First week in the bag

First week over in my new school, and I have survived relatively unscathed. I took the decision earlier this year not to get back into teacher training, at least not yet. My quest was to find a good school – not in Ofsted terms – and do some more TA work for a while until I figured what to do next.

After the stress of last year, it felt like a good idea to take my foot off the accelerator and just to enjoy being in school again and working with children. Also, it was important for me to get some experience working in a well-run school – I’ve been in too many dysfunctional schools and this has meant that I have unfortunately not been exposed to best practice. I could write tomes about all the wrong things that are being done in schools, but not so much about the good things. So, before disillusionment drove me away from a career in education once and for all, it was imperative that I finally got to have a positive experience. I did a stint of supply work, as well as put my nose to the ground to sniff out a good one. It’s early days yet, but I think I’ve found just the school to lick my wounds in and rise back from the ashes.

As part of this process, I also decided to de-activate my Twitter account. There was too much noise on my edu-twitter feed. At first it had excited me but latterly it had become fatiguing. I have been tempted back on once or twice, but only for a short time before realising just how right my decision to ‘switch off’ has been. That’s not to say I haven’t conversed with some interesting people, and I do try to check various blogs now and again. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m eschewing edu-conference season too. At the moment, it feels right to just do my own thing and reflect on my practice without outside interference.

Already in just one week, this feels different to all the schools I’ve worked in before. For one thing, all the staff I’ve met have been friendly and supportive. People have been kind to me, and helped to put me at ease. This does not feel like an establishment where staff stab each other in the back, and although everyone is working hard, there isn’t that horrible tense atmosphere which is usually the product of over-the-top accountability cultures. I left my last school because I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells, with everyone fearful of the senior leadership team. I would get rapped on the knuckles (metaphorically speaking) for the slightest infraction, but never got praise for any of my hard work. My new school, on the other hand, seems to have that ethos of “high challenge, low threat” advocated by Mary Myatt.

It’s still early days and I’m sure I will have much more to reflect on in the weeks and months ahead. All week I have been trying to put my finger on what makes this school different. There isn’t anything overtly noticeable about it. On the surface, it looks like most any other primary school in the metropolis. So far, I’ve come up with the following:

  •  The head teacher has a very clear vision for her school. She is not afraid to stand her ground and push back, whether it’s with parents, governors or the local authority if it’s in the best interests of her school.
  • High calibre staff are recruited – there is no dead wood here. Everyone is on message and consistency is key.
  • Staff are valued and nurtured. Already, I have been signed up to attend two training courses. Professional development is taken seriously.
  • There is attention to detail so that the whole school runs like a well oiled machine. My induction was the most meticulous I have ever experienced.
  • Children in the school are well behaved. Right from day one, behaviour expectations are made clear and re-inforced. Children walk silently down corridors because the head insists on it.
  • So much thought has been put into how the limited space in the school is used. Despite these limits, the school doesn’t feel cramped at all, but airy, clean and tidy.

Overwhelmingly though, the biggest factor in why this is a good school is the calibre of the head teacher. I think this is the case in most other successful schools – take Michaela for example. What a difference it makes when there is someone who really knows what they are doing and have the strength of personality to see it through. It’s the equivalent of leadership X-factor. Some people have it, others don’t.

Back to School

It’s that time of the year again. The long holidays are winding to an end and preparations beginning in earnest for the new school year ahead. I logged in to Twitter today and found loads of posts, mainly from NQTs, stressing about whether they had set up their classroom well enough or prepared adequate resources.

Even experienced teachers are feeling nervous, and having strange school-related dreams. It’s like a new theatre production about to have its first night. The actors have practised their lines, the costumes and sets have been finalised, and everybody is holding their breath to see how it will go.

There’s a lot of that performance anxiety in teaching. It’s probably always been this way, though I wouldn’t know for sure. Some people relish the tension and anticipation. Some are less able to cope with it. I’m glad I’m not an NQT this year, as I was supposed to be. In fact, more and more, I’m glad not to be a teacher.

I will be going back to school this September, but as a TA in a new primary school (new to me at least). It seems like a pleasant, well-run ship, with well behaved pupils. I’m looking forward to meeting the children and getting stuck in. I’m glad though, that I don’t have to worry about setting up my classroom, doing data drops or any of the accountability measures that teachers face. I will clock in, do my bit, earn some money, then go home, well in time to pick up my boy from his school without him having to go to after-school care. He won’t have to go to before-school care either. What a blessing!

Of course there are some downsides. I will be earning less than I was last year and less than I could be earning as an NQT. That’s a slightly bitter pill to swallow but in all honesty, I’m lucky enough not to need the extra cash. For a few  hundred pounds a month more, I would have to do exponentially more work, a lot of it of the unpleasant admin/accountability variety, as well as work far longer hours. Also, being able to have my evenings and weekends to myself allows me to develop other side projects, most notably the writing of my history booklets – to be found on LearningForMemory.com.

