Discovery? Inquiry? It’s all Academic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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No frills education: the workload paradox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Utilising Knowledge

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

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

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

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

Key words:-

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

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

The children are gathered.

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

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

We’d have to be polite”

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

“What’s an oracle? Where’s Delphi?”

“Ahh, well, let me tell you…”

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

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

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

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

We can put a telly in her room.

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

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

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

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

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

He kills

He forgives

He despairs

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

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

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

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

And we move on…

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

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

 

 

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.