The Dangerous Game of Subject Hierarchy

It’s a few months since Nicky Morgan gave a speech in which she told the audience that children who chose Arts or Humanities subjects were making choices that would ‘hold them back for the rest of their lives’. She then argued in a separate speech for the case that universities should be judged on the amount of tax that their graduates pay in the future. Let me just hold back the spewing vitriol that I feel for the hypocrisy of that statement given the number of rich people paying little or no tax at all….There, swallowed.

It all forms part of an ongoing narrative that we have seen from Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan over the past five or so years which began with the devaluing of Arts subjects as the EBacc was promoted. As a direct result of that accountability measure we saw a 14% drop in the uptake of Arts subjects in schools. And as if this was not bad enough, in schools serving the most deprived children (who won’t get Arts provided by parents paying for musical tuition or sending them to ballet classes, or taking them to art galleries), there was a 23% reduction in the offer of Arts subjects at GCSE. Since this government came to power, teacher training places in the Arts have been decimated with some of the finest institutions closing their courses altogether. And on what basis or grounds are the assumptions that Arts subjects are either soft or worthless made? On mere prejudice it would seem.

In January, the government released figures showing that the Creative Industries were contributing £8.8 million per HOUR to the British economy. In fact since 2008 while the overall economy has grown by 5.4%, these industries have grown by a whopping 15.6%. Not all people working in these industries are artists of course, often they are scientists working alongside designers and artists to bring visions to fruition. This is not a case of Arts versus Science, but of Arts with Science, an argument made by the Stem to Steam campaign and by a variety of stakeholders, including, interestingly, the Chinese government. For all the noise made about China’s PISA performances in Maths and Science, the education system there is turning to the Arts for inspiration.

We are in danger of eliminating high quality arts and design programmes from our school curricula at the very time that the most forward thinking organisations and countries are promoting them. We may well live to regret this in 10 years’ time. But it isn’t even the economy exposing the lunacy and hypocrisy of this line of thinking. There are cracks all over government rhetoric. Take the following policies and beliefs promoted by this coalition government:-

“We want state schools to offer what private schools offer”

If we have a little look at this year’s male oscar nominees we’ll see that of the two English actors up for Best Actor, one attended Harrow and the other Eton. Eton has supplied several lead actors over the past few years. This is not to bash the private sector but to point out that when you invest in theatre spaces, a full time director, stage carpenter, costume designer, lighting and sound technicians and provide your pupils with dozens of opportunities to perform, you’re probably going to produce some pretty good talent. Why don’t we hear politicians demanding better theatre facilities and drama activities so that we can compete with the private sector? Eh?

“We want to build character, resilience and grit.”

Taking an idea from conception through research and improvisation, repeated failure, confusion, more failure to successful outcome is pretty much what all arts disciplines put children through on a daily basis. In addition, the wide ranging benefits of learning a musical instrument, or regularly reading a book (yes, people, literature is an art though under Morgan’s regime, we’d have no more writers) are well known. So why on earth would we disparage the subjects that build the very qualities in children that we are now creating awards for? Eh?

“We want children to know the best that has been said and done – heritage and culture matter”

The Arts hold you back. So it will no longer be necessary to study Shakepeare, or poetry, to listen to music, to look at art. Picasso, Rembrandt, Mozart (ooh imagine measuring his worth by his tax contribution, dying as he did, a pauper), Van Gough (no ear and no tax either), Keats….all useless. The problem with this haphazard, anti-intellectual, reasonless thinking is that you end up undermining the very things you say you value. How do you square your insistence on learning poetry by rote with undermining the value of the Arts? And as for the Humanities, well ‘Lest we forget’ seems to have been forgotten. The past? It holds you back. Eh?

And then, let’s just go back to that silly tax idea shall we? Ask any scientist working in a lab on cancer research what they earn. It’s a pittance. And all those art therapists, working with traumatised refugee children? They earn barely enough to pay tax at all. Is their work worthless? Based on a tax bill, is a Hollywood actor worth more than a teacher? A nurse? The stupidity of the idea is so ridiculous, that I have to leave the comment to John Cleese.

And finally. Let’s consider something else far more profound than any of the above. There is a reason that the arts have evolved along with all other human capabilities over the tens of thousands of years we have been on the planet. Since man decided to leave his mark on the walls of caves we have seen the overwhelming desire to find symbolic and representative forms of expression in order to understand, process and communicate our experiences. This need to interpret is writ deep in the human psyche. Let’s imagine for a moment that we eradicated our love of the Arts. That they disappeared from our notions of humanity. We would be diminished as a species. We would see the depletion of imagination – a quality that has been part of our survival strategy for generations. We would lose our concepts of beauty and appreciation of difference, becoming less empathetic, less creative, less expressive. Who would want to see this world? To see human beings evolve in a direction that strips an appreciation and interpretation of beauty and wonder from their lives? Not me.


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Wolf Rescue

Timberwolf oder Amerikanischer Grauwolf (Canis lupus lycaon)

In her book, Seven Myths of Education, Daisy Christodoulou is a little dismissive of the use of Mantle of the Expert as a means of getting children into learning. She refers to the Outstanding Ofsted reports of the Bealings School and offers this as an example of how progressive Ofsted are and how misguided teachers are in insisting that children use role play in their lessons. She is not alone in assuming that drama related activities lead to what is commonly being called the “opportunity cost” of knowledge – one blogger even questioned the role of drama in the study of Shakespeare. But such critics of these techniques are often blind to the knowledge that is required in order to conduct MoE well and to the myriad of additional skills and competencies that the children develop in their quest to solve the problems that drama creates.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to work with a Year 4 class while members of the primary team watched to see how this kind of learning might work. Two of the observing teachers were on the Teach First programme. The class had read the book “The Ice Palace” by Robert Swindells with its cover portraying wolves as scary and fearsome creatures. Over the course of the day, we set them up as an animal rescue centre, specialising in the rescue and conservation of dangerous animals. Why would we do this? Where is the learning?