Another downside is that I will have less responsibility and be given more menial work at times. I will be at the bottom of the school hierarchy. And yet… I will still be teaching. Everytime I sit with a child and read with them, or help them with their writing or their numbers, I will be teaching. There is still much scope for job satisfaction and usefulness. It’s not what I had hoped my teaching career would be, but in the present climate, this is the best compromise I can come up with. It turns out that when it comes to work/life balance, quality of family life trumps everything – in my case at least. I suspect I would have been more willing to do the long hours at work if I had felt they were being well spent. Inputting data into spreadsheets, attending pointless CPD and endless meetings – these felt like a waste of my time when I could have been picking my son up from school and asking him about his day. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was behaviour. Having to deal with surly, rude and disrespectful teenagers on a daily basis was not the recipe for a happy working life.

So this is my conundrum. I love teaching. I love lesson planning. I love working with kids. I’m good at explaining things. But I could not be a teacher today, in the current schools climate. I think that’s a pity, not just for me but for the teaching profession as a whole, which can’t really afford to lose talent like mine. Perhaps the profession needs to take a long hard look at itself. Perhaps senior leadership teams should start to question the sacred cows that have been the orthodoxy for so long. Just because something has been done a particular way for ages doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do.

I recently started looking into potential new schools for my son, as we are hoping to relocate in a year or two, move away from the rat run of London for somewhere more laid back and picturesque. In the process, I signed up with the Good Schools Guide, and started reading up their reviews of some schools. I was struck by the number of times teachers in these reviews were described as willing to ‘go the extra mile’. And struck by this quote from a headteacher, who:

Has high expectations of his staff and spells out the commitment at interview; ‘I pin them down, no woolly promises to help will do. This job is a vocation.’ He is scornful of phrases such as ‘work-life balance’, believing that, in term time, successful teachers must be prepared to involve themselves far beyond the classroom itself, including meetings at odd times; ‘Ten o’clock in the evening is not unheard of.’

I wonder what kind of teacher turnover this head has at his school. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after earning their spurs for a few years, many of his teachers decided to look for greener pastures. He is, unfortunately, not alone in having this kind of attitude towards teaching. I remember on my first teacher training seminar being told that teaching was not a profession where you could just clock in and out, and that we needed to be prepared to work long hours, sometimes until 10 pm on some, if not all nights.

By no means do I denigrate the idea that teaching is a vocation for some people and that many such people thrive on totally immersing themselves in school life. These people are often the ones most likely to progress on to headships – because they are willing to go the extra mile. However, I don’t think we can build a school system on the proclivities of a minority of people. Most of us want to have a life outside of school, and to be able to leave school concerns behind us when we walk out of the school gates at the end of the day. For many people, it is a job, not a vocation.

Keep it simple

Another blog I wrote way back in November last year but never published. Just clearing the backlog, this is the last one! This discusses why I prefer to explain concepts explicitly rather than let students flounder by trying to work it out for themselves.

I have been mulling lately over the idea, so prevalent in teaching today, that it is better to let children work something out for themselves than to directly explain it to them. I know many people take umbrage at Michaela school’s slogan of ‘just tell-em’ as authoritarian and retrograde. I don’t think that is the case, and I will explain why, through a look at my own lesson planning experience.

First of all, is it really the case that children will understand something less if it is told to them rather than if they discover it for themselves? Let me give a few examples here which I think refute this idea. How many instances are there in schools where direct instructions are given to children outside of the teaching curriculum? Let’s see. We might instruct children in the classroom rules of conduct. We might instruct them on what to do if someone is bullying them. We might instruct them to follow a one-way system around the school or to enter the refectory in a particular way or at a particular time. All these instructions are likely to be verbal, whether made by a school leader at assembly, or a form tutor or teacher in the classroom. They might employ visual aids, such as PowerPoint slides or paper handouts, to reinforce the message. There is no expectation, however, that the children need to actually work these things out for themselves, or experience them kinaesthetically in order to understand the instructions. Language is a powerful communicator.

If we expect children to understand us when we talk to them, why then does this understanding stop when we use the same form of communication to explain a new concept to be learned? From primary school onwards, children are used to having stories read out to them. Through the power of the spoken word, as well as the intonation and expression of the teacher, children are introduced to new ideas and allowed to visualise the story in their minds.

If you have young children, then you know that they are always full of questions. If your child were to ask you a question such as ‘What happens to grown-ups if they do something bad?’ my guess is you would answer them directly with an explanation such as ‘It depends what bad thing the grown-up does, but if for example this person has stolen something from a shop or attacked somebody, the police would come after them and arrest them.’ You might go on to explain the matter further, talking about the legal system and jails. What you would probably not do, is bounce their question back at them and ask them to work it out for themselves, maybe by giving them a few hints, and only once they’ve struggled for some time on their own, would you supply them with the answer. The reason why you would most probably answer them directly the first time around, is that it is more time efficient. We are all busy people, and children ask a lot of questions. It is simply more efficient to give a clear and explicit answer, than to play obstacle course and encourage the children to find out for themselves.

