Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – Part 2.

I begin the second leg of this long book (the first leg is here) with the chapter on Kindness by Brett Williams-Yale who describes the joy in the eyes of the children at Michaela with a kind of progressive abandon. The children, he says are happy, helpful, considerate of each other. They feel safe.  It sounds lovely. In fact it sounds a lot like many of the primary schools I visit. There is a culture of mutual kindness and respect and no-one in their right mind would argue with that. What Michaela does in addition, however, is elicit explicit statements of gratitude as part of the school routine. Children are regularly asked to write postcards of appreciation to their teachers. Some are lovely. Some sound slightly more forced. While I think it’s wonderful when children show appreciation, when gratitude is forced, it becomes platitude and I wonder the extent to which these children, as they grow, will begin to feel that they are going through the motions of pleasing their teachers rather than genuinely feeling appreciation.

What is becoming clear, however is the advantage of having a small school setting. As I understand it, there are currently around 340 children on roll. That’s the size of a medium primary school – in fact the local primary school has almost 900 on roll. How unusual it is for a child to transition to a secondary that is significantly smaller than their primary – to be in a school where it is possible that everyone will know their name. Such an environment can only be good for children – it makes them feel safe and secure. I suspect that much of the contentment of these children rests in the size of the school. This is something that is made even more evident in the description of Family Lunch. I was sceptical of this when I first read of it on twitter. “Blimey,” I thought “they even get told what to talk about at lunch time!” But reading Michael Taylor’s description, it sounds delightful. Children serve each other. Everything is calm and orderly. They sit in new groups each day so that they all know each other and don’t fall into cliques. This is one of the reasons I used to mess up my seating plans so often – so that children would know everyone in their class well enough to feel secure. But to do this on a whole school level is great. The topics chosen stretch children’s knowledge – it sounds like a lovely way to spend lunch and in this size of school, perfectly manageable. But there is no mention in this chapter of the children whose parents haven’t paid, who are forced to eat in isolation.

So far, despite a few misgivings, I’m feeling pretty upbeat. Then I hit the chapter Labels Damage Children by Katie Ashford who is Director of Inclusion at Michaela. “We must,” she says, “stop to ask whether it is reasonable that a fifth of the children in this country are afflicted with an issue so profound that it prevents them from learning as easily as their peers.” Reasonable? Reasonable to whom? It’s such an odd choice of word. I try it out in my imagination. “But, Mrs X, I think it is unreasonable that your child has a statement of Special Educational Need.” It’s also mathematically odd. Of course there are going to be children who learn less easily than their peers. Is it the statistic or the labelling of conditions that is “unreasonable”?

While she concedes that some children may have a genuine need, she suggests that other statemented children are “less motivated than they ought to be” and that in our desperation to excuse them, we reach for labels such as dyslexia and ADHD.  I’m not sure that this teacher understands the complexity of the process of getting a child diagnosed. I’d like to know if, as the designated SENCO for the school, she has completed the national statutory training required of all schools. I’d like some clarity on how the school provides for children who fall outside of the category described in section 6:23 of the Code of Practice – i.e those with low prior attainment who seem to be the only ones mentioned in this chapter, or indeed the whole book. And while I think there are valid questions that ought to be considered about the accuracy of some diagnoses, there is an assumption made throughout this chapter that a misdiagnosis is the norm not the exception.

She assumes that a diagnosis will “hang like a millstone around a child’s neck for the rest of their lives.” She seems to miss the point that the diagnosis exists in order to ensure the child gets a chance to succeed. Let’s take one student I knew who was told in primary school that she was “behind”. She was as bright as a button, but read slowly – she had wonderful vocabulary and loved books, but she explained that the letters leapt up from the page in a jumble. She found it difficult to order information sequentially, yet had fantastic understanding. She was diagnosed with dyslexia in Year 9. She went on to Cambridge and has recently completed a PhD. Her diagnosis gave her the help she needed. It gave her the realisation that she wasn’t just a bad reader, but had a condition that she could learn to manage. It gave her extra time in exams. It gave her the chance of equity. That label was not a millstone, it was a form of liberation and there are thousands like her. To read such dismissive comments about SEND from a Director of Inclusion – well, it challenged my commitment to be fair and balanced. But I’ll try…

