All Stick and No Carrot

My jaw hit the floor reading the report from Policy Exchange today which suggested that schools whose pupils fail to achieve a Grade C in English or Maths should be fined, with the money reallocated to the FE sector where they have to resit them. There is so much wrong with the idea that it seems almost futile to write about it. It’s a headline grabber, designed to ensure that the right wing think tank remains in the public eye. But it also exposes a real lack of understanding among our policy makers of the reality of school life for most teachers and pupils. It’s as if they think we just really can’t be bothered to teach them and that a fine will make us think again.

If we lived in a world where exams were criterion referenced, then in theory, it would be possible to argue that there should be no barriers to success. But we live in a norm referenced system which means by definition that some pupils will always fail – even if all got over 90% in the exams. To penalise those who came at the bottom in a system where there has to be a bottom is farcical. And of course, the schools who would be hardest hit would be those with the most challenging intake.

And there are some really important questions we need to ask about our cultural attitudes towards blame. Teaching young people that other people are responsible for their successes and failures is irresponsible. It traps children in a state of learned helplessness and apathy. If your school is to blame for your failure and not you, then it follows it is also the school who is to be praised for your successes. Where do you sit as an agentive, active person in this exchange? It’s a damaging attitude to foster in our young and it leads to all kinds of problems at University or in employment. Didn’t get your dissertation in on time? It won’t be your tutor who fails. Miss your sales targets? They won’t sack your manager.

Fostering responsibility in our young is a crucial element of what an education system should do. It is part of the bridge to adulthood – the ability to take a deep breath and say “I have no-one to blame but myself” and then to learn from that and become a better person. What are we doing to create this kind of thinker? Not a lot.

Instead we continue to insist that it is possible to achieve the nirvana of success for all, when it is patently untrue – at least by our current definitions of “success”. We insist on feeding children the lie that if they study hard, they’ll succeed and get a good job. Tell that to the 59% of graduates, lumbered with debt who are now, according to a recent report, working in jobs that did not require a degree. Tell that to the hundreds who did study hard for their GCSEs. Those who tried their best and then opened their envelope on results day last week and felt their hearts plummet to the floor.

My husband, still working in the same Sixth Form college where we met; one which serves many students from deprived backgrounds in Oldham, has spent days patiently trying to explain to these disappointed youngsters that they can’t now take up their places. That they will have to resit their Maths and/or English and take up new vocational courses in subjects they have no interest in – that or go elsewhere. The college can’t offer wider Level 2 courses because cuts in funding mean that they can’t support kids through three years of college. It used to be the case that the college would be able to give them another year to get things right – some of the children I taught on those courses went on to pass 7 GCSEs and take A Levels and are now happy adults with degrees and decent jobs. This is no longer a possibility because of the cuts Michael Gove made to three year programmes. No second chances here.

To glibly suggest that this funding crisis will be solved by fining schools is infantile. The children won’t collect a resit fee with their results and hand it over at enrolment onto a new course. The money will be taken from the school by government. It will be reallocated to an FE budget once all the admin costs and staffing have been taken off. Oh. That’s not going to leave a lot is it?

And let’s not forget that the GCSEs are in a state of flux. This year’s young people were doubly hammered. Removing Speaking and Listening from the English GSCE half way through their course, and bringing in accountability measures that meant that only first attempts at an exam would count in the league tables meant that in one swoop they moved into a linear mode of assessment, but for syllabuses that were designed to be modular. The result was that many took between 20 and 30 exams in the space of a few weeks. The pressure was unbearable. And I know because I watched my child go through it. Predicted an A for Maths, he came home from the infamous “Hannah’s Sweets” paper sweating. He knew he’d panicked. He got a C in the end – enough, but a disappointment to him. He just had a bad day. Now let’s imagine he had failed. Would that ‘bad day’ – hot on the heels of days of exams, a sleepless night and a bit of a cold, would that have been the school’s fault? Of course not. Some kids just lose it in some exams. It’s not that they were badly taught or that they didn’t know stuff. They just panic.

