Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: A Review – Part 1.

When my free copy of Battle Hymn dropped onto our doormat last week, our nine year old grabbed it excitedly. He loves books. “That’s a bit of an aggressive title!” he declared before handing it over to me. My husband who spends large amounts of his life counselling young adults scarred by tiger parenting rolled his eyes and asked if we could put it in “the box”. The box is full of books weighing down our Christmas tree so that our tiger kittens don’t pull it over when they’re swinging on it like a pair of demented gremlins.

“No,” I said, firmly. “I said I would give it a fair reading and I am.”

No-one can doubt the fervour and determination of Katharine Birbalsingh as she outlines her battle to set up Michaela, named in honour of a teacher she knew. The combative title is nothing compared to the language of war she bandies about in her introduction. Lakoff and Johnson would have a field day. But however irksome the language, her vision and determination, I think, are admirable. She set out to do something and she did it. You have to admire a doer who acts from a point of principled belief, even if you don’t share the beliefs.

Birbalsingh dismissed detractors of Michaela as being anti-free school and I have no doubt that some of the objections to Michaela came from these quarters. Yet Peter Hyman at School21 did the same without much opposition at all. I wonder whether some of the criticisms of Michaela are not really about the free school agenda and are more about tone, attitude and values. Much of the disgruntlement I hear about Michaela is not that it’s a free school, but comes more from a general distaste around bragging and self promotion. It was important then, as I read the book, that I engaged with the information and arguments and not the self congratulatory tone that pervades it.

What comes through loud and clear as you read this book is that these teachers care. They care about the children, they care about education and they firmly and fervently believe that this is the very best they can offer. To portray them as heartless monsters is grossly unfair. But having read the first half of it, there are some significant unanswered questions and concerns.

Knowledge, Memory and Testing, written by Joe Kirby, summarises well some of the research into cognitive science around memory and testing. He begins with the tired claim that schools in England don’t value knowledge. It’s the kind of statement that has teachers rolling their eyes, but as far as English Language goes, he does have a point. I too battled with an empty skills based GCSE curriculum as an English teacher sickened by and bored with acronyms like PEE. I understand the frustration. But other subjects I taught were packed with facts. This personal experience, coupled with a distaste for Ofsted, colours the chapter. Joe has, in a former blog, made the error of thinking that because knowledge sits at the bottom of the Bloom’s taxonomy triangle, that we all assume it is of “lower order” and importance and this error flavours the chapter. It is not. It is the foundation without which all the other kinds of thinking would crumble. It is what we build on. His dismissal of picture books ignores the deep levels of interpretation and comprehension we need to engage with sophisticated texts such as Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. While I understand some of Joe’s frustration – the exaggerated claims he makes – that classrooms have become “fact free zones”, along with the somewhat mocking tone which suggests that nothing in the primary curriculum has ever been taught -undermines the importance of his message; that knowledge matters.

He is right to point out, however, that unzipping knowledge from skills rarely works. Ok, maybe some sporting or artistic skills  don’t need knowledge, just practice, but in general, skills are best contextualised within a knowledge framework. I agree and he argues this point well. But the key point here is in his Willingham quote that “thinking well requires knowing facts.” It’s absolutely spot on. But here’s the thing. I can’t find any evidence in this chapter or in others, that Michaela moves on beyond the fact stage into the thinking well stage. There’s no point in having a jump off point, if you don’t jump off.

There is a strong argument for cultural experiences – theatre visits, concerts, museums and so on, but no evidence of trips being a significant part of the educational experience (of course, I needn’t go into how much easier it is for a school in London with free transport for children to access these things). Joe doesn’t once mention a trip. He mentions relentless drilling of knowledge. And while I don’t doubt at all that the teachers make this rich Western knowledge based curriculum exciting for children, I wonder how you can claim to “help children to understand the world” when the knowledge they are exploring does not extend beyond Europe.

Joe explains very well the research behind memory and the testing of knowledge so that it sticks. He ignores the research into the impact of intrinsic motivation and how that creates even more powerful memory. In terms of Vallerard’s table of motivation, Michaela seem happy for pupils to sit at the compliant, extrinsically motivated end of engagement, which requires a good deal of repetition and testing in order to make up for the lack of involvement.