In my lesson planning, I have met with this same dilemma. Learning time is limited and I want to make best use of it in the lesson. I also know, however, that there is an expectation that I should not just tell, but ask lots of questions to guide the students to the right conclusion themselves. Say for instance, the lesson is about the use of propaganda posters in the Second World War. The first thing you would do in such a lesson, is ensure that students understand the meaning of the word ‘propaganda’. The ‘just tell-em’ way would be to give the students a definition of the word right at the start, get them to write it down, and explain it with a few examples. You might then maybe display three posters on the board, and ask which one of them is not a work of propaganda, to check for understanding. At most, this process would take about five minutes of lesson time.

Many in education would frown at such a didactic approach. The alternative is to plant lots of clues and ask searching questions that will eventually get the student to the desired destination (we hope). This could be by putting up some propaganda posters on the board and asking students to work out what all these posters might have in common. Eventually, after much prompting, you might get to ‘they are trying to make people think or act in a certain way’ and eventually that ‘they are trying to influence people’. You might then introduce the word propaganda to them as what they have just described, and then task them with writing, in their own words, a definition of ‘propaganda’. You would then do an AFL task, perhaps putting up a false definition on the board and then using RAG cards to see if they agree with it or not. You might question certain students on the RAG card they have chosen, and ask them to elaborate. Finally, you might then display the correct definition of the word and get the students to write it down. Length of this activity? At least 15 minutes.

It does not make sense to me, to spend a triple amount of time to teach something to students, when the direct, explicit method can achieve the same in a fraction of that time. Sometimes, the simplest way is the best. This is just one of many examples where I think teaching is made needlessly overcomplicated. Tom Sherrington says it so well in his excellent blog: ‘Just Teach!’

Liberation

I wrote this last November but didn’t feel able to publish it. Here it is now, unedited, my words exactly from nine months ago.

I have been on a roller coaster journey this year, and I have fallen down to earth with a bump. Without going into too many details, I have resigned from my school and it feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders. My heart is singing with liberation. I should be feeling crushed but instead I’m empowered.

Firstly, I’ve not reached the end of my teaching career. Not in the least. On my last day at school, I taught three good lessons on my terms. No VAK, no starter, no cloying AFL trying to evidence the learning (which is next to impossible to evidence anyway). We had a quick retrieval practice quiz, then went on to a short booklet on Harold Hardraada that I had written. We read it aloud together, I explained, and then I set some questions. Simple and yet so effective. I taught well that day. I came away knowing what the last few months had started to make me doubt. I am a good teacher.

Later that day, I happened to encounter one of my students in the ICT room, sitting at a computer doing homework. He greeted me with a happy smile when he saw me, then turned to his friend sitting next to him and said, with a note of pride in his voice: ‘That’s my history teacher!’ That gave me a warm glow. I will miss those kids. My one regret in this whole story is that I won’t get to see them anymore.

So this is not the end of my teaching career. But it is the end of my teaching in an environment that does not share my values. I am in no rush to find another teaching job or to apply for further teacher training. Call me philosophical or mystical, but I just know that if I am meant to teach, then it will happen.

In the meantime, I have plenty to keep me busy. The first order of the day is to spend quality time with my son and be the kind of mum I want to be. It has tugged at my heart strings lately, having him in school from 8am to after 5pm some days. I’m going to enjoy being there for him at the end of his school day. Those years are precious, and they don’t last forever. In another two years or so, he will be able to make his own way to school and back.

I’m also going to take better care of my health. I have not stepped on the bathroom scales yet for fear of what they will tell me. The mirror and my clothes know that I have been piling on the pounds, stress eating. That will change.

I’m going to have more time to read the many books piled on my book shelf. The one thing I have discovered (or rather re-discovered) in my short time as a teacher, is just how much I still don’t know. I will remedy that. Schools should be places of knowledge, filled with teachers who know their subject inside out (not just the exam spec). Don’t get me wrong, I know an awful lot. Just not enough to confidently call myself an expert.

I will embark on what I have been longing to do but not had the time to. I’m going to write the first of a series of KS3 history textbooks and digital resources. There are many out there already, of course, but none that pleases me 100%. I have many ideas and a vision for what I want to achieve. There’s work to be done.