What about the child I taught some years ago whose mother died the night before she came in to do her exam. Her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t hold her pen. Would the school be responsible for her performance? Every child has a different, unique story. The 10A*s kid whose parents spent £10,000 on private tuition. And the one who suffered a brain tumour, worked her socks off and also got 10A*s. Are the schools responsible for those successes?

As we move into the new syllabuses and marking schemes, what schools don’t need is for their chains to be tightened. They need time to get to know the new system. They need freedom to figure out what they need to do to make it work. They need to really start to play the long game, with much higher levels of challenge in Key Stage 3 so that children are not taught to tests, but taught to adapt and cope with this new world. The fines, I suspect, won’t come to pass. But they are representative of two great faults in our system – the misalignment between aim and reality and the removal of joy, agency and autonomy from the process of being educated.

And in response to the claims that this is an act of salvation for a cash strapped FE sector, here are a couple of alternatives:-

  1. Remove VAT. Post 16 education is not a luxury – it is now a requirement and yet the tax costs most sixth form colleges in excess of £350,000 per year.
  2. Reduce the number of GCSEs children sit. Have a core set of exams and other subjects that are internally assessed. The savings in exam entry alone would fund an expansion of FE. Or better still get rid of GCSEs altogether – every school would save 100s of thousands of pounds.

That’s for starters.


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The Great Learning Gap

Sugata Mitra’s controversial new study summarised in the TES here suggests that self study on the internet can boost a child’s performance by seven years. Basically, 8 and 9 year olds studied GCSE content online before being examined three months later in examination conditions. They were successful. It sounds astounding, but it’s true, at least for the small number of children involved. And actually I don’t think it’s that surprising. To me, this is not a study about the power of the internet. It’s a study about the power of children.

Despite what the traditionalists may tell you, kids teach themselves stuff all the time. And they retain it too. The problem for us as teachers is that too often we don’t find out what it is they know because we have already decided we’ll tell them when we’re ready. And the other is that often the stuff they’ve learned is not what’s on our syllabus. It may be that the child has mastered the complexities of a computer game we know nothing about. Or it could simply be that the content doesn’t match our curriculum structure. Take Sam for example.

Since he was five, Sam has been obsessed with natural geography. Largely driven by a fear of natural disasters, he’s spent hours over the past three years teaching himself about volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, fault lines and the like. He’s pretty much mapped the world into safe and unsafe zones. He can name and point to places on a map that I didn’t even know existed.

More recently, as I’ve written before, he has decided he wants to be a Buddhist. He’s not just said it, he’s researched all the different kinds of Buddhism and rejected many because he feels that they are more religious than philosophical and he wants one that is a way of life. This has brought him to Zen Buddhism. All this research has been done on the internet or in books written largely for adults. He’s found a branch of Zen Buddhism in Japan. And now he has a problem. Japan is one of the countries he has designated as “unsafe”. But he want to live there to study this form of Buddhism. So he does more research. He’s identified the places in Japan he thinks are more secure and able to withstand an earthquake or tsunami. And he’s read up on building safety and what to do in the event of an earthquake. He’s decided it’s a risk worth taking and so when he’s 28 he’s moving to Japan.

“That’s a bit specific” I say, trying not to giggle.

“You’ve got to have goals” he says, putting me right in my place. WP_20150627_012

But now he’s realised that to live in Japan, he’ll need to learn Japanese. He finds an app on his i-pod and the kindly folk of twitter point me in the direction of Memrise. All summer he’s spent a couple of hours a day learning Japanese and testing himself online. I have no idea how he’s doing but I keep getting emails from Memrise saying I’m doing well on the tests!

