Our Day Out (at the DfE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming and Cheating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Uncouple teacher performance from test results.

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

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

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

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

 

Out-takes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Better a Blob than a Knob.

 

I usually try very hard to avoid personal attacks in my blogs – even when writing about Michael Gove. But this is a response to Toby Young so an exception can be made. Last week, to much self trumping, Toby Young published for the right wing sink tank, Civitas, an attack on anyone who disagrees with his views on education – accusing one and all as members of ‘The Blob’ – a term nicked from Michael Gove. Most of the article was nicked actually, from Daisy Christodoulou, but with Young’s customary rudeness thrown in for good measure. It was an argument so flimsy and ill informed that a sneeze would dismantle it. And I have a spare five minutes…

For those of you who do not know Toby Young, what better introduction that his own words, on the web site of his school…

“Toby Young is one of the founders of the West London Free School. He is a British journalist and the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001)” Thankfully he has now removed the sentence which listed a ‘sex play’ as one of his achievements – a sentence that sat on the school website for well over a year. What kind of parent was he hoping to attract with that one? I imagine a cluster of pin-striped fathers pushing their offspring through the gates and rushing off for a spanking with a well paid dominatrix (while conjugating latin verbs). But it’s gone now. Now it’s just a school for the unpopular.

So that’s the ad hominem part over – let’s look at the errr…substance…of the actual argument.

His article : “Prisoners of the Blob : Why Most Education Experts are Wrong About Everything” makes a number of assumptions which are in themselves deeply flawed. He claims that:-

British State Schools are “in decline” 

In decline from what? Since the creation of the comprehensive system, the state system has only improved – data from Ofsted itself shows that schools and teachers are better than they have ever been. Where is Young’s evidence for this decline? Well, there isn’t any. It’s an opinion. It might help to define what exactly has declined. If it were teacher morale, children’s interest in school, the moral purpose of schooling etc I might find myself in agreement. But no, the opinion seems to be based on the loss of the ‘O’ Level and Latin.

Everyone in education shares a progressive educational philosophy blocking progress.

Young criticises those of us working in education for being ‘child centred’. He is of course, confusing child centred with child led, a common misconception among those who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Of course education should be centred on children. What else could it be centred around? Oh, wait….Ofsted-centred, profit-centred, self-centred? There is an assumption in the pamphlet that child centred means learning without teaching, modelling or guidance. But that is not what happens in schools. In fact Hattie’s research shows clearly that the dominant teaching model in schools is the teacher led one, not the progressive one. For my own part, while I argue strongly for creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, I know that some things just have to be taught and learned. This is a common denominator. It is a base line, not an aspiration. Young and his supporters announce that teaching kids facts is indicative of rigour. In fact, it is a lowering of the bar so far that a slug could leap over it. Let me give an example:-

I am ‘teaching’ Romeo and Juliet. We are analysing a speech of Juliet’s and exploring the meaning of some of the metaphors. This is the BASELINE. It is easy to get children across a baseline. But I want them to remember the play and I want them to love it. For that I have to try harder.

We are doing this in role as detectives investigating her death. The children are intently looking at the language for clues as to her state of mind. They are undergoing training from a ‘linguistic forensic expert’ on the use of language. They KNOW it’s a fiction, but the fiction gives them motivation to look harder, to remain focused, to remember the learning. This is CHILD CENTRED learning. 

Young paints a picture of progressive education devoid of knowledge and discipline, with no recognition that teachers are not simply charged with teaching knowledge, but in making that knowledge stick. He bandies around the terms ‘cognitive science’ without engaging with any detailed exploration of what we know about the brain. Here’s some cognitive science for you, Mr. Young:-

1. Accountable talk in groups has a significant impact on learning and achievement – (Michaels and Resnick 2008)

2. Feeling valued and trusted in the classroom creates conditions in which the brain feels safe to learn (Curran 2009)

3. Teachers and children who gesture well and who are attuned to each others gestures have a better understanding of concepts and are more likely to be able to explain them – movement and talk are essential to learning. This makes learning a community endeavour (Goldin- Meadow et al 2003, 2013, 2014)

4. Emotion is inextricably linked to effective decision making – suggesting that equipping children with the skills to explore and handle their emotions links to effective reasoning (Damasio 2006)

It is interesting that not a single one of these eminent and well respected cognitive and neuroscientists are mentioned in Young’s work. Not one. Instead he argues that teachers are basing their practice on the philosophy of Rousseau.

