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?


It’s been a while, but I’ve decided to resurrect this old blog. This website has been mothballed for over a year, following some rather threatening behaviour documented in this post by Andrew Old. The time has come though, to shake the cobwebs and bring this site back to life. I have been blogging in the meantime on, but increasingly I’ve felt much of what I want to write about would not fall under the umbrella of ‘History Lover’, so I’ve come back here, to my old blogging home.

There has been much water under the bridge since my last blog post on here. My circumstances and outlook have changed considerably; for one thing I am no longer training to be a teacher. For another, I have switched from secondary to primary. At the moment, I am content to work in a TA or cover supervisor role, and to put teacher training on the back burner. Quality of life and family time are trumping the desire to move up into a position of more responsibility. This may not always be the case though, so I’m keeping my powder dry.

I plan to use this blog to share my reflections on education in general, and to switch to ‘History Lover’ only when my subject matter is history specific. This means that I will be blogging on two separate sites, but it will hopefully make better sense this way. My next blog, entitled ‘When will they catch up?’, will discuss differentiation and how it often has the unintended consequence of widening the attainment gap.

It’s good to be back!

Courting controversy

I wrote a blog this week. That’s nothing new, I’ve been blogging quite a lot since I decided to get into teaching. My blog is a personal, diary-like account of my experiences and thoughts, documenting my journey. It’s an opportunity to also network with and learn from other people in education. I usually get a handful of readers for each blog, and the occasional retweet.

I didn’t think this week’s instalment would be any different. I wrote about my visit to the amazing Michaela free school in Wembley. Lots of people before me have visited and sung its praises, so I didn’t think my contribution would attract particular attention except a “like” or two from the Michaela teachers. I was not prepared, therefore, for the Twitter storm that followed.

Perhaps I was unwise to mention certain people by name. A threat of legal action against me for defamation is not something I want to read about during my lunch break at school. Needless to say, the rest of my day was rather fraught with anxiety. How vicious the world of education can be! Why such bullying tactics?

I’m not into ad hominem attacks on people, but those two names just sprang up in my mind when I thought of the wall of critical resistance against those traditional principles of education espoused by Michaela school. It wasn’t, as was claimed, an allegation that the person had criticised the school specifically, but a criticism of a general attitude against those traditional principles, such as “no excuses”.

So, I am chastened.  I will have to be a bit more circumspect in future. However, I will carry on blogging because my truth needs to be said. I am in a position of relative strength at the moment because I’m not financially reliant on the meagre LSA’s salary I earn. I take particular care not to name my school when I write but there is a freedom in being able to speak out in my blog about what I see. In any case, I’ll be starting at a new school in September for my Schools Direct teacher training. It may be then that I scale back on the honest, “warts and all” approach.


My visit to Michaela Community School


I have just returned from a much anticipated visit to Michaela Community School in Wembley. I had expected to be impressed but what I didn’t anticipate was the degree of emotion that the visit would engender. Sitting on the tube train on my journey home, I scribbled feverishly in a notebook my impressions, writing them all down while they were still fresh in my mind. Half way through, however, I had to stop. My hand was shaking and I suddenly realised why. I was angry, furiously so.

The reason for my rage is this. I watched children today whose ethnic and socio-economic background is nearly identical to that of the children at my own school, which is in a deprived inner city ward of London, rife with gangs. These could be “my” kids; and yet they were nothing like them. They were transformed. The children at Michaela were mature, polite, knowledgeable and confident, so unlike the sullen and disrespectful pupils that I will be seeing again tomorrow morning. And so I feel anger on behalf of my rude and disaffected pupils. Why are they not also getting the life changing opportunities that are on offer at Michaela? Why is such an education the preserve of the lucky few who just happen to live in the right catchment? Why, when the evidence is so overwhelming, are so many school leaders digging their heads in the sand and refusing to learn from what Michaela school, and others, are managing to achieve? All because of ideology and politics.

I remember when I first heard of Michaela school through my Twitter feed, I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about what they were doing. I wrote an email to my line manager, attaching a link to an article by Tom Bennett describing his recent visit, and asked if anyone from our school was planning to go. If so, could I also come along as part of my CPD? The next day, I got a reply. I was told that the Principal didn’t think much of Tom Bennett’s ideas and didn’t approve of the boot camp approach. For this reason, they would not be able to allow me to take time off to visit Michaela though, of course, I was free to do so in my own free time.

