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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

The Hidden Workload Scandal

Last night I wrote a tweet. Something had been bothering me for days. Behind the headline figure of “30% of new entrants to teaching leave within five years” was an odd statistic. The figure had largely been unchanged since 1996 – in all that time, we’ve lost around 30% of new teachers every year. Maybe they had decided it wasn’t for them. Maybe they’d moved into the private sector or abroad. Whatever the reason, some were very quick to point out that things mustn’t have got worse for teachers in recent years at all. A couple even managed to turn it around as a triumph for Michael Gove. I know! Eye roll. Those people were mostly not teachers. I know that things got worse. I know because I left. My heartbroken blog post, written on the day I resigned, remains to this day the most widely read of all those I have written and many wrote to me to say they felt the same.

Of course, I wouldn’t appear in those attrition figures – I’d been teaching for just over 20 years. I wonder what the attrition rate for more experienced teachers is and how that has changed over time? But even more than that, I wonder, how many have taken the decision to move to part time hours in order to cope with a workload that is simply unbearable? That was the tweet I wrote last night :-

How many of you went part time to cope with work/life balance or know someone who has? And is this an invisible factor in teacher shortages?
8:03 PM – 27 Oct 2016 · 

The response has been extraordinary – hundreds of responses from people saying that they had. But also from teachers explaining that in their departments, over 50% of the teaching staff are part time and from heads saying that in order to keep staff they have had to support part time requests for work – one saying that most of the classes in her primary school were job shared and that she was happy to do it to keep good staff. This might not be a problem, were it not for two things.

Firstly, most of those saying they had moved to part time hours, were working on their days off. The part time hours meant that they could work full time but have at least one day off at the weekend. One common factor for many was that becoming a parent had created the breaking point. They saw full time teaching as completely incompatible with family life – both men and women. Most of those who had not made the decision to move to part time work said they wished they could, but they couldn’t afford to do it.

Secondly, it is harder to find two teachers than one when a full time post becomes available. Part time workers create a headache for recruiters. It’s one of the reasons that many requests are denied. Not only is recruitment harder, but many senior managers worry about the impact of split class teaching on the pupils. It can work well, but it can also be fragmented and damaging. In an ideal world, a full time post would be manageable enough that people wanted to do it and earn a full time wage.

When I went into teaching, I had a six month old baby and was a single parent. It wasn’t easy, but the roles of Mum and teacher were compatible. I’d mark when he slept. My weekends were my own. I don’t remember having to work weekends at all in the first eight years, unless I had rehearsals or was on a trip. I did lots of those, because I had the energy to do them. What changed? Planning expectations, marking expectations, extra meetings, work scrutiny,  damned spreadsheets and data reporting, project this and project that. “What Ofsted want” initiatives that came and went. All underpinned by fear. The teaching didn’t change. But proving that the teaching worked, even beyond the scope of results, became all consuming. Teaching became a small fragment of the job. The best bit, but often the bit that paid the price in the attempt to make everything look alright. The irony!

In the year before I left teaching, I too, dropped to 0.8 in an attempt to cope. Before I did this, I was regularly working 70 hours per week. I left for work before my children woke up. I got home after the youngest had gone to bed. My husband, also a teacher, had already gone down to 0.8. It allowed him to be the primary care giver, but he was still cracking from the strain of what was really full time work with an absent wife. So I dropped my hours too. My 70 hour week dropped to around 55 hours – losing classes means losing marking and planning. But those still taught effectively meant I had to work full time, just be paid for part time work. Of those teachers who responded to my tweet, most have dropped one or two days and yet were still working full time equivalent hours. In what other line of work would this be acceptable?

