Preparing children for life?

How often do we, as teachers, tell children that the experiences they encounter in school are designed to “prepare you for life/the real world?” We place rules, uniform, curriculum content into a box called “Future” and dole it out without really thinking if any of them are true. We conveniently ignore that their lives are already being lived and are quite real. We demand that they are future focused while we turn a blind eye to the present.

As a parent, I’ve done the same. “When you grow up…” “You’ll need this in the future…” and so on. We bring our neurosis to bear on their present every single day. But I made a fundamental mistake as a mother by spacing my children out seven to eight years apart. The eldest two are grown and the youngest one is sitting staring at me with an eyebrow raised. An eyebrow that says without vocalising it “you big, fat liar!”

He wears a shirt and tie to school every day. His brother works in an award winning advertising agency in London in jeans and a t-shirt.

He’s told that play comes after work. His brother has a ping pong table, darts board and pool table in his office. He’s encouraged to take play breaks to aid his thinking. His company thinks they get better productivity and creativity our of their employees that way. And they do.

He’s told not to swear. His brother’s company’s mission statement is “Give a Shit.”

Middle child is at art school. It’s been a sharp learning curve for him. No-one really seems to be that bothered about his technical skill – it’s something that they assume he has (or he wouldn’t have won his place or got his A Level grades I guess). They are interested in his capacity to make meaning, to make connections, to develop ideas in multiple ways, to experiment with the unfamiliar and make something of it. They even expect him to work and produce work in groups. There are tutorials and support sessions on skill and technique, or course. But what they want is a brain that thinks, interprets the world and creates.

Youngest child copies existing artists and their works of art at school.

I read on twitter that creativity, critical thinking, independence, time management and all the other skills that my older boys are expected to have in droves as they enter the adult world, come naturally from knowledge. But they don’t. They need to be practiced and experienced as much as maths, as much as reading. They need to be rooted in now. Otherwise, we are sending droves of children out into a world of work that they are not prepared for. For what is this world of work today? We have an endless number of jobs in which people can wear uniforms, follow orders, comply – but they tend to be the lowest paid jobs. The ones on minimum wage and zero hours contracts. The best jobs? They demand more than compliance and much more than knowledge. Perhaps that’s why some of the world’s leading companies are now taking blind applications in which there is no space for qualifications or the name of the candidate. Perhaps it is why many of them are bypassing degrees and looking to apprenticeships instead.

That’s not to say that learning and qualifications don’t matter. Of course they do. Eldest boy is an Oxbridge graduate. He didn’t get in there by playing pool. But he also didn’t get in there by simply having exam grades either. The interview was designed to make him reach and connect. It had nothing whatsoever to do with a single text he’d studied in school. Everything centred around his external reading, his thoughts, his interpretations, his ability to think on his feet and his ability to look another human being in the eye, connect and communicate.

My youngest child looks to the future and he sees that work can be fun. Hard, challenging, frustrating, tiring, but fun. He sees that people judge you on your outcomes not your appearance. He sees that his brothers cannot make their way in their chosen fields without getting on well with other people. He sees that uniforms are largely irrelevant in theirs and their friends’ lives. But that imagination, communication, interaction, empathy and graft matter a lot. What do we do in schools to make children experience that so that it is the norm and not the exception?



What I Learned in China…

I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to China (14th if you count Hong Kong). I’ve never really written about these trips before because I’m not sure that comparisons are that helpful, and if you’re going to make them, you need to do a Lucy Crehan and immerse yourself. But people have asked about it, so here are a few things I’ve learned. I’d also say, that if you want to really understand the problems with some of these comparisons, particularly in the form of international comparison tests, read this excellent new book on PISA – The Global Education Race. It’s short, pithy and informative.

Another reason I’ve avoided comparisons, is that for the most part, I work in International Schools, not local schools. International schools use curriculum models that are not local – either IB or British/American/Australian etc curriculum models. But China recently made a change to the rules on international schools. No-one with a Chinese passport can attend one unless they teach the Chinese curriculum. This has led to the development of a spate of bilingual, Chinese curriculum schools to cater for the large numbers of (wealthy) Chinese families who want their children to have a softer, more western pedagogical experience. More on that later.

I guess the first place to start is with the assumption that China is homogenous. Shanghai is the city getting the biggest amount of attention for its education system. In no way is Shanghai typical of China. It’s a cosmopolitan, highly westernised (for China) city, with huge wealth. Many of the poorer workers here migrate from the rural areas, leaving their children behind in rural schools where they often don’t complete primary education. Similarly, Hong Kong, even more westernised, is characterised by wealth, with poorer populations sometimes living in horrendous conditions – including caged housing – in order to send money ‘home’ to children being educated elsewhere. While both HK and Shanghai perform well in international comparison tests, across the country, results are much more patchy. In fact China would be below the UK if the general population were taken into account in these tests.