The misconceptions that abound in this chapter make two assumptions – that having an SEN label equates to academic weakness. It doesn’t take into account conditions such as cerebral palsy for example – I’ve taught some highly academic students with this condition. Their needs were physical not cognitive and it was my duty to make sure that they were able to achieve their potential. Not all statemented children are “weak” as Ms. Ashford describes them. The second assumption is that where a statement is in place, it gives teachers an excuse to give up on a child. It does not. The SEND guidance is clear – we all have a duty to adapt our practice to ensure that all of these children can achieve. It seems to be Michaela’s view that it is the duty of the child to adapt their condition to meet the routines of the school :-

Quite simply, the weakest pupils need more rigour, more focus and more practice.

Again the conflation of SEN with weakness. Not only that, they are characterised as being disruptive :-

“When the disengaged reign supreme in the classroom, chaos ensues.”

There is a huge assumption that special educational needs are automatically associated with weakness and chaos. I’ve taught so many who are compliant, hard working and quiet. Where does this view come from and why would it be considered acceptable from someone in charge of inclusion? I’m stumped to find an objective, balanced response. I dig…

The tone of the chapter is evangelical. We insist. We make it our mission. No transgression is allowed:-

“The occasional daydream drift-away moment may seem innocuous, but these seconds gradually amount to minutes and hours of learning time lost…”

It sounds perfectly reasonable, but talk to anyone who has ADHD and they’ll tell you the difficulty they have in maintaining attention. It is a battle. We know from research that these children can find it easier to focus if they can stand or fidget with something, but neither are allowed at Michaela. Are there no children with ADHD at Michaela? I wonder. I wonder what happens when a prospective parent who has battled for years to get a diagnosis of ASD or Dyslexia or ADHD for their child sits and listens to this kind of talk at an open evening. I expect they walk away thinking “my child couldn’t cope here – we’ll have to go elsewhere.” I wonder how many SEND children are excluded in this way before they even get an application form for secondary school. I wonder if the only children who go through the door are those who think the routine will help them? I wonder. Where do the others go?

What Michaela does seem to do well is put in intervention for those children who are presenting with general language and reading difficulties. They have a rigorous reading programme which is shown to have helped many of their “weaker” pupils to learn to read. It would be wrong to put the blame on the shoulders of primary schools, however as has been the tendency in the past. For example, we know that 7 in 10 children will suffer an episode of glue ear before they are 10 years old. Many of them will have a prolonged episode that remains undiagnosed. Glue ear usually clears up without the need for medical intervention – in fact, many parents and children may not be aware that they had hearing difficulties at a critical time of their reading development. It’s perfectly possible that children presenting with reading difficulty aged 11 do need exactly the kind of reading intervention programme that Michaela provides without the need for any kind of label at all. That’s not to say that “dyslexia does not exist” but that, as Elliott et al pointed out in their research, that it may be misdiagnosed. In such ways it may seem to Katie Ashcroft that she is disproving the condition. She is not. She is meeting the needs of a different condition. All power to her for doing that. There, I found some balance.

It doesn’t, however, excuse her assumption that other settings “reduce the bar to their level” when in fact many achieve incredible things with very disadvantaged children. Staff from Michaela would do well to visit special schools run by heads like Jarlath O’Brien, Dave Whitaker or Simon Knight to see what lifting children up looks like. While I don’t doubt that Michaela has had some success with struggling children whose parents could see that this might be the right environment for their child, they would do well to see what others do with the children who wouldn’t or couldn’t go there.

Competition is Crucial by Dani Quinn is next. My heart sinks as she cheerfully tells us about the importance of competition to South East Asian students without once mentioning their high suicide rates. In Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, governments have recently started initiatives to tackle the ill effects of the fiercely competitive education systems she admires. They are worried about the impact on the mental health of their young people.

