EmPOWering Learning – Superhero Style

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I’ve just returned from a week long trip to Hong Kong to work with teachers and Grade 6 pupils at the Canadian International School on South Island. It struck me that when politicians argue about the quality of our education system in comparison to that of other countries, they rarely refer to the Primary Years, Middle Years or Diploma programmes of the International Baccalaureate. Yet this qualification and curriculum model produces some of the most highly successful learners in the world. Look at global companies, diplomatic services, high level international law and you’ll find that many people working in these areas came through the IB system. The IB is not a two year alternative to A Level for private schools. It is a life long educational philosophy:-

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end, the organisation works with schools, governments and international organisations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and life long learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

I keep returning to that mission statement in moments of despair, buoyed that elsewhere in the world, there is a curriculum with a stated intention to promote world peace, compassion and care. But how does that intention translate into action? Throughout the IB, from primary to diploma, the children are encouraged to consider how they are developing in line with their learner profile – this consists of qualities and aptitudes such as ‘open-mindedness’ or ‘principled’ and they are encouraged to reflect on how these qualities are developed in their interactions with knowledge, curriculum content and each other.

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The curriculum is also underpinned by conceptual thinking and inquiry. For if in your school, you have 70 nations represented – many of whom will move between continents in the course of their school days, whose history do you teach? While there are many common areas of knowledge, the IB encourages teachers to select content that they feel is most relevant to their setting, their location and their children but to apply this knowledge to a conceptual framework. So for example, the children we were working with last week were working with the concept of Power. They were exploring how power worked in terms of political influence and interactions (looking at the current pro-democracy protests taking place in their city) but also in terms of their relationships, historical events and ethics. The exploration of these concepts was framed through concept keys – a set of questions which shape the collation of ideas and information:- fb52e163f32463abba677221e6ff59bf

They explored the responsibilities that power might bring, the consequences of power and actions that might need to be taken placing these within an inquiry cycle.

And then they produced works IMG_4291of art and writing that explored the outcomes of their thinking. They identify the importance of the right to free speech; to equality; to education and then they explore the idea of heroism, moving from political to social and fictional realms. Who are our personal heroes? Who are our world heroes? What would make the difference between a hero and a superhero? If you were a superhero, what would your power be?

I would give people the power to speak freely without fear.”

My mask gives me the power to know everything, but if it falls into the wrong hands it could be very dangerous.”

My mask has a part on it that allows you to access a wormhole and travel through time.”

At this point the children are beginning to move out of the realm of knowledge and analysis and into that of the imagination. And it was this realm that the teachers felt the children needed some help with. One of the teachers explained:-

“They soak up knowledge and they are confident at articulating their ideas, but they are sometimes fearful of letting go, of taking chances and their thinking can be very literal. We really hope that working with the ISTA team, they’ll become more playful and imaginative.”

The IB recognises that children are more than sponges for knowledge. It recognises that personal skills and aptitudes are essential, but often these children come from families with such high aspirations and expectations, that they become fearful of letting go – of being wrong; of taking risks. And one of the key learner profile skills is taking risks. So we had a brief – to let them experience play and to learn how to recognise its importance in building skills of collaboration, trust, imagination and confidence. They had three days of working intensively with teacher-artists in creating a sharing of all they had learned. Not a performance – this was not about polished performative outcome, but an exploration of the value of the arts in learning processes. We became a Superhero Academy. Our motto – “with great power, comes great responsibility”. We were off.
This is too babyish,” said one child at the beginning, refusing to join in a game, crossing her arms in protest. Highly academic, she was struggling to let go.

“Thank you” her mother said at the end ” She found it really hard at first – was making excuses not to get involved, but we could see as she came home every day that she was starting to build more confidence – she was talking more and she couldn’t wait to go back.”

She left a secret note in her teacher’s bag at the end of the week. A simple thank you. She was not feeling babyish any more – she was feeling empowered.

I’ve learned that Drama means you have to put yourself out there,” wrote another, “and that the worst thing you can do is to do nothing.”

I’ve seen how much we’ve learned to trust each other and to take chances – we’re working better as a team and we keep on trying even when we feel stupid or we worry that we might fail.”

I feel more positive about myself.”

These were just some of the learner comments as the work progressed. They learned theatre skills along the way, but the IB learner profiles were foremost in all our minds as we worked through the week. At the end of the week they shared their favourite moments from their sessions. And their parents were set some homework too, bringing it to the finale. They were asked to explore what the word hero meant to them and who they felt was heroic to them. The results were really moving. IMG_4305 IMG_4306

And at the end, they were given large sheets of paper and asked, in addition to applause, to write one word and hold it up so that their children could see the impact that their learning had on them, their parents. “emPOWering” wrote one. And others added theirs. All over the hall, children looked up and saw what their parents thought of their work – Warm, Inspiring, Proud, Love, Thoughtful, Wow… the list went on and on. All kudos to Louise Clark, the Artistic Director for that brilliant idea – the children were delighted and the relationships between them and their families strengthened in that one moment. And their ability to come together, focus, play and be brave did not go unnoticed either:-

“Look at them. Just look at them!” gasped one parent during the sharing “Now that’s what you call harmony!”

