I’m a School in Special Measures.

I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. Went ‘special’ almost ten years ago, and we’re still special, see:-

  • We lost 30% of our staff after Ofsted and have never really replaced them. We’re not allowed an NQT. Our funds are drained by supply. The ones who stayed are heroes. They wear the tarnish and carry on doing their best.
  • Our intake fell after Ofsted came. Those who could afford to bus kids elsewhere did. Those who couldn’t/wouldn’t stayed. The buses aren’t free. We’ve become a school for those with no choices or for those who don’t care about choices or for those who can’t afford choices.
  • Our roll fell while other local schools’ numbers went up. Their funding went up with their new bus paying pupils whose parents joined the PTA. Ours went down. So when they wanted to ‘turn their schools around’ by off rolling/excluding, guess who had spaces for those kids? You don’t get funding for taking kids in Yr11. Just sayin’
  • They said we should join a MAT but MATs don’t seem interested in me.
  • Our children’s learning is improving in spite of everything but they’re in a rank ordering game. Comparative outcomes puts them at the bottom of the tree. They are moving forward on an platform of superglue.
  • They bring heads in. They move them on. They bring consultants in. They move them on. Pay offs bring our funding down. But at least it looks like SOMETHING IS BEING DONE.

I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. We went special almost ten years ago and we’re still special. Do you see?




Lord Adonis has caused quite a stir this weekend with his statement that “We must tackle the cancer of school expulsions – 1000s are excluded for a period of time each school day. Schools should be forbidden from expelling pupils, unless they have broken the law – many young lives are going completely off the rails because of this.”

If Lord Adonis had ever taught through this hideously long term, he would have thought twice about the timing of this announcement. While he has a valid point, it entirely ignores the exhaustion that the profession feels at this time of year. It’s frustrating enough when you’re tired, stressed out, giving it your all at the chalk face and dealing with a 6ft 2″ angry/distressed man-boy squaring up to you in the classroom, without some Lord telling you what to do.

But we also have to take a deep breath and look at what’s going on around us. And yes, I have been there, believe me. I once had my shoulder severely bruised by one teenage boy who pushed me against the door in his attempt to leg it out of my classroom. He was autistic, in care, distressed and I was in his way. He was excluded for three days then we sat down, had a restorative conversation and carried on as we were. I didn’t really want to see him again to be honest, but I also understood that we were the best chance he had of at least a semi-decent life. So, he made it through school and into college and we did our best by him.

I get that it’s hard. And when teachers are tired and stressed, their capacity to empathise with others is depleted. There’s really only so much you can give. But even so, many understand that the figures tell a very worrying story. Most will understand that Adonis, whatever his flaws, does have a point. 35 children are permanently excluded from school every single day. Overwhelmingly, they are boys with SEND. Overwhelmingly, they are from chaotic and disadvantaged homes. Disproportionately, they are black. And without doubt, if they are excluded, they are more likely to end up in prison. Excluded children are not only more likely to end up turning to crime, they are more likely to be poor, to be sick, to die early. They are more likely to become parents of disadvantaged and disturbed children and the cycle continues.

I heard, the other day of a school that had stopped using the words “challenging behaviour” and instead spoke of “distressed behaviour” and it made me wonder. Is the rise in exclusions linked to rises in mental health problems? Is it linked to rises in child poverty? Are these two things tied together? Are permanent exclusions a symptom of a wider malaise in our society?

And what of the off rolling, the illegal exclusions? A report by the IPPR suggests that the real figure of exclusions could be five times higher than the official figures and that because these are ‘unofficial’ exclusions, they are often untracked – children simply disappear.

I have great sympathy with the teachers who feel outraged by Adonis’ suggestion that we take exclusions lightly. Most don’t. For most they are a last resort. But there are a rising number of schools who use exclusions as an effective means by which to ‘turn a school around.’  This trend is worrying and it’s quite right that attention should be drawn to it. Ofsted should take into consideration the means by which a school has managed to ‘improve’ – I had one teacher contact me by DM to say that on his first day in post, a new head gathered the staff together and promised to “change the demographic of the school.” They were left in little doubt about what that meant.

Are there some circumstances in which children should automatically be excluded? I think so, yes. Pulling a knife, rare as it is, would be one of those examples. But the fact is, most excluded children have not pulled or carried a knife. Their behaviour has been different. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some simply cannot cope in mainstream education. There is no doubt that mainstream education with its increasing pressure on exam results, is not serving the needs of many of our children very well at all. So what needs to be done?