She goes on to outline the importance of competition and how she perceives it to have been eroded by progressive education and western fads such as worrying about self esteem. Instead, Michaela publicly rank children in Maths and other subjects. They share children’s test results with the whole class and performance is discussed with the whole class with successes merited and failures de-merited for their weakness. Somehow this all fits in with the school motto “work hard, be kind.” I’m going to need to see this in action, because it doesn’t sound very kind. Such conversations are scripted for us:-

I’m really disappointed with Corey’s result this week. We all know that Corey is able to do well and in lessons this week I had no worries about him as his answers were of good quality and he got through the practice well. Maybe it made you complacent? Did you practice over the weekend, before the quiz? (embarrassed look) That explains it!…I wouldn’t say this if I thought you couldn’t do well at Maths. I’m saying it because I believe you can do better and you need to know the truth.”

What if Corey was ill?

What if Corey’s grandparent died?

What if Corey’s mother had taken an overdose this weekend?

I have no doubt that these words would be delivered as kindly and gently as possible. But at what point was Corey given a chance to explain? Why would his embarrassed look be enough to assume you know what he’s thinking? I’m bewildered by “you need to know the truth” when the teacher seems to have made no effort to discover the truth. No excuses, I know. Maybe Corey didn’t practice hard enough. But what if? And why does this need to be done publicly with the child being discussed in the third person at the start?

This approach is justified by stating that there is a social benefit to publicly sharing these kinds of comparisons – that “children (can) see how actions and choices lead to consequences.” Yet it seems to fly in the face of all the research we have from Dweck about the impact of grades and ranking on the mindsets of children. In fact I can’t see any evidence at all supporting the position. Not one iota. Dani goes on to further justify the approach that life is tough so children need to get used to it. But that rings hollow to me – many of these children, watching their parents struggle to make ends meet, already know that life is tough. Do they need further reminders? I wonder if Corey feels any resentment as he writes his gratitude postcard to his teacher at the end of the week.

There is an attempt to show how feedback can be given kindly and proactively so that children don’t become dispirited if they seem to plateau or to be given a boost if they are complacent but excelling. And they are good examples. I still don’t see why they have to be publicly narrated to the whole class.

The Devil is in the Detail by Sarah Cullen offers a more positive view of life at Michaela and the impact that “rowing together” with a shared sense of purpose has in the school. Again, I am reminded how much easier this is in a small school – I see it much more frequently in primary schools with shared values where staff spend a lot of time together than in large secondaries with over 100 staff spread in workrooms across a school. That doesn’t mean that larger secondaries can’t learn something, however, from the idea of a shared purpose and consistency in its application. It is, I think, important to “sweat the small stuff” and too often we let things go under the weight of workload. It’s right to be reminded that small details matter. But some of these details seem odd. It turns out that Michaela children are taught that it is important to know which side of a chair to walk around when they stand up. I had no idea there was a right side of a chair. I’m overloaded with anxiety now that I’ve been on the wrong side of the chair all my life and that this is perhaps why I’m not now Prime Minister.

No Nonsense; No Burnout by Jess Lund returns to the issue of teacher workload. It’s one of the areas I hear people say they are most interested in learning about. How do they keep their workload down? We’ve already heard from Jo Facer on the matter of marking. Jess turns her attention to tackling burnout. No-one will argue with the case made to get rid of performance related pay or high stakes observations. But the chapter focuses more on planning and pedagogy as a means to cutting down on workload. The enemies of workload are set out as “games, technology, displays and lesson plans, none of which we do at Michaela.”

Jess takes on the idea that activities designed to engage children are poor proxies for learning. There is a semantic issue here. A brain needs to be engaged to learn just as gears need to be engaged in order for a car to move forward. Too often engagement is confused with entertainment, and I have some sympathy here. An activity that is fun and passes time is just busy work unless there’s a clearly thought through learning purpose that is made explicit to the children. To me, of course, Times Table Rock Stars is an engaging game. To the teachers at Michaela, it’s drill. Semantics. What she argues quite well is that the focus should not be on activity, it should be on learning. Engaging with the beauty of the language they are learning should be the aim. I agree. Engaging with content – being excited and motivated by it matters. We may disagree on the how, but the purpose we have in common.

She reminds us that at Michaela, there are no iPads, tablets or computer room lessons. I have some sympathy with her assertion that teachers lack the knowledge to effectively use ICT to aid learning. But it’s odd for a school that places so much emphasis on teacher subject knowledge to have a laissez faire approach to, well, teacher subject knowledge in this respect. Still, I can see that you can teach a corking lesson without technology. Equally, however, many teachers use technology in wonderful ways that greatly enhance learning. Personally I think it’s horses for courses. There is a further contradiction from a school that has so vehemently criticised Ofsted for telling people how to teach, to then dictate how teachers should teach. Similarly I’m confused by the tension between arguing that children need to experience intense competition to prepare them for the ‘real world’ while ignoring the role that technology plays in the real world of work. I’m increasingly hit by the paradoxical positions in so many of these chapters.