My point is not about Sam really – there are children all over the country, indeed all over the world, who find a passion and who find that the passion leads them to others, connecting and shaping their dreams, their ideals, their hopes for the future. And how often do we squash them? He got a C for effort in RE this year because he talks too much. “I was trying to talk about Buddhism” he said miserably. But Buddhism isn’t on the syllabus until Year 4. No-one at school knows what he understands about Geography. It’s not been “done” yet. And no-one has a clue he’s learning Japanese. And when they find out, they’ll say “that’s lovely” then teach him French. I sometimes feel that his education, and that of many, many children in our country, largely happens at home. If they’re lucky. At school they plod along politely learning stuff they already know. And at home they enter a world of their dreams. What a missed opportunity.

Of course for many children, that potential doesn’t find an outlet at home either. Too few facilities, no quiet spaces, no adults to nurture an interest, no access to computers. Too hungry, too stressed, too tired. For those children, it is vital, absolutely vital, that school allows spaces for those passions and interests to be seeded, grown and harvested. It is vital that teachers look for any spark and seize upon it. For children like Sam, a school’s lack of interest in his interests is irritating. But for a child with little or no support at home, it is a catastrophe.

What Mitra’s research reminds us of is the amazing capacity of children to learn, retain and perform when they find something they are interested in or when it is presented to them in a way that allows for autonomy to grow. When we listen to those who say we should have a core curriculum, controlled and delivered by teachers through direct instruction, we ignore this potential. We reduce a child to recipient rather than investigator. That’s not to say we should just have a system in which kids sit at computers without teachers. A teacher’s role is vital in identifying the gaps and fixing them; in directing children towards necessary areas of learning that they might not be interested in, or aware of. It is vital in building and securing articulacy, communication, relationships and trust. But if we do this in a controlled way, with little attention paid to the needs and existing interests of the children in front of us, we are in danger of reducing their education, not enhancing it.


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Time to say “No”?

I was interviewed for the radio yesterday. The call came through just as I was about to pop out for the evening and so I don’t remember which station it was. But the subject was a report issued yesterday claiming that business leaders felt that 16-18 year olds were ill prepared for the world of work. It’s a story we hear frequently, often misreported, criticising young people for poor literacy and numeracy skills, poor interpersonal skills and a lack of creativity and initiative.

The report only looked at entry level employees who had chosen not to go to University. This very definition alone is problematic in that every focus in government policy over the past five years has been done with an almost blinkered and single minded aim to get kids into universities, preferably Russell Group ones. The very fact that some children are resisting this pathway means they have already, in the eyes of government, failed.

It used to be common for people to leave school at 16 or 18 and enter youth training schemes in which companies accepted that the responsibility for initiation into work lay with them. My parents and grandparents were full of funny stories about the tricks played on the gullible new intake – sending them to shops for “long stands” and the like. They were viewed with good humour, kindness and patience. Nowadays, these new workers are derided before they’ve even stepped through the door. These entry level posts are too often offered with poor pay and conditions and little training. Good apprenticeships are too few and the criteria for entering them too confused – one was offered this week that demanded experience – isn’t that the point? To give them experience?

There are bigger issues though – one is the fact that GCSE is not fit for purpose. It tries to cover all bases – functional skills and the abstract knowledge base required for further study. Surely it would be far better to create a national standard test (not necessarily in examination form) for functional skills in literacy and numeracy and leave the Maths and English GCSEs to then be taken as choices by those wanting to pursue higher qualifications?

The reason I question whether or not the functional tests should be done in exam conditions is simply that we know (Wiliam and Wylie 2006) that knowledge learned for a test tends not to transfer to proximal contexts. Like the workplace. So maybe we need to find other ways to assess these competencies.

Moreover, we really need to think about how we place articulacy at the heart of learning processes. Too often I read scathing comments about group work, pupil talk, collaboration and other so-called “soft skills” by those who state that any education that is not academic is encouraging low expectations. But I think it is vital that our children can converse, work in a team, think quickly in a tricky situation and make a decision and that they are able to interact effectively with other human beings. These skills most of all were found to be lacking in this report.