It’s not just the leaders of my school. On Twitter, I have encountered certain educationalists at every opportunity sneering at and denigrating the no excuses, high expectations approach espoused by Michaela school. And all the while, the most disadvantaged children in the country continue to suffer. Just stop, people, stop! There is a better way. Swallow your pride and open your eyes to the evidence that is right before you, if only you would see it. Discipline works. No excuses works. A focus on knowledge works. Explicit teaching works. Drills and tests work. And no, it does not kill off creativity or oppress children. Quite the opposite.

My visit today started with the family lunch. As I arrived by the lunch hall, I watched pupils from the first sitting quietly troop out. I was then invited in by Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela’s head teacher, and asked to sit myself down at a table of my choosing. All the tables I observed were scrubbed clean and there was no sign of any food spills on the floor which you would expect to see whenever large groups of children eat a meal. Now, the pupils entered the hall, reciting a poem in unison. The ones at my table greeted me politely and immediately poured me a cup of water. Then we were addressed by Jo Facer, Michaela’s head of English. The topic for discussion today was about the general election and whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. We were to think of three reasons why it should and three why it shouldn’t. Then on the count of three, a pupil from each table went to fetch the food, laid out neatly on a tray, and proceeded to serve everyone on their table. This was all done with impressive efficiency. Once served, we discussed our topic. My table mates were year 8 pupils, who seamlessly started a conversation with me, speaking with confidence and listening intently to what I had to say. Think about it. Twelve year olds, talking politely and confidently with an adult they have never met. Impressive!

Before I knew it, lunch was over and it was time for appreciations. I had heard of these but seeing them was quite instructive. These are an opportunity for pupils to show their appreciation for someone, in accordance with Michaela’s ethos of “work hard, be kind”. When the time came for this, a sea of hands shot up into the air, asking to be picked for an appreciation. The pupils chosen then stood up, crossed their arms and said their appreciation, ending with two claps. A pupil at my table said an appreciation to his brother, who had taken away his phone so that he could do his homework without being distracted. Another pupil thanked a teacher for recommending a good book. What I hadn’t realised though, was that this was not just an exercise in kindness. The pupils were also judged on the quality of their delivery as well as the content. Had they spoken clearly and loudly enough? Had they expressed themselves in correct English? Was the appreciation sincere? If so, merits were handed out. If not, they were corrected, kindly but firmly. And then it was time to clear up the tables, which was all done quickly and efficiently before trooping out in silent, organised lines.

Another thing that surprised me during my visit today is the degree of freedom I was given to roam round the school, entering whatever classroom I chose to. I had assumed that I would be supervised and escorted around but that was not the case. I was a bit hesitant at first, not knowing where to go, but the teachers I met were incredibly friendly and helpful. Thanks by the way, to Jonathan Porter for pointing me in the right direction today.

So, what were the lessons like? These were my impressions:

  • Class sizes of approximately 30 pupils, with excellent behaviour. Pupils were quiet, put their hands up to ask questions and had to sit up straight and track the teacher when asked to (using SLANT).
  • I noticed a real consistency in the style of all the teachers I observed. The teachers had clear authority, they were firm and brooked no nonsense. This does not mean that they were humourless or unfriendly. Merits were handed out regularly for correct answers. Pupils who gave wrong answers were told, rather bluntly, “incorrect”. No sugar coating it with “good effort”.
  • Regular feedback was given, with teachers asking pupils to put their hands up if they got the question right. They would then ask pupils who got it wrong to put their hands up if they did not understand their mistake.
  • There were no group activities or any “engaging” games. The lessons I saw followed the curriculum set out in the booklet for each topic. This could be considered dry and unexciting. However, I noticed that everything was explicitly explained by the teacher, with a lot of call and repeat to make sure, for instance, that the pupils were pronouncing a difficult word properly. And, more importantly, the pupils kept their focus throughout the lesson. I have recollections of so many childhood lessons where I would have doodled on my book or day dreamed. None of this here. The pupils were paying attention throughout.
  • I liked the use of the visualiser, which worked just as well, if not better, than the interactive whiteboard we have at my school, but at the fraction of the cost. The classrooms were fairly low tech. No use of chrome books or other fancy equipment. This school is no frills and, I would hazard, much more economically efficient than mine.

My other overall impressions from my visit today were:

  • There is meticulous attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance. All school bags were deposited in neat shelves. The pupils had clear plastic wallets and were fully equipped with pencil case, pens and rulers etc.
  • All teachers are “on message”. I noticed, even in the playground, teachers on duty giving pep talks to pupils. The message and ethos of Michaela is continually reinforced.
  • Amazing artwork was displayed on the staircase, some of it of professional quality.
  • The children looked happy and secure.
  • In the time I was there, I witnessed only two demerits being given but an overwhelming number of merits.
  • The children are not just learning by rote. In a history lesson I observed, there was a great deal of critical thinking going on.
  • I know people have expressed concern about SEN pupils coping in the no excuses environment. I noticed two pupils today who had obvious SEN. They were treated with dignity and understanding, without lowering the bar of expectation.