Drill and Didactic Teaching Work Best, by Olivia Dyer, repeats much of what Joe sets out in his opening chapter – there is a lot of repetition in the book – all singing from the same hymn sheet but in canon. Olivia’s defence of drill and didactic teaching seems to be that it is fun. And I’ve seen some very enthusiastic drill sessions such as Times Table Rock Stars work really well. Children like chanting – rhythm is soothing to the mind and helps to make learning more memorable, leading to automatic recall – we use it to learn songs of course, and how many of us repeat a number rhythmically that we have to remember until we can write it down? So what she says makes sense. If you want to remember facts. But there’s nothing in the drill script offered that suggests the knowledge is applied. I get that the facts go in and they they could pretty accurately be regurgitated on a test paper. But how do those children go from knowing some scientific facts to thinking in scientific ways – how do they see, as Feynman said that “science is the culture of doubt?” It’s a question I’d really like answered when I visit.

She goes on to challenge some of what she views as “progressive ideas” arguing that if children are given the algorithm to solve a Rubik’s cube, they can do it in seconds, rather than struggling with it for hours. She seems to miss the point here – that working something out for yourself can be deeply satisfying. She points out that Hattie suggests that discovery based learning has limited impact, but fails to mention that he is equally dismissive of the IRE approach she has scripted. Almost all her examples from chess to chicken sexing fail to mention the importance of experience and trial and error. Another idea she challenges is the idea that teachers should talk less. The flip side of this of course, is that when teachers talk more, children talk less and the importance of the role of speaking and articulacy are well researched and documented by scientists such as Resnick as well as academics such as Alexander and Mercer. None of this research is mentioned. And as in the last chapter, silly examples are given as proof of the foolishness of progressive thinking, like baking biscuits in order to understand native American Indian culture. This is not progressive. It’s just a bad idea. But it is an example of how spurious claims are confidently made throughout, with scant regard for facts. I know – ironic. Take this statement – “teacher training institutions…indoctrinate unqualified teachers with their one sided progressive values.” There is not one single example of this offered, yet it ignores the hours I spent as an ITT tutor teaching my undergraduates grammar and phonics. It’s the kind of arrogant dismissal that leads to such strong reactions against Michaela and masks some of the good thinking and practice that could be taking place there.

How Reluctant Readers Learn to Love Reading, by Katie Ashford focuses on Michaela’s commitment to get children reading. Of all the things they do, this is the one I find myself most in agreement with. The importance of getting children reading well and regularly cannot be underestimated. It is just as important as getting them to speak well and regularly along a continuum of formality. Katie is absolutely right to suggest that for some children who have fallen behind in reading, a secondary phonics programme can be vital. And in this chapter at least, she avoids pointing a finger of blame for this. The time to do this is stolen from French and she is right to point out that there is little point learning one language if there is difficulty in English. Phonics can help children to tune into sounds and differences in pronunciation and this will only help them when they return to French. So far, so good. But then we part company.

While I fervently agree that getting children to read for pleasure is vital, the sentiment is blurred by assumption and arrogance. She argues that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have few life experiences. They actually have more life experiences that most of us would care to imagine. Many of the children at Michaela are from migrant families – they have lived in other countries, speak another language. To ignore that knowledge is neglectful. And when she says would you rather your 11 year old read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Wuthering Heights, I’d go for the former. An 11 year old cannot access the adult experiences and passions writ large in Wuthering Heights. Why do we think a novel written expressly for adults about adult emotions should be appropriate for an 11 year old, just because it is hard? There are plenty of challenging texts that are more appropriate for that age group – it’s not a choice between Wimpy Kid and Wuthering Heights. What about Michelle Paver or Philip Pullman?   And elsewhere she mentions that children have read Gone Girl. I’m really not sure that’s age appropriate to be honest, at the risk of sounding like a complete prude. Having said all of this, the commitment to reading together in class as well as the intervention programmes that clearly have an impact are impressive and replicable in secondary schools and it clear that Head of English, Jo Facer, has done an impressive job in developing a reading culture across the school.