In my view, one of our responsibilities as educators is to get children to consider situations from multiple points of view – to create pivots through which their opinions, beliefs and values can be reframed and reconsidered. This capacity to view situations from another’s point of view is a critical skill in conflict management. In addition, building a collective enterprise in which responsibility is fostered is key to developing responsible behaviours in children. What responsibilities do we have to these animals? What responsibilities do we have to the human population?

In creating their enterprise, the children have to consider the roles that people working in the organisation might have. As part of this element of the work, they generate jobs and in doing so consider the myriad of possibilities for work in the adult world – developing aspirational thinking. They grapple with complex vocabulary – some of the words generated in these initial discussions were:-







They had to consider the skills that people working in this place might have and then they completed job applications and CVs – looking at the processes by which adults enter the world of work. None of these tasks are undemanding or pointless. There is no opportunity cost. But neither is there yet a purpose, client or problem to solve. So we needed a hook. It came in the form of an email to the children from a lady living in the Ural mountains. There was to be a cull on the local wolf population. The wolves had been accused of attacking a child who was now missing. The lady was concerned that the wolves were being blamed for something that was not their fault and expressed concern about their loss of habitat. In order even to decide whether or not to help, the children need to know several things:-

1. Where are the Ural Mountains?

2. What is the climate/flora/fauna?

3. Why are the humans and wolves in conflict?

4. Can humans ever live safely close to wolf packs?

5. What is habitat and in particular what is wolf habitat?

6. What can we find out about wolves (including how they communicate)


In order to learn these areas, the children had to explore maps, to read about the encroachment of mining on the natural habitat of the animals in the area. They had to understand the severity of winters there and how this causes food shortages and how the people and wolves hunt the same animals for food. They had to understand that in some parts of the world, humans and animals live in competition for space and food. This is knowledge with rigour and depth – becoming part of a responsible team means knowing stuff.

The children decide to travel to the Urals to find out more. Happily, one of our Teach First trainees is a Russian speaker and he  teaches the children some key phrases. We Skype Olga, our client using a hot seating convention to find out more information and make the decision to go. There’s just one problem. Four boys in the class don’t want to go to Russia. They absolutely refuse. So we set up a lab at home and tell them that we’ll send evidence back to them to investigate while we are away. They are happy with this compromise.

You have to understand that they know and I know that they are not really going anywhere. The Russia team and the UK team will still be in the same room, but the children suspend their disbelief. The boys have pushed at a boundary and found that the boundary was simply an alternative door. The fiction is intact.

The work is not without play – we decide to interview a wolf cub by Skype. We agree to imagine that we can understand the language of animals. I cut a hole in a cardboard box for a screen and put a glove puppet of a wolf on my hand. “We have a Skype call from a wolf cub” I announce. “Who can speak Dog?” Twenty hands shoot straight into the air. I howl, growl, whine and bark and a story comes out of our translators:-

“A woodcutter killed my father in the forest”

“He said my father killed a little girl, but he would never do this.”

“My pack is being hunted.”

We decide what we will need to pack and what our safety procedures will be in the forest. How do you capture a wolf? How will we engage with the Russian authorities? How will we conduct our investigations? If we do rescue the wolves, how much food will they need? They check their fact sheets and discover that an adult can eat up to 20lbs of meat in a single feeding. How many wolves will there be? How much food will we need to buy? How much will it cost? How will we transport it?

At the edge of the forest, we consider what we might find –

“What might we be hoping to discover in here?” I ask

“Toys!” yells one enthusiastic child.

“Ahhh, if we were children we might want to find toys,” I say, “but we’re adults remember, we’re conservationists trying to protect the wolves, so if we were adults, what might we be hoping to find in the forest?”

“A nightclub!” he shouts.

The hands of the adults shoot up to their mouths to stop the giggles while the other children patiently explain that we are hoping to find the wolves alive. They help their friend to engage with the fiction, but his comments remind us of the reality of his life and his experience of what adults enjoy doing in that life. All the more reason for us to take him to a completely different kind of experience and hope.

Sadly, we find the body of a wolf in the forest – presumably the body of the father of our wolf cub. We will have to conduct an autopsy to find out how he died, and crucially whether or not he is guilty of the death of the child. I lay the wolf onsie on a table. They don’t flinch or complain that it is clearly not a wolf body – they are happy to imagine. photo

The children mime putting on their gowns and gloves so that no evidence is contaminated. With tweezers and empty evidence bags, they construct the imagined evidence, removing the contents of his stomach and carefully labelling the bags ready to send back to the lab:- “It’s a piece of fur or hair – I can’t tell if it’s human or not” photo

“It’s a sock”


“There is something that looks like skin, but it might be paper.”

Slowly the children collect their evidence and send it back to the four boys for analysis. The boys decide that the skin and the hair are animal – probably rabbit. There is no evidence, other than the sock, that the wolf had eaten or attacked a child. photo

As our investigation continues, the children interview other witnesses – a squirrel, an eagle, the woodcutter himself and they discover and conclude that the woodcutter has a lot to gain from a wolf cull. He can claim the right to land that may lie above a potential mine. They decide the wolves have been framed. And then they have to create a report making their case and recommendations to the Russian government – what can be done to protect the habitat of the wolves and yet ensure that the human population can thrive? Should the wolves be relocated? Should there be fences? These questions lead to deep discussions about the rights of humans and animals. There is no opportunity cost here – these are important questions for society and our world as a whole.

