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.


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.


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.


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?


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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Finger Clickin’ Good…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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What should we do about ITT?

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

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

1. Knowledgeable

2. Respected

3. Autonomous

4. Trusted

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

1. More time allocated to the qualifying period.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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