Marking is Futile by Jo Facer begins with a sentence that would make any teacher’s heart soar “we don’t mark books at Michaela.” Oh imagine the hours of your life reclaimed if that were true everywhere! She describes well the mad marking policies that spiralled out of the simple shift in emphasis from Ofsted from progress in lessons to progress over time. She asks instead, “what is the impact of marking?” and makes a very powerful case against it. But then I hit a contradiction. In one sentence she argues that the case that marking is a sign of respect for the effort that a child has made, is countered with the assertion that children are not “equals” but “novices” and that teachers are the “experts”. Therefore no respect is due. But later, she argues that “we actually hold children back when we mark, because in marking we make the effort to spot the mistake for them.” Now if we are the experts and they are the novices, surely it is our job to ‘spot the mistake’ – after all, the whole ethos of Michaela is that children cannot learn for themselves. I’m confused. But I still want to believe because if true, this is a major step forward in reducing teacher workload. So I read on.

It turns out that Jo reads the children’s books and writes notes on common errors rather than marking each one individually. She does this in her two free periods per day. Two free periods per day. Two free periods per day. Two…

Sorry. Then, having identified common errors, there is whole class verbal feedback including spelling drills. I’m not uncomfortable with that. Spelling was a bit of a bugbear of mine and I used to do similar things. It’s not time consuming and can be effective. I’m less comfortable with the public merit/demerit session. Pupils are praised or shamed for their perceived effort in writing. In my experience, you have to be a careful in shaming a child for a ‘lack of effort’ which could be down to a number of reasons from a bad headache to severe worry. But hey, no excuses right – so public shaming it is. Better is the example of modelling group writing to craft great sentences. It’s a technique commonly used in primary schools and allows many children to combine their ideas to create a strong model for writing as is the use of the visualiser. In fact what Jo is describing is the kind of good practice in terms of feedback that I see in many schools. And I’m not sure that reading pupils’ work and then writing your own notes in your own book so you can use that for planning your next lesson, is that dissimilar or less time consuming than marking them. But I hope I’ll see that for myself when I visit. I also wonder what will happen when these children hit KS4 and the need for individual examination feedback kicks in. We shall see.

Homework as Revision by Joe Kirby begins with the habit of choral chanting of key classical speeches by children at Michaela. This idea makes some qualm. But I like it. Of course I do – I’m a drama teacher. I’ve been getting children to memorise speeches all my teaching  life. I might question the macho choices of text, but there is something empowering in being able to recite a speech or poem. And there’s something moving and powerful in children coming together to recite in unison. A beauty. I guess we just differ on aim.

Joe then goes on to outline the problems with homework, especially for children with no quiet space at home. He argues that homework, where given, should matter and have impact. As a parent who has been pulling her hair out at the prospect of helping her child build a model Anderson air raid shelter, I sing Hallelujah. And he points out that in a school that has reduced the number of subjects that the children study, while simultaneously extending the school day so they spend more time on the subjects that they do, there is not really any need for extensive homework.

With one eye fixed on the future GCSEs (currently there are only Yr7/8/9 pupils at Michaela), the school has instead decided they will focus on revision of facts in preparation for the regular tests for homework tasks through the creation of knowledge organisers by the teachers that are kept in the children’s books. The children then self quiz every day. It’s simple. And if the sole aim of your education system is the accumulated acquisition of facts, I imagine it’s effective. It also removes the need for marking – the teachers can quickly cast their eyes over the quiz – it is either right or wrong. Job Done. I’m drawn to it in the same way I’m drawn to the no marking idea. In the same way people will be drawn to the no excuses behaviour method. It would make my life SO much easier. It’s like a slimming pill. Swallow this and all will be well. But…. I wonder. How do children learn to find information for themselves? How are they learning to connect and apply? What opportunities are they getting to create rather than replicate?  As an overworked professional, I might see a panacea. As a parent, I worry my child would become diminished. A child who has taught himself Japanese. A child who can sit at a piano aged 9 and compose simple songs. Where would he fit in at Michaela?