Clearly, I was very impressed with what I saw at Michaela school today. My urgent wish is that the good practice I witnessed be spread to other schools, the sooner the better. Would Michaela consider becoming a teaching school, sending its trainees far and wide into the country? I hope so.

One last thing. I know some commentators have praised the school for what it can do for socially disadvantaged children but have been equivocal about its merits for middle class children. I have no such qualms. I’d send my son there like a shot.

Is traditional teaching oppressive?


On Tuesday, I had to take my 8-year old son with me to attend a meeting after school with our new acting principal. He brought along a book with him to read and was admonished to be quiet and well behaved, which thankfully he was. This was the first time I had brought my son to my workplace and the following day, several colleagues came up to me with fulsome praise for him. Naturally, this filled me with tremendous pride but on the back of this came the thought: “if only they knew how bloody hard it’s been to get to this point!”

Civilising a young child is not easy and often involves a battle of wills. I’ve lost count of the times my son has called me “meanie”, “the worst mummy in the world” or simply told me he doesn’t love me anymore. The last time I got on his wrong side, he looked at me crossly and said “you need to go to mummy school!” Thankfully, such episodes are becoming few and far between as he matures and learns how to moderate his behaviour. He is also, by the way, delightfully affectionate, more so now than when he was younger. Far from oppressing him, my discipline has liberated him. He is a happy and secure boy who feels loved.

No one I think would disagree that parenting involves putting boundaries and saying “no” from time to time – being “the bad guy”. Yes of course, encouragement and praise are given but there are going to be times when you have to be the adult and say “no”.  It’s not easy to do this. You love your child and don’t want to see him unhappy. But you know, ultimately, that it is your responsibility to teach him the social skills he will need to live a contented and fulfilled life. I want my son to have good manners, to have self-control, to be kind and respectful to others, to be well-read and knowledgeable. I want to pass on my values to him and yes, I want to influence the way he sees the world. Does that mean I am brainwashing him and thereby oppressing him in some way? I don’t think so. As he grows up, he will increasingly get more freedom to choose what he wants to say and do. I hope that he will remember what we his parents have taught him and heed our advice but once he reaches adulthood, he will be free to follow in our footsteps or tread a totally different path. He will take with him the knowledge and habits we have instilled in him and make of them what he will.

One could approach this argument from the opposite perspective. What if I had not given my son boundaries, what if I had let him indulge in whatever habits he pleased? Would that not be considered a form of oppression? Surely that would be child neglect? We have a responsibility towards our children to teach them what we think is best. I’m afraid, the child doesn’t get to choose this, we do. We know better because we are older and more knowledgeable – and we were taught much of this by our own parents when we were children. Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies is aware of what chaos results from children being set loose without adult supervision. What we do as parents is a sort of benign dictatorship, not a democracy. We listen to our children, we care for their wellbeing but what we say goes. We are the boss, not them.

A similar argument can be put forward towards schools: they are not democracies but benign dictatorships. There are rules that pupils must follow. The teachers have authority. If a teacher asks pupils to write something in their books, then that is what they must do. Imagine if a pupil said “no, I want to have a chat with my friend right now”, what kind of problems would ensue. If we agree that teachers must have authority in schools, it is not much of a stretch to then agree that they should be the ones imparting knowledge not the other way around, and that this balance of power is needed, not to oppress but to liberate our children through furthering their education.

Why am I discussing this particular issue today? It is because I just read Martin Robinson’s blog entitled “The Problems with Traditional Education”. In it he discusses the philosophies of Dewey and Freire, and how they viewed traditional education to be oppressive. According to Freire:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers.

Many of these ideas have percolated into the way teachers today view their role. Didactic teaching, where the teacher explicitly instructs the pupil, is considered to be not only a retrograde but a kind of fascist way of teaching. Better to have group work and activities where the pupils can feel a sense of agency rather than turning them into passive “receptacles”.  This in turn feeds the idea that pupils will not learn unless they are actively doing something. Simply listening to the teacher will not result in learning. I have seen a few examples of this in year 10 history lessons at my school, where I think this approach is counterproductive. Here are two sets of activities we did in our last lesson that illustrate my point.

The activity: pupils were given a sheet with three columns, and a handful of questions at the top of each column. They were told to look at a page range in their textbook and use that information to answer the questions on their sheets within 20 minutes. To help them with their work, they were allowed to listen to music on their headphones.