Drama is not an add on to a curriculum – not a ‘fun’ activity to offer as a tit-bit reward for proper work. It is a form of expression that has evolved with humanity as a key survival and communication strategy. To imagine the world from another’s point of view – to interpret life through narrative and character is one of the ways we as a species have found to connect and survive over millennia. It is no coincidence that the Arts are to be found in every civilisation as a key component of community life. To teach without them; to offer a curriculum that belittles them is to reduce human experience and capacity. And that is an enormous opportunity cost.


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Hey you. Poor Person. We’re here to make you just like us.

I’m a little irked at the way that people who argue that an academic education is the means to ending poverty, throw out an accusation of ‘low expectations’ to those who think we should have a broader debate about the purpose of education and the role of vocational routes in the entitlement of a child. What I notice more and more is that the accusations come from people who have led comfortable upper middle class lives and who make the assumption that the answer to society’s problems is to ‘make every one like us’. At its most well intentioned, this translates into “I wish everyone could have what I have” – and who can judge that too harshly? At its worst it translates into hubris and a paternalistic notion that “we know best.”

For a start, consider the hierarchy we have in terms of which subjects ‘count’ as being academic. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no logical reason why History is rated above Theatre in terms of academic demands. Theatre students will explore the role of theatre (and in association, the development of democracy, the role of women and the use of theatre as a political and social tool) in Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain and Italy, Elizabethan society, Jacobean society and across Europe and America in the 20th Century society. If you want to explore the rise of Hitler, look to “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”. And the plays of Sartre are a great way of accessing the concepts of existentialism. Yet History is exalted and Drama derided. Ask children on the whole which subject they prefer though, and you’ll have a stampede into the studio. Children are not resistant to academia, they are resistant to static pedagogies and forced facts. A great History teacher who brings the subject to life will trump a lazy Drama teacher who sits on the radiator and tells children to ‘make up a play about drugs’. But bring the two together and you have fireworks.

This is not an argument about academic and non academic. Or even about academic versus vocational. It’s a twofold argument about values and purpose. What is the purpose of an education? And what do we value?

Let’s go back to poverty for a moment. Those championing an ‘academic’ route will throw at you all the statistics that show that children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to University. And statistics show that they are less likely to stay there too – so those schools braying that they got kids through the door need to really think about whether they did them a favour. When 50% leave without completing their degree but still carrying debt, there is a problem. The reasons for leaving are complex but you can’t even begin to understand them if you don’t understand the lives of the children you are planning for.

My parents both grew up in grinding poverty. But in my Dad’s house was a parent who valued education and was willing to support him to the age of 18. In the other were parents who had no concept of the value of education and who needed their child to start earning as soon as possible. We’re talking about a home with one lightbulb that was moved from room to room. With no toilet paper. Where a piano given to the family was chopped up for fuel. For my Dad’s family, poverty was circumstantial – a reasonably well off family brought down by alcoholism. For my Mum, both of her parents had known nothing but poverty in a generational line dating back to the potato famine. There is a significant difference between circumstantial and generational poverty in terms of being able to imagine yourself out of your situation. My dad got A Levels and trained on the job until he became a Chartered Accountant and set up his own business. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications and worked in a mill. She  quit work as soon as my dad was earning enough to support us all. She’s as bright as a button, but had no chances. So I completely understand the desire to put this inequality right. But the fact remains that without parental support, it’s a huge uphill struggle. It is meaningless to group FSM children into one category. Study after study tells us that parenting makes the difference. The EPPE study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study, is clear. When it comes to parenting, it’s not what you earn, it’s what you do that matters. Let’s take that for a moment. Back to my parents.

They had three children. All went to university. I was born in a terraced house with an outside toilet. Eight years later, my brother was born into a house with two bathrooms and a bidet. That’s social mobility. But what made the difference to us was not my Dad’s income, but the value they placed on our education. When I became a mother, I watched my Mum with my kids. She’d take them round the supermarket and name everything. At the park, every tree, bird, animal was named and described. She talked to them as I know she must have talked to me. A constant stream of language. And my Dad, even when we had no money, would bring books home from charity shops. I’ve written of this before. Had we stayed poor, we would still have had the chance to succeed because they did the right things.

It is perfectly possible to be a school who makes the FSM data sing. Two things matter. The parents and compliance. So if you put in strategies to ensure that the poor children in your school have aspirational parents who value education, you are half way there. How do you do it? Make uniforms so expensive that it takes a sacrifice to send your child there? Perhaps. And to be sure, make the rules on uniform so punitive that only the children with parents willing to fix and replace can stay. Select children on the basis that their parents come in to talk to you before hand? Perhaps. Take from ethnic groups associated with placing high value on education? Perhaps. But that still leaves many children in a situation where they need something extra and we need to be really careful about labelling those kids.

Of my uncles and aunts, those who stayed on council estates (even those who bought their house and were left with it as a crippling burden as the neighbourhood went down the toilet) had children who are still on council estates. Or who are dead. You are more likely to die young if you are poor. Of my uncle’s four children, two are dead and one is sectioned for mental health problems. The loss of his job, being trapped in his home, losing both sons, worry for his mentally ill daughter and the breakdown of his marriage led my kind and gentle uncle to despair. He committed suicide. The fourth child still lives on an estate, dependent on benefits and has seven children. There are many who would judge her. But being a mother gave her a sense of value. She had lost everything – having children around her made her feel like her life had meaning and stability. And there are stories like this all over the country. Tragedy is common where children have no safe place to play, are living in homes with black mould and damp, where boredom and hopelessness prevail.

It’s understandable that some of us think that the answer is to get them out of there. But we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community. Many people don’t want to get out of their community. They want improvements to the community. And education will not appeal, if it is seen to take them away. We need to consider how we make education meaningful for those who want to remain in their communities warts and all. And to do that we need to consider what opportunities for work there are or could be in that local area. If we start from a point of improving what we have, we can find hope. Ironically, that’s the message being given by Dylan Wiliam to Head teachers – work with what you’ve got.

