Shame is not a Weapon.

It’s that time of year. Sad little faces in newspapers holding up flat, back shoes. Angry parents railing against new heads. Edu twitter bursting into cyclone levels of argumentative energy in which sides rail against each other using the spear of shame as a weapon. Stop shaming schools! Cries one side. Stop shaming children! Cries the other.

The thing is, a school is a building. A head is an adult. Children are neither. This is not a battle of equivalence. I’m not getting into why it might be that a newly appointed head decides that uniform is the battleground upon which they’re going to make their mark. Some believe that if you establish authority on small things, it makes the bigger things easier to manage. I don’t buy into it, but I’m not in their flat, black, leather shoes. I’m more concerned about the use of shame as a tool for managing pupil behaviour.

Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, one of the world’s leading experts on the adolescent brain, shows us that during adolescence, shame has a particularly powerful impact on the brain. Adolescents feel, even anticipate, embarrassment in more profound ways than adults. One sure fire way of making sure that you are neither heard nor respected by a child, is to embarrass them. That’s not a matter of choice. Shame will close down all other options for children other than the quest for survival. It puts them into full on fight or flight meltdown. And in that state of mind, you get nowhere. It may look like a child has complied. They blush beetroot and retreat. They sit quietly and go home. But the shame is sitting so presently in their minds, that they heard nothing, learned nothing and are harbouring now a deep seated sense of shame that may turn outwardly into anger, or inwardly into resentment. Or worse, it may morph into significant self loathing. None of these outcomes are good.

Adolescents are not like us. They will, one day – once all the pruning and shaping and hormonal pummelling is over – become like us. But right now, they are in the eye of a storm and a little empathy goes a very long way. Shaming goes a very long way in the opposite direction. Those of us who have spent many years in classrooms, usually learn that the quiet word, one to one, works way more effectively that shouting at them in public. The eye contact, little raised eyebrow, tap on the shoulder – the techniques that signal you’re watching and aware, but still allow them a route out of public denouncement, are often enough. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, the situation gets out of control. That’s when you model what it is to be an adult. Unflappable, firm, fair, kind and consistent. Paul Dix’s book on behaviour “When the Adults Change, Everything Changes” is excellent on this point. We are the adults. We have authority with equal responsibility. Shaming should not be part of a responsible adult’s repertoire. It’s a failure to default to it.

Shaming is sometimes seized upon by adults as an aversion technique – that is a technique designed to inflict a sense of consequence onto another person in response to their negative behaviour. It’s part of the crime and punishment toolkit – trials are usually public and criminals can be named, and shamed. This is considered a legitimate part of our legal process (whether you agree with it or not). But in adolescents, particularly powerful emotions are released linked to shame that can have extremely damaging effects on their mental health, leading in some cases to psychopathy. Part of this is down to the fact that children feel emotions more strongly than adults, largely because they lack the sense of proportion that comes with experience. Remember that first love? But it is also biological. Adolescents use their medial prefrontal cortex even when considering situations that might cause them embarrassment; adults do not do this. So even imagining embarrassment is deeply felt by adolescents which is why they’ll do anything to protect themselves from it – heading it off at the pass. The anticipation of shame is deeply experienced by adolescents in a way that it is not by adults.

Moreover, Dr Brene Brown at the University of Houston places shame on the opposite end of a continuum to empathy. What shame does, she claims, is interrupt our construction of positive relationships to others –  a crucial aspect of which is empathy. That disruption is damaging not only to ourselves but to our relationships with others and our future interactions. Shame, she points out, is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens in response to an action or inaction. It is linked to an event, not a person. It can lead to shame, but handled well, it can be turned to positive, restorative outcomes. Shame is toxic. It is the difference between “sorry I did” and “sorry I am.” Moreover she points to research that shows that shame is directly correlated to depression, self harm, suicide and addictive behaviours. Guilt, on the other hand, is not. Guilt allows us to put our hands up and apologise. I don’t know what came over me, I’m so sorry. Guilt is about restoration, recognition and responsibility. Shame is an albatross around our necks. So hanging a sign around the neck of a child is as concrete an example of intentional shame as you will find. Shame is crippling because it is linked profoundly to our sense of who we are.

When schools decide that they will default to shaming as a strategy for good behaviour, they place themselves onto the most volatile battlefield they can – what Brown calls “The Swampland of the Soul.” They can be seemingly winning that battle – they may force compliance from children. Perhaps even test results (especially if they kick the most resistant out of school altogether).  But as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out, adolescence opens up many windows to mental health problems. It is in this period of intense brain activity, where the hippocampus and limbic systems (linked to memory and emotion) are growing and grey matter is being pruned, that seeds are sown for future emotional health. Stings here can settle and grow. So can kindnesses. We need to tread with care and compassion.