  • Money needs to be put in place to increase alternative provision so that there are high quality places available for the children who cannot cope in mainstream education.
  • Money needs to be put in place to ensure there is adequate support in mainstream schooling. That includes more TAs, SEND specialists and counsellors. The cost of this is a fraction of the ongoing, life long costs of poor health and crime.
  • Government need to tackle the underlying social conditions that are leading to this situation – poverty causes stress. Stress impacts on behaviour. Remove the cause of the stress.
  • Schools need to ensure that the children they exclude have somewhere else to go. They need to be partners in transitional arrangements.
  • Teacher workload needs to be addressed so that we don’t have a system where stressed and overloaded adults are in charge of stressed and overloaded children. It’s a powder keg.
  • Kindness and compassion need to always take priority over the accountability measures of a school. No head who is committed to inclusive practice should be punished for it. I’ve known three head teachers this year sacked by Academy CEOs for exactly this ‘crime’.

So, Lord Adonis, while I think you have a point, perhaps you could use your voice and influence, not only to turn the gaze on schools, but also onto the policies that are placing teachers and pupils in impossible situations. Perhaps you could take time to look at the bigger picture? And in the meantime, perhaps we teachers can take a deep breath and see these children anew. Not as destructive forces hell bent on ruining us. But on children in the process of being destroyed who need, more than anything else, our help.


And now good news for reading!!

Last week I was able to bring you good news in relation to group work in terms of our performance in PISA tests (for 15 year olds). And now, other international comparison tests (PIRLS – for 9/10 year olds) tell us that we’re doing pretty well in reading too. – around 8th out of 50. So let’s give our teachers a really lovely big pat on the back. And now let’s be really careful about jumping to conclusions. The good news is:-

  • We improved our scores by 7 marks in five years – from 552 to 559 an increase of around 1.25%.
  • More significantly, we narrowed the gap between the lower achieving pupils and the higher achieving ones.
  • And we made progress on closing the gap on gender differences with boys improving.

This is really heartening. And in addition, our pupils do really well at inference from fictional texts, though less well on extraction of information from non fiction texts. So, after cracking open the champagne and giving teachers a pay rise, what conclusions are the government making from this outcome?

Well, they are demonstrating that they too are better at making inferences than drawing out facts. Nick Gibb was keen to point out that this was the first cohort of children to have taken the phonics test and that therefore the improvement was an endorsement of the phonics check. But wait…this cohort of children achieved only a 58% pass rate in their Phonics Check in 2012. In 2017 it was 81%. Can we expect a rise of 23% in the next PIRLS test? It seems unlikely. And an analysis of the results conducted by Oxford university found only a moderate correlation of 0.52 between the two – that’s without taking statistical variance of the results into account. Of course, it’s also important to consider that correlation is not cause. The correlation simply suggests that on the whole, children who did well in one test, tended to do well in another. And vice versa. Not that one test CAUSED the results in the other. In fact the report concluded that  “while the average PIRLS scores of the lowest performing pupils in England have increased since 2011, it appears too hasty to claim that these improvements are attributable to policy changes.”

Nevertheless, it would seem churlish not to accept that surely SSP teaching has played a part in this improvement. This cohort are the first to have truly been impacted by the introduction of SSP in 2007 by the previous Labour government. Credit where it’s due.

And the performance in inference skills suggest that schools are doing well on ensuring children are reading fiction and developing comprehension and analysis skills.

However, the enjoyment of reading for both boys and girls was lower than the average for the countries taking part, and much more so for boys. This supports the findings too of the Clackmannanshire report into early reading that found that although SSP led to boys improved reading outcomes, it also led to a reduction in their enjoyment of reading. This is a worry, particularly when we consider recent IoE data that showed that children who read for pleasure between the ages of 11 and 16 know 26% more vocabulary and tend to do better at GCSE. It may be that although we are teaching children to read well, the fact that they don’t enjoy reading is ultimately impacting on outcomes further down the line.

Interestingly, the correlation between books at home and performance in PIRLS was far stronger than the correlation between the introduction of the phonics check and the PIRLS reading result. Clearly there are complexly inter-related social, cultural and economic factors at play here and again, correlation is not necessarily cause.