When I was at school, I’d stare out of the window of my O Level classes and into the sheds near the school. There, some of the boys in my year would be pulling engines apart and putting them back together again, all oily and happy in their overalls. Most of them went straight from school into jobs as car mechanics. They had the skills already. Although the 80s was a period of high unemployment, most of the kids in my year left at 16 and went straight into work. It wasn’t a question of poor kids doing vocational and more affluent kids doing O levels – it was much messier than that. For my own part, my dad pretty much made the decision for me. Many of my friends went on to schemes in secretarial, hairdressing, mechanics, plumbing positions – they all had some skill in those areas because they’d been able to work on them as part of their curriculum. I meet some of them these days and they are earning far more than I am. I’d sit in my French class, chanting verbs and wish I could get my hands on an engine. I’m not really complaining, but it would have been great to be able to do both. To get my hands and my brain dirty.

So back to brass tacks. What is the point of education?

To pass tests?

To get work?

To be creative?

To be happy?

To be wise?

To change the world?

Our answers to these questions will depend on our beliefs but there are some we can question straight away. While we throw all that time and energy into the question “what works”, we only look at tests. Even though Dylan Wiliam and others point to research that shows that our “evidence” of what works can only be applied to the test and that success in one test does not seem to guarantee the ability to transfer the knowledge to another context. Not even to another test. So our tests qualify kids to pass our tests. That might explain the frustrations of HE and employers.

If it’s to get work, then we need to think what it is that the world of work needs and offers. There is little incentive to study hard in order to secure a low paid job on a temporary contract. And there aren’t enough highly paid jobs. And the need in our society for carers and cleaners is great, but who would study hard for that? We cannot tempt children through tests with a lie that they will lead to work. An oversupply of graduates has created a situation where the jobs my peers were doing at 16 are now being filled by graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to their names. Where is the sense in that?

Another story – modern day. A primary school near a gas works. There is an emergency procedure for when a leak is suspected and on this day, the procedure kicks in. The children are moved a safe distance away and all the parents are called. The vast majority come and collect their children within an hour. Others call to say they’re on their way or that they’ve arranged for a family member to collect. But a small number of children are left. The Head instructs the staff to walk them home. My friend takes a small group of children. All the parents are home but most are not happy to see their children home early. Two children are left. One arrives at his house. The doors are boarded up. He tells the teacher that this is because the police kicked them in. There is a ladder leading to a first floor window. Quick as a flash he climbs up it and through the window. This is how he gets in and out of his house. The final child doesn’t want to go home. He drags his heels. When they get there, the door is open and loud noise from the TV is booming out into the street. The teacher puts her head around the door and calls out. No answer. She ventures in. There is no furniture in the room, except for a chair and a television. There is no carpet. There are beer cans all over the floor. In the chair a man is asleep. And in a cardboard box, on the floor next to him, a baby in a stinking, sodden nappy is crying. She understands why this child finds it hard to concentrate in school.

Her school has an unusually high number of FSM children, and the fact is that the majority are cared for, collected and safe. But for those climbing through windows, or growing up with nappy rash in a cardboard box, an academic education is not going to be enough. Tristram Hunt said yesterday that what makes a difference to children is attachment. Children without attachment, language, love, safety are not school ready. This is the first step towards being an educated person. For my cousin, for these children, History, Science, were irrelevant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach them. But without support – perhaps counselling – empathy, love and understanding, they will fall on stony ground. I look at her and think of what she could have been. She’s great with children – could she have had a career in child care? Who knows. But we need to think about how we teach parenting to all our children and to our parents. We need to think about what we can do to bring moral purpose and meaning into the system so that there is a chance to see that there is hope and possibility everywhere – even in your own communities.

There is a moment in the film Tyrannosaur – a film which paints a grim and realistic picture of life on an estate – where the community comes together at a funeral. There is care and support, understanding and belonging. This is what we need to tap into. This is what children need to find. This is the foundation stone that schools should seek to build. The rest can follow.


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A Meeting With Tristram Hunt

In my book (bear with me, it’s not a plug), I argue that what we need in education is a ‘revolution’. But I caution:-

“When under pressure, it’s easy to look for those who are to blame. There is no doubt…that politicians of all colours, have a lot to answer for. But this would be a simplification of the situation. We need to look closer to home if we are to really change the way things are. How many of us have quietly complied in order to avoid unwanted attention? How many of us have sought to rank ourselves in comparison with our peers? How many have lost sight of a child in the pursuit of results? How many of us have changed the way we teach to suit what we imagine an Ofsted inspector is looking for? In all these ways, we collude in the system we say we deplore. This book argues for a revolution, but this is not so simple an act as rising up and overthrowing an oppressor. We need to rise up against our own worst natures. We need to evolve in order to thrive and so this form of evolution might be better conceptualised as a (r)evolution.”

When Michael Gove came into power, he charged into the arena like the Black Knight, using his jousting pole to smash whatever he could and jeering at the crowd. ‘Blobs!’ he cried, ‘Enemies of Promise’. He changed our world so fast, our heads were spinning. But among that destruction he sowed some seeds. He forced us to look again at pedagogy. He forced us (ironically as it happens because it transpires that the DfE doesn’t actually subscribe or have access to journals) to engage with research. He opened up a conversation about how children learn. Those seeds are growing into poppies. What I don’t want is a new Education Secretary, even if he is a White Knight, to charge into the arena and smash those poppies to pieces in order to make his mark. I am not a damsel in distress. I want the politicians, as far as possible, to get out of the way. And so, when I heard these words from Tristram Hunt yesterday, my heart soared:-

“Can you name the education ministers of Singapore, Finland, Massachusetts? No, and you shouldn’t be able to. We’re here to serve, not to seek fame or attention.”