To me, it shows that in order to plan and assess effectively, teachers need equivalence between contact and preparation time. When I worked for a few years in ITT at MMU after the birth of my third child, every hour I taught was matched with an hour of planning and marking time. It meant that almost all my work could be completed within a 40-45 hour working week. Sure, some of those hours took place in the evenings or at weekends. Sure, the holidays were shorter – 8 rather than 13 weeks per year. But there was definitely a sense that the job was doable. There was time to think, to breathe, to use the loo. Of course, doing this in schools would have a massive impact on public finances – a direct 50/50 split would be prohibitively expensive (though Shanghai manage it). But the current PPA allowance for teachers is clearly so woefully inadequate that people simply can’t cope. They move to reduce their contact time in any way they can. Some go for promotion, working their way through the double hell of managing a department, to the pastures of senior management. Now don’t get me wrong. Senior managers work hard. They have long hours too and lots of stress. But if they need the toilet during the day, they can go. Some I know work from home when they have big projects like timetabling on, so they can do it without being distracted. Most would admit, that whatever the workload, it’s not as relentlessly inflexible as having classes. One said to me “I never really wanted to be an Assistant Head, but the marking was breaking me. I work really hard now. But I don’t feel like I’m drowning in the same way. And I get paid enough to be able to afford stress relief – more holidays and mini breaks.” Those who don’t want the promotion, or who can’t give the extra pound of flesh by serving middle management time, well they seem to go part time.

The teachers who contacted me spoke of having “scuppered” their career paths. They spoke of desperation. It’s a desperation I vividly remember. But we should not have to be part time in order to be able to fulfil a full time expectation. All teachers work unpaid days. Saturdays, Sundays, so-called holidays, countless evenings and so on. We all know it. We tut in sympathy and then shrug. It’s time we had a proper set of guidelines on how many hours is reasonable to expect and work back from there. Even if it sounds like a lot – 50 hours sounds like a lot, but for most teachers, it’s the bare minimum. A teacher working 50 hours a week term time is banking 10 hours a week over what would usually be considered full time work. 390 hours per year. It means that seven weeks of their 13 week holiday period is actually time off in lieu, leaving them with the average holiday entitlement of an ordinary full time employee. Let’s start to make these figure explicit. Let’s ask our unions and politicians to make it clear that 50 hours per week is the absolute maximum we expect of our teachers. No more. And then work out where our gaps are. Do we need to reduce contact time and employ more teachers to do this? Or change our data gathering, marking and meeting policies? Do we need to offer extra payments for trips or overtime beyond those hours? How much would it cost? Could we put a proposal forward with costings to government, saying “if you want to tackle workload AND teacher shortages, be clear about what full time work entails. Limit hours. Fund it.” The costs of training and losing staff are huge. The costs of recruiting are huge. The mental health costs to staff are huge. It’s time for us to stop. Not to drop hours and struggle because we can’t cope. It’s time to work to rule and I know this is hard. But if that doesn’t happen, things won’t change. They really won’t. Because the bottom line is that as long as you’re willing to bend and sacrifice yourselves and families, they’ll let you do it. Until you snap. Then they’ll get someone else to do it. Enough.

Pedagogies of Hope

Way back in the 1930s, looking on at the rise of Fascism with horror, the playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote the words “Change the World. She needs it!” His work aimed to shock audiences out of apathy and passive emotional engagement into action. He was not happy with the thought that theatre was a pastime. For him, theatre was an agitator – a means by which we might make more obvious to people, the forces and assumptions that were shaping their lives and leading them blindly into war and genocide. Where are our agitators today, I wonder?

In the face of the rise of some of our less kindly human traits – xenophobia, self protection, isolationism, self absorption, materialism and general sneering and jeering at anyone with an opinion other than our own, we can sometimes simply retreat. In recent months, worried about the political landscape both here and abroad,  I’ve definitely drunk more, switched the telly off, spent less time on twitter and more in the gym. All (except the drinking) probably better for me, but not for the world in general. Because if we’re to stand in the way of what increasingly looks like a wave of disaffected self destruction and avoid a future in which our children look back at us with disgust saying “but what did you do?” we need to take some action now.

I love theatre, but I don’t think it’s going to change the world. Not with ticket prices as they are. But education. That can change the world. And she needs it. Still. How do we change the world in schools? We develop pedagogies of hope.