Chinese children who do stay on well into secondary education, can take the infamous Gaokao university entrance exam. It is demanding and highly competitive. Your ranking position in Gaokao determines your entrance to Higher Education. The exam takes place over two days in which time the students will sit 9 hours of exams. The time spent sitting exams is pretty much the same as with A Level, but compressed. Students take exams in Chinese Literature, Maths and English Language plus they must choose one of either social science/humanities or natural science – so four subjects across nine hours (this varies slightly from province to province and provinces can set their own exams – there is not a national standard). The humanities elements are closely linked to communist history, philosophy and geography, encompassing not just China, but also Russia. The exams are largely in the form of multiple choice and short answer questions with the exception of an essay on the Chinese literature paper, which is notoriously unpredictable. One year the question was:-

Topic: Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?

Biotechnology researcher: Mr. Lee led the company to a globalized market.
Welding engineering technician : Mr. Wang was an ordinary welding engineering technician, and through perseverance, has become a world-renowned craftsman.
Photographer: The photographer posted a collection of his photos to his blog and was well-received online.

9.4 million students sit the Gaokao at the same time – it’s a huge bureaucratic operation, leaving little room for wider subject specialisms or alternatives and some universities will offer only 1 place to every 50,000 applicants. It’s no wonder then that in China, 93% of suicides in young people are linked to exam pressure. In Hong Kong alone, 13 children committed suicide in a two month period last year, leading to a public outcry. But what is rarely mentioned is that not every child sits the Gaokao. Some choose vocational routes. Some simply attend foreign schools to bypass the system and universities abroad don’t ask for the Gaokao so there are ways of attending HE – if you have money – without taking the exam. Many children, especially those from poorer or rural families don’t pass the entrance exams into secondary school at all and leave after primary education. So it’s a fallacy that Chinese children are ‘better’ than those elsewhere. And I haven’t even mentioned the huge sums spent on private tuition or the extremely long hours spent in study.

But what of the teaching? While I was there, I was happy to meet Simon Zao, the Chinese Maths teacher who entered the dragon’s den when he volunteered to take part in the BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” A genuinely kind and self effacing man, he offered an interesting comparison of Chinese and English Maths education. One of the things he pointed out immediately was that in China, teachers were expected to teach only 10×40 minute sessions per week – i.e. 80 minutes per day. They spend the rest of the day marking, planning and meeting students to give one to one feedback. They spend very little time on inputting data for tracking or reporting – feedback is the main focus. He stressed that contrary to popular opinion in Britain, Chinese teachers placed great emphasis on relationships with the pupils – not so much in the classroom, but elsewhere – especially when offering academic advice.

But what he felt was missing, was an opportunity for students to express themselves and think more laterally or creatively. This was something he had taken away from the UK. In addition, he noted that while China has a reputation for excellence in Maths, their curriculum had a narrower focus than that in England. English mathematics, he noted, consists of pure, mechanical and statistical maths with a greater emphasis on geometry than China. In China, there was more depth but into less of a spread of content – this left more time for work such as calculus. Most of the focus was on Pure Mathematics with an expectation that children would learn formula by rote so that they could focus on making connections between concepts and ideas. “The how and why matter to us.”

Chinese teachers are allocated a ‘master’ teacher on arrival in a new school. This person acts as a long term mentor to the teacher – co-planning, supporting and training for several years. They will offer demonstration lessons and train the teacher to also create demonstration lessons. While Simon saw great value in this, he also pointed out that demonstration lessons leave too little room for responding to student’s questions. Everyone must keep up. There is no differentiation or scope for dealing with children with additional needs. They may seek some extra feedback from the teacher, but if this doesn’t work, they simply fall behind or out. He pointed out that special needs provision in China was poor but improving, but there was still an assumption that those who couldn’t keep up needed to go elsewhere.

He also discussed with me over lunch the preconceptions that he felt people had of Chinese education. “People think we don’t care about other things,” he said, “but we do wider things than you see.” He mentioned arts, exercise and activity and the need to develop a whole person but he felt that in time, the pressure to pass the Gaokao took over and led to a narrowing of experience from the age of 15.