Tristram Hunt is not a knight on a steed. He is travelling on foot, surveying the landscape – the damage, yes, but also the poppies, and he’s working out what to keep, what is worth changing and what can’t be saved. And this takes time. He is a man who firmly believes that it is the job of the secretary of state to “represent the children in this country first and teachers second” but who also recognises that “children first” is also most teacher’s mantra. He wants to do what he can to get out of our way while recognising that he is responsible for a huge amount of public money (not as much as we need or would like, but a huge amount nonetheless) and he is working out how to balance that responsibility while giving the trust he feels we are so in need of. I, with @cherryl_kd, @imagineinquiry and @thought_weavers spent an afternoon with him yesterday and I felt I had met a man who showed wisdom and humility.

I was surprised last night at some of the language used on twitter criticising Hunt. What does he stand for? He’s been too slow to learn his brief! He needs to give us more! While I understand these concerns, do we really want more haste and less speed?In asking him to give, give give, are we not undermining our own capacity to take, to shape, to grow? I can answer some of the questions and I can repeat what he said. Do I agree with it all? No. But I never will agree with everything one person says or does. That’s life. Do I think he has a clear vision, is prepared to listen and is well intentioned? Yes.

Here is the summary of the discussion in my own words – where I have quoted him directly, there are speech marks. Level 4 punctuator I am.

The Vision

If he has one aim it is to “lift children out of poverty”. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. But this government said it while putting more than 300,000 more children into poverty. Hunt recognises that education is an important tool in this battle, but that it is not the responsibility of teachers to do this alone. He wants to reintegrate health, social care and education. He wants to invest hugely in EYFS, reinstating SureStart and engaging with hard to reach families. He wants to value the vocational routes that lead to the jobs that many young people aspire to so that we can “challenge the low wage, low skill economy” that we have at the moment and which is doing “little to bring money into the public system.”

“I want children to be happy, and to learn in an enriched environment where they can develop their personalities.”


One of the criticisms of SureStart was that the centres attracted too many middle class parents. But we discussed yesterday my experience of working at a school in a highly deprived area which had a SureStart centre attached to it. The presence of those middle class parents, mingling with parents who lived on the estate made for a greater understanding of both ways of living and greater empathy. Friendships grew, clothes were passed on. Children played together. It wasn’t a bad thing. But of course, “the investment has to work for those it is targeting” and so there is close attention being paid to the kinds of services that would draw people in and that is a priority. Investing in high quality child care is expensive, but the EPPE study shows that it is critical. The difference between Labour and the Conservatives on this point is that there isn’t the belief from Labour that pushing the academic curriculum down into EYFS is the answer. “Attachment, play, language, love” – these are the things that make children school ready.

Achievement can be more than Academic

“A broader conversation needs to be had about the 14-19 space”

There will not be a radical overhaul of curriculum and exams – there has been “too much meddling and instability already“. The proposed reforms to A Levels will not go ahead, however, because the Labour education team have listened to advice from Universities warning against the decoupling of the AS and A Level. While he stated that he believed that the “A Level has integrity and will be kept“, he voiced concerns about the impact of changes to the GCSE, in particular the removal of practical assessments.

He has a long term vision. He thinks it will take five years for the changes he wants to make at the entry and exit points of education to embed to the point at which it a) is recognised as the norm that formal, compulsory education ends at 18 and b) that there is equivalent respect accorded to academic and vocational routes – he spoke highly of the work that Chris Husbands and Tom Sherrington had done on shaping a leaver’s Baccalaureate. Only at that point, where a cultural tipping point had passed, could we have proper conversations about more radical options. But in the meantime, there would need to be wide consultation on how we reinstate and value practical assessments, while maintaining credibility and how we ensure that children are getting the breadth in the curriculum that they are entitled to. In short, he wants to listen to the profession about how best to proceed.

He recognised that sixth form colleges are centres of excellence that often outperform local school provision. He accepted that the fact that they pay VAT and schools don’t was something that was “grossly unfair” but was clear that this was a cost that could not be prioritised in the current climate. He did say, however, that school sixth forms should be inspected in the same category as sixth form colleges and that this would make for fairer comparison. This will be welcome news to many sixth form colleges.

Accountability and Osted

There was some support for the way Ofsted has already moved towards reform this year in terms of dropping graded observations and so on, but there is still much to do. “Ofsted should not be carrying out the latest whims and fancies of the Secretary of State, like inspecting “British Values” and they “should have no role to play in how teachers are paid” – they will not be checking up on PRP (more on this later). There needs to be accountability, but we also need to think about how to free teachers and schools up to feel they can innovate without fear.

Having said this, he recognised that “Ofsted is a powerful lever” for changing behaviours in schools. He has no qualms about using the inspection service to ensure that “all children are receiving a broad and balanced curriculum” – even in Year 6! No more reduction of the curriculum to serve the SATS or removing children from Foundation Subjects for literacy and numeracy interventions. Not if you want to be a Good school. And those schools who removed Drama and Arts subjects from their curriculum offer when the EBACC came in might be well advised to start advertising for a Drama teacher.

Academies/Free Schools etc

“Relentless structural reform has had no impact and has been a waste of time and money.”

There will be no reversal of current status of schools. They’ll stay as they are. To be fair, the government has little choice in this – when a school becomes an academy or a free school, the land and buildings are signed over to the trust and taken out of public ownership. Even if he wanted to revert to a single state system (which he doesn’t), we’d have to buy them all back. So instead the plan is to ensure that whatever you are, you are equal and that there are no hierarchies of types of school that are better than another. There are some gross unfairnesses in funding that are going to take time to sort out, but in short, we make the best of what we’ve got.