She is quickly dismissive of displays. If the learning is in the children’s heads, why does it need to be on the walls? Good point. But what if the displays are about valuing and sharing the children’s work and achievements? I’m reminded of the beautiful displays in School21 showing crafted pieces of excellence alongside the drafts that remind everyone of the process of creating something worth displaying. I don’t believe that’s a waste of anyone’s time. I do, however, find myself nodding in agreement at the time wasted in writing detailed lesson plans and triple marking. There we stand united. Then there’s the no parents’ evenings, no lesson objectives being written up, no long reports home to parents – all things we find time consuming in school. How lovely it would be? But how do they communicate with parents? We find out later…

Barry Smith writes two chapters. In the first, Education, Education, Education, he writes about all the things that have driven so many of us mad – WALTS and WILFS and empty busy work. He speaks of how he found salvation in Direct Instruction, though the people I speak to about his teaching talk about his passion, his powerful and engaging delivery, his strong relationships with children, his love of language – so infectious you feel you have to speak it. I think he underestimates these things in what he calls his rant. But he makes one of the most important points in the book – the need for a teacher to be their authentic self and not to perform to an expectation of who they should be. It’s something that drove many brilliant but maverick teachers out of the profession at the height of the Ofsted lesson observation frenzy. I saw it myself and hated it. And it’s good that he feels he has found his home. It’s also, of course, important to note, that other authentic models of teaching might also be effective.

His second chapter, Top of the Pyramid, stopped me in my tracks. It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever read. Here’s a section from the start:-

Kids and parents are told that every Michaela pupil must be in bed and asleep by 9pm. They’re told that they should be up at 6am. They’re told that they need a fresh, clean white shirt every day, clean pants, clean socks, they’ve got to wash their ‘bits and pits’ and brush their teeth. A healthy breakfast too, before they leave the house.”

I’m reminded of Chris Kilkenny’s story. He had one set of uniform. He lived in and out of rehab with his Mum. When they were in their flat there was no hot water. No washing powder. No washing machine. On Sunday nights, he’d scrub his graying shirt in cold water in a vain attempt to clean it. It would be cold and damp in the morning. He envied children with clean uniforms, with a change of clothes, with hot water. Chris wouldn’t have made it to Michaela. Many children won’t make it to Michaela.

In their detailed and probing longitudinal EPPE study, published in 2014, Taggart et al stress the importance of family support in securing successful outcomes for children. Rich or poor, they say, a supportive family background makes a critical difference to children’s success. In its contract, Michaela demands 100% support and 100% competence from parents. Only children whose parents are prepared to do this can go. In one sweep, the school selects the ones most likely to succeed. No exceptions are allowed.

Barry’s chapter continues. At 7.30am, each morning, he stands on a bench and delivers a sermon to the children, but really to the passers by who gather to watch.

We’re Top of the Pyramid. Top of the Pyramid people – there aren’t many of us. We’re special. We make the right choices. Even when it’s difficult…We’re not normal. You know what normal kids do? They shout in the street. They push and shove at the bus stop. They never say thank you to shop keepers. They never give up their seats for elderly people. They don’t know how to shake hands properly. They don’t make eye contact or smile when they speak.  I don’t want you to be just normal… ” 

Now on the one hand, all the values he speaks of are good things to have. No-one would say “Pah – what an oppressive school, getting children to help old ladies with their shopping bags.” But there’s something that I find really uncomfortable here and it’s the mantra that “We are better than everyone else. We are special. We are not normal. We are Michaela.” These children have to leave Michaela and enter ‘normal’ world. And they’ll see that actually, in normal world there is kindness everywhere. It is not a quality owned by one little school in London. Pride in your school is great. Having strong values is great. But to claim that you are the only ones to have them? That’s arrogance.

