Northern Rocks 2017

The fourth Northern Rocks marked the end of an era. From the first, when Emma Hardy and I, from a single tweet, gathered a group of 500 in a room and pinched ourselves, to this, our last done together, it’s been a blast. Emma’s election to Parliament means she’ll no longer have the time to do Northern Rocks and I’ll miss her like I miss my flat stomach and straight jawline. But I’m so proud that this wonderful woman, who only four years ago, stood in front of the inaugural Northern Rockers and said “I’m just a primary school teacher” is now in a position to champion primary and secondary school teachers across the country. She’ll always be my Northern Rocks partner in heart and we look forward to welcoming her next year as a guest.

We started with a proper Northern welcome from the Wardle Academy brass band. They are completely brilliant. Put all images of school bands out of your mind and think Brassed Off. They literally blew us away.


They were followed by a damp eyed (nothing gets to you more than kids performing well does it?) Wonder Woman panel and what a panel it was. I’ll never quite get the image of the hanging dwarf toy out of my mind. Tears of awe were replaced by tears of laughter very quickly. But there were serious messages too – about bravery and integrity. About doing the right thing. It was a great start to the day.


We ended with the student panel – three courageous young women talking with the audience about their hunger for politics, for equality, for an education system that teaches them about life. They fully deserved their standing ovation. They did themselves and their schools and the Reclaim charity proud.


And in-between we had workshops of every shade – pedagogical, political, workshops on representation and equality, workshops on classroom practice, workshops on making classrooms magical and engaging places for children to be, and workshops on teacher well being. The place was “buzzing” in the words of NR mascot – the most northern man in the universe – Hywel Roberts.

David Cameron’s decision to speak openly and honestly about Amanda Spielman’s decision to pull out of Northern Rocks was timely and important. We have seen in recent months, a trend towards introversion from government. A silencing of quangos. An unwillingness to engage with the media. Amanda’s absence was part of a bigger pull away from engaging with those most affected by the decisions of government. His measured but powerful response in which he made clear that those who hold us accountable should also be accountable to us, resonated with all of the delegates there and I am grateful to him for his wisdom and articulacy in putting that across.

And as always, we ended on a light hearted note, with Mick Waters and Hywel Roberts taking on the Morecambe and Wise northerness of laughter. With an alarming cameo from David Cameron.

With Emma on the election trail, Amanda Spielman pulling out, losing our set designer and various other glitches, it felt like a miracle when it all went well. But it did go well. A newbie rocker came up to me in the middle of the day to say “I’m having such a great time – it feels like a music festival. Everyone is so friendly and happy!” It was exactly what I needed to hear. Northern Rocks has great speakers. We work hard to create a stimulating and interesting programme. But on the day, what makes the atmosphere what it is are the people who come. Many are not on twitter – they come through word of mouth. Many are not even remotely aware that there’s such a thing as a prog/trad debate. They come for ideas to take back to their classrooms. One thing unites them all – it’s a spirit of kindness, a willingness to learn and a capacity for joy. And that spreads.

I feel blessed to be taking it forward into the future. We’re going for an earlier date next year – the 19th May. No World Cup clashes! We’re thrilled that in spite of facing budget difficulties, Leeds Beckett and the Carnegie School of Education remain committed to hosting. We? Well yes. Standing behind me this year and every year, are a team of committed helpers. Some of them just rock up on the day and say “what can I do?” In addition to the bend-over-backwards awesomeness of Rachel Bostwick of Leeds Beckett, there are those like Dan and Kirsty who have been there every year, running the registration desk and Eventbrite site, helping me with the large crinkle-cut bag of chips on my shoulder about technology. There’s Ken, who runs around with his bag of leads making sure all the tech works, and only accepting a bottle of wine and couple of books in return. Jane Hewitt, our “granny with a camera” who takes the brilliant photos I now share. Our champions Roberts, Waters and Cameron who are always on the end of the phone for this phone phobic – and then send emails instead. All of them and you too – our delegates – are what makes it what it is. And of course, Mr Kidd. Mr Kidd with his sore back and bruised ankles, who fits all my needs in around his full time teaching job, carrying heavy stuff, sweating and not complaining. Thanks to him. And to you. All of you are Northern Rocks. Thank you.

He’s behind you! The real enemy of promise…

Nothing lets the government off the hook for social disadvantage and poverty quite like the teaching profession blaming each other for the academic underachievement of disadvantaged pupils. While people stand on either side of the prog/trad debate shouting at each other for the perceived failure or torture of the innocents, the government can relax, knowing that everyone is too distracted to turn the fire on them for the fact that there are now 4 million children living in poverty.