Lastly, I will campaign more vocally than ever for the kind of education I believe in. I’m not sure what form that will take, though undoubtedly this blog will have centre stage. I will continue to write and confront the beliefs and practices that I think are disadvantaging our already disadvantaged children. I summarise these below:

  • Poor children find it harder to behave and we must therefore make accommodations for them (and lower our expectations).
  • It is more important to show progress and value added than to actually achieve a high standard of education, especially when it comes to socially disadvantaged children.
  • Strict behaviour policies are authoritarian and damaging to children.
  • Strict behaviour policies have a negative impact on children with SEND.
  • A knowledge curriculum entrenches the power of the (white) elites.
  • Children will not learn something unless they discover it for themselves and it is made relevant and engaging to them.
  • Schools suck the natural and innate creativity out of children (you don’t need me to tell you who keeps harping on about that).
  • A lesson must contain multiple activities (usually in the form of a starter, main and plenary) in which children are seen to be doing ‘tasks’. These activities then need to be followed by an AFL (Assessment for Learning) task to evidence the learning.
  • It is essential to display the learning objectives on the board at the beginning of each lesson.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy is integral to good lessons, which should focus on letting students progress from the less important lower order domain of knowledge and comprehension to the higher order skills of evaluation and creative thinking.
  • Knowledge doesn’t matter so much in modern times because we can just look things up on Google. It’s more important to teach transferrable skills, such as problem solving and creative thinking.
  • Children don’t have the capacity or imagination to understand concepts explained and modelled to them by the teacher, and therefore need kinaesthetic activities and role play to truly understand.
  • If a teacher is talking, a child is not learning.
  • Lower set children who are behind in their learning need to have easier work, less reading and more pictures and videos.
  • Schools need to prepare children for 21st century skills and jobs of the future that don’t yet exist.

You’d be surprised (or not) how many of the above beliefs are still prevalent in schools today. I believe every single one of them entrenches the disadvantage poor children start off with. And (unless I have a significant change of mind in future) I refuse to ever work in a school that subscribes to them. Who’s with me? (Sorry, I nicked that one off Quirky Teacher)

Do we really need the Chartered College of Teaching?

My edu-Twitter feed is currently a hive of posts about the forthcoming elections to the Chartered College of Teaching, which was set up to be a teacher-led organisation but now looks like it will be anything but teacher-led. The discussion has been spearheaded by Andrew Old’s recent blog (entitled “I was wrong about the Chartered College Of Teaching. It’s worse than I thought it would be”), as well as this blog from Greg Ashman and this thread from Michael Fordham.

From the looks of it, influential and already powerful people within the education establishment will have their voices amplified even more via this new organisation (which as I understand, has failed to recruit the expected numbers of teachers to its membership). Now, I have only worked in schools for the past three years, and been on educational Twitter approximately the same amount of time, but one thing I have noticed is the enormous amount of push-back and gatekeeping from an establishment keen on maintaining orthodoxy and silencing dissenting voices. Andrew Old summed it up nicely in this Twitter post:

I don’t particularly want to use this blog to add much to the discussion on the Chartered College of Teaching and how it’s run. My main focus in writing this is to investigate the question: do we really need it? I still struggle to get my head around why our cash-strapped government needs to spend millions of pounds on a new organisation for teachers. I’m told it is to develop the professionalism of teachers, by providing them with access to research and high quality CPD, as well as the all important certification of becoming a ‘Chartered Teacher’. This will, it is argued, provide a career path for teachers to rise within their profession.

Now, if you’ve been on this earth as long as I have, perhaps you too might be a little sceptical about certification as a way of guaranteeing quality. Just because someone holds an impressive looking certificate, and adds a few more letters after their name, doesn’t really mean that this person is any better at their job than someone without such accoutrements. Similarly, we all know that just because a school has been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted doesn’t really mean that the school is actually outstanding. These are often arbitrary judgements, made by people who are as prone to bias as anyone else. More often than not, such accolades are simply proof that said school or said professional has jumped through the requisite hoops, said and done the right kind of things to appear to be outstanding.

If the primary aim of the Chartered College of Teaching is to provide teachers with research and CPD, then here too I would question the need for this to be done via a well funded organisation. Opportunities for high quality CPD are plentiful without having to pay the rather steep price of membership. Just going on edu-Twitter, connecting with other teachers and reading blogs or articles they share, is a free and easy way to improve your practice. There are also many grassroot teacher conferences out there, such as ResearchEd, NorthernRocks, and BrewEd – to name just a few – providing teachers with a forum to share best practice. Some Multi-Academy Trusts also provide competitively priced CPD sessions in which they share good practice with other teachers and school leaders (I’m thinking here of Inspiration Trust, which has run some very interesting courses recently). So there’s plenty out there for the reflective teachers wanting to improve what they do.

I would argue that the best way to enhance the professionalism of teachers is to actually let them get on with their job and:

  • teach in classrooms where good behaviour is the default;
  • not bog them down with pointless paperwork;
  • trust teachers to do their job instead of micro-managing them;
  • provide them with opportunities to visit other schools and network with other professionals;
  • and, most critically, good leaders in their school, that set the right culture for the teachers to improve.

The amount of money that is spent in education on things that do not actually feed down to helping students improve is mind boggling. Organisations with large amounts of funding inevitably become bureaucratic beasts and vulnerable to takeover by the ‘established elites’. Do we really need this? I leave the last word to Mr. Blachford, who is a supporter of the CCT but concerned about the influence of non-teachers on the profession:

The Teacher Gap

I have just finished reading ‘The Teacher Gap‘ by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims, an important book in the educational lexicon which should, in my view, be essential reading for all stakeholders in schools – heads, middle leaders, teachers, governors and even interested parents. Not forgetting, of course, policy makers in government.

