Entirely Without Compassion

I was too busy riding my bike through piles of leaves in the woods on the glorious day that was Sunday to see the apparently relentless, self congratulatory twitter campaign run by a little school in London. Thank goodness it didn’t rain. I’m not getting into the pros and cons of this one school. But I have some questions about the impact that the overall ethos of being “strict” has on other schools. And the title, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, does not refer to this school. It refers to an accountability system which allows some people to be lauded for excluding children and others to be condemned for including them.

Any school that introduces a zero tolerance behaviour policy is creating a form of social engineering in which parents and children who will not or cannot comply will be excluded from the school. Some heads have had no qualms in using phrases such as “not our kind of family.” So these children go elsewhere. They go to schools willing to take the hit on their data. They go to schools who believe that all children deserve a chance, especially those whose parents won’t help to set the boundaries they need, or who don’t care if they’re educated or not. It galls me that schools can be deemed outstanding on the basis of results and excellent behaviour around school when they have created an uneven playing field. Or that the school down the road, opening their arms to the neglected and disaffected, are deemed to require improvement.

In recent years, the move by Ofsted to assess ‘progress over time’ has been welcomed – rightly – as an indication of a teacher’s success, but in doing so there has been an ever increasing focus on results. Progress for some children is being present; being able to converse humanely with another person; being settled but these things don’t matter. Even as we see highly unreliable data from KS2 SATs throwing into question the whole credibility of moderation; even as Ofqual release its findings that almost half of English and History students receive the wrong mark in exams (in the same year that they made remarks harder); even as we learn more about the impact of stress on the brain’s capacity to remember and learn – exacerbated for children living in poverty…I could go on…but even as all these things emerge, our accountability system holds on to the sinking hull that is our dependence on exams for measuring a school’s worth.

I sat at home weeping last night as I read messages from a headteacher who has dedicated his whole life to working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s spent years battling with parents, social services, mental health services and others to give children the care and attention they need. He’s dealt with staffing crises, hideous child protection issues, the works. And he’s now out of a job based on the judgment of a single Ofsted inspection in which the data was deemed to be poor –  a judgment made in a year in which the whole SATs system was wrecked. The loss to the profession is huge. But what a way to treat a compassionate human being. Ofsted will wash its hands of this. The hiring and firing of a head is a matter for the MAT or LA they will say. They’ll wash their hands of the suicide of a young Science teacher in Manchester who couldn’t cope with the workload pressure – pressure that, as is well documented, comes from senior leaders’ desperation to please  Ofsted – to get the results. Who can blame them? Poor results and they are out. Just as schools with zero tolerance policies wash their hands of the children they reject, our accountability system accepts no responsibility for lives and careers ruined by a narrow and highly unreliable set of measures. It’s truly sickening what we have become in our desperation to standardise and verify everything.

This is not the fault of a single inspector or human being. I recognise the efforts of people like Sean Harford and before him, Mike Cladingbowl to humanise the organisation and to listen. But nevertheless,  this is a failure of systems designed to find simple solutions to complex problems; of the need to compete, to be seen to be tough. It demonstrates a lack of compassion, of tolerance, of being able to cope with the nuances of individual human experience. So who can blame schools for playing the game? Getting tough by selecting only those kids whose parents will ensure they wear the right uniform, pay their bills on time, do their homework, attend detentions? Who can blame them for surviving in a heartless system by putting head before heart? They’ll get results. They’ll be Outstanding. There will be knights and dames. And who will notice the dedicated ex headteacher weeping in a corner? The teacher battling to keep a child in school knowing they’ll be lucky to have a pen on the day of the exam? No-one, it seems.


Thinking Like a Scientist?