We’re distracted from such work by drudgery. It’s a great way of getting people who may have power and influence to avoid using it by a) making them feel too tired to think and b) too overworked to care. In this respect, this and other governments across the world have done a sterling job in ensuring that education does not cause children, or even many teachers, to lift up their heads and to hound them out of future office. Survival and self interest are best served by appearing to meet the demands of the ‘public’ and the more distasteful those demands are, the more distasteful the policies designed to ensure another political victory. We cannot hold a mirror up to politicians without seeing ourselves reflected back. If we want to change them, we have to change us. Do we think immigration would be as high on the agenda as it is, if it were not perceived to be a vote winner? No. So to change the world, we need to change minds – to shift the nature of public demand and perception- one at a time. And what is a teacher, if not a shaper of minds?

Now that could be quite dodgy, I know. But think of this. If we saw our duty as less about getting children through tests and more about building a deep sense of moral purpose, built around compassion and kindness, what would the impact be on the future? In the former, we keep the status quo. In the latter, we change the demands that politicians, in their short term election cycle world, wish to meet. The wonderful International Baccalaureate is clear in its mission statement that while it aims to create “knowledgeable” young people, it intends that those young people can see “that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” It is, by far, the most important statement I have ever seen in terms of the values and expectations of an education system. For if we see that other people, with their differences can also be right, we have, automatically, a more compassionate society based on wisdom, empathy and understanding.

To be IB minded is to see the world as a whole and its people as having equal importance and value. It is to recognise that a child in Syria needs help and that we have a duty to step up to the mark. It is to understand that our neighbours are our neighbours, no matter where they are born. That the children in our schools are our children, no matter where they were born. That the workers in our offices, are our workers, no matter where they were born. That there is not, as Hitler said in Mein Kampf, a necessity to draw a sharp line between those of us who were born here and those who “domicile” here in order to earn a living. For as soon as those distinctions are drawn, and as soon as we feel that there is a moral right to draw the distinction, we are on a very slippery slope indeed.

All this might be overwhelming to us. But there are many things we can do to build hope and wisdom in children. We can shape our curriculum models around concepts of freedom, democracy, justice, hope and beauty. We can enrich our lessons with stories of people who made a difference, who changed the world for the better. We can choose texts where kindness, compassion, moral dilemma and integrity drive the work and elevate them over those which serve merely to entertain or to act as “I’m more academic than you” modes of self glorification. We can look at places, times, events where human beings have risen and overthrown oppression, violence, terror and inched us towards a more peaceful world. We can find heroes in small spaces – in our local communities who are helping others, volunteering, opening food banks, raising children that are not their own. We can talk to care workers, nurses, road sweepers and cleaners about the importance of the work they do and introduce them to our children, so that they know, appreciate and understand what true graft is. We can model kindness and compassion to all – rejecting no excuses discipline policies for what they are – social darwinism. We can be better and when we fail, we can show we learn from our mistakes.

We need to do this. Because unless we fill our children with the belief that they are the future and that future is full of hope and possibility; unless we show them that the heroes in our world don’t necessarily earn the most money or screen time, but can still be very happy indeed; unless we show them that the value of a human life is not measured in salary, but in love, they will enter a fearful world in which they learn that bowing their heads and retreating is the way to survive. And while their heads are down, hope will take flight.

Context is King

Friday Prosecco was flavoured with Pokemon Go! last night. Now I have to admit we’ve not really experienced Pokemon Go! in our household since my little one ran into the sea with his i-Pod in his pocket a week before it was released – we’ve kind of missed the craze, but I’ve read all about it in Forbes and The Guardian and The Telegraph. And last night, I happened upon a tweet from Carl Hendrick showing a list of writing tasks linked to Pokemon Go! with the horrified message “this kind of stuff should be eradicated from our classrooms!” I like Carl – he reminds me of gin. We get along well and can spar without rancour, so I piled in. And it went on for several hours. The thing is, I couldn’t really see the problem.