Let me be clear – without undermining my profession, most teachers, even if they have heard of Rousseau, won’t have the faintest idea what his educational philosophy was. Suggesting that we plan our lessons based on his Romantic educational philosophy is plain daft. But then, his whole argument is daft and rather than finding real evidence for it, he describes those who oppose him as ‘blancmange’. The whole article is littered with cliches and mixed metaphors. The Blob is a single amoebic entity but also a collective mass. It is both dangerous and comic. Actually, Toby, the image is just childish, wearisome and dull. Young does claim only to be a journalist and not a writer – a semantic gap akin to woodcutter and carpenter, but still….some originality would be refreshing. Some proper research. Some evidence. Instead we get this:-

“For those of us who favour a knowledge-building, teacher-led approach, it is this ideology that is the enemy, not those who believe in it”.

And there we have it – this is an attempt to pick a fight with an imagined enemy from a small group with a ‘favoured’ view. Nothing more. The problem is that to fight, you have to have an enemy who knows who he is. No-one recognises themselves in this blob because the reality is we need skills AND knowledge. We need engagement AND discipline. Everyone working in the classroom knows this. And if this were all that Young attacked, I’d probably leave it alone, but look at this:-

“The central pillar of The Blob’s educational philosophy is the belief that children are essentially good. That is, children are naturally curious, imaginative and creative and the purpose of a good education is to enable children to express fully these innate talents”.

This belief, that a child is good, creative, curious and imaginative, is apparently a bad thing. But it is the conflation between that belief and the purpose of schooling that is flawed. I do believe that children are naturally (on the whole) curious, imaginative and creative. But I don’t think that the purpose of education is to simply express this. I want them to be able to read, be numerate, have knowledge and experience. It’s just that I want the latter to be achieved without crushing the former. Is that too Blobby for you Mr. Young?

And again, in his ignorance, there is a wilful misinterpretation of a key educational term – relevance. For Young, the idea of making learning relevant to children means limiting what is learned to their world experience. He attacks this as meaning that only popular culture is taught. What utter nonsense. Making learning relevant is about finding the human connection to that which is taught. Finding the wonder in the world. My students love Romeo and Juliet partly because falling in love is relevant to them. They love learning about priests fleeing into priest holes during the reformation because fear is relevant to them. This ridiculous sullying of the concepts of relevance and engagement in education flies in the face of what we know about the brain and how it learns. Making connections – both emotionally and intellectually – is a key strategy for making learning memorable. Keep up Mr. Young.

Like Christodoulou in her book, Young reels out examples of really poorly constructed role play lessons in order to dismiss the entire notion of using role to develop empathy. Imagine if we used a few examples of poor Maths teaching to argue the case that Maths was irrelevant. Putting poor practice out for ridicule in order to attack the whole is an easy way to score points, but it helps no-one. ‘Pretend you’re a slave’ is crass. Almost as crass as lumping the entire education establishment together and calling them a blob. But not quite.

I could go on picking holes in this piece of lace, but they are obvious to anyone who cares to take a look. And I have work to do. So here endeth the spanking Mr. Young. My bill is in the post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Your Tribe.

I was invited this weekend to spend some time in the Independent Thinking Bubble – which turned out to be a beautiful country house in Wales, packed full of people whose books I had read or am waiting to read. I was slightly nervous, sitting in the car for ten minutes, plucking up the courage to go in on Friday night. By Sunday morning, I didn’t want to leave. I had found my tribe and had my soul realigned.

It is easy in times such as these to start to think that people who know that learning happens in the body, the heart and the mind are a tiny minority. You can start to believe that the words ‘fun’, ‘engagement’, ‘relevance’, ‘enjoyment’, ‘love’, ‘happiness’, ‘conscience’, ‘ collaboration’ and even ‘group work’ are the problem with education and not an integral part of the solution. Too often we read earnest, well meaning blogs from teachers who argue that learning is not fun. It is hard. And so children should not enjoy it. But hard things are sometimes fun. Leaving my car was hard, but it led to enjoyment. And I had fun. And I learned loads from some of the wisest and best in the profession. And when the lovely Neil Hawkes told me on Sunday morning that he had watched me ‘become myself’ over the weekend, I nearly cried. He was right. Being in and among people who love children, and have not lost sight of what they need, helped me to get back in touch with the teacher I always wanted to be again.