My verdict: rather than explaining, discussing and shaping a better understanding of this topic through questions and answers, the teacher expected pupils to pick up the required knowledge from the textbook. The pupils in turn, were mostly successful at finding the correct answer in the textbook but instead of writing it in their own words (literacy being particularly poor) they copied the text word for word. In this instance, it feels to me that the teacher abrogated his responsibility to teach and allowed the textbook to do the teaching for him, all on the mistaken belief that more learning will take place if a task is undertaken independently. This kind of independent learning can occur but only when the people doing the reading are already experts, that is, they already have the skills needed to gather information, process it and formulate an answer in their own words. Finally, allowing the pupils to listen to music on their headphones while they worked sent out the message that we don’t have an expectation of them being able to work quietly, without the distraction of music.

The activity: the pupils watched a video of a documentary about Elizabeth 1st by David Starkey. They had a sheet with questions, the answers to which would be revealed in the documentary. The video was often paused, and even rewound, to allow the pupils to note down their answers. Many of the questions on the sheet would not make sense unless you were watching the video. So for instance, “why were the rebels surprised?” does not make sense unless you are following the narrative in the video.

My verdict: again, the teacher is letting someone else do the teaching for him, in this case, the eminent David Starkey. It points to a disturbing trend in history teaching, in line with the idea that you can look up facts on Google so don’t need to know them, where the teacher is no longer an expert in his subject and lets either the textbook or the academic on the YouTube video dispense the knowledge. The teacher is now more of a facilitator than a teacher. The other thing I noticed is that, by constantly pausing the video, the flow of the narrative was lost and the pupils were actually spoon-fed the answers so there wasn’t much effort or thought involved (and therefore very little likelihood of anything entering long-term memory from this exercise). If you are going to use a video documentary, then watch it all without pausing and then discuss with the class what has been learned.

I do not believe that traditional teaching – and by this I mean explicit teacher-led instruction that focuses on the transmission of knowledge – is oppressive. On the contrary, it is progressive methods, usually effective only when the student is already highly skilled (thereby favouring the more wealthy children in society) that are oppressive in the way they can reinforce societal inequalities. The ideology that says teacher talk is authoritarian and should be kept to a minimum has been very damaging to our students (as well as to our teachers who have been thoroughly de-skilled). In many instances, explicit instruction from the teacher is the most effective way of learning important knowledge. Far from being oppressive, this knowledge is empowering.

I will end with one last example. I have recently taught my son how to use a knife and fork to cut his food (for far too long we were relying on finger foods). I explained how to do it, and demonstrated how to hold the fork and how to cut with the knife. I watched him try it out and corrected his mistakes. Imagine if instead, I had given my son a knife and folk and said to him “go and independently work out how to use them”. I rest my case.

Today’s musings

Today finds me in an introspective mood. Perhaps it’s the fact that my holiday is nearly over and it’s back to the gritty reality of school tomorrow. Or perhaps not. Those who have read my blogs may have the impression that I have strong and deep set views about education but actually, like many people, I am constantly beset by doubts as to the validity of my position.  I read the comments and blog posts made by people with whom I don’t have much in common or with whom I tend to disagree, and sometimes, a point or a sentence here and there grabs my attention and forces me to re-evaluate. I also have a partner who often challenges my opinions and gives me new perspectives to think about. I think it’s fair to say, clichéd as it might sound, that I am on a journey.

If this opener has given you the impression that I have suddenly discovered myself to be a born again progressive, then let me disabuse you of this notion straight away. I still believe that didactic teaching, or as I prefer to say, explicit instruction, is on balance a more effective way of teaching than discovery learning. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the binary way in which the progressive/traditional debate is being framed, as it sometimes feels to me as though complex issues are conflated into a simple argument. Everything is either black or white, with no grey area in between. I am particularly uncomfortable with the confident rhetoric that claims a return to traditional teaching will solve all our educational problems. It won’t. I am glad, though, to see the pendulum is shifting back in favour of more focus on knowledge as I can’t help but feel that there has been an inexorable dumbing down in education for the past decade or two. But swinging back the pendulum shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is much else to focus on and ponder.

The ones that got away

I read an interesting blog by Ed Podesta in which he talked about how he is sometimes haunted by “the ones that got away”. This seemed to strike a chord with many other teachers on my Twitter feed and I can understand why. Many of us enter teaching because we want to be a force for good, helping disadvantaged children overcome their disadvantages and forge successful lives. I myself am not immune to that kind of sentiment. Part of my decision to get into teaching was, I’m sure, prompted by a wish to do my bit and give back to society. But while teaching does have a public service element to it, I think it can sometimes be dangerous and counterproductive to get into that mindset of being a “saviour” of the poor children in society.