There was little movement on PRP. It’s staying. But it won’t be monitored by Ofsted or tied to results. It should be used at the discretion of the Head teacher and awarded for “going the extra mile”. It should not be used for results – “It’s a nonsense to reward someone for the results of a class that they have taught for two terms when we know that learning is an accumulative process.

He also felt that flexibility over pay could help Heads to attract staff to areas of need, such as coastal towns and he was interested in schemes in places such as Hull where the LA and schools have worked to fund accommodation for teachers prepared to move and work there. He sees it as an incentivising freedom and claimed that 80% of heads like it. I don’t know of many teachers who do though.

Teacher Trust and Wellbeing.

He strongly recognised that trust in teachers was essential and that the profession should have the freedom to shape its own future. He has openly stated his support for a College of Teaching before and so we didn’t discuss this in the meeting. Instead we talked about career progression. He was really interested in two things a) what makes the job unbearable and b) what would make it more stimulating and engaging in the longer term.

We talked about the key difference in the way that data should and is used. As Lee, from @thought_weavers said, data should be diagnostic, but we all told tales of how it was used as a summative shield, with no benefit for children in many schools. Using data wisely and carefully and in a way that serves the children is a key priority for him.

It’s a no brainer to him that teachers should be qualified and for those already in post that they should work towards qualification.

He talked about how teachers could be encouraged to stay in the classroom and there was a good discussion about the pros and cons of the AST system. He wants to entice teachers with a number of possible career routes. In recent years there have been a plethora of initiatives – NLEs SLEs and so on, but all aimed at people already in leadership and the progression of the classroom teacher who wants to stay a classroom teacher has been left to Heads. Some of them have kept ASTs, some have introduced Lead Practitioners, but there is a patchy picture with no nationally set pathway any more. Tim and I discussed our different experiences of AST and felt that there had been little consistency in the role. Latterly it had become a title without a need to go for the assessment if your head was prepared to simply rubber stamp it. So it needs to start again. But we were united in dismay at the prospect of Master Teacher to replace it. He laughed. “So what would you call it?” he asked. “Ask twitter” we replied. So last night there was a long conversation about this with these suggestions coming forward:-

Lead Practitioner

Learning Leader of Education (LLE to fit in with NLE and SLE)

Teacher Coach

Ninja Teacher (I know it will never happen but I so want it to….)

What do you think – add your suggestions to the comment box.

He recognises that sometimes people get bored and want to pursue other interests. He wants to leave doors open for returners, to explore ways that teachers can study, can reach out of the classroom when they want to/need to, but he also recognises the need for stability and high quality pupil experience. He wants us to shape our future and to put forward suggestions.


I have written before about his views that while a variety of ITT routes should be available, there should nevertheless be a central co-ordinating role for Universities to play. Perhaps not surprising for a former University Lecturer to say that they have a valuable role to play. He is keen to hear the outcomes of the Carter review before committing to a vision but expressed some concerns about Schools Direct.


I came away feeling that we could have done with another couple of hours or days or weeks…but that here is someone who will sacrifice his image as a cut and thrust adversary to the Conservatives in order to create stability and make some space, as far as possible for teachers to step forward and organise. We have to seize that opportunity for trust. We can stand on the sidelines, tut and demand. We can insult, criticise and roll our eyes. But these are all ways to avoid actually doing something. We have an opportunity here. Let’s please take it.


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#Nurture 2014/15 with a little #Teacher5aday

There are two great end of and start of year blog initiatives going on this year thanks to @chocotzar and @martynreah and I know it might seem a little lazy to roll them into one, but given that the second is about teacher well being, cutting down the workload can only be a good thing, right?

I wrote last year of wanting to be a better teacher, of wanting to get our new curriculum right, on wanting to have a year where I got all my registers in on time. And then I left teaching. The blog post I wrote at that point was the most popular I’ve ever written with over 80,000 reads. It struck a chord. I couldn’t cope any longer with the hypocrisy of having a vision of what I felt education should be – preparing children to enter adult hood with the tools they needed to leave the world in better shape than they found it; to live fulfilling and meaningful lives; to be able to find and give love and compassion and to understand that learning is something you continue to do all your life. Reconciling that set of beliefs with the pressure to push children down linear pathways that narrowed their view of what constitutes value and importance; that failed to recognise that human beings are multi-faceted and that all kinds of aptitudes and interests are needed to make for a better future and that THEY mattered more than the numbers attached to them was nigh on impossible. And I just couldn’t cope with all the time demanded to be the teacher I wanted to be and to still write, campaign and learn. I was cracking up. And so I resigned. It’s been tough, but there have been some great things coming out of it.

1. I finished my book. And apart from one snotty review, it was pretty well received.

2. I almost finished another one – nearly there…

3. I dropped 2 stones in weight. Swimming and yoga. And not having access to all those biscuits in the staff room….

4. Emma Hardy and I pulled off not only an education conference. But one with a great big beating heart which left people smiling and laughing. Nothern Rocks. (We’re doing it again by the way – look here)

Hywel singing

5. I became as Associate of both the RSA and Independent Thinking and was invited to speak at the RSA on revolutionising education. It was the most terrifying day of my life, but I loved doing it. You can see it here.

6. I travelled to Singapore, Brussels and Hong Kong and learned that there is a whole education system out there that is not beholden to politicians and that when that happens, you get a fabulous, long term vision of education with children who are articulate, responsible and confident emerging. The International Schools system offers a unique view into what might happen to education if politicians stepped away.

7. I’ve continued to push in whatever ways I can for an independent body set up by teachers for teachers and am pleased to support the Claim Your College campaign.