Poverty, we know, creates stress. In the UK, the 6th richest nation on earth, 400,000 children don’t have a bed of their own. At least 120,000 of them are homeless and living in temporary accommodation. Even those with beds and homes live with uncertainty. A cross party group of MPs in April, led by Frank Field, found that as many as 3,000,000 children were going hungry in the school holidays and that for many, school lunches were their only meal of the day. These children are not just poor, they are being damaged.

We know that chronic stress damages the hippocampus, central to learning and memory. In particular, high levels of cortisol impact on verbal declarative memory – memory for words and facts – the very kind of memory that tests rely on. Since Newcomer’s study in 1999, these findings have been replicated several times and although the effects are reversible, the conditions for the reversal to take place demand that the child is in a safe and nurturing environment, both at home and at school. In short, the real enemy of promise for young disadvantaged people is the insecurity and deprivation caused by poverty, not progressive education.

Despite the beliefs of some that the education system is blighted by discovery learning (isn’t all learning a form of discovery?), in fact, most teachers, teach. When I was in class, you were as likely to find me at the front, talking about language and theory, as you were in full collaborative, group mode. I, like many teachers, switched modes to suit purpose. I don’t think that me dressing up as a tiger and coming back for a more healthy tea did Year 1 much harm. In fact, the quality of their instructional writing in the form of recipes and their informative writing in the form of invitations was much improved. Of course, the direct instruction I gave them helped. But the motivation of creating a tea party for a tiger was what they talked about excitedly when they went home. It’s what motivated them to utilise their phonics knowledge, explicitly taught but creatively interpreted:- “Good Mood Food for Tigers!”

Year 9, in role as detectives, investigating the possible triple murder of three teenagers in Verona, poured over the diaries of Juliet with a fervour to figure out how she had ended up here – in a crypt, dead. Her speeches were clues and they needed decoding. And once they had the hang of that, the rest of the play was open to them. It’s easy to get Yr 9 interested in the language of Romeo and Juliet – to stand at the front and tell them what they need to know – when they’ve already decided it’s a bloody (literally) good read.

Being a good teacher is about being able to look this way AND that. To use this technique AND that. It’s about understanding and being able to rationalise why you chose to do that in this way on this day. To have a focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, using a combination of evidence and experience to make informed decisions. This focus has to be about what the children are getting out of the experience. What they are learning to know, what they are learning to do, what they are learning to process, what they are learning to understand, and yes, what they are thinking and feeling? Depending on what those ‘whats’ are, your tasks will shift.

Telling people that there is one way to teach does no-one any favours. Spending our time writing blogs and tweets about why one half of the profession is wrong, does no-one any favours. It distracts us; removes our focus from the cause of the problem to the symptom. It makes us turn on each other and not on the fact that we’re being held accountable for one of the most shameful failures of our society that there is – our failure to provide the most basic of human needs for our most vulnerable.

Frankly I couldn’t care less if you teach from the front or from the ceiling as long as you know what you’re doing and why. We have to stop sniping at each other, and instead unite in a demand for a more socially just society in which children are fed, have a chance of a good night’s sleep and  aren’t worried about whether they will have a home from one day to the next. That way they can be in school ready to learn. We have a duty to aim our ire at those who ensure that families who work still can’t afford to pay rents, have to use food banks and choose between food and fuel. If we don’t, then more and more children will fall into that most difficult of traps to get out of – poverty – and not a single knowledge organiser or child initiated role play will ever get them out.

Is leadership gendered?

I was worried when I was asked to speak at WomenEd last Saturday. I have never really been a leader (middle management in schools is just that – management, usually with no money and little influence – so that didn’t count). I covered for an AHT once which largely involved bus duty, distributing ties and proof reading reports. But leadership, no, never. And nor had I ever (I thought), really aspired to be a leader.

Being a Head of Department put me off somewhat. Juggling data; dreading the flood of phone calls at 7am to tell you that members of your team were off sick; trying to cover three lessons at once; fielding parental complaints about the inconvenience of exam dates; managing detentions; passing on bad news in two directions like a signpost…none of it felt like leadership. And it was easy to decide to jump to becoming an AST. There I could do what I did best – teach. I could collaborate with colleagues in a “you might find this useful way” rather than “this is what I’ve been told I have to tell you” way. It was, I believed, a way of avoiding leadership.

So I felt like a proper fraud when I was asked to speak for an organisation that states as one of its key aims, to support women in leadership and those who aspire to be. But I said yes anyway and did what good girls do – my homework. And I reflected. I remembered the time when I did put the idea forward to my head that I might like to move into an SLT post and he laughed heartily and said “you’d hate it.” And that was that. And I think I might have, if the paradigm of leadership was what many perceive it to be. This is why I’m moving to the idea that we should be trying to avoid speaking of pejorative “male” and “female” leadership styles and models, and instead thinking about leadership differently.