I read it with mixed feelings, because it spoke so eloquently about my recent experience, even though it wasn’t, of course, about me specifically. For anyone who doesn’t know my history, I enrolled on a school based ITT course (training as a history teacher) last September but bailed out a few months later for various reasons, many of which are explained very well in the book. I read this passage with a dawning understanding of my predicament:

Even worse, because it is the low performing and disadvantaged schools that suffer from staffing shortages, the schools with the strongest incentives to take on trainees are often not those that are best placed to support them. High performing schools with excellent working conditions generally have less need to recruit new teachers. As a result, those schools with the greatest strength and stability to deliver training experiences are often not the institutions who are incentivised to do so.

It goes a long way towards explaining the dearth of high quality history teacher training positions in my area. To remedy this situation, the authors recommend two things:

  • Create an institution that can collect accurate information on which schools have the capability to provide high quality training placements. [I’d be interested to see how this could be done without some schools ‘gaming the system’. Also, in this crowded institutional landscape, do we really need to add a new institution, rather than enhance the remit of an existing institution?]
  • Provide funding for reluctant schools to train novice teachers.

Another of the problems highlighted with teacher training in the book is that it is far too ‘front-loaded’, which can be overwhelming for new teachers. Novices are expected to learn everything there is to know about teaching in the first two years, after which no further formal training is required of them. This doesn’t give them time for deliberate practice and mastery of different aspects of teaching. Very often, new teachers are having to plan a whole career’s worth of lesson plans in the space of one year. It’s suggested that schools should support novice teachers by providing them with lesson plans prepared by experienced colleagues and ensure that mentors give non-judgemental support, and act as genuine role models rather than just going through the motions and doing the paperwork. Also, the training teachers should be allocated their own classroom, even if it means the head of department goes without (wouldn’t I have loved that!)

These are all things that can be done by schools without waiting for policy makers. However, policy too could be changed to tackle that front-loading aspect of teacher training. The authors advocate a system whereby it takes two years for a teacher to obtain a diploma, and then a further four years of practice before they obtain their full teaching qualification, all the while receiving support and coaching. In this way, novice teachers would have the space to master their craft in a supportive environment rather than being cast out to sink or swim.

These are all sensible, if expensive, proposals. However, in my view, they fail to take into account two things. Firstly, the elephant in the room that is behaviour. The book touches on this issue but doesn’t delve into it far enough. This is a shame, as I think poor behaviour in schools is one of the most critical issues in teacher recruitment and teacher retention. New teachers wanting to engage in deliberate practice of different aspects of teaching – which is what they need to do to become expert –  are often compelled to put all their focus on managing behaviour. If we want teachers to develop their teaching, then they need the space to teach without constantly having to fire-fight disruption in their classroom. I would suggest that an important part of the capability judgement on whether a school is suitable to train new teachers or not, is the quality of the behaviour systems in place. As a minimum, new teachers (and experienced ones too for that matter) should not be running their own detentions. School leadership should be visible and proactive in ensuring good behaviour is maintained.

The second thing is that it’s all well and good to advocate extensive coaching and mentoring over the course of several years, but this only works if the quality of the coaching is good to start with. I believe there is a deficit of expert people who can help develop good teachers. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but country-wide and system-wide that is not enough. Novice teachers to this day are being taught about learning styles on some ITT courses. There is also a structural bias towards teaching constructivist pedagogy (particularly in the university-based PGCEs), where didactic teaching from the front is frowned upon. How many ITT courses I wonder are introducing their trainees to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, or discussing the merits of explicit instruction versus inquiry learning? There was an interesting Twitter thread not long ago discussing things people had been taught on their PGCEs which they now realise were wrong. This prompted a prominent academic to censure them for slagging off their courses. In my experience, that type of push back, or gatekeeping, is fairly common and symptomatic of that constructivist or ‘progressive’ bias when it is challenged.

The Teacher Gap also discusses other factors which are contributing to the exodus of teachers from the profession. Workload, lack of autonomy and the audit culture in schools are laid bare for the chimera that they are – none of these measures (which have made teachers’ lives much less tolerable) have improved outcomes for students. The message is clear. Restore trust in teachers, and manage out the minority that can’t cope without being audited to extremes. The collateral damage of trying to micro-manage this minority of under-performing teachers is killing the profession. This book should be a massive eye opener for school leaders vested in their tracking systems, or book scrutinies or data drops. I wonder though how many of them are self reflective enough to digest this message?

 

 

 

 

The erosion of knowledge

I watched an interesting video clip yesterday, kindly shared on Twitter by Martin Robinson, of an interview with Roger Scruton. It’s long (about 52 minutes altogether), but well worth the time if you can spare it. I had of course heard of Roger Scruton – mainly through people tweeting soundbites of things he has said – but I had never heard him speak before. The interviewer in this clip (an academic from Berkeley University) commits the cardinal sin of talking more than the person he’s interviewing, but the result is that it feels more like a conversation than an interview.