So in short, what are our headlines? Lots will depend on your point of view. But for me, I’d say:-

  • Phonics seems to be impacting. Just make sure you keep it short, sweet, interactive and fun so they don’t get put off reading.
  • Focus on reading for pleasure and see how books can be brought into and kept in the home. Second hand book sales at school? Swaps? Gifts?
  • Consider information retrieval as this is one of our weaker areas. Are we allowing children to read enough non fiction and pull information out of texts? This can be done in really imaginative and creative ways – doesn’t have to be a comprehension worksheet.

But most of all, let’s just take a moment to say, well done primary teachers. Well done pupils. In spite of everything – you’re making a difference.


Some Good News for Group Work?

You may not know it, because our media didn’t report it: nor did our ministers shout it from the rooftops, but we did rather well in the PISA international comparison tests on Collaborative Problem Solving. Of the 32 OECD nations, we were somewhere between 8th and 12th place (there’s always a 5% margin of error in the marks, so we can’t be certain exactly where, though that doesn’t stop people plonking us randomly on a slot between the two). We did pretty well in Science too (@15th of 70), though Maths and Literacy were lower – broadly in line with the OECD average. And all were way higher than our score for well being which was one of the lowest. So why is no-one celebrating this good news about collaborative problem-solving?

Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with government policy and ideology – we only have to look at what has happened to the place of soft skills in our curriculum to see they are simply not a priority and have not been for some time. Look at these extracts from speeches from Michael Gove and Nick Gibb between 2013 and 2017:-

These ‘child-centred’ approaches to teaching focus on eliciting and developing ethereal and often poorly-defined skills in pupils. Teacher focus is turned away from ensuring all pupils are taught the core of academic knowledge that they need, and instead teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving… We know from decades of research – and most recently from the boom in understanding the workings and limits of human cognition – that this view is deeply misguided.

Nick Gibb 2017

 “Teachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching, it also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”

Michael Gove 2014

In addition, we constantly see group work and collaborative classroom practice lambasted by the very people purporting to support evidence led practice in the classroom.

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 10.46.29

So no wonder all those people are staring at the carpet right now, rather than celebrating our abilities in an area that employers rate highly in terms of the skill sets of their employees.

But beneath the data lies some worrying trends. Although we did well – and had more students achieving at the highest levels than even the top performing country overall – Singapore – our range of ability in this area was a matter for concern. 22% of UK children performed at the lowest level – below Level 2 and most of those children came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet at the same time, children from disadvantaged backgrounds reported how highly they valued these skills even if they had less opportunity to learn them. Why is this?

The trends in our changes to curriculum have prioritised individual learning over group learning, not only in terms of government speeches, but in terms of content. Science practicals are disappearing; Speaking and Listening in English, which used to include group discussions, no longer count towards the GCSE grade. There has been a 24% drop in Drama GCSE entries since 2010 – one of the subjects most likely to give children experience of all the soft skills that employers say they value. In fact, for many children, their access to these skills – through team sports, drama, music, collaborative youth clubs (such as cubs and brownies/scouts and guides) and so on are paid for by parents. So those who can’t afford to send Billy to Little Kickers or Stagecoach or any of the other ‘Saturday’ clubs that exist are doubly disadvantaged. They are disappearing from schools to make way for increasingly competitive testing or to cope with funding cuts, and they can’t afford to participate at an extra curricular level. To what extent were the PISA results really a reflection of middle class pastimes?

OR. Could it be that in spite of all the talk of novices, knowledge, textbooks and direct instruction, the majority of teachers remain committed to ensuring that children get access to problem solving, group work, collaborative tasks and dialogic talk? Could it be that they are looking beyond the narrow band of ‘research’ that Nick Gibb speaks of, to a broader body in which they see that dialogic talk reaps benefits in Maths, Science and English (EEF, 2017); or that collaborative learning delivers better outcomes (+5 months) than Phonics (+4).

OR could it be that what we saw was the ghost of a past pedagogy that future 15 year olds will no longer recognise?

Of course, whatever our view, good outcomes in collaboration and problem solving are dependent on good classroom management, clever use of resources, knowledge and teacher skill. Resnick and Michael’s research into effective group work and classroom talk, lays out three modes of accountability that are necessary for group work to impact well on outcomes:-

  1. The work is accountable to knowledge – i.e. the children get their facts right.
  2. The work is accountable to community – i.e. there is mutuality and shared responsibility.
  3. The work is accountable to reason – i.e. their talk is well structured and makes sense.