One of the first things I did was to ask the question “are there really differences between the male and female brains?” And it turns out there are. Women have larger limbic systems, tend to have a larger corpus callosum and a larger hippocampus. The limbic brain deals largely with emotions and nurture; the hippocampus with memory and the corpus callosum links left and right hemispheres, making women work across both more fluidly. Their communication centres mature 6 years before boys’ do. Men on the other hand have a brain that is larger – roughly in line with the larger body size they have. Scientists don’t think this has any impact on their brain function, but they do have better developed spacial awareness, tend to use the left hemisphere more and their motor skills mature roughly 4 years earlier than girls’ do. Of course all of this is generalised – there will be many men with well developed corpus callosum (Einstein had a huge one apparently) and there are, of course, many women who are spacially aware. But it left me wondering whether these differences affect the way we experience and see the world and how that might impact on leadership.

Ian McGilchrist’s work on The Divided Brain is fascinating in this respect. He points to the debunking of many of the widely held beliefs about the functions of right/left hemispheres of the brain – largely that one dealt with logic and the other with creativity for example or that one was more male and the other more female and he is firm in his dismissal of such binaries. It is now known that brain processes are complex and take place across both hemispheres. Creativity, for example, as Anna Abraham and Paul Howard-Jones point out, takes place across both hemispheres – it demands switching between different kinds of thinking – analytical and generative. It taps into multi-sensory memory, drawing down knowledge, making connections, tapping into emotions. It’s not located in one part of the brain. But it does require an ability to switch between functions and to hold two views in place at once – the fixed and the fantasy; the in-fact and the intuition. It’s not so much what the hemispheres deal with, but perhaps how they affect our perception and view of the world. McGilchrist offers the example of a bird – with the left hemispheric part of it’s vision, it focuses on a seed in a bed of gravel and maintains that focus as it swoops to feed. But with the right it is searching – for threats, using intuition, experience and other senses to ensure its safety. This capacity to look hard and soft, in and out, is essential to survival and to creativity. It requires a good, strong corpus callosum and a fluidity between the hemispheres. Without this, we become too loaded on one side or the other.

Reading McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (and I’m only part of the way through) is a challenge – it’s a proper beast of a book. Some reviewers have said it will prove to be as pertinent to our understanding of the human brain as The Origin of Species was to understanding the development of life on our planet. Others have been less certain of its credibility. But one thing is certain – it blows your mind a little and it is rooted in decades of scholarly research. It’s not an opinion piece. McGilchrist posits the idea that we, as a society as a whole, have become too reliant on the perception managed by the left hemisphere – a perception that deals with certainty, proof, detail…but lacks the bigger picture view of the right. It lacks intuition, a consideration, for example, of unforeseen outcomes to decisions. It lacks the wider view. The left posits the “other” in a binary position, rather than in a partnership, leading us to tend towards polar opinions. Progressive v traditional, rational v emotional, individual v collective, right v wrong. Being left loaded can lead us to a narrow view of the world. And it can lead us to inflict harm while turning a blind eye. But to ignore the left is to ignore the importance of detail, of focus, of persistence. The fact is we need to hold both in mind.

What is leadership if not a skill set that requires the ability to resist binaries and shift along a continuum in which focus is balanced with intuition; in which fact mates with imagination; reason with emotion. In the way we shift along scales of formality in language is there not a scale of leadership in which we can hold both perspectives at the same time? Is it not better to think of scales of paradigm rather than fixed, gendered positions which result in men being accused of being ‘pussies’ if they empathise and women are somehow unnatural if they reason? What if this is not a gender related issue – many men reject the “left-loaded” model too – what if it is not that one is male or female, but that the model itself is simply unbalanced.

The traditional model of leadership (and I’m starting to think this has infused the entire education system from leadership to assessment to accountability to pedagogy) is one that parks emotion, or pretends to (neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that all reason is infused with emotions – unless there is a cognitive impairment). Damasio suggests that all good decision making comes through our limbic brains, is somatically, as well as cognitively experienced, and ultimately depends on intuition as well as logic. Being “left-loaded” attempts to deny that reality – to deal in certainties and to reject complexity. Being “left-loaded” allows us to ignore the bigger picture – to make decisions that a wider lens would see as illogical and potentially harmful, while focusing on small facts and opinions that we believe to be “true”. It allows us to vote for Brexit on the basis of a single issue, or for Trump, or to throw our plastic bottles in the recycling bin with a clear conscience while ignoring the fact that we didn’t need to have bought the bottle. It allows us to blame teachers for the underachievement of the poorest of children while ignoring how our social policies have exacerbated their poverty. It allows us to prioritise the colour and shape of shoes over the mental health of the minds in our care. It allows us to march forward while simultaneously setting up roadblocks in our pathway.