Why am I writing a blog about it? I’m not entirely sure, but maybe it will become clear as I write. There’s a moment around 23 minutes into the interview, where Roger Scruton discusses the importance of teaching grammar at school and his experience, coming from a poor background, of going to grammar school. He compared the approach taken by his teachers then with what is happening in schools today:

“our teachers as their first instinct when they found you were handicapped by the language that you’d learned from your parents was to take you in hand, give you the advantage which your family had not, so that you could catch up with the others. I think that idea of teaching, that you’re actually lifting people up, so as to be able to receive their inheritance, that idea has gone to a great extent. It’s much more now that the teacher comes down to the level of the student.”

I was struck by the truth of this observation. Of course, this is not the case in all schools. There are some wonderful teachers and leaders in this country, determined to give their students, no matter how disadvantaged their background, the knowledge and skills to be able to accesss our shared cultural inheritance and to join that great conversation of mankind that has been going on through the ages. But they are a minority. Overall, my experience of working in a variety of schools the past three years, has been an inexorable dumbing down of content in order to make the curriculum more accessible and engaging to students.

In this context, I think the idea of a personalised curriculum, where what is taught is more dependent on who the student is and what level of attainment he or she has reached rather than on an ambitious curriculum for all, has been corrosive for our education system. I remember some years ago working as an LSA in a year 7 class, and the set text in English one term was “Terror Kid“, a novel by Benjamin Zephaniah. I can see that the book ticked a lot of boxes, written by someone from the same Afro-Carribbean community as the majority of the students and dealing with the subject of violence and terrorism, very on message with the whole ‘Prevent’ strategy. The fact that the book contains an implausible plot, stereotypical tropes and, worst of all, pedestrian prose, is conveniently overlooked. I can think of no clearer example of teaching being brought down to the level of the students, rather than aiming to lift them up, and I can almost guarantee that no independent school in this country teaches that book (I could be wrong, correct me if I am).

Now, I’m not particularly intellectual. I must admit to spending a large part of my youth reading Mills & Boon type novels (though I also devoured ‘War and Peace’ in less than a week). I still feel a little intimidated in conversations with people who obviously know much more than I do. For example, I’ve had several illuminating Twitter chats with The Grumpy Teacher, an anonymous history teacher, where I’ve felt a little out of my depth but gained fresh insights about the Feudal System, among other things. When I decided to get into teaching, I had great hopes that my staff room would be full of Grumpy Teachers, from whom I could absorb, osmosis style, knowledge and erudition. So it has been a particular disappointment that often – and I have no wish to blow my own trumpet here – I have found myself to be the most intellectual person in the room.

This, I feel, has been the single biggest crime perpetrated by the progressive, constructivist posse on education today. I wonder how many excellent and knowledgeable teachers have been driven out of the profession over the last few decades, because what they had to offer – knowledge – was no longer valued.

 

Adventures as a Supply Cover

I had an experience yesterday which made me want to write another blog. These last few weeks, I’ve been doing some supply work as a way of earning a bit of extra cash before I start my new job in September. I’ve worked as cover in both secondary and primary London schools, and while the experience has been valuable and informative, I’m glad it’s coming to an end.

There seems to be signicantly more demand for supply cover in certain kinds of schools, the ones with high rates of absenteeism because the working conditions are less than good. The ones with poor behaviour. My first supply job was actually rather pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of optimism. “This is easy money”, I thought at the end of that first day. Not so now. Some jobs were one off days, others were several days in a row, and others were regular repeats. So when I got the call yesterday morning to say, there’s a job at __ primary for a one-to-one with a SEN student, I knew exactly which one it was. Off I went, signed in with the receptionist who knew me well by now and went to see the SENCO. “You’ll be one-to-one with S”, she said to me apologetically. “He didn’t come in yesterday, so if he doesn’t come today, I’ll put you somewhere nice”. I got the sense that everyone was rather hoping this boy didn’t turn up. Of course, he did come.

As far as I can tell, this student never actually sits in class with the rest of his cohort. He is taken out to do one-to-one work, for which he is rewarded with “choosing time”, a euphemism for time playing on the laptop. Last time I worked with him, that’s what he did for pretty much the whole day, apart from running off a few times, and making me chase him around the school and the playground. The class teacher handed me some books and worksheets for him to complete, without any great hope that he would do them. After a half hour of him acting up (basically lying down under a table and moaning that he wanted his usual TA, not the supply), he got what he wanted: the laptop (after which the moaning stopped). Immediately, the latest video game ‘Fortnite’ came on, while I shrugged internally and picked up a book to read. I tried every so often to remind him of the work he was supposed to do, and eventually he promised to do it after morning break. As it happens, there was a PE lesson after break, which he was allowed to take part in since he had been so quiet all morning (laptop time can work wonders that way).