“Knowledge is an unending journey on the edge of uncertainty” (Bronowski)

We’ve been looking at scientists this week. Not really learning science, but learning about the people behind the science and how their ideas come to life and are expressed. The idea is to try to identify what they have in common, whether there are concepts and ideas that connect, and how we can represent these through theatre. We start off with Copernicus and end in the quantum world of Feynman. The children are fascinated by the words and actions of these men. For Copernicus, the long wait to publish his findings on the movements of planets; for Feynman, the fascination with doubt and uncertainty as he worked with the unpredictable nature of quantum worlds. It made me think.


How does a scientist differ from a teacher of science? Can you be a scientist or an artist if you don’t practice at the edges of what you teach? Reading Newton, Copernicus, Hawking, Feynman, Bronowski, in preparation for this teaching, I was struck by something in particular. Their comfort with uncertainty and doubt; their curiosity; their commitment to pushing beyond the limits of what is known; their humanity. Does a teacher of science get to do this? Is the curriculum designed to teach children that science is certain; that facts are facts? Does it deaden the very curiosity that great scientists seem to insist is a prerequisite for scientific progress? I ask not to upset anyone, but to genuinely inquire – does the teaching of science have a responsibility to engender wonder in children that takes them beyond the known into the not-yet known? How recent is our teaching? What do children know of discoveries made in the 21st century – of those theories being tested right now? How real do they feel science is to them? How connected to philosophy and to art? Every scientist who discovers something new, or who turns something old around, has to find the language and metaphors to make the discovery explainable. Images, representations, words have to be created and invented. What opportunities are children given to think about how they might represent the abstract, the conceptual, the unfathomable?


Every now and then, you tell children a little known fact that really captures their imagination. In his brilliant book “The Ascent of Man” (thanks to Mike Cameron for recommending it to me), Bronowski writes that the second meaning of the word “revolution” – the one related to uprisings and turning orthodoxy on its head – came from the title of Copernicus’ book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. His theory, a truth so radically opposed to what was believed to be true at the time, began a reaction that set science and religion apart in a battle for supremacy for centuries. Judging from the assertion of Richard Feynman, some 500 years later that “Religion is a culture of faith; Science is a culture of doubt,” the chasm remains. Anyway…

The 110 chidren we recounted this fact of etymology to in Warsaw last week – children drawn from international schools in Poland, Romania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Holland – were fascinated by this information. They were fascinated by the interactive discoveries they saw in the Science museum. They were interested in how understanding gravity helped them to carry and rotate each another way above their heads in a theatrical lift. They were interested in all the quotes and pieces of information they found out about Copernicus and others. They discussed it in their groups (yes, groups) and came up with comments and questions that drove the learning for the whole weekend.

“One person can change the meaning of a word with an idea that spreads!”


“Is the truth a good thing?” another ponders

“It depends on how it affects us,” says another. She writes a poem containing the line:-

“The beautiful truth of life; the terrible truth of death.”

We turn the poem into theatre.


She brought her thoughts on her learning about Copernicus to a philosophical and artistic realm. They all did. Those words will needle traditionalists, I know. But what are we as teachers if not sculptors of future thinkers, doers and changers?

Others spoke of what it must be like to see something that rocks what you thought to be true; to see it and to know that it is important information and yet to be afraid of the consequences of sharing it. They spoke of power and control, of freedom and defiance, of beauty and terror. They spoke of life. Then they wrote of life and performed it.

For them, science was no longer a subject in school – a set of facts and tests (though they carry on) – it was now part of their world; their language, histories, sense of self.

Children are commonly told to “think like a scientist” but what does this mean? It means taking knowledge and testing it. Accepting as Feynman said that “we can only ever know when we are wrong; we can never be certain that we are right.” It requires a capacity to be curious – to look at everything with a questioning eye. It demands persistence in the pursuit of an idea and humility to accept when you are wrong. It demands a capacity to explain, to clarify, to represent and depict – an ability to draw together the factual and the metaphorical; to invent, create, test, dispel and try again. When science ceases to be a culture of doubt, it becomes a religion. How would our teaching of science – indeed our teaching of everything – have to change if we attempted to not simply make children understand what was, but what might yet be?