Left loaded leadership is not male – it’s just unbalanced. Just as right loaded leadership would be. What we need is a system that allows us to be both. To see the inconsistencies in our system and find ways of putting them right. To accept that we and others make mistakes and to put them right. To manage egocentricity and our desires, by holding them in balance with those of others. To be male AND female, analytic and innovative, focused and nurturing, firm and fair. That’s the kind of leadership role I would have embraced and it’s a paradigm I think we should fight for. Male or female.

I’ll be writing much more about the implications of McGilchrist’s thesis as I go on, and particularly its implications for learning and education. But if you want a taster, here is a good start.

Ten Cures for the Teacher Shortage

Dear Government,

Here are ten cures for the teacher shortage.

  1. Stop talking teachers and schools down. Every time you (falsely) mention how poorly we compare to our international competitors or how we need to raise standards in our schools, you put people off. Few want to play for a losing side.
  2. If you’re going to offer financial incentives to, say Maths, Science graduates, then why not tie them into teaching for a few years? At the moment, it’s a no brainer to train for a year and receive a £30,000 grant. Especially if you don’t even have to teach afterwards.
  3. Develop good career pathways for teachers who don’t want to move into management but who still want their excellence and expertise to be recognised. Value and reward experience.
  4. Increase funding to schools so they can afford to employ good teachers.
  5. Broaden out the EBacc to cover more subjects – e.g. more humanities subjects like RE or Philosophy and the arts. This will reduce the burden on finding History/Geog teachers and is a healthier spread of subjects for young people.
  6. Make salaries more attractive to graduates. People used to not mind being paid less as a teacher when they could still afford to buy a home. The housing market is making teaching less attractive to graduates who can’t afford high rents or mortgages.
  7. Reduce workload by incorporating marking and planning time into directed hours. I don’t mean an hour a week. I mean proper time that reflects the reality of the job. Yes, it’s going to cost you.
  8. Reduce workload by ensuring that teachers don’t have to spend hours preparing for Ofsted inspections. Reform Ofsted so that it plays a role in supporting and transforming schools rather than judging them and walking away. Remove grading and bring in formative support.
  9. Stop calling teachers cheats when they try to find the best possible ways of securing their own and their students’ survival. If you create a hostile environment, don’t be surprised when people fight to survive in it.
  10. Expand university training provision and remove tuition fees from those routes. They offer some of the best value for money and best retention rates for ITT. Stop on the one hand, promoting the value of an academic education and on the other, attacking university academics as “blobs”.

None of this is cheap. But then, I’m yet to hear an education secretary stand up and say they want a Poundland Education System. All I hear is World Class. That costs. Cough up.

A broken system. Progress 8, GCSEs and SATs.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 3 hours with the infinitely patient Lucy Rimmington from Ofqual, trying to get under the skin of Progress 8, the new GCSEs and what it all means for teachers, children and parents. Thanks to her and to several teachers who helped me with questions and queries along that way, I’ve written this blog to try to explain to parents and teachers some of the central issues in our exam system. I should be clear that Lucy was simply explaining processes and language to me and that any opinions or conclusions drawn are mine alone.

My first question centred around what I referred to as “norm referencing” and what is more correctly termed “comparative outcomes.” Is it true, I asked, that the proportion of pupils passing GCSEs is set in advance, regardless of criteria or achievement? The answer is yes, well sort of. Exam boards can appeal the boundaries for individual subjects if they feel that the cohort was unusually able, but this is very rare and difficult to prove.  So, in reality, it’s a yes. Already, it has been decided that this year, around 2/3rd of pupils will achieve a grade 4 or a C or above. In fact the proportions of 1s, 4s and 7s have been agreed in advance, regardless of what children do on the day. It means that although the government say that they have made exams harder and more rigorous, it hardly matters because the number of children passing will remain the same. So much for “raising standards.” It’s a clever PR ploy. Journalists and parents can look at the paper, say “ooh that’s hard,” look at the pass rate and assume that things are getting better. In reality, it simply means that children don’t have to score as highly to get the same grade. One might shrug if it weren’t for the pressure that the harder content puts on teachers and pupils and the extra worry it creates.

It seems mad, if you assume that having criteria means that children who reach it are rewarded with a corresponding grade, to find out that we have a system in which no-one can really improve – at least they can, but it must always be at the expense of someone else. But on the other hand, fixing the results in this way protects children from a catastrophic drop in results when government ministers have fiddled with the exam system. It creates stability. The alternative is what we saw with KS2 SATs last year – a criteria based system – where the % of children meeting expected standard fell from 80% to 53%. A drop like that at GCSE would be disastrous. As Lucy said, it seems like the fairest option in a flawed system.