So anyway, I come back after lunch and remind him of his promise to do some work. Quick as a flash, he’s off to hide under a table and have another of his tantrums. One of the school staff comes over to him and coaxes him out. “I don’t want her”, he says, pointing to me. “She’s evil, I hate her.” Some time is spent talking to him and calming him down. No attempt is made to get him to apologise to me. Then I’m left with him again. I pick up my book and sit down to read. As far as I’m concerned, he can spend the rest of the day on that dratted computer. But no, he gets up and decides to go for a walkabout, so of course I follow. “Don’t follow me”, he snaps.

“I have to, it’s my job to supervise you”, I reply.

“Then I’m going to see Ms M” (the head teacher).

He runs down the stairs and I follow at a more sedate pace. I reach the head teacher’s door and look up through the glass to see him inside her office. Satisfied that he’s where he should be, I find myself a seat outside her office and wait to see the outcome of this chat with the head. Ten minutes later, I see the boy beckoning me through the window. I go into the head teacher’s office. She smiles at me and says “S will spend the rest of the day in my office but he needs his laptop. Would you mind going to fetch it for him?” I put a gracious smile on my face and say “of course”, and trudge up two flights of stairs to go fetch the laptop. When I bring it back, no words of thanks from the boy. The head teacher is the one who does the thanking, then asks me to re-join the class.

Back up two flights of stairs I go, but half the class has gone off for a transition day at their new secondary and I’m not needed. With an hour to kill until home time, I walk a few doors down and poke my head into a year 4 class. The frazzled teacher there welcomes an extra helping hand so I settle in for the rest of the day. It immediately becomes clear why the poor teacher is frazzled. Behaviour. I spot a boy in the corner dancing a little jig to entertain his classmates, and loudly talking over the teacher. He also seems to be the only child in the class to have a laptop open in front of him, playing some video game. Quelle surprise. The worst behaved child is given a laptop (I find out later it was a reward for having behaved in the morning).

And so, after an hour in that rowdy, disorganised classroom, I finally went home, breathing a sigh of relief. I’m not planning to go back to that school again, no matter how many coaxing phone calls I get from the agency. In fact, I think this is the end of the road for me as a supply cover. Life’s too short and the sunshine is beckoning me, telling me to start my holiday a little bit sooner. Before I head out into the garden for a bit of R and R, I’ll leave you with one last thought. That school was rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Parallel Universes

I have just returned from a lovely overnight stay in a country house spa hotel to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. It was everything I could have wished for, particularly the relaxation of not having a child around. I padded around in my complementary bathrobe and slippers, helped myself to drinks and magazines, reading them in a suspended swinging chair. I swam in a large and peaceful pool, luxuriated in the jacuzzi and managed a few minutes in the steam room. Everywhere I went, people spoke in hushed quiet tones. Mobile phones were not allowed. As I lay back on my deck chair, I breathed in the sweet smelling air and relaxed totally for the first time in months.

This has been a tough, bruising year for me. Actually, a tough couple of years. And I’m a bit tired now. There have been highs and lows, wonderful children that have found a place in my heart, challenges and achievements. Teaching is rather a mixed bag, bringing deeply fulfilling moments for every dark, horrendous day. But I’m tired.

Just last week, I had to deal with stroppy, rude, disrespectful teenagers who refused to put their mobile phones away when I asked them to. On Friday, I had to supervise two boys who for various reasons had been excluded from their classes, only to spend that time on laptops playing rather dubious video games that seemed to involve lots of killing. When I castigated them for the language they used, one of them responded “That’s how we talk where we come from miss. You know, we get lots of stabbings here.” My enduring memory of last month was trying to restrain a child who in a fit of anger was throwing heavy items around and then banging his head on the table. And for everyone of these extreme situations, I have encountered plenty of the low level, but equally soul sapping stuff. “Shut up”, “racist”, “pig”, not to mention regular instances of the F word seem to have become everyday language in some quarters. Not to mention total contempt and disrespect for the adults (until they ‘earn the respect’). The quiet peaceful world of my hotel spa and its clientele seems a million miles away. They could be parallel universes.

I know it’s easy to stereotype, and that not all children are in gangs or have special needs, but inner London can be quite grim. There just seems to be so much deprivation, so much disfunction. Children have been exposed to so much brutalising behaviour that the possibility of turning them into polite, functional members of society seems ever so slim. Yet it can be done. Anyone visiting Michaela school can be in no doubt that, in the right circumstances, those angry, anti-social children can be turned into beacons of civility. I’m told it’s not just Michaela, but that other schools are also achieving fantastic behaviour and culture. I’m sure that must be true, but my experience, which now runs to over a dozen schools (thanks to a stint doing supply work), tells me otherwise.