Barry tells us how, in front of passers by, he’ll raise his hand and the children fall silent. “Where else would you find that?” he challenges. Well, Mr Smith, in drama studios up and down the country for a start. And when I teach between 100 and 200 pupils at a time in various schools around the world, it is the norm that when I raise my hand, they fall silent. And I remember being drawn to Kingstone School in Barnsley, where I first met teachers like Hywel Roberts, Jane Hewitt and Dave Whitaker, during a visit when the fire alarm went off. In absolute silence, 1300 pupils streamed out of their classrooms and up to the upper playground. They stood in silence for almost ten minutes while the building was checked and then, after a whistle was blown, they filed back in silence.

“Wow.” I said to the head “I have never seen anything like it.”

“It’s what we expect” he said.

So there are other schools who can have this kind of mutual respect and order without the need for no excuses policies. But they don’t feel the need to “perform” this to passers by. They don’t need to shout it. I’m touched by the accounts given of people stopping Barry to tell him how impressed they are. But underneath it all there’s this little unease. Who is it for? It reminds me of parents whose high regard for their children depends on how their behaviour and choices reflect back on them. Conditional positive regard.

Most of the rest of the book takes the form of vignettes and short chapters dwelling on specific subjects. Jake Plastow-Chason takes on Rethinking Initial Teacher Training. Jake is scathing about his Teach First experience in a school in Manchester – an experience that led him to resign. His experience sounds horrific, yet it is odd that having been through a school based route with such devastating consequences, he focuses his ire on university based routes with, it would seem, no direct experience of them. He argues for the MTT model – Michaela Teacher Training model stating that “at Michaela we’re radically different because we believe there is -and ought to be – one particular, optimal pedagogy.” Again, I’m struck by the tension between “don’t tell us what to do” and “there is only one way to do it” a refrain I find throughout the book. You’re wrong, we’re right. There doesn’t seem to be room for nuance in the rhetoric, yet there is nuance, as I found in several chapters, in the application. Not so in this chapter. This is a road to Damascus transformation from what is termed as NTT (Normal Teacher Training) to MTT. Gone are experiments and experiences. In is didactic teaching. Gone is differentiation. In is teaching the same to all at the same pace. And so on. It strikes me, not for the first time, that most of the teachers at Michaela are scathing about ITT and yet most of them came through the Teach First route and are ambassadors for Teach First. It leaves me confused. 70% TF 30% unqualified teachers, all united in their contempt for teachers training routes that they never experienced.

Sarah Clear explores coming into Michaela as an unqualified teacher in her chapter “Teaching Without QTS”. She points out that 30% of Michaela’s staff are unqualified. She is able to be a good teacher, she says “because I have been spared the doctrine of progressive constructivist education that is so prevalent in teacher training in England…” From this vantage point of having heard about the state of ITT from people like Robert Peal (also Teach First), she launches an extraordinary attack on university based teacher training routes. I wonder if she understands the difference between progressivism and social constructivism and the alignment between the latter and some aspects of the kind of cognitive science that Michaela promotes. For example, the connection between Vygostky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the state of “thinking hard” that Willingham describes as necessary to learning. Or the opposition that Vygotsky put up to Piaget meaning they can’t be lumped together in one progressive lump. Or the importance that Vygotsky placed on the “expert other” – the teacher. I wonder if some teacher training might have helped make those distinctions clearer. Again, I’m struck by the irony of seeing people who so vehemently argue for knowledge in the battle against ignorance, to be so content in speaking of things about which they know so little.

Changing My Mind by Lia Martin charts her move into teaching from advertising and how she overcome her initial concerns about some of the Michaela structures to become a convert to their way of working. She charmingly describes how hard the teachers work to build pride in the school – a sense that the children are special so that they believe that they can achieve. She describes her discomfort in punishing little Ahmed for not handing in homework because he was visiting his mother in hospital, but how, having read Robert Peal, she sees that this is better for Ahmed in the long run. Lia’s kindness and good intentions run like a thread through the chapter. I vehemently disagree with her about Ahmed. These are not high expectations in my mind – they are well intended acts of cruelty. But I have to accept, that like many of the teachers in this book, she is acting with the very best of intentions. Her story is echoed in those of parent and teacher Chase Musarurwa, of teacher William Easement and of teaching fellow Fadila Bettahar who speak enthusiastically of their experiences as teachers at Michaela.  It it clear that they are very happy indeed.