Personally I wouldn’t choose that as a context for learning. We all bring our values into our teaching. My fundamental belief is that education is there to create a better world. And by better, I mean a more moral, more kind, more thoughtful world, full of wise people. It underpins all my choices and decisions when it comes to teaching. The texts I choose to teach, the writing and speaking tasks I choose to set are often underpinned by this belief. Kids are bombarded with a diet of dilemma in which they learn, in the words of the International Baccalaureate, “that other people, with their differences, can also be right,” and through which they genuinely have to grapple with multiple perspectives and views.

Other people firmly believe in the importance of teaching children a ‘canon’ and others fix their sights on skills, developed through engaging contexts. Good luck to them all. So I wouldn’t choose Pokemon as a ‘topic’ unless I could think of a good dilemma/problem to drive it. Something about global capitalism, or obesity or the disconnect between the real and imagined worlds… You get me?

But I defended this teacher’s choices nonetheless because we had so little information on which to make such a judgement. What if the writing tasks led to beautiful, well structured writing and that was the objective? I mean, if the subject matter is good enough for Forbes, The Guardian and The Telegraph, who are we to judge? What if it was put together specifically for reluctant writers, say in primary school, who would more than likely be asked to do similar tasks in their SATs tests? We don’t know. In so many cases, context is king, but the outcome is the kingdom.

Martin Robinson, who again, I have huge respect for, joined the discussion suggesting that instead, the context could have been the Oresteia plays by Aeschylus. Leaving aside the time it would take to read the three plays with children, you have to question the content. Spurned sexual advances leading to a curse; adultery, revenge, murder, bare breastedness…perfect for the end of Year 6 performance, no? No. Not really. Even the myth of Perseus is fraught with some difficulty when Zeus appears to the princess Danae as a golden shower and impregnates her. I’ve had to do a fair bit of glossing over in my time. But this set of plays, written with an adult audience in mind, is not suitable material for children in Key Stages 2 and 3. Nor is the underage sex romp Romeo and Juliet in my opinion. That’s not to say we can shy away from difficult material, but there are plenty of texts that explore these issues with a child/young adult audience in mind. Fiction has a wonderful capacity to distance and protect children so they can view these things from a safe position of dislocation. But let’s not pretend this is the reason we choose the ancients – we do that to prove we’re being academically rigorous. Nothing more.

We have to be careful that we don’t blindly elevate the old over the new. That we don’t leap in to judge other’s choices based on our own preferences. You can be writing about slugs and have high quality work – the challenge and level of expectation come through the process and the outcome – what you’re prepared to accept as good enough. The extended vocabulary, explanations and knowledge you draw out of the pupils as they craft and draft their writing. That’s the work. That’s the craft of teaching.

Tip: Rules Don’t Exist So You Can Look Big.

There were three pathways leading to my last school. One was up a steep, narrow tarmac driveway where all the cars came up, with little room at the side for children to walk. The other two were bridlepaths – one from the fields and one coming up through woodland. Both were muddy and most children arrived via one or the other. A few years ago the school ruled that only brogues or loafers were suitable for school. Trainers or any kind of shoe that might have a decent tread on them were banned. So children came in slipping and sliding on the mud. They didn’t look any smarter – mud is mud whatever lies underneath it. But they were colder and less safe. Parents, of course, were not impressed. And as far as I know the policy hasn’t changed judging from the furious conversations taking place in the Co-op between frustrated mothers this week.

It seems that “not all shoes are born equal” is an obsession spreading across the country and that any consideration of cost or appropriateness in terms of distance walked is out of the window in a race in which heads seem to care only about who is the toughest. It would be easy to laugh at them. But last year, one school in Bradford was inspected on the morning of the only day in the whole year where heavy snow had fallen and was still falling. The lead inspector turned up in a puffa jacket and trainers. But in his report he wrote “The correct footwear is not worn by many pupils in the secondary phase.” So appalled was he that he even put it down as one of the headline points on the first page of the report. Correct footwear? Correct for the weather? Does Ofsted set uniform expectations now? What about his own footwear?

The tone for the crackdown on uniform in recent years has come from Ofsted. Michael Wilshaw frequently spoke out in favour of rigid uniform policy, in one case, defending a Head who had sent 150 pupils home for breach of uniform.