It seems clear, that we need to consider vocational skills and routes, to invest in high quality careers education, build links with business partners and invest in the kinds of educational skills that make people ready for work. But instead we get a repeated mantra that an academic education is what is required. That any detractors from this are betraying the poor (as if rich pupils can’t be unacademic or want a different kind of working life). And so we get a new desperate measure in a mean spirited and underfunded education bill.

New floor targets for schools deemed to be coasting (which as Becky Allen pointed out today will hit those serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds hardest). An emphasis on the Ebacc (which has barely any content relevant to a work place in it). Conversions to academies rather than spending money on children’s services and support networks? What an utter waste of time. Only people who had gone from academic life to political life (perhaps via the equally remote and abstract field of law) could come up with such an unsuitable solution to an obvious problem.

Personally I think that education must and should be about more than being “work ready” – but all these skills are transferable to life, friendships, relationships and happiness as well as the world of work. Isn’t it time we said No? Isn’t it time we said to Nicky Morgan “Raise the bar as high as you like – we’re not vaulting”. Because if we try to make everyone better than average – try to meet spurious targets that have nothing to do with reality (how sick I am of politicians saying “all children must” as if the disabled are invisible and don’t matter) we’ll end up playing all the sickening games to get children through tests that we’re told are “cheating”. We’ll be complicit in the huge rises in self harming, suicide attempts and mental health issues our young are facing. We’ll create even more automatons who daren’t use initiative at work because it has never been asked of them. We’ll ultimately fail them.

Let’s do what we know is right for children. If 440,000 teachers in this country said No, there would be little anyone could do to make us perform tasks we deem to be harmful and ultimately ineffective. And that bar will be far too high for us to bang our heads on in any case.


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Choosing Speakers for Northern Rocks…

This is a very short information post about speakers and Northern Rocks because Emma and I are already getting lots of queries about this.

When we started, bearing in mind, NR was born out of two glasses of wine and a “What do you think of this idea?” tweet, the speakers came to us – we tweeted, they replied. This year, we asked who would like to do it again and then topped up in a very random and ad hoc way by writing to people we knew had big twitter profiles or by bumping into people and saying “ooh you’d be great for Northern Rocks”. There was no design really and we were just very very grateful to people who either put themselves forward or who said yes. But then we were stung by some very valid criticism.

We hadn’t counted up people in terms of gender or BME. And once it was pointed out to us, we saw the imbalance. We had been focused on these questions instead – is there enough to appeal to all phases? Are there a variety of opinions offered? Have areas like EAL/SEN been covered? And we took our eyes off the other stuff. So in the interests of openness, this is our speaker recruitment policy.

We ask people we think other people might really want to hear.

We are aiming for 50% women 50% men next year.

We want better BME representation.

We want more children represented.

We want a range of opinions, phases, ages and experiences.

Our strapline is “Reclaiming Pedagogy” and so while leadership and policy are important, we will always prioritise classroom practice and hope to strengthen this further.

We are asking people to give up time for a pitiful offering of expenses that in many cases don’t even cover the expenses. So we are dependent on generosity of spirit.

We ask people to come back who have stood by us from the start and loved what we’re trying to do and we try to balance that with recognising we need new blood too. It’s as hard to not ask someone to come back as it is to not ask a new person in the first place.

We had about 30 people who asked to present last year after we were full – we want to give some of those people opportunities for 2016.

We will get it wrong, annoy people and be criticised. We can handle it – but please bear in mind that every decision we make, spontaneous or not, is done with the very best of intentions at heart and we never, ever set out to snub or offend anyone.

I hope that clarifies our position. Put the 11th June in your diaries. We’re going for number 3.


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Michael Wilshaw’s Speech : A Shower of Spite.