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Towards an Educational (R)evolution – my talk for the RSA

The following text is the talk I gave at the RSA yesterday. It’s what I wrote and intended to say, although of course on the day I improvised and lost bits. Anyway…

“I felt honoured to be asked to speak here today – honoured and more than a little terrified. And surprised. Surprised that people would come, would want to hear what I might have to say. That’s not a plea for sympathy or reassurance – you may yet regret your decision to be here, but to borrow from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’m not in Burnley any more.”

When I was little, I remember spending hours cutting pictures out of my Mum’s catalogues of things that I imagined might feature in my future. Handsome men staring wistfully into the distance. Pretty children. Soft furnishings. I took what I knew – home and family – and I imagined a future that had the same things in in, but with better cushions. This is how imagining a future works for most people – it is a slight improvement on the experience they already have. Imagining this present – speaking here – was nigh on impossible for me. London might as well have been Narnia.

In order to want something, you have to be able to imagine it. And sometimes, when you can’t see the full range of possibility, you need someone to imagine it for you. Someone with vision. Someone who believes in you. That someone becomes an imagineer of your future – an architect of dreams until you reach the point at which your experience expands enough to be able to imagine it for yourself. It seems to me that this is the role of a teacher and one of the purposes of our education system – to give children the tools by which they might imagine themselves into a future that once seemed impossible or inconceivable.

Imagining a future involves moving forwards. It sounds obvious but it is not. Our political system does not move in forward motion; it moves in a five year looping motion governed by general elections and a fear of what the electorate might tolerate in terms of risk. I’ve been astonished in recent months at the number of times I have heard the words “that is politically undo-able” from the mouths of ministers (both in and out of the shadows) and advisors. Not economically unviable, not wrong, not immoral. Just “politically undo-able”. This fearful looping motion is what drives our social and educational policy and in that frame of mind, the imagination is a luxury that could cost votes. Parliament is never going to be a place of creative risk. The culture of compliance is so strong there that MPs don’t even need to bother to listen to the substance of debate in order to know which way to vote. They do as they are told. In this culture, the status quo prevails.

An imaginative education system should aim to achieve that which has never been achieved before. It should be about designing possibility and turning that possibility into actuality. Instead we have a backward looking system that instills a fear of the future into our children. This is partly because if you want parents to vote for you, you have to convince them that there is a problem you can fix (but not a problem so substantial that they think you should have fixed it the last time you were in power). As a result, we tinker at the edges, instilling enough fear to ensure engagement without ever having to take radical action.

The result is that instead of being pedlars of hope we educationalists have become harbingers of doom, consolidating the belief in our children that they are only as good as their last set of results or as the status of the future job that they hold. I tell you that not one single teacher went into the profession with this intention in mind, but in our pursuit of results, we have become the unwitting carriers of a virus that removes hope while at the same time purporting to champion a meritocracy. We will have no real meritocracy in this country until we start to value the whole range of merits and capabilities that our children have. Those capabilities include the Arts.

Our politicians have reduced the status of the Arts even as the creative industries have kept our economy afloat. According to a report by the Education Select Committee, 14% fewer children are taking Arts GCSEs as a direct consequence of the Ebacc and 21% of schools serving our most disadvantaged communities have dropped Arts subjects from their curriculum. It is small wonder then that the top jobs in our Arts sector are held by those who were privately educated. And this is as true of popular culture as it is of the high arts. A recent survey found that 60% of that acts in the charts were privately educated. We argue for equality while simultaneously cutting off access to success.

We need to start again. We need to look at what we accept to be norms and to question them. We need to step through the wardrobe.

Charles Leadbeater at the Festival of Education in 2013 called for a revolution and in explaining why, he offered the analogy of the DC3 – the aircraft of choice in the mid and early 20th centuries. While popular, the DC3 flew at an altitude that took it through cloud cover and poor weather. This caused constant damage to aircraft, leading to costly repairs and frequent cancellations of flights. Although the technology existed to create an aircraft that would fly at a higher altitude, most airlines preferred to spend time and money tinkering with and improving the DC3. Eventually, one airline invested in the new Boeing aircraft however, and the rest is history. Leadbeater described our politicians as passionate engineers of the DC3 – battling to keep their preferred model in the air. But of course, this eventually leads us into a situation where the desire to protect the system overrides the interests of the consumer.

I believe that it is desire to protect our current system, with its relentless focus on examinations; with its deadening desire for certainly, leading to the illusion that data is truth; with its narrow conception of human achievement and capability….the desire to protect THIS system has become so endemic across our political parties that we have forgotten about the passengers. We have lost our way in the clouds and the turbulence is bringing us down.