This might not matter, if it were not for the fact that it creates a complete disconnect between reality and the expectations of government and Ofsted. If results are fixed in advance, then how can schools improve? If they are to be judged on data, how can it be fair to be expected not to “coast” when in fact the system is set up to ensure coasting? The fact is that every school that improves their data is doing so at the expense of another’s results. We are pitched against each other – child against child, teacher against teacher, school against school – in a fight to protect our position and to try to improve it, knowing full well that our Outstanding comes at a cost for someone else. No wonder so many schools are starting to select by excluding pupils who may skew their data. No wonder they are looking for ways to secure advantage over others. It actually makes the idea of sharing best practice an act of folly. Why should we collaborate when doing so could hurt our students’ chances of success?

The system is predicated on two central beliefs from Ofqual. One is that people don’t get more intelligent. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that what they achieve at 11 is a fair indicator of what they will achieve at 16. So the proportion of pupils who will achieve 4s and above at GCSE is set in line with SATs results. All the research into growth mindsets and the evidence from MENSA that in fact human IQ is improving, is largely ignored. They point to the fact that data suggests that children move in a trajectory from KS2 to GCSE that is largely reliable. But that doesn’t allow for the possibility that our data tracking systems for the past twelve years or so have assumed this trajectory. That setting GCSE targets in line with KS2 results might create self-fulfilling prophecies where children achieve the grade that the adults around them expected them to. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that this thinking places a ceiling on achievement and potential.

The other belief, is that for some reason, teachers are not to be trusted – that they will cheat. And so the exam system has to be cheat proof. This lack of trust drives much decision making across the system. For example, reducing coursework; the number of resits; disallowing iGCSE from state school league table results; reducing the number of reviews (or remarks as teachers call them – a semantic tic that apparently irritates people at Ofqual) – all these things have been done to stop people “gaming” the system. Yet let’s take the last one – reviews. Last year, Ofqual announced that the right to have papers “reviewed” (or remarked) would be restricted. They claimed that this was to stop private schools from gaming the system by entering whole cohorts of students for review because they could afford it. By stopping that game, they made it harder for all the genuine applications to be successful. Yet IN THE SAME YEAR, their own research found that 50% of English Literature candidates and almost the same proportion of History candidates got the wrong mark. They publish evidence that exam marking is unreliable at the same time as they make it harder to have the paper reviewed. I don’t really need to say any more on that do I?

Similarly in an attempt to stop pesky teachers from “teaching to the tests” that will change the lives of the pupils they care about, they take care to ensure that the exams are increasingly unpredictable. That the questions cannot be guessed and that they will be written in such a way that children have to think laterally and apply their knowledge. On the one hand, that’s no bad thing – flexibility of mind is an important skill. On the other, when an exhausted child is sitting up to thirty exams in a three week period, it’s a farce to expect them to have the clarity of thinking that the test is designed to extract. At least, with the grade boundaries being fixed, it hardly matters what’s on the paper I suppose.

Having said all of this, schools do themselves no favours in challenging this perception of gaming. Take the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence). Under Progress 8, schools are credited for a broader number of subjects than before under the old 5A-C accountability measure (for parents that means that schools used to be judged according to the number of pupils who achieved 5 grade As – C, now, they are judged across 8 subjects and the measure is not who gets Cs or above – but how much progress they make from SATs). That would seem fairer if it were not for the fact that the GCSE grades are set in line with SATs results. That means children are NOT EXPECTED to make progress that exceeds predictions at all by Ofqual, but they are by Ofsted. Indeed “good” progress is that which exceeds expectations – anything else is simply expected. And if they do make better than expected progress, someone else must do worse. I know, I know. Anyway, back to the ECDL.

There are three baskets for Progress 8. Schools must enter all pupils for English and Maths – the first basket – and these count for more points if you like than other subjects. They must also provide pupils with access to subjects in the second basket which are largely the EBacc subjects – Languages, Sciences, Humanities etc. The third basket is “other” this could include Arts subjects, vocational subjects and a host of others, like the ECDL. Although Ofqual states that these third basket subjects should involved a minimum number of hours of study, the fact that most pupils are already reasonably computer literate means that the ECDL can be taught and assessed in an intensive week or across a term. This Datalab blog post explains the gaming of ECDL in more detail. Putting all pupils in for ECDL could raise a school’s Progress 8 score by as much as 0.2 – a significant gain. So many schools, in line with the advice given to them by Regional Schools Commissioners (yes, that’s right – senior civil servants are actively encouraging schools to game the system) and MAT trustees, are now entering pupils for an assessment that has little value to them, but great value to the school. It’s no surprise then that the government have now announced that the ECDL will not count towards Progress 8 from 2019. And even before that, there is pressure on Ofsted to look carefully at how schools are creating their Progress 8 scores and whether their choices are made in the best interests of pupils. It’s another game of cat and mouse, and what it does is undermine further the credibility of the profession as well as placing more ethically minded schools at risk. Strategies such as these, while understandable, explain why it is that organisatons like Ofqual view us with suspicion.