I was on such a high this morning. Zipedee doo dah high. Seeing tweets from people skipping into work after Northern Rocks with smiles on their faces was fab. The sun was shining, I’d lost another pound, life was good…

Enter Sir Michael with his “radical” speech outlining yet more changes to the way schools are inspected. It felt like a right slap in the face I tell you. Having spent a day with Mike Cladingbowl and Sean Harford on Saturday, I was starting to warm to Ofsted. But it’s like finding out that the Ewoks you’ve been playing with are really under the power of Darth Vader. His speech was a shower of spite.

Firstly, he was ungracious and churlish about our neighbour’s education systems, not missing a chance to attack Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland with no mention at all of the fact that all of those nations are committed to far more than examination results – that they all are attempting to embed educations systems with humanity at their hearts. Instead he wants us to emulate Asian systems. With their children pushed through private tuition at a cost of tens of thousands to their parents? (well no, he didn’t actually mention that) With their high stress and suicide rates? (no he didn’t mention that either). He just wants us to be like them. Well perhaps he could start by emulating their trust in their teachers. Oh, wait…

I’m struggling to find mentions of teachers in his speech. Leaders, leaders, more leaders, good leaders, outstanding leaders….where are the teachers? For that matter where are the support staff, the caretakers, the family liaison officers? Seems they make no difference. All you need is a leader and….oh, a set of textbooks.

He trots out the time weary phrase “tougher subjects” like Brecht, Shakespeare, Laban notation, four part composition are pieces of piss. And no, I’m not apologising for swearing.

He has the gall – the bare faced, shameless gall to trot out this little statement without the slightest nod towards the significant cuts being placed on schools and crippling cuts being placed on colleges:-

“Do they refuse to accept excuses for underachievement and are they prepared to go the extra mile to compensate for family background?”

Do you know what the extra mile is Mr. Wilshaw? It’s providing food for kids who are going hungry, counselling services for those with mental health issues, cracking under the strain of the system, home liaison officers to support families struggling to get their kids into school….I could go on for another decade. The extra mile costs money and you blithely expect it while this government is binding our feet in cloths made of shards of glass. Walk the mile yourself in the aftermath of this funding crisis and see how far you get.

At no point when he rails against GCSE performance of boys from “poor” backgrounds (and how many times do we have to remind these people that being a poor parent does not mean that you are a poor parent) – at no point does he question whether the GCSEs are the problem, not the child. Not the school. Oh no.

He’s too busy advocating that we put up statues all over the place to honour these great leaders.  Frankly, we’d rather have the money than have to jog past our Academy Executive Super Mario Heads in the town square every morning. That way we might be able to buy some bloody books.

He then has the cheek to suggest that the fact that this broken organisation has had to reform 22 times (and still hasn’t got it right) is a success and not an indication of its continuing failure. I can barely stop myself from cackling but I’m already scaring my children with my wild eyed disbelief and contempt.

I’ve read it over and over. Where are the teachers in your speech and vision Michael? Where is the humanity, the compassion? If I’ve ever been more angry reading a speech, then I don’t know when. I was open to listening to and engaging with Ofsted. I have very much liked the human face of Sean and before him Mike. But this is the real face. It is carved of stone. Unforgiving, uncompromising, uninspiring. I pray like Ozymandias, in the future, we’ll find the remnants of Ofsted lying forgotten in the desert.

Until then, I suggest we fight back. Challenge them when  they come in. Act in the best interests of your kids. Play down the importance of the organisation – rip up those banners which, as Mick Waters pointed out on Saturday, play right into the hands of the oppressor. “Ofsted says we’re”….Who cares? Put up banners saying “Our parents say we’re….” “Our children say we’re….” Starve them of oxygen. Be open to your parents and prospective parents about the impact of Ofsted on the quality of the holistic education that their child should get. Bring them on side. Be brave. Be strong. Because an organisation this out of touch cannot last for long.


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Northern Rocks 2015


At 7pm last night, putting the last squashed grape into a bin bag and carrying plastic cups out to the car, I had a little teary moment. We’d done it. Pulled off another event. Sold out. Trending on twitter all day long. Northern Rocks 2 was a success. And I was a teensy bit proud. Then I looked up, saw my husband lugging boxes, dripping in sweat (the way he had been since 6am) and I realised that this event isn’t about me and Emma. It’s about all the people who stood behind us and refused to let us fail.