“What she was doing was reinforcing to her pupils and to their parents that all successful organisations require rules and that if children, especially children who lack structure and discipline at home, are to succeed in school and in work they have to respect them. It was, in essence, a lesson in how to be employable.”

Let’s leave the patronising “poor people have no structure and therefore we have to impose spurious rules on them to teach them discipline” nonsense aside for a moment. Successful organisations do indeed have rules. They are usually there to ensure one of two aims:

  1. The safety of staff and visitors
  2. Productivity

Given that the business of a school is delivering a high quality education, it is difficult to see how its core purpose is met by denying children access to learning. And if the uniform rules compromise safety – like being able to stand up on a snowy day – they are clearly mad. It is one key area in which Wilshaw and many others misunderstand the purpose of workplace rules and practices.

We are constantly told that children need to learn to comply with rules in order to succeed in the real world. That they ought to get used to the fact that they will be expected to wear uniform and comply. But really? How many jobs really exist where you have a uniform? Not that many to be honest. In most workplaces the onus is on staff to be presentable and appropriately dressed. This is not as easy as it sounds. Dressing appropriately requires being able to make choices from a selection of clothing. Dressing without revealing too much. Dressing so you can perform the tasks you do. Dressing so that you won’t be too hot or too cold. All these things require you to choose. To decide. How does removing the experience of choosing prepare children for life in which they will have to make responsible choices? Does dressing them like little office clones, while completely disregarding the fact that they, unlike us, actually have to walk to school through weather, really prepare them for the world of work? No. It really doesn’t. Wouldn’t it simply be better to have a policy that asked children to dress appropriately for the day ahead and a pastoral system that helped to support those choices?

The madness in some schools has passed on to imposing dress codes on staff. In one school I know, the PE staff have to don smart jackets over their PE kits when they walk down the corridor. I know. Read that sentence again and weep/laugh/whatever. There’s a head with vision! And elsewhere, out of English education, dress codes are getting more relaxed as employers become more concerned with what staff do rather than how they look. My son works in a swanky office wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Everyone he works with does the same. I work all over the world with well behaved children who don’t wear uniform at all. They come to school dressed for comfort, because they find they learn more effectively when they are not being strangled by a tie or forced to sit in a hot room in a blazer. In many countries around the world, children just don’t wear uniforms and it’s no big deal. Even in state run Chinese schools, children wear tracksuits and trainers to school. The word is not compliance here. It’s congruence. Are the clothes congruent with the environment you are in and the tasks you have to complete? If you are a builder when you grow up, you’ll wear steel capped boots, not ballet shoes. But if you’re a ballet dancer…

When we say that uniform is necessary to ‘teach’ children to obey rules, we fall prey to assuming that rules exist in order to control people. They don’t. At least, they don’t in humane and successful environments. They exist in most cases to protect people. There is nothing protective about draconian uniform rules. In fact, turning children away at the door exposes them to risk. There is no evidence that smart uniform has anything to do with academic performance. So why do it? Because you can? And what does that say about you? Keeping children away from school, alienating their parents and imposing a nonsense policy on the weak because you want to show you are strong? That is nothing but folly.

Dumb and Dumber.

When I was at school the only people I had ever met who had been to University were my teachers. I was Burnley born and bred. Apart from an in and out trip to Wembley with the first eleven hockey team, the first time I’d ever been to London was when I went for an interview for my degree. I didn’t even make it into Manchester until I was 18. I grew up in a small town, with a small world view, but university opened up that world. It introduced me to people who had lived very different lives to mine, who had different ideas to mine. It gave me time and space to breathe, grow, mature and think. I studied Literature, but I learned so much more about life. It wasn’t all easy. I learned to cope with being skint. I learned to defend myself from attack. I learned to spot and avoid the fraudsters, petty thieves and scammers. I learned not to say yes to everyone, to have some self worth, to be confident enough in what I believed to be right and wrong. Being in a big city, being away from home, mixing with people from vastly different backgrounds to my own were all as valuable to me as my degree.