A desire for certainty coupled with a reliance on testing has led to the repeated question of “What works?” from our policy makers. In recent times it has become clear that this question really means ” what is the most effective way to get children through tests.” This is a narrow question. Few seem to ask whether or not the knowledge gained for the test is retained after it. Or whether mental health, character and aptitude might also be part of the educational picture. There are some notable exceptions – Fiona Millar, speaking at Oxford last night, pointed to the EPPE study, a longitudinal study following 3,000 children through their childhood and asking questions beyond academic achievement. Their findings were important – namely that parents matter and good teachers matter. It was not, the report found, who parents were that mattered, but what they did with their children. This chimes with many other studies that point to the importance of speech, experience and love from parents in formative years. Good parenting is a skill that has far reaching implications for our society morally and economically. Why on earth don’t we teach it?

Away from EPPE however, most of our current research funding is being allocated to silver bullet searching. The “what will get kids through tests” mentality. This, as Dylan Wiliam points out is largely down to the fact that it is hard to measure the effectiveness of any intervention unless there is a test. And unfortunately the test does not transfer to other, more proximal contexts such as workplace or other problem. It does not even lead to a reliable indication that a child doing well in one kind of test, might also do well in a other kind of test. As PISA shows us.

Last week, a report written by the highly regarded team at Durham University and led by Professor Robert Coe, was published which aimed to summarise what we know to be ‘true’ about effective teaching. The report listed characteristics which when taken together suggest effectiveness. But the writers of the report had to concede that this was a more complicated picture that the list might suggest – that great teaching seemed to amount to more than the sum of the parts of the constituent characteristics of the list. In a sense they described teaching as having emergent properties, of being a complex adaptive system in which the outcomes are not entirely predictable and are sensitive to change. In short, teaching is as much an Art as a Science. And while that aspect of the report was encouraging, it was still depressing that the question was so narrow. For a great teacher contributes far more to the life of a child than exam results.

We now have an examination system that is buckling under the weight of expectation placed on it. This year saw an unprecedented number of requests for remarks with some candidates moving up by as much as two grades, and let’s not forget that remarks are an expensive business. Only those who can afford to pay for them get the second chance. Research by Wilmot et all as long ago as 1996 showed the unreliability of exam marking even from the same examiner and as someone who has been an examiner I can tell you that I could never be certain that the paper I marked at 1am was marked to the same level as the one I marked at 10am. The window of time for marking and the sheer volume of scripts make consistency nigh on impossible and a tiny proportion of scripts are sampled. A movement to a linear model will put only more pressure on the system. So the rhetoric that examinations offer us the most reliable and objective means by which to assess our children is a fiction and our dependency on it a form of blindness. We need to radically rethink how best to assess our children. We need to start trusting the people who know their capabilities best – their teachers – to do this. And in order to make this reliable we need to uncouple results from pay. There should be no incentive to play the system.

We also need to broaden our accountability structures to take into account far more than exam results. A school that supports a child through bereavement, stops them from committing suicide or spots a case of abuse should not be punished if that child falls shorts of predicted grades. And nor should that child have only one shot at success. We need a system of compassion and common sense.

We need to rethink our beliefs about the purpose of education too. And this may involve facing up to some uncomfortable truths. Let’s imagine for a moment that I am wrong – it’s hard, but do try. Let’s imagine that the education reforms we’ve been subjected to over the past 17years do start to pay off. Every child leaves clutching 5A-Cs at GCSE. Russell Group Universities expand to the size of small cities in order to accommodates the thronging masses, from all cross sections of society, bearing A level results. Let’s imagine that unlike KIPP kids, they all graduate too. What then? The fact is that there aren’t enough jobs. And that the ones we need doing the most don’t pay well. What happens when the unemployed turn up at the job centre, clutching their first class honours degrees from Oxford only to be told that there might be a zero hours contract in a call centre available. What then? It won’t happen of course, because every time we inch closer to Utopia, they change the grade boundaries, make the examinations harder and so we beat on against the tide.

We also need to consider that an academically educated population does not necessarily make for a more compassionate society. I had the very good fortune last night of sitting next to Professor Richard Pring at a dinner at Oxford university – get me – that’s a LONG way from Burnley! Anyway, he was kind enough to send me this letter which summarises far better than I could why it is that academia alone does not make the world a better place.

“Dear Teacher

I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should ever see.

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and children shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students to become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important, but only if they serve to make children more human.”

What if we re-conceptualised our notion of educational success? What if the goal was not a great job, but a fulfilling life? What if you could work behind a checkout and still love poetry? What if we were measured on our contribution to society regardless or not of whether we were in paid work? What if children were told that while they might not earn, they could still learn and be richer for it? That their contribution to society might be greater than their tax bill? How might that change our education system? Until we start to have these conversations, we will continue to sell myths, shift goalposts, and then blame teachers for the shortfall. These are big questions and worthy of consideration.