It seems to me that we are stuck in a system of mistrust where each side is attempting to out manoeuvre the other in order to protect either themselves or the systems they create. And children get lost in the cross fire. One of the biggest problems leading to unreliability of exam marking is the poor quality of examiners. Struggling to recruit enough examiners to serve an enormously overloaded exam system, boards are turning to unqualified and inexperienced examiners, some of whom have never taught. Even without entering into the matter of subjectivity, this quality issue alone serves to undermine the validity of the whole system. Why are Ofqual and government not leaning on exam boards to ensure a basic level of qualification and experience for their examiners? They’d have to pay more; their profit margins would reduce. Why are government not giving experienced teachers incentives to examine – reduced timetables for example – and subsidising schools to encourage better quality examiners to come forward? Why is the cost of reviewing not met by the exam board if the quality of their service is so poor?

It seems to me that as long as Government allows the population to labour under the misapprehension that we live in a system of meritocracy where all can improve with effort, schools are in an impossible bind. It’s time for some open minded debate about how we best hold our schools to account; how we best assess our children and how we best communicate these aims to parents. I remain hopeful that there is a significant role to be played here by the Chartered College of Teachers to broker a relationship between the DfE, teachers, unions, Ofsted and Ofqual in a way that develops more realistic expectations, fairer systems of assessment and more open communication. What is clear, is that everyone is doing what they think is the best thing. Ofqual are trying to create a stable and reliable system. Ofsted are trying to create a fairer system of inspection. Teachers are trying to get children the best possible outcomes they can. All are working towards similar goals – to create an education system that equips young people for a successful future. But by working in competition and suspicion, they are undermining their stated purpose and the system is creaking under the pressure. We need to start again.

Growth Mindsets in a Fixed System

I’ve done a couple of training days recently on Growth Mindsets and have been asked if I’d jot down the key things we’ve covered. When I’m asked to do this training, I have to put a grenade warning on it. This is not a “this is what GM is and how to do it” course. It’s an uncomfortable truths course. Because the reality is, that while Growth Mindsets might be one of the biggest buzzwords in education, schools in the UK are working in one of the most restricted “fixed mindsets” systems in the world.

On the surface, the government would seem to embrace GM. They might say “Of course we promote Growth Mindsets! No child should be allowed to fall behind; we have high expectations for all, mirrored in our refusal to accept circumstances for failure; we even got rid of levels. And look at how many times we mention grit and resilience in our speeches. Proper GM us.”

But that would be, well a rose tinted view. In a proper growth oriented system, children would be given several chances to reach their potential – they wouldn’t be forced into a linear system. They would not be put in sets, not given “target grades” based on past performance. All of their achievements and pathways would be valued in the moment – whether academic, artistic, physical or social – and with a view on the next steps. Contexts would be taken into account and funding put in place to support those who needed extra help, including counselling, SEND support, resources and family support. A growth mindset government would not cut funding. They would not make it increasingly difficult for children to overcome set backs. So it’s clear that we are having to promote an idea that at best expects us to find ways to thrive in-between the concrete slabs of high stakes, linear testing, shifting goalposts and accountability based on suspect data.

To truly have a growth mindset, you have to accept that reality and then do everything in your power as a teacher and leader to make your school culture as positive as possible. That might mean asking some tricky questions to which there are no straightforward answers:-

  • Is it possible to really have growth mindsets in our schools if we use language such as high, middle and low ability?
  • Is it possible to have growth mindsets when we set/stream children?
  • Is it possible to have a growth mindset culture and still have graded lesson observations for staff?
  • Are any efforts on our part futile unless we also train parents and governors on the principles of growth mindset thinking?
  • Are we using growth mindsets and words like resilience and grit to excuse a dull curriculum – i.e. as a synonym for getting children to endure boredom?
  • Is there really a difference between GM and Assessment for Learning? How do we ensure this isn’t simply a fad that is forgotten in a couple of years’ time?
  • Is evidence from research into genetic heritability of intelligence (e.g. Plomin et al), at odds with what is effectively a ‘nurture’ approach from Dweck?
  • Is it true that people are either growth or fixed in terms of mindset? Does it not depend on circumstance and subject? In which case, are all those questionnaires a waste of time?
  • Is it possible to preach growth mindsets when sending children into a norm referenced exam system that makes the assumption that the same number of children should pass each year, regardless of whether or not they are getting better?