My teachers, having degrees, were able to help me to visualise that world and to give me the confidence to believe I belonged there. They knew what study was like at degree level, how it differed to A Level, what demands would be made of me. They were able to recommend reading and texts that would ease my transition into undergraduate study. They were able to tell me the benefits of learning to live independently. And of course, for them and for me, that opportunity was debt free. It was considered an entitlement to be able to go to university and improve the quality of your life chances. It was considered an investment to have a highly qualified work force. Times have changed.

Back in the ‘education, education, education’ 90s, the belief was that the more qualified a population, the more wealthy the country. But the mantra came with a price tag. No longer would the state invest in you. You would have to invest in yourself. The benefits would outweigh the costs. And they may well have if house prices had not risen so dramatically. Our young graduates now leave university laden with debt in an increasingly competitive job market, unable to afford their own homes and struggling to afford rents. It’s a terrible betrayal of a generation and it’s been right to start to question whether or not a degree is all it’s cracked up to be.

My Dad trained on the job as an accountant. It took him years, but he eventually passed his chartered accountancy exams and ran his own business with no need for a degree. He consistently took on A Level apprentices even when elsewhere it was considered necessary for accountants to have degrees (interestingly, those ‘elsewhere’ places like Ernst and Young have reverted back to the idea that a degree is not necessary). He’d sign them onto college courses and they took exams to be either certified, or chartered accountants. For young people with no desire to go to University it was a great option to be earning and learning, building a career and future. No-one can knock the opportunities that great apprenticeships can offer. But should there be an apprenticeship route into teaching? I’d strongly argue not.

While in occupations like Engineering and Accountancy, a great deal of professional knowledge has to be gained, the knowledge is fixed – i.e you learn the laws either of taxation or physics and while things change or new discoveries and technologies happen, there is a high level of certainty in what you know. You apply this to practice, usually in an office or factory setting, away from other people. You are introduced to clients slowly and under supervision. You never have to deal with 30 of them at a time. But teacher knowledge is different. While there is a body of ‘fixed’ subject knowledge, there is also the matter of shifting and complex bodies of knowledge which are dependent on a number of personal skills and attributes – pedagogical and cognitive knowledge, praxis, the ability to read, understand, assimilate and communicate material, to critically engage with research, to manage human behaviours and emotions. Teaching is consistently rated as one of the top three most stressful professions and managing that stress is dependent on resilience and emotional intelligence – both of which are strengthened by experience and maturity. To place an 18 year old in such a complex environment, where the stakes are so high in terms of outcomes is, in my opinion, irresponsible.

Who does a child aspiring to go to university ask about what university life is like? How will a teacher who has only ever studied a subject to A level himself, answer questions about the demands a degree would make? How will they offer the most able tasks that will stretch them beyond the syllabus? How will they lift the heads of those who have known nothing other than their local communities and show them what lies beyond a horizon? How will they cope with the demands of parents at parent’s evening? The tantrums of a neglected and abused child? The difficulties of creating a sense of authority with those almost the same age as themselves?

In my career, I’ve dealt with some of these situations:-

A child telling me his greatest fear is that his Dad will escape from prison and kill his Mum.

A child disclosing her pregnancy to me.

A child telling me that her ‘boyfriend’ wants to meet up and that she’s worried he won’t like her in real life. He’s only ever seen her on screen and she’s never seen him at all…

A parent threatening to smack another parent in the face.

A parent threatening to smack me in the face.

A parent threatening to smack his child in the face…

I’ve struggled with every one of these, even though I was 24 when I started to teach – the average age, apparently that our executive brain functions mature – the functions that help us deal with controlling our emotions, managing our time, meeting deadlines, making wise and reasoned decisions. The functions that help teachers to deal with the difficulties their jobs entail. I worry about the pressure of expectation we’d be placing on these young apprentices. I worry about the boundaries. And I worry about the ability they’d have to help children to see past their current lives. But I also worry about what it says about the status of our profession.