It puts too much pressure on teachers to perform and heaps terrible guilt on them when they perceive themselves to have failed a particular pupil. It also, more importantly, diminishes the pupil’s sense of responsibility for his or her learning. If a child’s lack of academic achievement is attributed primarily to the teacher and not to the child herself, what kind of message does that send? I failed my exam because you were a crap teacher, not because I didn’t listen in class and put in the necessary work. As teachers, we do need to have a reality check every now and then. Some kids, no matter how much effort you expend on them, will just not play ball. It’s not in our powers to “fix” everyone. As the saying goes, you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.

There is another issue here too, quite apart from teacher guilt and pupil responsibility. Sometimes, when we have a difficult or challenging pupil, we spend too much time focussing on them, trying different approaches to make them engage, and forget about the other pupils in class who are doing the right thing, trying hard but not getting the attention.

Since September, I have been supporting a Syrian girl who arrived here as a refugee last summer. I have been teaching her English one-on-one as well as supporting her in the classroom during other lessons. Initially I was filled with enthusiasm and a satisfying sense of pleasure at the idea of actively helping alleviate the suffering of someone affected by war, rather than watching ineffectually from the sidelines. My enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat over the last few months. She has made some progress, but teaching her is a rather unrewarding experience because of her extremely passive nature. She is not particularly hungry to learn. When faced with a slightly difficult problem, her standard response is to say she can’t do it and refuse to put in any further effort. She has quickly worked out that her teachers have zero expectations of her and that everyone is bending over backwards to make excuses for her, so she just doesn’t bother to put in much of an effort.

One day when she was absent from school, I made myself useful in the class and sat next to another EAL girl from Spain who, funnily enough, arrived in the UK at around the same time as the Syrian girl. This Spanish student has picked up English a lot quicker, probably because there is more in common between Spanish and English than between Arabic and English, but also because she is bright and proactive in wanting to learn. The Spanish EAL student doesn’t receive any additional support, compared to the Syrian girl who is literally smothered with support. That day, I redressed the balance and what a satisfying experience it was, having someone listen, respond and take heed of my instruction. What a pity that the rest of the time, this poor girl doesn’t get a look in.

We should be careful not to let our pity for someone’s plight, or frustration with someone’s lack of response to all our input, divert us from the ones who sit quietly in the background and are easily forgotten. At the end of the day, every person must tread their own path, make their own mistakes and deal with the consequences. Sometimes it is these very consequences that are the making of them. We can’t play God and think we are responsible for the success or failure of pupils (as long as we have reasonably fulfilled our duty as teachers).

Is traditional education prioritising the academic over the practical?

I also recently came upon Sue Gerrard’s blog, which gave a critique of Martin Robinson’s recent arguments regarding the differences between traditional and progressive education, with the former primarily subject-centred and the latter more child-centred. I was much struck by these two paragraphs:

“Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.

An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works.  It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.”

I can’t help but see the truth in a lot of this. Was it not David Cameron, that intellectually brilliant Oxford PPE graduate, who insouciantly precipitated the uncertain times in which we live in? I see time and again, not just in politics but in other professions too, highly intelligent and intellectual people make rather ill judged decisions, unaware or uncaring of the impact they will have on ordinary people. This disconnect between the privileged rich and us more common mortals is brilliantly illustrated in this Guardian article about Steve Hilton. And let’s not forget Michael Gove, that soi-disant purveyor of clever phrases. Has his towering intellect given him a real insight into societal needs? Maybe not.

Focussing on knowledge as the foundation for critical thinking is important, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about? The best that has been thought or said, is usually the stock answer. Yes, knowledge of language, history, geography, literature, maths and science is crucial, but there is other, practical knowledge, which far too often gets forgotten in academically driven institutions. I myself received a privileged private education for which I am very grateful. But sometimes, I wish that someone had taught me how to change a car tyre or fix a punctured bicycle tyre. I wish I had learned how to use a power drill or how to grow vegetables and make compost. I wish someone had taught me about how to navigate the politics of office life and not let other, more extrovert colleagues, steal a march on me. This is not an exhaustive list by the way.

Yes let’s shout out about the benefits of traditional education, celebrate rigour, knowledge and discipline. Let’s not, along the way, forget that there is a whole lot more to education than the classic academic disciplines. Naturally, with school time in finite supply, it is not possible to learn everything, but it would be nice to have a truly rich and broad curriculum that takes into account those less than academic subjects. Does this mean I’m a traditionalist with a hint of progressive in me? Perhaps so.