Jo Facer’s chapter on CPD at Michaela is a refreshing shift towards a consideration of practical possibilities that other schools might learn from. Every teacher at Michaela gets to watch others teach. They plan together – time is set aside to discuss what will be covered and how. They have meetings to talk about their values and purpose. What a great way to collaborate. There are no lesson observations – instead people wander in and out of each other’s lessons and ping an email with a comment afterwards – instant, formative, actionable feedback. So much more effective, so much more supportive. There’s also a lovely attention paid to heightening language and ensuring that subject knowledge is shared so that standards are equally high across groups. No-one can argue with the importance of this. While I question the Michaela method for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is a great deal to be learned here about focusing CPD time on what will aid learning best.

In her chapter When Parents Push Back Katharine Birbalsingh answers some of the questions I’ve had pecking in my head throughout. She makes it clear that parents are told from the outset that the school demands “100% competency.” I’ve already explained how that ensures that the school selects the children with the best chance of success – those with supportive parents willing to back the school up. It’s great for them. But the others have to go somewhere else. Her account of Korey’s mother’s desperation to find a school that could control her son who she felt was going off the tracks, is compelling. We all know of parents at the end of their tether, fearing for a child who may be about to get involved with drugs or crime or gangs. For them, Michaela can offer a short, sharp solution and I don’t deny them the right to try it. I’d never deny the school the right to exist and to do things their way. I just wish they’d stop trying to deny others the same right. And much of what she says makes sense. Remember the middle class school I described in Part 1 – the one where behaviour was bad because the parents had scant regard for the teachers? Much of that arose from parents doing what Katharine describes as undermining the school. Support, she says “means never criticising the school in front of one’s child.” I can’t argue with that.

Even so, the demands are high. Clean shirts every day. Strict bed times. How many parents can adhere to that? I’m not sure I could. I’m pretty sure my child’s shirt had egg on it this morning as I arranged his tie to cover it up. And he’s often singing away to himself in Japanese at 10pm. Short of a sleeping pill, I don’t know what I can do to make sure he’s asleep at 9. I definitely couldn’t sign the agreement. There’s also an awful lot of guilt here. If homework is not completed, for example, the parent is called into school:-

I tell parents right from the start that they are not being a very good mother or father and that things will have to change.”

I wonder if little Ahmed’s mother is hauled in from her hospital bed.

All of this is justified by claiming it is the truth. But truth is slippery. Are you being a bad parent if you work three jobs, came home with a migraine and didn’t check your child’s homework? Are you being a bad parent if you don’t have the money to put in the meter to use the washing machine? Are you being a bad parent if just once in a while you forget to do something? Is it fair to be told by someone who has none of your financial or social worries that you are a bad parent? I really don’t think it is.

She goes on to list instances where parents have chosen to take their children elsewhere. – she is dismissive of their reasons. All the parents who chose to leave are painted as fools who are condemning their child to a hopeless future. The tone is wearing. It is simply not possible in her eyes, to consider that Michaela just might not be right for some families. For those who like it and stay, it clearly works. For others, it may not. That does not make them bad parents.

And we near the end of the book. Katie Ashford and Jo Facer reflect on the journey so far and the future of Michaela. There are lovely accounts of children thriving. There are positive quotes from children, parents and visitors. It is clear that they love the school and are proud of its achievements. And at the end of the day, this school will achieve great results. However, all this is said with caveats. I believe that the school strongly selects “the deserving poor” and tips the chances of success in their favour by ensuring that only children with strong parental support attend, and I would hope that any accountability structure took this form of selection in mind when comparing Michaela with the local schools who take the children who are neglected, whose parents don’t care. I worry that the school is neglecting its statutory duties for SEND children. I worry that the children are not learning about autonomy, they are not being given chances to create, to connect, to apply in the ways that would be demanded of them in higher study or the work place. But what I cannot deny is the passion, the commitment and the belief of the staff in their school their mission and their children. It has a place. Other schools and other approaches also have their place.








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.


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


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

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

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


“Is the truth a good thing?” another ponders

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

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

We turn the poem into theatre.


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

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

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

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

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.