What if….I thought….all schools did this? Took their staff to a lovely place to be together thinking about how they could work to make the lives of children better? What if they sat, like we did, around a table, sharing food like a family, laughing, debating, creating together? And then went back to school on Monday. Money wasted? I’d bet my life not. It would be a school reinvigorated, a staff reunited and children would come in and see role modelled for them what proper collaboration looks like. Isn’t it sad that outside of the private sector, such experiences are deemed to be frivolous? Oh, we mustn’t have fun!

Let’s think, as teachers and leaders how to create those spaces for finding, gathering and becoming a tribe. For being together. For finding our common ground and building upon it. Let’s stop denigrating playfulness and accept that playful states are essential to learning and happiness. Let’s start thinking about how we prepare our children for a world in which ‘becoming me’ is a priority and forms a step towards ‘becoming we’ in whichever tribes we need to belong to. Because life is not about passing tests and performing as economic units. At least, it’s not just about that. It’s about living, loving and learning.

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Faith, Hope and Hilarity

I was a little taken aback by the reaction to my resignation post. I braced myself for charges of ‘traitor’ and instead all I got was a current of support that carried me past tears into hopefulness. So thank you for reading and responding. And I’m not leaving teaching per se – I’ll still come and play in any school that will have me. I’ve not abandoned hope. And hope was very much in the air today with the Year 5 class I was working with in Huddersfield. It is the same school in which we’ve been wizarding – see this post - http://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/lying-is-just-lovely/ for more on that. But in the mornings, we’re Tudoring and so I thought I’d share some of our process and our work, because these kids blew my socks off today.

When we co-planned this unit, the Year 5 teachers were keen that the children would be exposed to the complexity of the Tudor monarchy, particularly some of the issues facing Henry VIII. They didn’t want children to simply reel off the dates, names of wives and to chant how they died. The wonderful head at the school is clear “History matters because it gives us an understanding of who we are today” and she is keen that the children really engage with that through line, connecting, empathising and understanding. We wanted to lure them into learning – entice them with a starting point that would fire their imaginations, but also open up some deep questions and so….we built a secret little priest hole in a cupboard in the library and put a ‘body’ in there with a lot of religious artefacts and a coded letter.

On our first day, we went into role as Heritage experts called in by the owner of a house whose builders had come upon a hollow section of the wall hidden behind an old tapestry. We talked about what values we would have as a Heritage team – what our responsibilities would be. What we would never, ever do (in still image) and from these, we created our code of conduct.

1. We will treat the dead with dignity and respect.

2. We will never touch ancient objects with our bare hands but always wear gloves.

3. We will keep a list of everything we find so that nothing is lost or stolen.

4. We will take all measures necessary to make sure that we don’t damage anything.

5. We would never steal or deliberately harm anything or anyone.

Once our code was in place, we went to the hole. Each team had a special job. One to photograph and record everything (without flash of course). Another to keep careful lists of everything that came out. One to remove the body with care and respect. Others to collect and wrap the objects and carefully transport them back to the ‘lab’. Once there, we analysed the objects and the class came to the conclusion that this must be a holy man. The skeleton was still holding rosary beads. There was a communion chalice in the room, icons and statues and a large brass key with a crucifix on it. Whoever this was, they decided, he was religious and cared about these objects. Perhaps he had taken them from a church. One Polish child declared that she thought the man was Catholic because of the rosary beads. “Aaaahhhh” said several children and their latent knowledge of Catholic/Protestant poured out of them. We created a list of things we knew for sure and things we had better find out. “But what about this”? I asked, putting the ancient letter on the visualiser. It made no sense.

This day the 31st January 1539

“Our Dearest Friend,

Snowy trees overhang near Ely. Its simple drooping elegance arcs divine. Flying larks enter evening with everlasting, heavenly, angelic voices ere swooping and floating, endlessly pleasing. Long are Christmas eves, toasty hearths, even keen incensed nights gone. So may enter none who insist lying lazily, complaining of moods eternally saddened or morose. All kin, even horrors, are sleeping tonight entertained by ever snowy, wild in freedom trees.