And in the meantime we need to start thinking of ourselves in the classroom as pedagogical activists, changing the world one lesson at a time. There are those of us who are political activists, shouting, blogging, writing books, speaking here. But for the classroom teacher, there are rows of children piles of marking, pages of bureaucracy. And that’s about as much as the full time classroom teacher can cope with day to day. But they can plan differently; they can look beyond the horizon of an exam. They can be the butterfly wings of change. What if….

1. We refused to compete with each other and started to collaborate? If we stopped publishing our results in the media, stopped hanging banners outside our schools declaring that we are Outstanding, stopped tweeting the results of our latest observations? What if instead we reached out and worked together?

2. What if we stopped telling children that they need stuff for the exam and instead just taught the stuff in as exciting a way as possible? What if we went beyond the syllabus? Let’s take this apple as an example. What if the syllabus tells us that children should know that it is a fruit, but that we cut it open and find the golden ratio? We analyse its chemistry and explore the relationship between nature and the needs of the human body? What if we told all the stories from our cultural and religious histories from Adam and Eve to Snow White? What if we asked the children why they think it might be that the logo on the front of their phones and tablets is not just of an apple, but an apple with a bite taken out of it….

3. What if we tell children that exams might be a border crossing but that the journey to the border is an adventure in itself?

4. What if we replaced objectives with really interesting questions so that instead of “Today we are learning about the structure of an atom” we asked “Is it true that nothing has an outline?”

5. What if, instead of strike action, we teachers just refused to do anything that wasn’t in the interests of a child? That would cut most of our workloads in half.

6. What if we stopped worrying what Ofsted might think? Ofsted does not think – it is an organisation. And even if it were sentient, given the number of new frameworks it has written, we would have to conclude that it was a goldfish.

7. What if schools were given the freedom to take a Year of Reflection, free of Ofsted and league tables in order to put the Soul back into School as the RSA have advocated in a wonderful report on Social Moral and Cultural Education. This was pronounced “politically undo-able” by the way…

8. What if we talked to parents, invited them in to watch our lessons, told them of our observations of their child’s friendships and happiness as well as their grades? What if we offered bridges instead of data reports?

9. What if we taught with deep moral purpose at heart – choosing topics and texts that ask bigger questions about how we might lead better lives, inflicting least harm on others and on our planet?

10. What if, in addition to exploring some of the best that has been thought and said as Arnold suggested, we also pointed out to children that there is so much yet to know, to be thought, to be said, done and discovered. By them. What if we empowered them with a hopeful vision of future where the best is yet to come?

What if?

There are many ways to live our lives. We can choose to question or comply, to hope or mope, to reform or moan. I honestly believe that there is an appetite for optimism, for radical change, for the politically undo able to be done. And if politicians are fearful, then it is up to us – teachers, parents and children to become the architects of dreams. To make those dreams politically doable. We can do this by making it clear that we will vote for the brave. For those committed to forward motion. For those prepared to hand power over to a professional body with a long term view. For those who are prepared to act in the interests of our children. For those who value the multi-faceted talents of all children. And if those votes elected the brave, then all those ‘what ifs’ might well become ‘the way it is.’

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Woman! Know thy place.

It’s been a tough week. I’ve always subscribed to the Paulo Coelho school of thought that the secret to life is being knocked down seven times but getting up eight times. When I was abused by my piano teacher, I practiced my scales because I loved music. When girls at my school hospitalised me twice, I walked back into school the following days with my head held high. When I found myself aged 24, penniless, abandoned and pregnant, I brought my son into the world alone and taught him that love and knowledge would conquer the world and it sustained him all the way to Oxford. I’m used to finding silver linings and getting up. Chumbawumba minded me. So why on earth did I let some negativity on twitter bring me down this week? This post is not intended to be a ‘pity me’ post, but rather an exploration of why it is that a small number of privately educated men seem to think it’s alright to personally attack women they deem to be strong. And most of all, it’s a celebration of the ilkhood that sprung up in hundreds over the past few days and which I’ve come to think of as the I Love Kids brigade.

I was aware of the Robert Peal review as I boarded a plane to Turkey with my family but was unconcerned. He has a motive for revenge – I had hardly been complimentary about his own book and I had known he would vent his spleen. I hadn’t quite been prepared for the fact that the dish on which he served his revenge had been given to him by Academies Week. Still, as I outlined above, I’ve faced far more formidable foes than Robert Peal and my husband and I read the review laughing on a beach and ordered another cocktail. I thought I’d save a response for when I got home but the subsequent furore has really spoiled this holiday and so I post this now in the hope of salvaging the last two days.

Bitterness blinds. Of the errors he points out in terms of content, only one is valid. That South Korea has the third highest child suicide rate in the world, not the highest. This is true and I knew it when I wrote it. I had meant that it had the highest of all the countries topping the PISA tables, but that’s not what I wrote. The other erroneous points either contain data that was published after the book had gone to print. Or they are just misleading. One error that was missed was the statement I made that Robert Peal was returning to teaching at the Michaela free school. He did not go to Michaela, but is completing his NQT year at Toby Young’s West London Free School instead. Apologies Robert for that error.