While there are no easy answers to the above, they form a day in which some much deeper thinking takes place and where we look to other areas of cognitive science and psychology to find some possible solutions. We explore the importance of motivation, of incremental feedback rather than praise, of stretching and challenging all children, of questioning, of moral purpose and of embedding the theory across the whole school – children, teachers, parents, governors and local stakeholders. We share ideas and we go away not with a silver bullet, but with a clearer sense of purpose and set of potential actions to effect change.

To my mind, this is what CPD should be – a trigger for change and for deeper thinking, not a set of top tips that conveniently gloss over the bigger issues that often get in the way of good intentions. In a recent discussion, for example, during a lively debate about the pros and cons of setting, one teacher said

“Whether we set or not should be irrelevant – it’s the attitude that matters. Children knowing they can move up and improve and schools making that a possibility.”

She was right of course – in schools who do set children (let’s leave the evidence behind on this for a moment) –  the problem may not be in the setting itself, but rather in the fact that there is always limited room at the top. If we are to be truly working towards a growth mindset culture, there must always be room for movement in reward for effort and achievement. If that leads to three set ones, then so be it. It’s in these discussions that possible solutions begin to present themselves. That’s not about a “consultant”coming in and telling you what to do. It’s about someone throwing difficult questions at you as professionals and then giving you the time and space to work towards solutions. Now I come to think about it – isn’t that what good teaching should aim to do?


Some Clarifications

This blog relates to events on twitter in the past 24 hours. If you are a time poor teacher hoping to learn something about education as you start this, I’d step away. It’s a shame I feel I have to write it, but it’s really of little worth to anyone who has not been following the conversations around my reputation for the past couple of days. I am closing comments for this blog. I am usually open to debate, but this is an attempt to end something, not start another thing off. I hope you understand.

On Tuesday night I tweeted that I had received notification from Michaela that my planned visit was no longer to happen – that they “would not be happy” for me to come. The reasons offered were twofold:-

“We are wary of criticism…and your review (of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers) contained many misconceptions.” This formed the first part of the note. It continued…

“We are inundated with requests to visit” and “would prefer to invite those who are open and willing to learn from us.”

It was polite and clear. So it’s a little strange that immediately people started to tweet that I had been banned because I was a “troll” and because my previous blog post about zero tolerance behaviour policies had referred to Michaela as “one little London school” which apparently is patronising. Now, I am more than happy to admit, I have offered criticism of Michaela’s methods in the past and that I have openly spoken of how their self promotion and tone puts people off engaging with what are, in many areas, very good ideas. Whether you agree or disagree with that, one thing is clear – it was not the reason for rescinding the invitation to visit. Indeed in the first invitation, which critically, came AFTER the zero tolerance blog was published, this was written. I am not naming the author of the comment – it’s not fair, but I think this is uncontroversial and reasonable:-

“I’d love you to visit, and I won’t take it personally if it doesn’t resonate with you: I’m more interested in you helping us see our blind spots…Thanks for having the courage and taking the time to come and visit us. I want us at Michaela to be wary of bubble thinking – I know we are making mistakes that are hard to spot once everyone’s on the same wavelength.”

No-one in their right mind could read that and not see it is an open and honest attempt to engage. It certainly set my mind at rest in terms of writing the review in which I hoped did exactly that – recognised the positives and identified some possible “blind spots”. So I think I am justified in being confused.

I have been conflicted about sharing this information. But Michaela have also come under fire and I think it’s important that all their staff are not grouped together as one band of paranoid people who are afraid of challenge. Indeed, another member of staff wrote to me after the review to say “thank you – that was really, really lovely.” Hardly insulted.

So I don’t know what conversations have gone on in the background. I don’t know and I don’t really care. The school are entitled to have whoever they like in. They are entitled to protect themselves. I respect their decision and am thankful to have time and money saved. But they no longer, and I’m sure they see this, have the right to challenge any criticism with the repost “well come in and visit then.”

As for the quite ridiculous allegations spinning off about trolling, let me clear up one or two things flying around about my “behaviour” and “abuse”. I hold my hands up to having lost my temper on a couple of occasions on twitter – to the best ability of my memory – it’s happened three times, all quite a while ago when I was feeling, well, not to put too fine a point on it, not myself. I was open in blogs and on twitter that I was struggling emotionally at the time. I first joined twitter as a teacher, just blogging about this and that in my classroom, then one day I wrote a letter to Michael Gove and invited other teachers to sign it. Within a week it was on the front page of  The Independent and I was on Channel 4 news, quaking in my shoes, opposite Nick Gibb.