It was a fascinating experience for me – to see the IB with its focus on global communication and understanding, sitting in direct comparison with the Chinese system and finding some connective strands too. But if I take anything at all away, it’s a warning. A warning not to attempt to separate an education system from its culture, to look beyond headlines and cherries to what lies beneath and to beware the refrain “we need to be more like Shanghai!” It also left me with a renewed determination for us to find a system that works best for us, for our children (all of them) and to not fall into the trap of thinking that the grass is not only greener on the other side, but that all the people eating it, are after ours too. The notion of competing leads us to a fearful state of affairs and it skews our view of the rest of the world. The Chinese are clear that there is much to be learned from us. We should all enter into this process of learning in a spirit of collaboration, not of competition.

Michael Gove’s Favourite Teachers: Where are they now?

Those of you with long memories will remember the touching speeches of Michael Gove when he was education secretary, where he used his position to advance the work of teachers in the classroom. Well, those who agreed with him anyway. Speeches like this and this struck many at the time for being unusual in their direct naming of teachers and others as being endorsed by the Secretary of State. Many were young bloggers, barely out of training, and it wasn’t just Michael Gove who spotted them. His deputy Nick Gibb used the same names in his speeches too. But what happened to them? Where are they now? Is there any advantage to having caught the eye of a politician? And how many are still in teaching? Well…in alphabetical order, here are a few:

Tom Bennett

Tom didn’t really need to be name checked by Michael Gove. A teacher with a column in the TES and books to his name, he already had a large following on twitter. But with the encouragement of Sam Freedman (Executive Director at Teach First, former adviser to Michael Gove, former Policy Exchange and now a Director at ResearchEd), he set up ResearchEd and was appointed by Nick Gibb, as the official Government Behaviour Tzar in 2015. He was recently awarded an innovation grant worth £4 million from the DfE. He is a board member of Parents and Teachers for Excellence – the lobby group set up by Tory donor and leave campaigner Jon Moynihan and CEO of the Inspiration Trust, Dame Rachel de Souza. Led by Mark Lehain (see below), the group aims to promote the work of academies and free schools on promoting knowledge rich learning.

John Blake

Way back in 2013, John Blake was a History teacher in London, railing against low expectations, championing the value of academic education and co-editing Labour Teachers. A strong supporter of Michael Gove’s education policy, he is no longer teaching, but in post as Head of Education at the Policy Exchange – the right wing think tank set up by…Michael Gove. Previous incumbents at Policy Exchange include Sam Freedman and Jonathan Simons. Policy Exchange is now partnering with the new, private teacher training provider the National Institute for Education and Oceanova, another private company, to deliver teaching apprenticeships.

Kris Boulton

Kris was a Teach First maths teacher when first name checked who went on to work at the highly successful King Solomon Academy in London. A vocal advocate of Direct Instruction, Kris has now left teaching to work for a private online tuition company Up Learn, which claims to guarantee pupils who pay £200, an A or A* in their exams (providing they score 90% or above on their Up Intelligence Score). Kris is a regular speaker at ResearchEd and other educational events.

Daisy Christodoulou

Daisy, having qualified through Teach First, had already left teaching when Michael Gove started name checking her as a teacher. She was working with the Core Knowledge Foundation, set up by the right wing think tank Civitas to promote the work of E.D Hirsch. She also worked with Lord Nash (Minister in charge of Academies) at Pimlico Academy, developing curriculum. She went on to be Head of Assessment at Ark Academies (where Amanda Spielman, now Head of Ofsted was a founding member), where she earned a reputation for her work on assessment, winning the respect of many experts such as Dylan Wiliam (also a Director of ResearchEd). She was also a founding governor of Michaela School. Daisy has recently taken up a post with a private company selling Comparative Judgements assessments to schools under the name of No More Marking. She is the author of two books and a director of ResearchEd.

Joe Kirby

Joe was a young Teach First Ambassador, teaching English in London when he was name checked by Michael Gove. His blog was widely read and he was becoming interested in the knowledge rich core curriculum that his Teach First network advocated. Joe still teaches. He is Deputy Head at Michaela Free School, set up by Katharine Birbalsingh (invited by Michael Gove in 2010 to address the Conservative conference on ‘shocking’ standards of behaviour in British schools and subsequently awarded the contract to set up Michaela Free School).

Mark Lehain

Former maths teacher Mark Lehain caught Michael Gove’s eye when he set up one of the first Free Schools, Bedford Free School in 2013. He was on the advisory council of the New Schools Network (director is Toby Young). He recently moved on to become Director at Parents and Teachers for Excellence (see Tom Bennett above – set up by Tory donor Jon Moynihan and Dame Rachel de Souza).