It seems to me that rather than scripted lessons, whole class teacher tracking and formulaic testing, we need, as a profession, to move towards a better understanding of how to use the pedagogies of group work, inquiry and problem solving to best effect.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that the purpose of education is to prepare children for work. But nor should it be about making them less prepared to thrive in the work place. Industry is almost united in arguing the case that they need the following skill set in order of importance in their employees. Moves towards automation are going to make this even more necessary. Any job that can be done without collaboration, critical or creative thinking, is increasingly going to be done by machines. So don’t expect this list to disappear:-

1. Ability to work in a team

2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems

3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work

4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization

5. Ability to autonomously obtain and process information

6. Ability to analyze quantitative data

7. Technical knowledge related to the job

8. Proficiency with computer software programs

9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports

10. Ability to influence others

(Source: Forbes, based on a survey by the NACE).

We can see straight away, a complex interplay between independence and autonomy relating to executive functions and those which are collaborative. This isn’t an either/or situation – both are deeply necessary. So how are our pedagogies ensuring that these skills emerge – that children don’t just remember stuff, but learn how to find, analyse, communicate and use information?

What we don’t want to see, is a return to some of the errors of old I saw in the early 2000s – classes set up simply for skills lessons. Pages of rubric attempting to define and measure ‘risk taking’ etc. Children colouring in sheets assessing whether they thought they were a Level 2 or a Level 5 risk taker….bored out of their minds and barely understanding what they were doing. That’s no better than rote chanting of knowledge.

Skills and knowledge sit in tandem, interdependent and changing slightly in relation to the subjects/domains they inhabit. So context is king. It’s possible to have knowledge rich, thriving environments in which students and teachers are working together to solve complex problems, question the world, use their empathy and compassion, knowledge and research skills to investigate solutions. It is possible for them to talk, articulate, debate and communicate big ideas. But all must have access to this. We simply cannot have a curriculum devoid of arts, creativity, talk and problem solving for our most disadvantaged children. It simply widens the gap.


Discovery? Inquiry? It’s all Academic.

Hidden in the RSA’s report, Ideal School Exhibition,  last week was a little sentence that made my heart sink:-

“Of all the schools I visited, it is perhaps Bealings Primary School in Suffolk that is most exposed to this risk, employing, as it does, the ‘Mantle of the Expert’ role-play method, the purest form of child-led, discovery learning I witnessed.”

While the report went on to point out that the school in question was highly successful with five consecutive Ofsted Outstanding inspections and great data to its name, it misunderstood the nature of Mantle of the Expert, which is not discovery learning and nor is it child led. It is inquiry based learning, rich in knowledge and it is very much co-constructed with the teacher clear about what the learning outcomes are and the steps required to achieve them. I was thinking of penning a response when I read another blog about academic versus non academic subjects, in which the suggestion was made that drama is all about creating actors and PE was mostly about creating accomplished sportsmen and women and that while both are worthy pursuits, they are not really academic. Academic subjects, it would seem, are those that are pursued purely for the sake of becoming masters of knowledge in those subjects. Maths is academic if you become a Mathematician, but not if you become a doctor/engineer/actuary/accountant etc. I think. In short, only subjects with no useful, practical, future application are academic. So we’ve cleared that one up. I’m being flippant of course, but on a serious note, I’m not sure that it’s helpful to try to categorise in this way..

The misconception that drama = acting  or PE = football  is laughable, of course. But it masks a deeper misunderstanding – both act as practical and intellectual vehicles for other curriculum areas, reinforcing and supporting other subjects. One teacher reported seeing a lesson in which concepts in Physics were being explored in PE and clearly there is a strong anatomical/Biological component. In Drama/Theatre we, of course, study plays. Plays have contexts. Historical, philosophical, social and cultural contexts. And unlike English literature, set texts can be drawn from a range of original languages. So in my time, I have taught existentialism (Sartre), the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of Hitler (Brecht), post war absurdism (Beckett), the political situation in Russia at the turn of the 19th century (Chekhov), gender and social politics in Ancient Greece (Euripides), the influence of the church in medieval society (the Chester miracle and mystery plays)…I could go on. In fact, it’s not really possible to pass advanced level drama by simply being a good actor. Knowledge is critical. But in addition to the knowledge, you have to interpret, design and create your own versions of plays – even if only on paper in the exam. You have to be critic, director, writer, actor, intellectual and technician. So, no, it’s not academic. It’s way more.

