial eye. I can make sure I don’t get bullied into denying who I am and what I believe. And I can write counter narratives. Like this one.




Filed under Uncategorized

Our Day Out (at the DfE)

I wasn’t quite sure why I got an invitation to consult/consort with civil servants and a minister at the DfE yesterday, but when the email came through, I booked my train tickets as fast as my fingers could type in my debit card details. It’s not a chance you get every day and I was intrigued to know whether or not these latest interactions with the teacher twitterati were PR stunts or genuine attempts to engage. I came away feeling that they were/are really genuine attempts to engage and that there is real potential for every day classroom teachers to be taking part in a process that could lead to improvements in the system. I also left feeling that I wish these conversations had taken place a few years ago and not as we face the implementation of monumental changes this September.

On arrival, we were introduced to three civil servants who were each involved in the delivery and development of the new Primary National Curriculum and its attendant assessment structures. There was no doubt in my mind that here were people who were desperately keen to hear what we had to say and who were motivated by trying to ensure that children received a broad, balanced and engaging educational diet. Again, how I wish I had met them three years ago. The meeting began with the statement that the purpose was to explore the implementation of the new curriculum, the impact of the removal of levels on assessment and that accountability was probably outside of the remit of the meeting. It took about sixty seconds for us to explain that curriculum, assessment and accountability were inextricably linked and that it would not be possible to separate them out and so, for the next two and a quarter hours, that delicate and unbalanced eco system was carefully considered. With some surprising results. So here is what I learned/gleaned from the experience.

The National Curriculum (which is not, as we pointed out, National if not everyone has to teach it)

We had few concerns about the curriculum, which since its edit, has not really changed much at all. Dave from @thought-weavers pointed out that it was hard to suggest that it was balanced when one subject warranted 88 pages and another 2 in the guidance. Tim @imagine_inquiry and @emmaannhardy both pointed out the need for subject specific support for teachers which had been removed from local authorities and not yet properly replaced by teaching schools. As @cheryl-kd pointed out, herself working in a teaching school, it has been hard enough to figure out what your school is doing without being able to disseminate to others. The main point however, was that the curriculum was largely irrelevant when the key driver for all schools was assessment. What is measured is what gets taught, we pointed out, so you might have been better off starting with the measurement and working back from there. Which is not what has happened at all. My key points were:-

1. The curriculum is only broad in schools that don’t narrow it in preparation for SATS in Year 6.

2. That if we really want to close the gap for poorer children, we should attend to vocabulary and cultural capital – yet it is those children who are constantly withdrawn for intervention while the others have their general knowledge, vocabulary and arts education broadened in class. The gap widens.

3. That until we stop seeing literacy as a ‘subject’ and not as a human necessity crossing all subjects, it will continue to be uncoupled from knowledge (and joy).

4. The only way to really ensure that EVERY child gets a broad and balanced curriculum is for Ofsted to make it clear that this will be considered every bit as important as data.

At some point in that discussion, Liz Truss arrived. I’m trying and failing to resist the temptation to talk about the twelve year old who sat in a chair behind her constantly whispering in her ear. I got the distinct impression that she wanted to listen and engage, but she was hugely distracted by her phone and her assistant and I found that somewhat irritating. I came from the North for this – it would be nice if you could listen. And here’s an observation….

Gaming and Cheating

Most of the discussion centred around the role that high stakes testing had on school behaviour and culture. Liz Truss was keen to point out that many of the government’s measures had been designed to end the ‘game play’ that teachers had engaged in to secure results. In the middle of the meeting, she shot off over to the commons to vote for a motion in a debate that she had not listened to or taken part in. What better example of game play can there be? You are elected to vote for issues on behalf of the constituents you represent. But your voting outcomes are so closely tied to your party allegiances that the actual issues or debates, regardless of how they impact on your constituents, are irrelevant. You act in the interests of your party to secure your survival. Tell me Liz, how different is that to acting in the interests of your school to secure your survival? What I actually said was:-

“I’d like to be clear here that until teacher’s pay and performance is uncoupled from high stakes testing, there will be what you call ‘game play’ and I prefer to call ‘survival strategy’ because when your pay, your job, your mortgage, the future of your own children depend on you delivering results, you will do ANYTHING to achieve them.” There was silence. I think I might have poked the table a bit too hard at that point.

This formed the crux of the rest of the conversation – assessment. It became very clear early on in the meeting that no-one at the DfE had properly considered the impact of testing and the removal of levels on schools. The process had begun with ‘what shall we ask them to teach?’ with the assumption that a programme of study would equate to an enacted curriculum. There seemed to be little understanding that within our accountability system, so closely focused on pupil progress, that the question most senior leaders ask is ‘how are we going to be judged?’ The civil servants and minister seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed that most schools were keeping levels. How could we turn this freedom down?