When the last government commissioned reports into what made education systems successful, summarised in the McKinsey report as “no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers,” it led to the belief that the most highly qualified teachers were the best teachers. Of course, this is flawed. A First class honours degree doesn’t help you with a rowdy class. But subject knowledge matters. It matters a lot according to the report by the Sutton Trust/CEM into what makes great teachers. Chris Husbands, questioning the wisdom of the McKinsey quote amended it to “the quality of its teaching” and subsequent work by Rob Coe and others reinforces the idea that great teaching is very much connected to deep knowledge and an ability to make nuanced decisions about how best to communicate knowledge, recognise misconceptions and amend them. This is highly skilled stuff. Husbands also notes that the common denominator in successful systems is the status that teachers hold in society. It is more difficult to become a teacher in Finland than it is to become a doctor or lawyer. In most successful systems, teachers are expected not only to be educated to degree level, but beyond. Their academic ability is beyond doubt. The rest is delivered by high quality CPD, ongoing peer support and an expectation that planning and assessment are important enough to be given ample time in the timetable. The reason that there are no teacher shortages in these countries is because it is seen to be an honour to be a teacher. There are no shortcuts. You have to work for it.

The advocates of apprenticeships say that it allows poorer students, who may be put off teaching by tuition fees, access to the profession. What in reality it will do is create a two tiered system in which those who could afford to pay to go to University end up in the best schools with the best jobs and more options open to them. International schools, for example would not accept an application from a candidate without a degree and formal, university based teaching qualification. Nor, I expect, would a private or grammar school. Outstanding state schools, keen to protect their results and more likely to recruit high quality candidates, will continue to cream off the best. So we’ll see poorer teachers teaching poorer children while middle class parents continue to demand highly qualified teachers.

Instead we should be seeking to create a level playing field. We should invest in ITT by funding the professional qualification. It should not cost anyone anything to train as a teacher. For primary, we could extend the BEd, which was shown in a recent DataLab report into cost effectiveness of teacher training routes, to be the cheapest as well as one of the best routes into primary teaching. We should recognise that a degree is about way more than a qualification, it is about aspiration and ambition. And if we are truly serious about ensuring that all children have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions, we should be making certain that the people in their lives who will lay down the pathway to their futures, can see possibilities beyond the confines of their current environment. No accountant, engineer or mechanic is responsible for shaping the dreams and ambitions of young people. Teachers are.

 

The Future is Bright (if we get out of the way)

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as despondent as I have over the past few weeks. The uncertainty of Brexit, political chaos, elected representatives acting like furious toddlers fighting over a fire engine, terrorist attacks, racist attacks, personal attacks, coups…Hardly a day has passed without something to feel terrible about. But there are some really positive and lovely things happening too and I was lucky enough to witness one recently that made me think that everything will be well.

Much has been made of the intergenerational conflict arising from Brexit. Claire Fox, a commentator who establishes her role modelling credentials with a profile picture of herself with a fag in one hand, bottle of beer in the other, has berated the young for their “feeble” mindedness, claiming that any problems with mental health are grossly exaggerated and simply a matter of children not being tough enough. She seems to miss the irony in a further, post Brexit article of defensively arguing the case that the young should not generalise about their elders – even as she brands them the ‘snowflake generation’. At the other end, young people took to social media to denounce the generation they think has shafted them through rising property prices, falling pension and work rights and ultimately the chaos of a Brexit vote. Even within the Labour party, the battles for and against Corbyn are being presented as the young and disenfranchised against the older and privileged members of the labour establishment. Again, with no irony. Of course, the truth is much more muddled and complex than the headlines suggest.