Mantle of the Expert is also way more than role-play based discovery learning, which is not to say that some forms of discovery learning don’t have their place. We come across this conflation between child led/child centred and discovery learning/inquiry learning way too often – it’s in Hattie’s work, in Willingham’s work, even in the reports of the OECD. And in confusing something that can be entirely without an adult or something that can be highly structured, we end up with tricky outcomes in terms of evidence. We hear that these methods are ineffective. And yet we then see that Bealings not only produce results, but have Outstanding judgments. Which is true?

Well let’s try to unpick them a little. Discovery based learning might be better spoken of as ‘child initiated learning’ and it’s most often seen in early years settings. At its best, the child initiates play and, through careful organisation of equipment/materials, questioning and observation, the adults will support the learning. Take for example Jonathan Lear’s example of the tap in the EYFS mud kitchen. When planning their outdoor learning area, staff had a choice of where to put the water supply for their mud kitchen. The obvious answer was to connect it to the tap at the sink. But they didn’t. They connected it to the wall, further away. That simple adjustment meant that the young children had to work out how to transport the water. But the staff had put holes in the obvious implements. So the children had to be canny. The process of learning, prompted and supported by questioning, led to children thinking more deeply than they would have if the answer had been, well, on tap. So it sits there, waiting to be played with and discovered. This is a lovely example of how discovery learning can work in some situations and settings, but of course, all other kinds of learning will be going on there too. Some of it explicit and some of it inquiry led.

At its worst, discovery learning is where the teacher has a cuppa while the kids run riot. Or where the children have been given a word/person/topic and told to get on their laptops and find it all out with no guidance. This is not really discovery learning. It’s idleness and in these days of high accountability and surveillance, you’re unlikely to see it happening anywhere in state education. But I think this is the conception of it that some have in their minds.

Inquiry led learning is probably the best fit for Mantle of the Expert. It is not child-led or initiated but more co-constructed. It allows the teacher and pupils to step in and out of a problem so that some areas of knowledge that need to be acquired in order to solve a problem, are taught explicitly. The context provides a purpose for what can be explicit teaching and once that has been done, the children can apply and transfer that knowledge to the problem they were engaged in. They move in and out of the role and problem as required. One mantle I ran with Yr 4 involved learning Russian language, geography and culture. It also involved creating spreadsheets, budgets, writing letters and reports and even applying for visas. All these tasks were planned for. They were managed by the teacher but the desire to know and do them came from children immersed in context. If you’d have asked the children what we were doing, they would have talked about doing all of this in order to save wolves in a forest in the Ural Mountains. The story provides the context for the knowledge and action to be enacted. And as we know from Willingham, stories are ‘psychological privileged’ in the human mind.

This is not the only way to inquire of course. I’ve seen few better examples of non role-play project based learning than that devised by Joe Pardoe at School21. There, all inquiry is rigorously accountable to knowledge. But it is also creatively transferred and applied. Take their chess board. A study into the cold war results in sculpted chess pieces – busts of the major historical figures of the cold war. The children are asked not just to know and to create, but to apply. Who would have been the King? The pawns? Why? They are being held accountable to knowledge. This is child centred learning, but the teacher is deeply present throughout – in conception, design, delivery and analysis. The teacher is always present in both inquiry led and discovery led learning. But much more so in the former.

So we need to move on. We need to move away from the quagmire of what constitutes academic or practical subjects, progressive or traditional ideologies, explicit or inquiry led teaching. We need to recognise (and to be fair the Ideal Schools report is attempting to move in this direction) that there are horses for courses. That knowing what you do, why you do it and the impact of what comes out of it,  is far more important than what you call it.


No frills education: the workload paradox.

Becky Allen’s brilliant speech this week and Amanda Spielman’s clarification that Ofsted were indeed cross checking teacher’s responses to the workload question on their staff questionnaire with SLT’s claims, has brought the question of workload to the fore again. Some time ago I wrote a post with ideas on reducing workload in schools. But since then, the double whammy of workload and a funding crisis has hit the profession. So many schools are saying they can’t reduce workload without spending money. And others have reacted to the workload spotlight by telling staff they are not allowed to publicly discuss workload any more. Head well in the sand there.

I get the difficulty. In my husband’s workplace, the only way the senior leadership team could respond to funding problems was to restructure the school day, meaning that staff were teaching more lessons with bigger class sizes. That has impacted on workload massively, especially around marking. But everyone understood that there was a funding issue. When this happens (and it is becoming more and more common), we have to find ways of making room for this extra load in ways that don’t cost money. And that means an element of sacrifice.