The review seems to have only covered the sections of the book that named the reviewer and so it’s not surprising perhaps that he missed the points raised or the ideas in it. He claims that there are no suggestions as to what a new education system might look like, but there are detailed outlines for reform of ITT and suggestions for what teachers can do in their own schools and classrooms – pedagogical activism which I outline as a form of quiet revolution. But then, those arguments are made in the book, so if you are interested, do read them.

Nor is the book highly critical of Teach First. While it raises concerns about funding and closeness to government, there are many positives to the TF philosophy that I highlight and I also tackle some of the common misconceptions levelled at TF. It is, however, critical of inconsistent ITT provision.

Peal also attacks some of the citations I offer in support of the impact of narrative, emotion and activity on memory. If anyone would like to know more about this, then I’d read Willingham and Egan on the power of narrative, Damasio and Curran on the power of emotion and there are large sections in the book dedicated to activity and embodied cognition, but Goldin-Meadow is a good place to start.

Now, onto the meat of the issue. It was not, as I said, a peevish review that upset me. Nor was it particularly the platform offered by Academies Week. Controversy sells and I respect that. But it was the gleeful barking of the scavengers waiting to feast on the carrion of the review that did me in. I found myself in the Aegean but feeling like I was swimming in spite. “Brilliant review” tweeted Old Andrew Smith about a book he could not be bothered to read. And others joined in. John Blake, supposed champion of academic achievement, sneered at my doctorate and accused me of pride. God forbid a woman should be proud. I was wounded. And I mean, really, tearfully wounded. And that’s the point at which I always ask ‘what’s really going on here?’ I went through the timelines of all those gleeful hangers on. Mostly (but not quite all) men educated at all boys schools. Mostly Oxbridge graduates. Mostly middle class. None who had come from backgrounds where getting ‘ideas above your station’ was a sin. Rachel Da Souza recounts this mindset well in her profile for Academies Week. To be working class, female and aspirational is difficult. While my parents always encouraged me, the attitude in my school to anyone who wanted something more than babies and hairdressing in their lives was spiteful. It led to having your head smashed repeatedly against a concrete floor. It led to having your cornea sliced open with a fingernail. By far and away, the worst insult a teenage girl could (and still can) hear is “She loves herself”. So there was the sting.

I am yet to meet a woman who has achieved something who doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome. I’ve had so many whispered conversations with those who appear to be strong and confident about the fear of ‘being found out’ – the fear that you can’t possibly be as good as others think you are. There have been psychological studies about the tendency of women to focus on the negative comments even when the positive far out weigh them, and this has certainly been true for me. Perhaps this is why I got upset. But I’m not upset any more. I am buoyed and I am back in the ring. I have the ilk to thank for that. Robert Peal had no idea what he started with the phrase ‘Debra Kidd and her ilk.’

As soon as I tweeted that I’d had enough, hundreds of DMs and tweets came flooding in. Some chose to remain anonymous because of their high public profile, but support was offered nonetheless. Others tweeted loudly in support. It turned out that the ilk, many of them women but a great many others decent, kind and fair minded men, were numerous and generous. And they lifted me out of a little fog of self pity and reminded me that it’s not about me. And it’s not about them. It’s about children. And that’s what we’re battling for. And if in twenty years time, some of the kids I’ve taught have the word Dr. on the front of their books, I’ll be cheering loudly and very, very proudly indeed. Thank you all ilks for reminding me what matters.

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Life after teaching (thus far…)

By far and away, the most popular post I ever wrote was “When you know it’s time to go” – and now it’s a case of ‘Life After Teaching’. I thought I’d write a very little update on what it’s like…

Firstly, it’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve left at a pretty exciting time. My book is out. And I left knowing that I’d be able to work with the brilliant staff at Independent Thinking and do more with one of the loves of my life, the International Schools Theatre Association. So all in all, there were lots of things to look forward to. But like any break up, there is pain too.

On the first day of term, I drove past my school like a heartbroken lover, staring up the driveway and wondering if I should pop in. I even sent a message to my ex Head of Department, offering to come in and clean the fridge. I’ve had little moments of heartache as I’ve realised I won’t be going to the Year 11 prom (which is particularly devastating as I now fit into THAT dress) and I nearly wept when I bumped into some members of my form group at the supermarket and saw their faces light up when they saw me. You forget sometimes how much you love them when you’re knee deep in marking their punctuation free sentences.