So I’m glad Amanda Spielman has focused on behaviour in her recent speech at the Education Festival. Ofsted is to add a separate judgement for behaviour in future inspections, and will take measures to ensure they get an accurate picture – not the sanitised version that is often presented by savvy school leaders. If you ship out disruptive children for a school trip on inspection days, Ofsted are going to be on to you (I hope). Every school can manage to show off a well behaved class during an inspection. But what about NQTs, new and supply teachers? Are they getting the behaviour? What is it like at transitions? What will students say about the behaviour, when asked in anonymous questionnaires? There are numerous ways of sussing out the behaviour in a school and Ofsted seems to be determined to get to the truth. This is long overdue.

In the meantime, I’m hanging in there, but compromises have been made. I’ve accepted a job next September, with shorter hours, less responsibility and less pay, but the plus side for me is that the behaviour I observed on interview day is good (it has to be said the catchment is affluent middle class), and my son will no longer need to languish in before and after school care. I’ll also have more time and energy to devote to my side project, Learning For Memory. September 2019 will be my crunch time. I’ll have to enrol on a teacher training course then or have to go through the palaver of sitting my professional skills test again (which I don’t fancy doing). Will I bite the bullet and do it? Maybe a year working in a good (not in Ofsted terms) school will help convince me to go for it. At the moment, much as I love working with children, much as I love the act of teaching, the profession of teaching is not one I want to join.

When will they catch up?

It is a given that teachers in schools today must differentiate to accomodate the different learning needs of their students. The Teachers’ Standards, by which all teachers new and old are held to account, state quite clearly that teachers must:

5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils
– know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively
– have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these
– demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development
– have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

Differentiation can take many forms. It could be that some pupils are given extra scaffolding to complete a task. It could involve the teacher amending the question asked of a particular pupil, taking into account their level of attainment. Quite often also, differentiation takes the form of giving a different range of tasks to a class. Worksheets can be simplified to enable lower attaining students to access the work. And I’m sure we have all seen the Powerpoint slides with tiered tasks, usually three different iterations that are easy, average or difficult, masked under some euphemism or other.

Beyond that of course, there is differentiation in the form of grouping by ‘ability’, either setting by subject or streaming. This can take place as early as Reception year – that is four year olds going on five. I have observed first hand how setting works in Reception, and the experience has troubled me. The past few weeks and months, one question above all others has nagged at me and it is this: ‘When will they catch up?’

You see, these four or five year olds were put into different groups for their daily phonics lesson, based on their ‘ability’. Except of course, this has nothing to do with ability. Some children will have had the benefit of going to nursery (particularly the autumn born ones) and will have been exposed to phonics beforehand. Other children will have arrived in Reception having never been exposed to letters and their sounds. The problem is compounded when some of these children come from families where English is not the first language spoken, the EAL children. Right from day one, therefore, we are confronted with significant differences in attainment, and we know this gap will get wider and wider as these children progress through school (I read some stats about this somewhere, some time ago but forget where – maybe someone can remind me).

Phonics is the main building block of literacy in those early years, so having different phonics lessons means effectively that, right from day one, children are being given a different curriculum from one another. The differences are striking. I was given the lowest group, and tasked with teaching them the phase 2 sounds (basically all the individual letter sounds). I was told to focus on a particular letter each lesson (starting with s, a, t, p, n), to sing the letter song, name some words that start with that letter (e.g. ‘a for apple’) and get them to air draw the letter (or draw it on each other’s backs with their index finger, which I found did not work particularly well). I tried getting them to practise writing the letter of the day on their mini whiteboards, but was told off because apparently the children were not developmentally ready for this. Finally, we would attempt to decode some simple CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant).

At the other end of the scale, the ‘higher’ children experienced very different phonics lessons. As a cover teacher, I would occasionally teach them when the main class teacher was absent. These children were learning digraphs, split digraphs and tricky words. On their mini whiteboards (yes, they got to have them), they would write sentences using the digraph sound of the day. So when we look at how different the curricula are, we should not be surprised at the big differences in outcome. In a way, through our actions, we are ensuring that the gap not only remains but that it widens. And as I practised the split digraph sound a_e with the ‘highers’, my thoughts turned to the ‘lowers’ who had yet to be exposed to such sounds. How were they ever going to catch up? The truth is, there was no expectation that they would.

This saddens me. Actually, it angers me. Those ‘lower ability’ children are not born with learning deficiencies (at least none of the ones I had the privilege to teach). They are just as capable of learning as the others. They just haven’t had the same start in life that others had. They haven’t actually been taught what the others know. By labelling them as ‘low ability’ and giving them a simplified curriculum, we are denying them the opportunity to catch up. If they are behind their peers, the solution is not to give them less to learn but the opposite. For example, if everyone else is having one daily phonics lesson, then these children should have two. Ideally, they should be exposed to the same curriculum as everyone else, and then given extra intervention sessions to help them master what the others have already mastered. You do not close the attainment gap by giving the ones falling behind easier work. The logic of that is irrefutable surely? So why isn’t it happening across all our schools?