Nick Mitchell and the team at Leeds Beckett who met every whim and request without complaint, and exceeded them all with new ideas and generosity beyond anything we’d hoped for.

The speakers and panellists who not only gave up their Saturday, but who I know will have been thinking and prepping and worrying for weeks.

The helpers who were there bright and early supporting registration, smiling and setting the tone for the day and for all of the sessions.

The sparkles team – the three stooges and Rachel Orr who made sure that the day ended with people dancing in the aisles and laughing their heads off.


The sponsors who probably made nothing from the day, but believed in our values and aims and gave us money and more anyway.

And to the delegates who came, in the rain (again) and smiled and smiled all day long. I can’t tell you how lovely it is to walk into a room and have everyone beam at you. To have people take the time to stop you to say thank you. To be able to put faces to all those names on twitter. It was an honour and a privilege to have you all there.


Ann Mroz said at one point during the day “what a great event and what a great crowd” and it’s true. Northern Rocks has a little magical something. Serious issues are debated; pedagogy is explored, learned, interrogated; we learn. But there is more – it is characterised by humanity, kindness, hope and positivity. That atmosphere we can’t quite put our fingers on – that’s collective joy that is. A profession united in common purpose. And I love it.

So thank you all. It’s not our event. It’s yours. Here’s to 2016.



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Imposing our values on our hobbies.

There has been a little spate of “what I have learned about learning from riding a pony/playing a piano/attending my private member’s gym” lately. Not one to miss a band-waggon when it rolls by, here is mine. It has made me wince slightly reading middle class people using their hobbies to attempt to draw connections between their experiences and those of children like my Mum, who found herself wildly excited as a child to learn that someone had given her family a piano, only to wake the next morning to find it chopped up for firewood. Fuel trumps pleasure – she never had the chance to learn lessons from practising.

One thing I find curiously missing in these tales of determination, grit and resilience is joy. A joy of music, or exhilaration as endorphins are released by the exercise. It seems that the only lessons we can learn from art or movement are ones of hardship. I don’t think that’s why the piano was invented.

Anyway, maybe I’m missing a trick. I’m not really one to push myself to suffer. I played the piano because music made me happy. That was my motivation. And I like being in water so I swim when I can. But now I’ve really done it. I glibly said I’d swim 100 miles in 50 days. I figured I could already do one mile without too much trouble, why not two?

Well it takes twice as long for a start. And that means getting up before 6am. Which is not me at all. What is it that I am learning then that can help teachers to see that they too can inspire children to suffer just like them? Well, I’m learning that if I had just done it for me, I would have lasted a day. Visualising a smaller bottom would not have done it. But thinking about the children I met in Kakuma and knowing that completing this challenge would improve their lives – that gets me to the 128th length no problem. Emotion matters in learning (and in teaching) – we need to feel that we can and are making a difference – that our efforts benefit more than just us. This is the kind of happiness that Aristotle speaks of as the ‘good life’ – one well spent.

So in the classroom, how can we make our learning meaningful for children? So much so that they’ll go the extra mile? I think there is a great deal of power in making a promise that others depend on and seeing it through. The IB recognises that in in the commitment to CAS in the diploma (Creativity, Action, Service) and in the new community projects of the Middle Years Programme. I also think that it’s worth putting children through challenges so they can learn that there are unexpected pleasures around every corner that are not always about being the best (l love the 80 year old who laps me every morning).

We should and could make far more room in our curriculum to build a better world; to motivate children to help others and to learn from the process. Learning new skills, improving our bodies and minds shouldn’t be about being ‘hard’ or determined. But about being connected and caring. And this state of being can motivate us to all kinds of learning and actions. It has to – I’ve still got 126,800 metres to go…

(And if you’d like to spur me on, you can donate here. Thank you).


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