I live in Oldham and have done so for 20 years. And before that, I was born and raised in Burnley. Neither town has a glorious reputation. Race riots, BNP/UKIP support, low levels of achievement in schools…these things are more likely to make the headlines than any successes, leaving football aside. Shortly before the referendum vote, a terrible article appeared in The Spectator – An Elegy for Oldham in which a former resident of the town – one who had been educated in a selective and private grammar school, gone to university and rarely returned before writing this – berates the town for demolishing a pub in order to make way for transport links. He laments the fact that Muslims no longer drink in pubs like they used to. His evidence for this seems to be scant, but he is clear to condemn a place on the basis of the fact that there is a large muslim population, which he links to its downfall. He doesn’t mention the thriving theatre, the new art gallery, the millions of pounds of investment being poured into a new shopping centre, the highly successful and integrated sixth form college, the university satellite college that has allowed people, like parents, who cannot travel away to university, to study nonetheless. He mentioned none of this. And as I spat feathers, an invitation landed on my doormat. It was to the mayor making ceremony of the new youth mayor of Oldham, T-Jay Turner.

T-Jay is a student at Oldham Sixth Form College. He is also the partner of my son, Gabriel. He took Gabriel along as his plus 1, introducing him to the dignitaries present – the Sheriff of Manchester, the adult Mayor, councillors and youth workers. They did not worry that they wouldn’t be accepted. They attended, together, proudly. A symbol of this generation’s refusal to accept that difference should be hidden.

His nomination for youth mayor came from the youth council – a multi ethnic mix of young people from across the borough who want to have a say in the running of the town they live in. And they do have a say. They meet in council chambers. Their thoughts and ideas are treated with seriousness and have impact. They follow due process, learning to debate, to follow constitutional procedures, to be patient. They learn that the town is made up of a diverse mix of people with different needs and that their problems are complex but not insurmountable. The speeches made to nominate T-Jay are moving and deeply intelligent. His response is too:-

I hope to be a Youth Mayor who combines an ear to listen with an empathetic mindset, working with the community at both a grass roots level through to the leaders of our borough. Conversations are important. I hope to engage young people in a conversation, one which ignites a passion to be inquisitive and creates a drive to make a change. We must all look to the future with an optimistic eye, more so now than ever before.”

Speaking with the principal of the college he attends, I find out that the youth council have been involved in the development of a borough wide consultation on educational entitlements for young people which go way beyond simply passing tests. The Oldham Offer seeks to give children the experiences they need to become active and compassionate citizens and articulate and confident adults. It comprised initially of 12 challenges for young people. In return, their schools and colleges pledge to do all they can to provide the facilities and resources for them to successfully meet their goals.

– To attend regular enrichment within your place of learning,
– To attend regular enrichment activities beyond your place of learning,
– To take responsibility for your own health and wellbeing,
– To actively look for and pursue reading opportunities,
– To actively engage in the world of work and to be money wise,
– To actively engage in fundraising events,
– To actively engage in an outward bound activity or residential,
– To take part in a presentation or performance to an audience,
– To attend sporting and creative events,
– To be involved in a volunteering or leadership role in or beyond your place of learning,
– To be involved in a cultural or international experience.
– Contribute to environmental sustainability.

The youth council debated, amended and agreed these, and added two of their own:-

– To be involved in a democratic process,
– To use digital technology to enhance learning

It lifts my spirits to see young people and adults working together in such productive ways. And we need to recognise that this generation, for all the headlines, is becoming the most politically engaged one we have had for a long time. Over 70% of 18-24 year olds are now thought to have voted in the referendum – overwhelmingly to remain. This challenges Sky News’ initial assertion that the turn out was lower than 40%. Young people account for the bulk of new members of the Labour party. And not all are Corbyn supporters – my eldest son most certainly is not. He will not be allowed to vote in the leadership contest, which has disappointed him greatly, but he is planning to campaign for the party, attend meetings and become actively involved in political process. As are many others.

At this time, it is vital we nurture this growing enthusiasm in young people to get involved and to be active. I’m not sure that pricing them out of the voting system for the Labour party is helpful in this respect. But nevertheless, there is an appetite among the young to change the world. They are concerned about climate change, about poverty, about housing and jobs. They have ideas and energy. We should respect it, acknowledge it and feed it. And perhaps, to an extent, we should step aside and let them in with their torches, to cast light on the shadows of our assumptions and habits. Perhaps the future is bright.