“Because,” we said “if we are to be judged on how well children make progress, we have to be able to measure them, even when we know that the measurements we have are a nonsense.” So we asked, how are children now going to be measured? In a nutshell:-

1. By a raw score at key points of data collection (end of KS). There will be no guidance to schools on the assessment criteria for external tests – it is felt that the curriculum guidance itself is sufficient.

2. From this, schools are encouraged to develop their own competency criteria. This child can…. and build from there. This can form part of the progress conversation with Ofsted.

There really was nothing clearer offered. And if we’re brave, there is a genuine opportunity to move away from levels and see evidencing progress as a combination between conversation and selection of work in which children and teachers can articulate what they can and can’t yet do. But what about all those colour coded spreadsheets showing expected levels of progress in schools? Liz Truss seemed aghast that they even existed – when told that I spent up to 15 hours tracking children on spreadsheets and writing action plans for them when I knew that a) the data wasn’t really accurate and b) that I’d be better off teaching them than writing action plans, she stared, mouth agape and rolled her eyes. She seemed to really have no idea that this was what teachers spent time doing. “But who on earth would ask you to do such a thing? Where is this coming from?” she said. Senior leaders, we replied and they’re doing it because they think it is what Ofsted expect. Ahhh…. Ofsted. Her eyes gleamed, she leaned forward. I’ve been teaching for twenty years – I know when a topic has engaged a kid. And I got the feeling that Ofsted was very much of interest to Liz Truss. And I started to feel uncomfortable – I felt strongly that Ofsted were in the firing line here, and she was very, very keen to hear anti-Ofsted anecdotes. Why should this worry me?

Let’s imagine that three things happened in the next six months:-

1. Michael “there will be blood on the floor” Wilshaw is replaced by the much less combative Michael Cladingbowl – i.e. a new sheriff.

2. Classroom observations stop being graded by Ofsted (none were graded in @cheryl-kd’s inspection just last week).

3. Power is pulled back from the privatised franchises and more centralised inspectors are appointed – Ofsted is rebranded, streamlined, softer. What would happen?

Teachers would dance in the streets I guess. They’d demand the end of mocksteds, graded obs from senior leaders, they might even vote Conservative….but what would have changed? Really? If you reduce the power of a police force but the laws and punishments remain intact, has anything really changed? Are Ofsted to blame for the problems we have in schools really? To be honest I don’t think so. I think they’re in danger of becoming the scapegoat that falls in order to protect the system that is really at the root of our problems – the system of over-reliance on high stakes testing and the ways schools are almost entirely judged on data. And let’s not be under any illusions – take classroom observations out of the equation and you are left with one thing. Data. No wonder we are clinging on to the flotsam of levels.

Here are some ideas I put forward to the minister:-

1. Make it clear that schools should not spend their budgets on pleasing Ofsted. It is a financial abuse of the system.

2. Uncouple teacher performance from test results.

3. Develop an assessment system fit for purpose – one that recognises the limits of testing and instead moves towards holistic assessment of children’s abilities to articulate, write in extended ways, interpret information and present.

To the first she laughed – ‘we’re trying to give schools more financial autonomy’.

To the second, she pointed out that in Scandinavian countries where testing and accountability were uncoupled, there had been a slide down the PISA tables. I pointed out that those countries were still above us and tried to explain the statistical anomalies of PISA, but her face went blank.

To the third she said it was too hard. Where would we get the external moderators from? How would we avoid making it overly bureaucratic? I had answers, but the twelve year old was whispering in her ear that she was late to meet a lord. But….I wanted to say….just because something is hard, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing….but I didn’t. I have now.



There were many other excellent statements made by other people present who no doubt will write their own accounts. This is mine. But here are some of the other points made:-

1. The minister did seem to listen to Emma Hardy’s concerns about the paperwork being generated by PRP.

2. She did seem to concede that teachers were working unacceptably long hours.

3. She even seemed to concede the point that while low stakes, check-point testing might be useful, examinations might not give the fullest picture of a child’s competence.

4. She did seem to support the idea of a broad curriculum (but then only talked about Maths and Science as examples of good practice in schools).

5. She was so keen to promote the idea of text books. She genuinely didn’t understand why we should need to differentiate learning or the difference between differentiated and personalised learning and seemed frustrated that differentiation seemed to be getting in the way of producing textbooks for all schools (produced by Pearson, perhaps?)

6. There was clarification that P levels would remain for special education, but very little consideration of the relevance of the NC for pupils with profound disabilities.

7. @heymisssmith was very clear that this current government had destroyed the teaching profession and asked Liz Truss to pass that sentiment on to Michael Gove ;-)

8. @emmaannhardy made the point that the new curriculum was missing a sense of purpose – what is primary education for? And being ready for secondary is not a good enough moral purpose. This led to a discussion of the clarity of ethos and through line of the international school’s curriculum leading from the PYP to MYP to IB.




Filed under Uncategorized