I also baulk at the section on reading for pleasure, which focuses on sanctions for children who are not reading for pleasure effectively enough. It doesn’t sound too pleasurable to be told you must read, then be tested on it and given a detention if you can’t recall enough of what you read. Between this and the choices of sexually charged texts such as Dracula, I’m starting to wonder what kind of masochistic views of pleasure these children will grow up with! There is already a huge emphasis on reading within school – the aim of 100 classical texts read by the time they leave. Why not let them choose something less demanding at home and not get too hung up on testing them on it? There’s a significant danger they’ll never want to pick up a book again if they associate the experience with punishment. Seriously.

I have absolutely no doubt that the carefully constructed knowledge organisers and regular self testing will result in children who have secure subject knowledge. And I understand why people might say “and what’s wrong with that?” But it seems that there is a huge, solid foundation being built here. A foundation that could hold the tallest building in the world. And yet there is not yet a building. Not a single brick laid. The application of knowledge in unfamiliar contexts is the aim of PISA tests. The ability to draw on your own ideas and wider reading as well as the knowledge acquired in school is inherent in A Level and IB examinations. And no-one gets through the door of Oxbridge without the capacity to think on their feet and look way beyond what they have been taught. How are pupils being prepared for this?

No Excuses Discipline Changes Lives by Jonathan Porter delves into Michaela’s controversial approach to discipline. He starts off with his love of Matilda, a book that sadly, most Michaela children are unlikely to be allowed to read as it’s simply not challenging enough. He uses it as a means by which to challenge what he sees as a pervading belief that children are inherently good and that this belief undermines many a good behaviour policy. It’s a red herring in my opinion. Good or bad, children are human beings and like all human beings need both boundaries and respect. Banging on about Rousseau is a bit of a waste of breath. Let’s cut to the chase.

I agree with Jonathan that discipline is not a dirty word. Words in themselves are neither clean nor dirty – it’s the actions and things they represent that carry the value. Teachers I saw hitting children on the head with knotted ropes in Kakuma claimed the word discipline. Teachers I see in UK schools kindly but firmly giving sanctions for poor behaviour claim the word discipline – you can’t compare the two, even though the word is the same. We are agreed that discipline matters – ideally self discipline. It’s how we get there that forms the bone of contention. While Jonathan seeks to exaggerate the idea that in schools across the UK, behaviour is completely out of control, he does make a valid point that it is a cause of significant concern for many teachers. I all too clearly remember the frustration of ineffective and burdensome behaviour policies in my last school. By the time I’d written all the notes in planners I was supposed to do, I was fifteen minutes late for my next lesson. There weren’t enough days in the week for all the detentions I had to supervise and chase up. Hours and hours wasted with little consequence – and by consequence I mean help rather than punishment, because the sanctions had no impact at all.

If you know a child is troubled, get them counselling, not more hours of detention. Right? But I also know about the exemplary behaviour of the majority of pupils, especially in primary schools. I know that most kids, are indeed good. And that the ones who act up do so for a variety of reasons – some of them valid and some of them not. So I naturally recoil from the idea that you treat everyone equally but not fairly or equitably.

I also take issue with the statement that behaviour is “probably” worse in schools where the pupils are poor. The worst behaviour I ever saw was in a middle class school where the parents had high expectations of the teachers coupled with low respect. Where “he can’t come to detention because he has a piano/fencing/maths/orchestra class” were rife. Or where a Judge came and sat in front of our head to complain about her son’s punishment with absolutely no sense of irony. It’s not just the poor.

And yet, there are some good elements of practice that I don’t take issue with. I too agree that children hate ambiguity. If you want silence you have to explicitly say so  – “be quiet” can mean a number of levels of volume. When I was teaching 135 children in Hong Kong last week, they knew that when I said “you do this in silence” that that meant silence. Similarly, it’s harder to argue with a “you must have your equipment” rule when the school has provided the equipment for every child in the first place. Presumably they also replace them when they wear out? But here’s a thing “when Tom loses one of these items…he has to learn that losing these items will cost him money and will be inconvenient.” It sounds simple. The school has a stationery shop and it is cheap – it’s not that inconvenient. But if Tom’s had his pencil case stolen and his parents have no money, it’s not as straight forward is it? I’m minded of the child whose addict mother sold his uniform and the equipment provided for him, for drugs money. I don’t think Tom or that child should be punished for this. Michaela do. They claim that if they don’t punish Tom, he’ll never learn to value his possessions. Believe me, poor children value their possessions. Even when they don’t get to keep them for long.