8. I’ve worked with a lovely school in Bradford, Appleton Academy, a school where five years ago I helped set up a new Year 7 curriculum model which is not only still going strong, but which is remembered in vivid detail by the Year 11 students now. Our question is if lessons they experienced five years ago are still well remembered, how come they claim not to be able to remember their GCSE lessons? We’re working on memory but also on making learning memorable across the school. And we’ve started off with 9 teacher/researchers who are following their own Action Research lines of inquiry with classes this year. They’re our Appleton Seedbearers and they are wonderful. Watch this space – I’ll be blogging about them.

And next year?

I have plans for a third book.

I’m returning to Hong Kong and China to learn more.

I’m going to be working in a refugee camp in Kenya – the royalties from my book went into the Big i Foundation, a charity committed to ensuring that children all over the world get an education. I’ll be training teachers and working with children for two weeks over there with Jane Hewitt and we’ll hopefully raise more funds for future work to be done. Here is their classroom.Kenyan Refugee Camp Classroom

That puts things into perspective doesn’t it?

And I hope I’ll be a better wife and mother. That brings us to the #teacher5aday element I guess, because sometimes, it’s easy to put everyone else’s children before your own. We teachers do it all the time. I’ve even been known to steal their books and toys to take them into work – you know what it’s like. And this Christmas, we were having a little family fun – what character would we be in such and such a film? When we got to The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, my fifteen year old blurted out without hesitation:-

“Mum would be Galadriel. She’s hardly ever there, but when she rocks up she does something dramatic to show who’s in charge!”

We all laughed, but it made me think. Next year I’ll be out of the country for at least six weeks. And then there are all the nights spent in hotel rooms around this country waiting to deliver a day’s inset or attend a meeting. I’m away from home at least two nights every week. And when that happens, a family needs an anchor. My husband is a fantastic anchor, but he’s also a teacher under all the stress and strain that that entails. And I need to learn how to be more present when I’m home. Not to be constantly on twitter; or unable to listen because my mind is in work mode. I need to be there when I’m there. And that’s not easy, but I’ll try.

As a profession we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and to each other. We need to recognise that the demands being placed on us in terms of marking loads and expectations are inhumane. We need to stop feeling like we’re failing. We need to fight back – point out the absurdities that make our lives unbearable. I still keep saying ‘we’ as if I’m in it with you every day and I know that I’m not. But after 21 years, it’s seared on my mind – the never ending cycle of feeling like you’re not quite good enough and it drains you. I might not be in the classroom, but I’ll be speaking up, pointing out these problems and doing everything I can to help. I promise. But if I’m not on twitter all the time, or if I can’t travel 200 miles to speak for 7 minutes at a teach meet, I hope you’ll understand that I’m also trying to be a Mum. I’d like to look like Galadriel, but I want to be in the fellowship of my family.

Happy new year to you all.


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Let’s Get a Bit Lairy.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a bit poorly this week, or if it’s the effects of the exhaustion of a long term impacting on others who are still putting in the hours at the chalk face, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of fun in my professional life. Over the past year, we’ve been bombarded with narratives of failure. Even Michael Gove’s departure didn’t stop the ‘woe betide you’ messages emitting from every official channel. Everywhere I turn, there’s a work harder, try harder, do better message. Read more, research more, mark more….I think it’s time to get lairy.

I’m all for teachers getting involved in research, in reading to improve, in pushing ourselves towards excellence. But it should be done in a spirit of celebration and joy. Not under threat. And I don’t know any teachers who want children to fail, but I know many who are pushing us to believe that all the problems of poverty are our fault and that if only we were better teachers, poorer children would succeed. It’s starting to bother me. It bothered me even more when I saw this advert for Teach First. I’m working with two wonderful, committed TF graduates at the moment. They are awesome. But they recognise that without the support of their experienced colleagues, they would be going under. And that the problems that the children they teach are facing are a whole lot more complex than they can fix just by being clever and committed.

And that thing about resilience? When did it suddenly become a stick with which we should beat each other? I heard one senior manager tut as he/she heard of a colleague’s depression a few weeks ago. “They need to man up.” was the comment. Grit – that’ll do it. Alfie Kohn writes brilliantly here about this hijacking of grit and resilience. To what extent are we using resilience in order to justify a protestant work ethic designed to ensure compliance in the face of unrelentingly dull and unrewarding requests? It seems that as religion declines, resilience has become the new opium of the masses.

So don’t even get me started on this latest announcement from the DfE in which the same government that has removed speaking and listening from the GCSE, radically reduced the teaching of drama in schools and shoved thousands more children into poverty announces that debates and putting on Shakespeare plays (unabridged, mind) are the stuff of grit. It’s all about getting kids to overcome set backs apparently – like losing their school playing fields?

All this has been on my mind while I’ve been beavering away with Emma Ann Hardy organising Northern Rocks 2015. Are we feeding the monster by getting you all out on a Saturday to think about how we could be better teachers? Are we making things worse? Well it’s too late now – we’re booked and 65% of the tickets are gone and we have a shed load of quite brilliant speakers lined up. So instead, we’re getting party minded. We’re going to be celebrating, laughing and playing. Ross McGill aka @teachertoolkit is under orders to misbehave. We have a band. We have a lot of music actually. We’re even going to get some wine in for a wee toast at the end of the day. Because work needn’t always be hard. Teaching needn’t always be serious. Conferences needn’t always be about what’s wrong and what works. They can be a celebration of what we do well. They can be a challenge to those in charge to think a little more carefully about the impact that their latest whim has on our working patterns. They can be a chance to meet old friends, make new ones and be unapologetically joyful. And they can be an opportunity to learn something new without being made to feel that you were inadequate before you knew it. That’s what we’re aiming for. So come and join us if you can. And if you can’t, hold up your head. Be proud. Keep smiling and have a wonderful Christmas.