No-one prepares you to be catapulted into controversy like that. I was woefully unprepared for the attacks that came my way from some of the neo-trad Gove supporters, most of it subtweeted. One in particular was rude. It made me very wary of him. I noted I was being discussed without being included. My work was described as “silly” and “mediocre” and later my tweets and errors would be screen shot and ridiculed without my knowledge. I couldn’t really understand what I’d done.

While all that was going on, I was struggling more and more at work. 70 hour weeks, relentless drives for data. Weeping staff sitting in my office telling me they’d been judged inadequate after years of brilliant service and that they’d been sent to me for advice. What could I teach these wonderful people who simply weren’t teaching in the way deemed to be acceptable at the time (thank God that’s shifting). I was starting to see the system as abusive to both children and teachers and I couldn’t stand it. I quit. I left the thing I had done for 21 years with no plan and no job and I walked away.

The pain of that decision still brings tears to my eyes now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great three years – learned loads, travelled all over the world. It’s been great. But then at that point, I was devastated. I felt like a deserter and there were people happy to let me know that they thought so too.

So… when a review of my book came out in October 2014, I was still feeling a bit delicate. I wasn’t really bothered that it got one bad review – it’s pretty unreasonable to expect everyone to like everything you do. But I was really hurt by the cheerleading and gloating that surrounded that one review. It went on and on and I was feeling ridiculously oversensitive about, well, everything.  I wrote about it in a blog that now makes me cringe in the same way that this blog will one day make me cringe. I was on holiday with my family. I spent the whole time on twitter and the holiday was utterly ruined. I came home, opened the comments page on that blog and saw a comment from the man who, I had come to feel (whether rightly or wrongly) was stalking me in an attempt to discredit and undermine me. He followed up a series of tweets, one of which called me “shoddy” in a comment, that on the surface may have seemed innocuous. But it ignored the fact that I said I was genuinely struggling with my mental health. It ignored the fact that that the blog was really an attempt to explore whether women were more prone to attack than men. Instead, it attacked. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. I snapped. In a comment on that blog, I accused the man of “utterly lacking in human empathy” and then I added probably the clumsiest comment of my life “unless, of course, you are autistic, in which case I apologise.” Or something to that end. No doubt there  will a screen shot in a file of grievances. That comment, deleted fairly quickly, has been the bane of my twitter life. It led to three days of persistent hounding on twitter. How dare I? What an insult to autistic people. They were right. It was. I apologised again and again and again for it. It wasn’t enough. By now I had not slept for almost a week. I was a wreck. After six apologies, when one twitter user (I’m not naming her, because I know that she is as sick of this being dragged up as I am) who had repeatedly  refused to accept the apology although she had acknowledged it had been made and had then subtweeted conversations about it, told me that she would not “let it pass”, I snapped. “And you” I wrote, “are a nasty piece of work.” It was the wrong thing to say and I regret it. I have written I have regretted it more times than I can remember. Partly because every time a certain someone wants to have a pop, he brings it up. And just because it was wrong.

And so, yes, when I realised that in a photo I had taken at ResearchEd that year, the figure with his back turned to the camera was this man (who although tweeting anonymously, seemed to be known and recognised by everyone there), I was tempted to tweet it. I held off for months. Then one night, after seeing him treat another female teacher in the way he had treated me and many others, I put it up with the caption “you may find a straw man in here.” There was no name. That was it. And within minutes, I regretted it. One of his friends, a fair and decent man, sent me a DM. “I know you are angry and I completely understand why, but this will only backfire on you. I would strongly urge you to delete it immediately.” He was right and I did. It was online for minutes and I admitted I was wrong. I don’t deny it now. It was wrong. It didn’t matter that he had himself attempted to out other anonymous twitter users. It didn’t matter because two wrongs don’t every make a right. I was wrong. That’s it.

So…three years later. I’m in a better place. Less likely to be riled, less likely to snap and be rude. I’ve learned a lot. I’m better. And if those incidents in the past make me a troll, then so be it. I can live with that – at least it’s set in context.

As for some of the other accusations I’ve had in the past couple of days. Did I “report Michaela to Ofsted” as was tweeted and attributed to me? No, apparently that was @HeyMissSmith who it seems did not “report” them either, but simply copied Ofsted into some Michaela tweets. It would seem that both of us were misrepresented in this respect.

Did I call Toby Young a knob? Yes I did. I might have been ruder, but it rhymed so beautifully with blob.