Parent’s evenings, some would say, are valuable in terms of developing relationships with parents. We can have face to face contact, show them pupil’s work and build relationships. But do they impact on learning? Are they an additional frill when we consider the need to focus on core impact with as little money as possible? No. They cost more. They cost in heating and lighting buildings. They cost, often, in feeding staff. Could technology be used for more effective modes of reporting, cutting down on costs and staff time? Undoubtedly.

Do we need common assessment points, where data is collected centrally. Most staff report that this has two effects on their work. There is the time in inputting the data. And then there is the game. Many of us know the horror of seeing the progress spreadsheet turn amber or red because of some algorithmic calculation. How many of us have altered the data to spare ourselves the pain of having to write individual action plans for pupils we know how to support and who are doing ok? Just so the computer will stop saying no. Are half termly or termly collection points necessary? Becky Allen points to over half of the teachers in the country in her survey reporting that they had to do this half termly. It was the straw that drove me out of teaching – 15 hours every half term spent on meaningless data. Reducing this to bi-annual or annual collections would allow schools to collate progress data and reduce staff time and would not cost a bean.

I’m not sure what more Ofsted could have done in reminding teachers that they don’t expect to see triple marking, or every piece of work marked, or verbal feedback recorded in books. Yet it seems that schools still have burdensome marking policies. Why? When Ofsted do come in, they expect staff to adhere to the policy in place. Why not simplify the policy? It costs nothing. And saves money in coloured pens.

How much time is spent on meetings offering information that could easily be communicated via email? How much time on twilights that are irrelevant to staff needs? When a member of your staff who is, let’s say, a trained counsellor has to sit through training on how to talk to students about suicide, one has to ask, why not get the trained counsellor to do the training rather than sit being told things he already knows? Why spend the money? Spend less but give the member of staff with the expertise a little time to plan it. Cheaper but not free. Why not allow other staff who already have that knowledge to skip the training and use their time to do something that will benefit their department? Are we valuing and allowing staff who spend their Saturdays in training to offset this with time in lieu?

How much of our meeting/monitoring/evidencing is done with a small minority of staff in mind? How many times are decisions made for the whole with the needs of a few at the centre? How can we ensure that where interventions/training/difficult conversations are required, they are targeted at those who need them and not at the whole staff? It’s like giving a full class detention – breeds nothing but resentment from the majority.

There is no doubt that funding shortages impact on schools in ways that affect staff workload. But there are nevertheless many things that can go without costing any money. And when that wolf comes to the door, asking their workload question, your answer can be “we’ve reduced the paperwork and evidencing we provide for you without compromising our results.” Then hope that the staff body agrees that it has had impact.

I know it may seem obvious. But the only question we really need to ask when we make decisions about staff workload is “does this task/request impact positively on pupil outcomes and quality of experience?” And if the answer is no, it can probably go. If it actually undermines pupil outcome and experience by taking valuable time and energy away from the effectiveness of teaching, then it can definitely go.





Utilising Knowledge

I’m a little tired of being positioned as someone who is anti-knowledge whenever I question the purposes and practices of education. Apart from the fact that it is nonsensical that a person with a doctorate despises knowledge, it simply creates a binary divide that is more political than intellectual. So instead of arguing it, I thought I’d share an example. Let’s say I’m teaching a topic – The Ancient Greeks. It’s done all over the place isn’t it?

“We’re ‘doing’ the Greeks. I have to dress up as a Greek for Greek day,” is how it usually goes. In literacy they might study a few myths. In topic, they’ll look at Athens and democracy and if they’re lucky, the Greek Gods. Boom. But what do they learn about life, humanity and values from it? Why does it matter?

My knowledge organiser for The Greeks would have on it at least the following areas of knowledge:-

  1. The different periods from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans to the Dark Ages of Greece to the growth of the Athenians. They will be plotted on a time line. Children will explore how different empires valued different qualities and how this impacted on their stories and societies. We’ll look at figures from myths and history in each. For example Minoan – Theseus and the Minotaur; Mycenaean –  Perseus, Hercules and Agamemnon; Athens – Pericles, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
  2. The polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks and how the Athenians came to question them, for example through Plato’s Cave of Shadows.
  3. The importance of the oracle at Delphi – where it was and what it was.
  4. The narrative structure of the hero’s journey as seen through the story of Perseus.
  5. The roles of women and children in different Greek societies – comparing, for example, Athens and Sparta.
  6. The development of a direct democracy in Athens and how this differs to our indirect democracy in the UK.