M and C”.

First of all the children looked for clues in the text:-

“Angels, horrors sleeping….has someone died?”

“Maybe the trees are telling him that he is going to be hanged?”

“Maybe it’s in code”

In teams they try to work out what the code might be. And one team hits upon using all the first letters of the words. “Stone is dead. Flee. We have safe place. The King’s Men Will Come. So make haste, be swift.”

Over a number of days, the children and their teacher explore the situation together, building both knowledge – who is Stone, how did he die and why? What were the differences between a protestant and catholic church? How has the Church of England affected who we are as a country today? And they worked on their imaginations – so why did our priest die in the hole, what happened to M and C – why did no-one come for him? They create a house, a coat of arms, a history of the relationships between these characters. The priest, the teacher names as Father Catesby – a nod to the future gunpowder plotter – the children name Lady Catherine Leigh and deduce that she must have been arrested. They write fearful and heart wrenching diary entries from the priest and they explore why and how the Church of England was established. By the time I go back, they’re pretty clued up.

Today, we wanted to explore the situation from the point of the king, but also to round off our little story. I told them that we were going to imagine that we could bring back a witness – a maid of the Lady Catherine to cast light on what had happened. They had to think of questions to ask her. In role, I became the maid. They probed into her background and asked what had happened to Lady Leigh. They discovered that her son had fled to Spain and that she was being held prisoner in the tower on suspicion of assisting his departure and hiding a priest. The maid told them that there was no evidence of this – that the house had been turned over and that “poor father Catesby seems to have disappeared – no-one has seen him for over two weeks.” At that point, the children, somewhat exasperated, shouted out that the priest was in the house and that if he’d been there for two weeks, he was probably dead by now. The maid was shocked. So shocked we came out of role.

“We must send her back to the past” I said “What do you think she will do and what will the consequences of her actions be?”

They create short scenes with no more than ten words in them.

Some choose for her to return to the priest hole and give the priest a proper Christian burial. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Rest in Peace.”

Some find the priest half alive “Water” he gasps “Miracle” she replies.

Some show the maid being arrested as King’s spies see her. “in the name of the King we arrest you – traitor”

Some show her weeping as her Lady is tried for treason, knowing that she led the Kings men to the evidence

No-one leaves the priest where he is. Why?

“Because even if there is the tiniest chance that he might be alive, she has to try to save him.”

“Because he deserves to be buried.”

We create a moral continuum. Is it right to open the priest hole? All bar one child stands at the Yes end. He alone stands at No. Why?

“Because he is probably dead, but if she leads the King’s men to the hole, her Lady will die and she might as well. One death is better than three.”

I ask the others “knowing what might happen, and thinking that this is still the right thing to do, how many of you think you would be brave enough to do it?”

Half of them move away. They know it’s right, but they recognise that it would be a hard thing to do. “What did she do?”

“We don’t know.”

“You do.”

” She didn’t go back – or we wouldn’t have found the body.”

We return to our ongoing role on the wall profiles of the King and add new information and questions. On an opinion continuum they stand in judgement of him and they think he is bad. The hanging, drawing and quartering of John Stone and other Catholics is their evidence. They also think he is cruel to divorce his wife and foolish to upset the Pope. So we decide to question the king.

“Who,” I ask, “would have enough power and protection to challenge the King”?

“The Pope.”

“Would he come himself?”

“No – he’ll send his people.”

“Which people?”

The children discuss – they decide he will send Spanish delegates – the Spanish king is angered by Henry’s decision to divorce his aunt. He is loyal to the Pope, but they know that both he and Henry might need each other in the future. The Spanish King’s delegation will be safe to question the king. So we begin.

They quiz me about my choices, my feelings for Catherine and for Anne. They want to know why I am so fat! (A king can’t be seen to turn down food – rumours might start that he is unwell and he cannot admit weakness. And anyway, weight is a sign of wealth). The king speaks of his fears for the security of the throne. His sorrow at the loss of his children. His hopes for a male heir. He outlines for the children that a secure line makes for a secure country – he will not risk civil war or destabilise the country. This is an act of sacrifice for England. “Why”, they blurt out, “Do you put people’s heads on sticks outside the Tower of London?” “Because if they were on the floor, no-one would see them would they?” They supress their giggles.