Elsewhere I don’t disagree with the habit of catching and praising good practice. Lots of primary teachers do this expertly. But I strongly disagree that it would be “profoundly wrong” to have “different standards for different pupils.” Let me be clear. People are different. We do not hesitate to accept that a person who cannot walk, needs a wheelchair. Why can we not accept that a person struggling with all kinds of hormonal imbalances or cognitive difficulties does not need some assistance? Children living under high levels of stress have higher levels of cortisol in their brains. There is a biological difference for these children. That cortisol will affect them differently. It impacts on memory (and so, actually, regular testing can help this). It impacts on health. And in boys in particular, it impacts on empathy, making them less likely to respond to the reasoned explanations offered about the importance of thinking about others. Adrenaline produced under threat, coupled with cortisol, creates a powerful, instinctive fight or flight response. This child is significantly different to the “can’t be arsed so I’ll muck around” child. Why would you treat them the same? They are not the same. I agree that teachers should be able to get on with teaching. But throwing children out of school is not the answer. And I’m not suggesting Michaela does this – as far as I know there has only been one expulsion so far. It is far harder to know, however, how many children have been encouraged to “choose” to leave – the headteacher is clear that she makes it clear that parents have the “choice” to go to another school – a statement that skates precariously along the lines of the law on coercion to exclude.

The no excuses culture at Michaela exists on an entirely extrinsic system of compliance. These can be foundations from which self reliance and regulation can be built – Jonathan gives a neat example of how firm expectations and consistency have helped Tom with getting to the point where he can comply and achieve – but there is no sign of those bridges being created through giving children autonomy and responsibility for their learning. As such, I wonder how they are being prepared for university or adult life. No, I accept that they are not yet adults. But they won’t wake up one day and suddenly say “I can self regulate without external control” – this needs to have been modelled and practised. Where is that practice at Michaela?

Jonathan points to the worrying research in the US where zero tolerance policies have resulted in high levels of exclusion and powerful rebellion from pupils. He reassures us that the UK version is lighter and based on strong relationships and firm expectations. No-one would argue with that. It’s just that most of us wouldn’t call it ‘no-excuses’. We’d call it good behaviour management.

He speaks of the importance of pupils learning to bring equipment, to pay attention, to be polite. But he doesn’t mention that pupils can be given detentions for not tracking the teacher with their eyes at all times. Not does he mention that they can be given detentions for their parents not paying their dinner money on time. All these more worrying things are oddly absent from the book.

Bootcamp Breaks Bad Habits by Joe Kirby outlines the policy that in Year 7, all pupils are inducted into the school culture through a bootcamp. It’s actually an idea I really like. I too used to start the school year with a fairly rigid training programme that made the rest of the year easier. For example, I had five common settings for classroom layout – groups, rows, horseshoe, circle and empty. By the end of my bootcamp, the kids could set out the room in 30 seconds and be ready to go. So I see the value in routine so that you can get on quickly and easily with what you want to do. I disagree with their routines, but I think it’s a brilliant idea to have Year 7 in for a week getting used to the culture and expectations of your school. So what if everyone else gets a longer holiday?

Putting aside the derisory dismissal of local primaries, who it would seem produce pupils “who cannot read a word” or “do single digit addition sums” – a claim that local SATs results would dispute – it’s a good idea to bring children together in Year 7 to orientate themselves around school, get to know their teachers and practice the routines they’ll be expected to adhere to. I’m not even averse to the idea of practising getting books out quickly and expediently. But tracking? Really? I’m yet to find any evidence that keeping your eyes on a speaker at all times helps learning. I can find research to suggest that doodling helps attention and listening. I can’t find any for tracking. So why, if you claim to have a single minded focus on the impact of learning, insist on unproven techniques? It makes no sense. Unless that aim is not learning, but compliance. Doing things just because someone tells you to do it, even though is makes no sense. That’s where I think we shift into dangerous territory as anyone working in safeguarding will tell you.