But my goodness, I don’t miss the marking. I know it’s necessary. I know it is an act of love. But it can be soul destroying and the twitter conversation last night in which it became clear that across both primary and secondary, the increased expectations that staff will be marking for around 3/4 hours every single night reminded me that we’ve moved beyond the boundaries of what can be considered to be humane expectations of our teachers. Even without marking, the habit of working well into the evening is really hard to break – especially after 21 years. I find myself sitting at my computer doing tasks I don’t even need to do because I can’t think of anything else to do simply out of force of habit. Evenings remain firmly programmed in my brain as “work time”.

But mornings are another matter. I swim. I do yoga. I used to try to do both, but to do so meant getting up at 5. Now, some days I can do it after dropping the littlest one off at school. I feel better – healthier, more rested and more alive. And my own children have noticed a difference – they seem more relaxed. I don’t bark at them to leave me alone. We laugh together.

I miss the classroom; the camaraderie, the challenge. I miss my colleagues – their generosity and spirit. But I don’t miss the bureaucracy. I don’t miss chasing data. I don’t miss doing things because Ofsted might want it. I don’t miss that at all.

And as for money. Well I’m poorer. I donated all my royalties to charity (so some child in Africa might well now get a pen) and I keep saying yes to things that don’t pay. I need to stop relying on my savings to get by. But the things I am doing are so interesting. I get to go to different places, meet different people, think in different ways. There are many ways of being rich. And I feel lucky to be richly stimulated.

I wish this fulfilment could come in school. Why is it that people have to leave teaching to feel trusted and respected; to feel that they have professional autonomy and the ability to take risks and try new things? What a crying shame.

I’ll keep updating the Life After Teaching posts. And maybe one day, I’ll be writing a ‘When You Know it’s Time to Go Home” blog. But until then….if you are thinking of leaving, make sure you know what you’ll miss and consider whether it’s worth it. Accept that you may earn less, but feel richer in other ways. Put some savings aside. Then leap and trust…

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Relevance and Engagement are not Embellishments.

Most of my work in school over the past ten years or so has been about making the curriculum relevant and engaging to children. Those words are not very trendy at the moment. Sometimes it seems that the ‘resilience/grit’ agenda has been hijacked by people who think that those qualities are simply about tolerating boredom. They are sadly misguided. Boredom is a negative state in which learning does not take place. That’s not to say we should avoid boredom at all costs – children who are bored on a Sunday afternoon might well find something useful to do. And being in a state of mindful inactivity is a healthy thing to be. But being bored in class does not lead to learning.

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Instead, we should be aiming for engaged confusion. This state, rather than outright happiness is the optimal condition for learning. The puzzled frown is not the same as the blank yawn. This state of engagement – an almost fog like state where you are working at the edges of your ability and focused on a goal or problem, but can’t quite yet see how you will get there – is highly stimulating for the mind and the memory. So how do we do it? How do we lure children into this state of readiness for learning? I would argue that we make it relevant.

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The word relevance has been much maligned and misunderstood in recent years – some simplify it so much that all children would ever learn in a ‘relevant’ curriculum is that which is linked to the experiences they have already had. This really limits children, especially if they have had narrowed life experiences. It is this kind of use of the word ‘relevant’ that leads some to dismiss the idea as epitomising a culture of “low expectations”. But if we view the word differently – if we see relevance as a means by which we bring curriculum content to life – finding the connections that make the knowledge relevant to a child, then we have a different animal altogether; one that seeks to make connections, to universalise that which is particular and open up a pathway to enticing children into that which is unfamiliar or new. This is what I’ve been trying to do for years in building curriculum models in schools that capture hearts and intellect. This is about giving children a reason to learn. For example…

Imagine you have to teach Latin. You can either stand and deliver. Drill and test. Or you can set your classroom up as a Celtic village facing a Roman army. The chief wants to negotiate and assimilate. In order to do so, he is going to have to learn to speak their language. Which of these two options will children find most enticing? The outcome will be the same. The motivation is entirely different.

I was reminded of the need to think intelligently and in connected ways when I was lucky enough to visit Brussels last week with Independent Thinking. The International Schools system is fascinating when considering the purpose and structure of schooling. They sit outside of government policies and education acts because they are entirely independent of the countries in which they are situated. They serve the parent body and a transient population of ‘third culture’ children. They are hugely successful, following mostly the IB route of education through which children progress through the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme (without sitting any externally set tests) and finally onto IB. At the International School of Brussels, working in partnership with other schools, they’ve written their own curriculum – The Common Ground. It’s completely fascinating – you can view it here. Taking three strands (seen as a triple helix), every aspect of the curriculum is viewed through the three ‘c’s – Conceptual understanding, Character, and Competence – what we might think of as knowledge/understanding, personal attributes and skills. But in addition, there is a strong thread of conscience – an emphasis on community and global connectedness, responsibility and ethics. It is no wonder that so many of these International students are articulate, thoughtful and confident – you should see their mini UN conventions.

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Our politicians in the UK are constantly telling us we should be more like independent schools. Some of the most successful independent schools in the world are the International Schools. But you don’t often see uniforms. And testing is rare below the age of 16. How might we emulate their success?