When he is gone, they look at their role on the wall profiles again and add new comments:-

“It was hard to be King – you had a lot of things to worry about.”

“He was cruel but did it for some good reasons”

“I still think he is bad.”

“It’s complicated”

“It’ll be a long time before the Spanish trust him again.”

And the morning is over. I put on my wizard hat and go to play with Year 3. And I can’t wait to go back for more. Tell me this is not knowledge based learning. That it is not memorable and meaningful. I dare you :p

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When you know it’s time to go.

I’m leaving my job. Not right away – I’d never leave children half way through an academic year – but I’ll be off in July. I think back to the post I wrote on teaching forever and I blush with the charge of hypocrisy, though, to be fair, after 22 years I think I’ve probably earned the right to say I did my bit. And hopefully I will continue to do more bits, but not again, I don’t think as a full time teacher in a school. So why? Well, it’s complicated.

It’s not because of the kids…

But they’re not easy. Last week one pushed me pretty hard and told me to fuck off. He’s vulnerable and floundering. We used restorative justice to talk through the situation and I got one of the most heartfelt apologies I’ve ever had. He beams at me in the corridor now. I’m not leaving because of him. In fact, thinking of leaving him makes my heart hurt a little. But I won’t miss all that constant low level disrespect from children whose parents have instilled in them a feeling that teachers are not worthy of their attention. Is that a child’s fault? No – I don’t think so. We see a downward push from the top – where the image of a lazy blob of failing, scruffy teachers is pushed onto parents’ breakfast plates by those hoping to win votes and sell papers. If we want to look for blame for the attitudes of some of the young people in our classrooms, look no further than the words of those in charge of education. They need to run round a field and write some lines themselves. “I must not undermine the authority of the profession I am expecting to educate our children – no matter how popular it makes me”. So no, I’m not leaving because of the kids. And certainly not because of the hundreds who make my days full of surprise and joy.

I’m not leaving because of my SMT

They are lovely people, working hard under difficult circumstances and I’m fond of them and will miss them. But they are under such pressure to maintain targets that I constantly feel I have to compromise my integrity to do my job. I know that learning is not linear, that our data is a farce, but to show willing, I spend hours putting the meaningless drivel into computers so that all looks well. I know that the way to improve teaching and learning is not through Mocksteds, but through close collaboration between colleagues, networking and sharing good practice in a supportive, formative and developmental process. But I smile wearily as yet another HMI consultant is wheeled into my classroom and wish I could have spent his fee on something that might have an impact.

I’m not leaving because of Ofsted

If we all refused to play the ‘prep for Ofsted’ game, there would be no threat from Ofsted would there? They’d see us as we are and if the way we were was focused on the very best provision for children, then it would not matter what any external visitor thought. I think we only have ourselves to blame for the madness that results in building an entire school culture around a two day visit every four years.

I’m not leaving because I’ve had a better offer

I’ve had no offers, though I know they will come. But better than what? Being with children? There is no better offer than that. And here’s the rub. Sometimes, I get to work with children in situations where there are no targets, no inspectors, no data – I work in a primary school on Fridays where we are simply focusing on making the learning deep and meaningful and every second is a joy. The head has given me carte blanche to be creative and we’re having so much fun as a little team of teachers, it seems wrong to call it work. And then a few times a year, I get to go to work with children from all around the world with the International Schools Theatre Association and for three days at a time, we unite and create some of the most extraordinarily moving work I’ve ever had the pleasure to be involved with. I always return with a fire in my belly and my teaching flies.

So…

When my Head teacher (rightly) pointed out that perhaps I had taken on too much and needed to choose what to focus on, I thought long and hard. When I take out the data monitoring, admin, emailing, meeting, monitoring of my work, what’s left is teaching. I know what works for my children, based on my authentic teacher self and realise that every day I compromise that self to meet someone else’s agenda. Ten years ago, I could produce some of the best results in the country and how I taught was entirely up to me. That is no longer the case. I see colleagues destroyed by judgements that I know to be false based on an unreliable process. I see children channelled into becoming automatons, devoid of life and hope, sitting listlessly asking ‘just tell me what I need for the exam’ and I want to weep. I stand in the biome at the Eden Project with 140 children singing their hearts out for a better world and I almost cry at the thought of the world they return to on Monday morning. It’s not good enough. We are failing them. I am failing them. And if I have to step outside of the system for a little while in order to shout for change, I will. That’s why I am leaving.