Key words:-

Oligarchy, patriarchy, polytheistic, philosophy, oracle, fate, democracy  and many more…

None of this matters though, without a good how and what. I’m not going to waste mine and the children’s time getting them to dress up as Greeks. I can’t see the benefit and it adds stress to family time at home. I’d rather they read Percy Jackson stories at home instead. But I do want to immerse them in drama. So I start with a story. I plot the start of our story on a timeline – somewhere toward the end of the Minoan empire and the start of the Mycenaean. Because our story concerns the mythical founder of Mycenae – Perseus.

The children are gathered.

What if,” I say (the most powerful words in the world), “what if, you were all advisers to a king in ancient times. The King of a city state – here – (point to a map) – Argos.”

We may have to pause for a moment to consider why a shopping company called itself Argos. It was the name of the founder’s wife. But also the name of a son of Zeus. Who is Zeus? Why do people call their children after gods and characters from stories? Why name cities after them? But shortly, we’ll get back to our purpose. How to speak to a king.

We’d have to be polite”

“We’ll use formal language, like ‘your majesty'”

“We’ll have to be careful not to lose our jobs!”

“OK. Let’s say we’re about to meet him – we’ve been roused from our beds, early in the morning – and he’s back from a long journey – he’s been gone for months…”


“Delphi – he’s been to see the oracle.”

“What’s an oracle? Where’s Delphi?”

“Ahh, well, let me tell you…”

The story is creating curiosity and interest which is in itself forming a vehicle for knowledge. In this very early introduction, the children have been introduced to a place, a time, a belief system and inducted into shifting the formality of language. Not through a lesson objective, but through a dramatic frame – a who, where, when and what of the area of learning.

They meet the king. It is I. And I tell them my troubling news. The oracle has informed me that my daughter, the princess Danae, will have a child. And that the child will grow up to kill me. So I must stop it. I need their help. What shall I do?

And from narrative framing, we’re straight into human dilemma.

As we enter the problem, we learn many things about life at that time. Materials that were available to build a tower to imprison the young princess. Modes of entertainment for her. The children draw upon their knowledge of mythical creatures to guard her tower. They are creating and imagining, but drawing on knowledge to do so.

We can put a telly in her room.

“Telly? What is this telly you speak of?”

Television. So she can watch it and not get bored.”

Television? Far away vision? I know not what you speak of.”

The penny drops. But let’s not let the etymology get away. Pause, dissect, understand. A mistake becomes an opportunity for learning…

We create many moments of dilemma led learning in our story. When her child, Perseus, the son of Zeus is born (an impregnation that needs to be quite delicately handled) her father, King Acrisios, hears the cries of the newborn coming from the tower. What does he do? We create still images and captions.

He kills

He forgives

He despairs

In fact he puts the young mother and her child into a trunk and orders soldiers to throw it into a stormy sea. It’s a P4C moment. Should human beings always follow orders?

And we explore and learn more about the Gods. Who has dominion over the sea? Who can calm the waters? Who will help the mother and baby? We follow the course of the story on maps, learning along the way how far ‘Greece’ extended in those days. From Seriphos to what is now Ethiopia – where the gorgon sisters hid from humanity.

In these ways, we continue exploring the story, right to the very end, long after Perseus has slain the poor, cursed, girl, Medusa. Long after he has rescued Andromeda, married her and founded the great city of Mycenae. Right up to the point where he takes part in the great games in Argos. His terrified grandfather, King Acrisios, disguises himself as a beggar in the crowd. Drawn by curiosity, ruled by fear, he cowers. Perseus takes aim at his target. In some stories a discus, in others an arrow. But whatever the tool, a sudden shift in the direction of the wind carries the weapon into the heart of the old king. The prophesy is fulfilled.

What is fate? Why did many ancient civilisations believe in fate? Did the Athenians?

And we move on…

The talk. They design. They calculate. They map. They add to timelines. And they write, and write and write. Their own myths, reports from battle, proposals for laws, letters to kings and gods and generals of opposing armies. They consider what makes a hero. And what is a monster? Back to poor Medusa…

Through stories, culture, language, philosophy, history. Steeped in knowledge. Wading through dilemma. Driven by ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’ but never just telling them. Never just telling them.