What is lovely is the attention paid to explicitly telling the children about the ways they learn. While I think that Michaela are selective in this respect, it is important that we share our knowledge of pedagogy, psychology and neuroscience with children. They need to know. The children get a sense that they can grow as they are introduced to the idea of a growth mindset – that they can achieve. I don’t think anyone could argue with the value of this and I don’t know why more people don’t share this knowledge with children right at the start. I also think it’s lovely hat the week ends with a shared, performative outcome – the recital of two poems. It’s a great way to bond as a group and to speak out the values of the community that you are now a part of. I don’t, personally think children should be taught to chant their gratitude to the teachers – a bit worshippy that for me. But the communal sharing of a learned outcome is something to be celebrated.

Authority in Action by Lucy Newman extends the Porter chapter and explores the idea of adult authority and the strong belief that at Michaela all children should follow the instructions of an adult first time without question. This is fine if the instruction is “sit down” (though what if your chair is wet or broken – do you do it anyway?). What if the instruction is “don’t tell anyone about this?” Of course, the teachers at Michaela wouldn’t abuse their authority. But we know of many adults in positions of authority who have. How are children learning that sometimes you say no to an adult?

Lucy cites research that children are unhappier in schools in England than in almost any other (European) country. Yet most European countries are far more child centred than us. It seems odd that she uses this as a basis upon which to argue for more adult authority, especially when you delve into the reasons given by children for their unhappiness.

At this point I’m questioning the intended meaning of authority. It seems to me that what she is arguing for is the need for a safe and orderly environment for children to be in. That’s not about authority, it’s about structure, protection, communal respect and routines. She speaks of purpose, kindness and explanation. I like the referee analogy where she says to children “I may make mistakes but my decision at the end of the day stands.” It’s a strong message – I am human, I am fallible, but I am charged with decision making and this is how it is. It’s a far cry from “you’ll do this because I say so” which is how much authoritarianism is depicted. Lucy is offering a more nuanced view. It’s a view, that in my experience, is inherently present in the best schools I see. It’s not a Michaela patent.

You’d think that two chapters on discipline would be enough, but there’s a third Why Don’t We Respect Teachers by Hin-Tai_Ting. It focuses on why children in China respect their teachers while children in the UK do not. By respect, he really means comply. My kids respect me. But they also challenge me – the two are not mutually exclusive. I respect Joe Kirby – I’m not afraid to challenge him and vice versa.

Hin-Tai describes the behaviour of Chinese children as rosy. I must admit, I found it quite difficult. Questions other than those simply requiring factual recall were often met with blank expressions, silence and sometimes disturbance. Some of the Chinese teachers I talked to expressed concern about the lack of creative and developed thinking they sometimes encountered. I didn’t feel I was met with respect. I felt I was met with indifference and sometimes anxiety around the fear of making a mistake. But maybe that’s just me.

What Hin-Tai then goes on to explore is not about respect at all, it’s about clarity of language. “Can you please…” rather than “Do this.” For some basic, organisational tasks, as simple instruction is enough. We don’t need to plead with people to open their books any more than we need to say “please can I step on your bus” to the driver. If we want a child to do us a favour, then please is perfectly polite. “Would you please take (this) here for me so that I can do (that)?” is reasonable. We don’t need to argue about respect and authority. We need to focus in on what language works – when and why, and how we use our bodies and voices to make children believe that they are in an environment in which they can learn, be safe and be valued for their contributions. I fear that all three chapters here on behaviour have ignored the possibility that you don’t need “no excuses” to have good systems in place.

Nevertheless, the idea of respect for teachers is an interesting one. He finishes his chapter with a consideration of society’s broader lack of respect for teachers and here’s an interesting tension for us. While I agree that having a culture that respects the work that teachers do is good, I don’t see how that respect is enhanced by a school that consistently criticises other teachers and the way they do things. That’s not remotely respectful. I wonder if some of the ideas Michaela shares would be much better received if they were not framed in the criticism of other schools and colleagues.

And so ends Part 1. Part 2 is here.

Entirely Without Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Like a Scientist?

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

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

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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.