It doesn’t take much. When you’re considering an action in your school or classroom, simply think about whether or not it is likely to cause shame. If it is, don’t do it. Rank ordering pupils, hanging signs around their necks, having lists of wrongdoers – these are all acts of shaming. There’s no justification for it. None at all.



In defence of ResearchEd

As the weekend approaches and with it, the National ResearchEd conference: as the Summer recedes and with it the holiday controversy surrounding genes/race/IQ/ResearchEd/etc, there is understandably a lot of debate about what the organisation stands for, its standards of selection/quality/representation/bias and so on. For some reason, ResearchEd seems to have been positioned as the ‘trad’ conference just as much as Northern Rocks has been positioned as the ‘prog’ conference. That’s, of course, largely down to the figureheads of both and there’s a danger in this. As the belief takes hold, it becomes harder and harder to counteract it. Speakers who may stand in opposition to your position turn you down. This has happened many times for Northern Rocks and I’m sure the same is true of ResearchEd. Those who identify with your position, beg to speak. So while there’s an inevitability that an event will take on, to some extent the characteristics of its organisers, much of this comes from the self selection of its speakers and delegates. And while it’s the responsibility of those organisers to try to counter balance that in some way, people attending those events, or being invited to speak at them, also bear a responsibility to take part with an open mind. At the end of the day, whichever ‘side’ you perceive yourself to be on, organising a large scale teaching and learning event is no small task. You pour your heart and soul into it. And criticism hurts.

It hurt when Northern Rocks was accused of having more male speakers than women. But it was fair criticism. So we put it right. It hurt when someone pointed out that there was little BAME representation. So we put it right. There’s hardly a year where someone doesn’t point out something we missed/forgot/overlooked. You take note and try to put it right.

I think it’s probably no secret that Tom Bennett and I stand divided on several important issues. We disagree on much. But you can’t deny he’s done a sterling job in promoting the brand of ResearchEd, getting it out there and getting people talking about it. I understand what it’s like when you start something off. You turn to the people you know for help. The people you trust. And that turn can bring with it an appearance of partisan selection; of creating something for your tribe. To an extent this has happened with ResearchEd. But I also know that there have been attempts at balance – I’ve spoken at two of them and although I have to say I didn’t really feel comfortable at either, my presence, token or not, was at least a presence. I look at this year’s programme and I see the names that cause people concern in terms of ideological preference. But I also see James Mannion, David Weston, Becky Allen, Vivienne Porritt, Jude Enright – people whose professional integrity and balance I have always found encouraging. And I expect there are more among the many names I don’t know.

I also see that Dylan Wiliam, Alex Quigley and Becky Allen are on the director’s board and I greatly respect their work in the fields of both educational research and in Alex’s case, in making sense of that as a teacher on the ground. I believe that they will bring a strong and balanced steer to the brand. I’ve openly questioned the right of ResearchEd to claim to be a grassroots movement when the idea came from Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove at the DfE and Ben Goldacre (who was commissioned by the DfE to look into the role of research in education and who promoted the very medicalised model that ResearchEd has become associated with). That undermines greatly its claim to have started as a grassroots movement, but it might not matter. They needed someone to take it on and Tom took it on. From some points of view, he was the useful idiot used to promote a government idea. For others, he was a clever opportunist, seizing upon what could be a way of making money/gaining influence. For many more, he’s a champion of teachers to take ownership of their own CPD – a hero. There’s a chance he’s all of them at once. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s here. It’s an opportunity. And it’s there for teachers to make of it what they will. And in that sense, it has the potential to become a grassroots movement. It’s now bigger than one man.

And that’s why the debate is important. Why questions can’t be seen (painful as they may be) to be threats. If this, whatever it started as, becomes a vehicle through which teachers take ownership of their understanding of research; in which they become more critical and literate consumers of research; in which they learn that research encompasses a broad range of beliefs and methods; in which they understand that science and scientism are different…then it can only be a good thing. And it’s why I think the discussion matters, but also so does a little patience. ResearchEd purports to be about ‘what works’. To some extent, it has in its early days, been more about giving people with a cross to bear, somewhere to plant it and bleed. But it can move on from this. It’s not pretending to be BERA – it’s not a forum for academics to present their papers to each other. But it should be a forum for academics and teachers to come together to make sense of each other’s work and experience. There’s no harm in a teacher standing up, sharing some research that has impacted on their practice and discussing this with colleagues. How much better would that be if the writer of the original research were there to discuss that too?

ResearchEd will move beyond ideological ties only if and when it is embraced by the whole teaching community in a way that is both critical and hopeful. Not critical and nihilistic or hopeful and idealistic. It needs to reach out and we need to open up. I can’t go this year – I’m on a girl’s weekend with my Mum and I don’t think it would be her cup of tea. But I’m making a pledge to go again soon. To open my mind as much as my mouth if for no other reason than I know what goes into organising these events. And it’s not easy.

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.