Robert Peal (Matthew Hunter)

Robert Peal was first named under his pseudonym of Matthew Hunter by Michael Gove. In fact, Teach First graduate Mr. Hunter/Peal was no longer teaching as Gove heaped lavish praise on his blog. He was already at the right wing think tank, Civitas, where he moved straight to on completion of his Teach First training. His book, Progressively Worse – an attack on progressive state education – was name checked by Nick Gibb alongside Daisy Christodoulou’s, Tom Bennett’s and David Didau’s in this speech. It was published by his former employer, Civitas. Peal returned to teaching to work for Toby Young at the West London Free School for a year before taking up a secondment to the DfE with Nick Gibb as a ‘teacher in residence.’ He has now returned to the West London Free School part time and also works with BPP University, a private university and “the only University dedicated to business and professionals.”

Andrew Old (Smith)

Andrew Smith, blogging and tweeting under the name of Andrew Old was a maths teacher in an Academy in the Midlands, when his blog came to the attention of Michael Gove. He is now a part time supply teacher, but still regularly blogs. He is a frequent speaker at ResearchEd.

There were many others named by Michael Gove – heads and schools, academics and entrepreneurs. But I focused on those he specifically named as admirable teachers. It would seem, that for the majority that being named turned out to be a very good thing indeed. Even if you weren’t actually a teacher.



On Teaching Apprenticeships

I was raised in Burnley. Apart from my teachers, I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to University. I didn’t even go to Manchester until I was 17 and that was just for a shopping trip. Apart from family holidays and day trips in fact, I’d never stepped outside my small town. Books were my way into another world.

Yet somehow, the idea of University had taken hold in our family. My Dad spoke of it for as long as I could remember. I was going to be the first. His daughter was going to go to University. I remember knowing I was going before I even knew what it was. Without my Dad, I wouldn’t have even heard of it. My Mum, who’d left school at 14 to work in the mill repeatedly said “Get an education. Don’t be like me!”

In my secondary school, only six of us went on to do A Levels. Others took vocational courses at college or went on to YTS (Youth Training Schemes). Many have grown up to have successful jobs in lots of different areas. They’re happy. I’m not writing to diminish their choices. Professions and further study didn’t interest them.

By the time I was 18, I was wavering. Did I want to go? I went through the UCAS process reluctantly. I was scared. Not sure about what it would entail. I’d talk to some of my teachers. They assured me it was great – a chance to grow, mature, see wonderful things. The cities I applied to were largely based on their own experiences of London, Cardiff, Hull, Birmingham… My Dad dutifully drove me around the country and I settled on London. There were squirrels in the garden.

I didn’t study hard at Uni. I was one of those irritating people who could churn out an essay quickly and do well. But I read a lot. And I got involved in politics. I marched and campaigned, attended NUS conferences, learned to speak up and out. I would walk from West Hampstead into town, right down to the river, stopping at Regents Park, The British Museum, passing through the National Gallery. I remember some days, standing, looking at the history of it all and welling up. Debbie, from Burnley – here. The walk would take me all day. I’d sit by the river in one of the greatest capital cities in the world and read my book. On hot, sunny days, after a dip in the Hampstead Ponds, I’d sit under a tree, reading Austen, Hardy, Jackie Collins… whatever. And I’d feel joyful.

I learned to love. I learned to lose. When my boyfriend beat me black and blue, I was able to put 200 miles between him and me. And go home to Lancashire. And I was a different person. I decided I wanted to teach. I wanted others to have what I had.

Over the past 25 or so years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve talked to pupils about University life or about what London is like. Or other places. Because once you get confidence in one city, you want to visit more. I’ve taken so many trips – kids who’d never stepped out of Oldham – walking them through London from Museum to the Royal Court Theatre with confidence and excitement. But also to Amsterdam, Paris, Prague, Warsaw and to concentration camps, museums, war graves, galleries, planetariums, theatres, forests, castles and gardens. Because I knew. I knew that every experience was growing their minds, stretching their view of what life could be…

I had a wobble when I was 18 about going to University. For a while, I tentatively talked to my Dad about maybe working instead. I was scared. I knew I could maybe train to be an accountant in his firm – perhaps take over from him. But my heart wasn’t in it. I knew he’d worked his way up from nothing – that having a child take over from him would make him (almost) as happy as having one who went to University. But I didn’t want to be an accountant.

I thought about other jobs. Had a teaching apprenticeship been available to me, I may well have taken it. I could have stayed there, with shopping trips to Manchester a regular treat. I’d probably have been happy. I may still have been a ‘good’ teacher – in terms of caring, being good at imparting knowledge, preparing kids for tests. But I’m not sure I’d have been in a position to offer to my students the world view that I now have. I’m not sure I’d have been me.