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Loves Labour Lost and Found (nearly)…

I used to love the Labour party. Dame Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Glenda Jackson – you couldn’t have got a more eclectic mix, but the message was quite clear – we stand up for the disadvantaged, the poor, the weakest in our society and no matter what their own backgrounds were, they were all about championing those least able to champion themselves. That’s how it seemed to me in the 1980s – that there were people in parliament who genuinely cared and who weren’t afraid to speak up regardless of how it might play with the voters. My Dad (a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher) and I would argue for hours about the miner’s strike, the unions, capitalism and so on. He came from abject poverty and saw her as someone who had facilitated him to move up in the world. I looked at my cousins, still stuck on council estates, their parents made unemployed and their communities shifting from the working poor to the so called underclass and I couldn’t see the fairness in a system that prided individual ambition and success over community care and responsibility.

When I went to university, I stomped the streets of London pushing leaflets through doors and trying to talk to people in flats on Glenda Jackson’s behalf. I wept when Labour lost the election. And in 1997 partied so hard when we won that I was ill for days. And then months. And then years as disappointment set in. I thought we’d get equality, but we got a weird kind of equanimity instead. I wish they’d done more, I lamented in 2010. I wish the differences between politicians had been more marked. But look at the trajectory of movement to the right as outlined by political


I was disillusioned. What was the problem? There’s something to do with the cult of the professional politician – the blind compliance with party lines. The fear of losing votes and seats (because if all you’ve known is politics, where do you go when you lose your seat?) This shift from politicians with proper working backgrounds to the career politician has led to a colourless palette of choice – like a Kelly Hoppen political interior of nothing but taupe. There’s so little choice at the very time there is so great an appetite for change. I really think that UKIP are gaining so much ground not because of their appalling policies, but because they are appealing to the desire for something new and different. And somehow they get the attention of the media. There is choice on the other side – the Greens of course, but how often do you see them on the telly? Credibility is formed by media attention and ours has been shabbily shaped by a media governed by the very same desires as those bland politicians – protect your advantage; sit;  don’t rock the boat.

There are some notable exceptions. My local MP, Debbie Abrahams is wonderful – hard working, caring and compassionate. And she’s worked in the NHS for years – she knows a world away from politics. This is what we need – people who know stuff. Not academic stuff, but life stuff – work experience, the machinations of industry, institutions, the work place. But there is too little of this across our whole political system. We need more Alan Johnsons, more Ian Mearns. We need politicians who don’t give a toss if they’re given a portfolio. And who will offer alternative visions. And where they exist, we need a media who will give them coverage. Look at this – where British politicians sit within the wider political spectrum – where is the real choice?


Nevertheless, I’m backing Labour this Spring. I’m phone phobic, but calling people in my local area from my constituency office. I’ll be pounding pavements, delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. Why? Well, partly because my MP is great and I want her back. But also because while the gap might be slight between Labour and Conservative, it’s still a world of difference.

I’ve watched in dismay as our schools have become fragmented and atomised; as our children have been valued less and less for what they are capable of and pushed though ever decreasing sets of measurements. I saw my brother in law, a brilliant physiotherapist, who has painstakingly dedicated 15 years of his life to building an NHS centre of excellence for back care in the South East, suffer the news that his service is to be handed over to Bupa – a much reduced service with no attempt to even match like for like. I’ve seen children in my school unable to get in because of extortionate bus fairs. I’ve seen families queuing up at food banks while politicians sneered. Those gaps matter. They are significant.

People have said to me that it is better to have something to vote for than something to vote against. And while I wish the Labour party would have the courage to step to the left; to see that there are literally millions of people yearning for a fairer society, I do think there are some really good ideas in there. The problem, of course, is that newspapers rarely report them.

Last week, I was honoured to be invited as a guest of Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn to a Comprehensive Futures meeting in parliament. Tristram Hunt addressed the meeting outlining his priorities for education. All day his comments about private schools and state schools had dominated the news. (By the way, Tristram, while you’re on the subject of tax/charitable status, can we please get rid of the anomaly that means that sixth form colleges – often serving highly disadvantaged communities – have to pay VAT when school sixth forms don’t. It will cost you about £31 million. Less than the cost of a single free school). Anyway, away from the media headlines, it emerged that there was some compassionate common sense being spoken:-

1. A renewed investment in EYFS provision including 25 hours per week free entitlement. This would be high quality provision, not Liz Truss’ pile em high babysitting service, with highly qualified nursery nurses and provision that is rooted in research into what young children need. Not calculus as it turns out.

2. More investment in apprenticeships – proper apprenticeships, not slave labour – with a greater choice of vocational routes. Building more links between FE and industry.

3. Reinstating the AS level and exploring how GCSEs might allow more scope for practical modes of assessment.

4. Wrap around school care from 8am to 6pm – not staffed by teachers.

5. A representative body for school support staff.

6. The facilitation of teachers to ensure that they are able to teach. And that they are ALL qualified.

7. An emphasis on high quality CPD, ensuring that teachers are entitled to professional development and that they are committed to it.

8. The creation of a less hierarchical, ‘value neutral’ system where no school type is given preferential treatment over another. Local authorities will be able to open new schools where there is demand in the area.

9. An investment in good quality careers services in schools.

10. Teacher training which is varied, but managed centrally by HE institutions acting as hubs.

As fast as I could scribble, these were the headlines I heard. And these are the headlines we need to be communicated, because there is much goodness in this mix. Is it perfect? No. Is it a lurch to the left? Not really. But it is a step towards common sense. And it’s why I’m getting behind Labour education policy and the party as a whole. And once you’re behind something, you can give it a bit of a push…


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