To do so, we have to stop teaching to tests, to Ofsted priorities, to government policies. We need to become globally minded and think about what children need to be effective citizens in the future. Children in these schools study the Theory of Knowledge. They understand how countries are interdependent on each other. They examine concepts like democracy, population migration, climate. They develop as whole learners. And we can do this. We can teach without selling our souls. (shameless plug here – if you want to know how, come along to this!) We need to think really differently about the content of what we teach. What if:-

1. In English we only taught texts that said something about how to make the world a better place (perhaps by showing it at its worst and figuring out what to do about it).

2. In Maths we told children what the formula they’re learning is actually used for by real people in real life?

3. In Science, we looked at how innovations are used for good and bad purposes and encouraged ‘what if’ questions from children -“What if the nuclear bomb had never been invented?” “What if we invented a cure for cancer – how much would it cost? What would the implications be for population control?” “How might science make life in a refugee camp more bearable?” Hard questions that have no straightforward solutions can be powerful motivators for pupils to engage with the nitty gritty of knowledge.

4. In Languages, we set up situations where the children in a fiction have no choice but to communicate in a foreign language? They have been captured in WW2 Germany. They are delivering information to the French Resistance?

5. In Geography they have to set up an emergency aid chain of supply to an earthquake zone, plot the route and design packs of survival materials?

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I could go on. Engagement, relevance, big questions…. these are not embellishments to learning. They are routes to learning and it’s time we reclaimed that language and focused on making our lessons capable of changing the world. Anything less is, well….boring.

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Saying Nothing Loudly : Ofsted on Behaviour.

Look, I have a confession. I have, from time to time, stood in front of an unruly class and wondered what on earth I’m going to do to get them to do what I need them to do. I know what some might say – why should they do what you want them to do? But that way madness lies. Perhaps those moments of weakness have made me a bad teacher, but I’d hazard a guess that we all have had them. Or the class that nothing seemed to work for. Or the kid. So I imagine that many teachers woke up this morning thinking that the new report from Ofsted would be a step forward – an offer of help and support perhaps? Of course not.

Based on surveys of teachers and parents (many of whom seemed to think that a] low level disruption from other people’s children was a problem holding their child back and b] it was not being carried out by their child), the report came to some disappointing conclusions:-

1. If headteachers stand out in corridors and are less friendly then disruption will stop.

2. Teachers are too soft.

Let’s pop those points under the microscope shall we?

1. Visible Heads.

I think it is important for a headteacher to be a highly visible and active presence in a school – of course it is. It helps children to build relationships with the captain of the ship and that’s an important thing. It’s also good to have them around if things kick off. But doing so in a manner that is designed to purely show kids who is boss is doomed to failure. And being a presence counts for nothing if the systems in place are not fit for purpose. At my last school, staff constantly raised concerns at meetings about low level disruption in class. I’ll come to our own culpability in this shortly, but let’s shine a light on processes and procedures here. The response was “most of the children in the school behave impeccably”. This was true. But the ones who didn’t were really making it difficult for lessons to flow. So a solution was introduced. A tiered warning system. This is how it worked for me…

C1 – verbal warning for small misdemeanours like not having equipment or entering the room rowdily or chatting at the start of the lesson. On average, I’d say that 10-15 pupils in each class would have had this warning if all teachers followed the procedure.

C2 – second warning – a note in the planner. I won’t go into the farce that is trying to get a note in planner that is repeatedly ‘forgotten’. Assuming it’s there, and kids being kids and trying to be consistent with all, a C2 could be issued to six kids or more. And it’s important to issue it, no matter how tricky, because consistency is important, right? So that’s 12 minutes I then had to find at the end of each lesson to write in planners. And I taught at opposite ends of the school. And I started to wonder which routine was most important – being there on time to greet pupils and have an orderly start or adhering to school policy. By the end of the day, I’d spent an hour writing in planners. And had missed an hour of lessons or duty to be able to do it.

C3 – Detention. Maybe one child a day. Usually one who has just necked one of those concentrated Robinson’s fruit drinks or a Monster can of madness. Might the Ofsted report have considered the impact of sugar on this issue? Of course not. Might they have suggested that parents had a responsibility to make sure that their children were not so high on sugar and additives that it’s sometimes a miracle we can keep them from throwing themselves out of the window? Of course not. So detention is issued. And for some children that means booking an appointment six months in advance. For many kids, school days have been extended forever. Perhaps they tolerate detentions as the price they pay for having a good time for the rest of the day. Or perhaps they don’t mind because they don’t actually want to go home. So at the end of the day, I rushed from my lesson (assuming I hadn’t just had to spend 12 minutes writing in planners) in order to try to catch whoever had a detention before they legged it. I’d take them to the inevitable meeting with me. And on the way I’d try to make a phone call to the parent of the kid I’d be seeing the following day. All while also trying to call back all the parents who had left messages to enquire or complain about the note I wrote in their child’s planner. It was frankly, a pain in the arse and the temptation to just not write the note, or issue the detention was overwhelming. But we mustn’t give in, right, or there will be chaos? Except things don’t get better, because at the end of the day, detentions just don’t work.