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When Lies are Lovely

I’m really lucky this term. On Fridays I am working in a primary school. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching secondary too – but primaries are brimful of a joy that is hard to achieve in a larger environment buzzing with hormones. So I’ve been having a jolly time working with Years 3 and 5.

Some weeks ago, there was a spat on twitter about role play in which it was described as lying to children. Having just spent several weeks telling my youngest that the red light on our alarm censor was Santa’s CCTV camera, I was pulled up very much as a liar. But I justified it because for a few weeks, he went to bed when asked and brushed his scummy teeth. Ends justified the means. But is it ok to lie to children in school?

Well, if you’re skilled at using role play, your really don’t have to. Starting sentences with ‘can we agree that this represents’ or ‘we’re building a story today…’ or ‘if’ mitigates the possibility that children might be conned. There was once an awful example of a school in Blackburn where children were taken into a room while staff let off fireworks outside. The head told the children that WW3 had broken out. And unsurprisingly, the children were very upset. That’s pretty stupid in my book. But to use fiction to entice, to stimulate, to (shock, horror) engage children in learning? That’s just a good thing to do. So….

Year 3 have been pupils in a school for wizards. When they put on their wizard hats, they are wizards. When they take them off, they are human beings. They seem to have grasped this concept well. They are learning science. And in the next few weeks, they’ll be learning about the human body and brain. They think it’s funny that we pretend not to be human when we’re wizards, but it’s been a useful device. On Friday, I told them that we’d be looking at ‘muggle’ brains soon.

“Is that offensive to humans?” asked their class teacher – seeding our planted question. Off we went into a discussion about whether or not we should call people who are different to us names. The children, working in a multi-cultural school, were sensitive to and aware of the many ways their cultures were described by others. No, they decided, it is not OK to call humans ‘muggles’. It might offend.

We continued, in our lab to dissect a ‘wizard brain’. Of course, the children knew it was made of jelly and strawberry shoestrings and jelly worms and lots of glitter inside a hard boiled egg. But they suspended their disbelief and conducted investigations nevertheless. Here are some of their findings presented back to the class:-

” At the top of the brain, there is this hard sparkly section. It has to be hard so that all the magic in a wizard’s brain doesn’t escape and cause problems.”

“This red section is what makes a wizard brave. When danger is near, these (the strawberry shoelaces) are connections carrying messages around the brain and the wizard’s brave brain starts to work so he can think properly.”

“This green section is where all the learning is stored – when a wizard is born, there is no green section, he has to build it up so that he learns how to do magic – it’s hard building up the green section, they have to spend ten years in school, working hard to get it.”

“This section (the hard boiled egg, filled with glitter) is what a wizard is born with. The glitter inside is all the potential that he has so that when he has learned and got brave, all that magic can come out and be used for something good”

Me: Are all wizards born with the same potential

Children: “yes, but they have to work hard to get it out.”

Now I know this is playful – fun, some might say, but I have a load of material to build on now, because when we look at the human brain, we are going to be talking about growth mindsets, potential and resilience a lot. The children have already decided for themselves that these are important. They’ve made my job easy. What a lovely lie.

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Teachers. Liars and Cheats.

Government: Teachers are liars and cheats.

Anonymous tweeter: Teachers (except me) are liars and cheats. I’ve just left my job, Michael, is there anything at the department for me?

Secret Teacher: I am a liar and a cheat, but they made me do it. I had a mortgage to pay…the children are rubbish….

Spartacus: I am a liar and a cheat.

The real Spartacus:  No, I am a liar and a cheat.

NQT: Can I please be a liar and a cheat?

SMT: Yes, of course, just make the red on this spreadsheet turn green and you’re half way there.

Government: They’re all admitting it now. What we need to do is make the exams harder and the sanctions for not passing them tougher.

Toby Young: Latin. More Latin.

Employers: What the hell is going on?

Child: Hello? Hello….

 

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