C4 – Removal from the class. Hit the ‘On Call’ button. Ten minutes later, if you’re lucky, a harassed person arrives at your door with a string of kids behind them. There isn’t actually anywhere to take a child when they are On Called except your office. And only a nutter would leave a child unattended in their office. I hit the button twice in my career. I regretted it both times. The lesson was almost over by the time they went, but then I had to log it on the system – a procedure so complex that it would be easier to take over the management of the CERN Hadron Collider. Then I have to schedule a detention, call the parents and …. well you’ve got it. I might as well have stuck with C3 because there is no consequence for a C4 that doesn’t just involve more work for the teacher.

All in all, it’s an utterly unworkable system in which nothing is achieved. But that’s not to say that I think headteachers should suddenly start kicking kids out. Or turning into Judge Dread. Because that kid who told you to ‘fuck off’ found his Dad hanging in a garage. The one who is constantly tapping on the table is in pain with her IBS and the tapping is a subconscious distraction from the pain. And when a Head hears these tales, they use their judgement to decide what to do. Compassion is important. It matters and these problems need to be handled on a child by child, day by day basis.

In zero tolerance schools like KIPP in the US, there is a hugely disproportionate rate of exclusions for children with SEN or from ethnic minorities. Too often our schools don’t take any account of the complex needs of our children – either in terms of their cognition and socialisation or their home culture. We need to attend more to this – throwing children out of school is a failure of the system. It should never be rejoiced as I’ve seen some unscrupulous senior managers in Academies do, or be seen as anything but a very last resort. And for those children who simply cannot cope in mainstream education, we need to properly fund alternative provisions so that they are all entitled to the quality of education and support that is offered at places like Springwell in Barnsley.

But those are the high level disrupters and this report focuses on the low level. What of them? Are teachers too soft?

2. “Teachers – grow a pair!” (an extract that didn’t quite make its way into the report, but was there in the subtext).

There were several references in the report to informality and even dress, making a very bold assumption that informality breeds contempt. Where is the evidence for this? I work a lot in International Schools, where children rarely wear uniform. Sometimes they call members of staff by their first names, especially in High School. And here, in sixth form colleges and FE colleges, it is routine to be on first name terms with tutors and not to have uniform. And yet standards of behaviour in these settings are excellent. There is a clear difference between open, friendly and informal relationships between staff and pupils and poor consistency and expectations. The report has really confused these two things and there is a strong flavour that personal preference is over-riding evidence in this matter.

Children need boundaries. They need to know that you are trying to be fair and consistent (and they’re pretty good at recognising that fairness is not always the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way). But whether or not their uniform (or yours) impacts on those issues is unproven. It’s a silly correlation. I wish the report had spent more time asking the following questions:-

1. What impact is diet having on behaviour? What could we do to ensure that parents don’t give their children cash to go to the shop on the way to school?

2. To what extent are we feeding a culture of low respect and tolerance for each other, by placing far more emphasis on exam results than personal character?

3. To what extent do politicians, Ofsted and the media shape the opinions of parents? And in belittling and blaming the profession, do they create a lack of respect for the profession in parents’ minds that then gets passed onto their children? I’ve had, on more than one occasion, a parent demand that their child be excused from a detention for spurious reasons and had to deal with some fairly rude and dismissive comments about getting a ‘real’ job and knowing what ‘hard work looks like’. This attitude comes directly from our media and it is fed by politicians. Sort your own houses out first.

4. When we teachers blame each other for not following the system and letting the team down, how often do we think whether or not it is just harder for some people than others. People who don’t have their own classrooms, or are teaching subjects where it’s just not practical to have planners out on desks. You’re in a field for example. Is consistency really the better option, or should we find solutions at departmental levels?

5. We should be teaching lessons worth behaving for. Too many of us think that resilience is about enduring boredom. It’s not. And there are very few adolescents who can tolerate sitting and listening for 5 hours or more without needing to move about and talk.

It always depresses me when complex problems – and don’t get me wrong, this is a problem – when complex problems are met with simplistic solutions. When they are used as an excuse to push forward a favourite ideology. When they are used to avoid looking at bigger questions.

This year, Harvard university published a report’Making Caring Common’ which examined why it was that children were placing their own needs ahead of others and why their ability to empathise was falling. The answers were complex, but in a nutshell, we, as a society are not prioritising empathy, respect and care as we raise our young. It is absent from our curriculum. We press for individual achievement and personal happiness above community responsibility. Is it really any wonder then that we are finding this lack of respect and empathy in our classrooms? Surely, instead of blaming Heads, teachers and children, we should start to look at ourselves as a society and ask some serious questions about how we educate our young.

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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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