Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

Different worlds

The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that poor performers simply don’t realise just how deficient they are; in order to evaluate one’s own performance, one needs skills and insights that unskilled people by definition do not have.

Conversely, able people possess the insights that can cause them to identify their own limitations and perhaps be unduly self-critical. According to Bertrand Russell:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wise people so full of doubts.

Or as John Cleese says:



The sting in the tail, of course, is that no one is in a position to judge whether we are as truly clever as we might think we are…

Even though I did not take full advantage of it at the time, I feel that my own education has served me well. Perhaps that is a useful position for a teacher to be in, and I have tried to pass on the best of my experience, while avoiding the pitfalls. Messrs. Dunning and Kruger might reply that I am in no position to judge!

In my experience, educating people is fundamentally a humane process. Certainly, intellectual and personal rigour is required – that goes without saying. Society rightly expects people to emerge from education with formal qualifications by which to validate the process – but the ultimate goal is surely to develop people in the round. That requires wisdom, humour, curiosity and compassion to cultivate people’s more complex senses and perspectives, to take them to the higher levels of civilised human life – and as a result, to further human society and the individual experiences within it.

The more I taught, the more I realised that my prime asset was simply being a balanced human-being myself, able to respond to any situation in an appropriate, compassionate and hopefully wise way. Important though they may be, the hard specifics of subject disciplines are best delivered by way of the soft skills that simply come from being an authentic human being. The hard-headed striving will only ever be an imposition if not delivered with kindness and conviction. My experience says this works; The System fails to understand.

I remember a deputy head once telling me that I was being too idealistic. “There is no way most people will ever attain that,” he said. “The most we can expect is to turn them into useful workforce.” That from someone who subscribed to the cults of egalitarianism and meritocracy…

The system I have been trying to work within has become increasingly removed from my own values. Exam results have become the end in themselves – but more for the benefit of the schools than the children within them. Schools have become fixated with figures, and have lost sight of any meaning behind them. All the ‘research’ is driven by the same lust for results – without any apparent appreciation that real education does not have a singular ‘result’ as such.

Even Increasing Opportunity seems to be couched only in these terms; education is being used more and more as a form of social engineering, but there is little understanding of what that really means. Other than accessing the next level of education, nobody seems to know what the ultimate purpose is for the recipients. This is not surprising when the only real answer can be ‘to live a fulfilling life’. But it is far removed from merely having qualifications, let alone being a ‘good worker’. So the system has avoided the issue by increasingly looked inward to its own interests.

So I have found myself working in an environment where I was increasingly at odds with the organisation I was serving. It has a largely utilitarian view of teachers’ work – to maximise exam results no matter what the cost or the even moral implications of Just Deserts. It wants teachers to operate in an almost purely technical sense – the mechanics of children’s exam performance, ‘intervening’ as and where necessary based solely on numerical information, and with the sole, naïve intention of improving those numbers. Even the motivational talk is focussed on maximising grades; very little about the pleasure of learning or its wider rewards: the classic definition of an exam factory. The role-model is the similar factories of eastern Asia, rather than the liberal views of continental Europe.

No doubt schools would claim that personal benefit was implicit in this process, but I’m not so sure; over the years, wider personal development has been mentioned less and less, in line with the abandonment of many opportunities to deliver it. Any sense of moral compass, except in the widest, most nebulous sense has been sacrificed to a bums-on-seats technocracy.

I should emphasise that I am not making school-specific criticisms; mine has only done what its masters bade or permitted. It has been very successful, too, in those terms. But in my opinion, like many it has lost its soul in the process. School life is now more pressurised, depersonalised, manipulated, mercenary and humourless than ever before – the antithesis of the warm, considered, tolerant, diverse, compassionate place I wanted to work for. Good education it is not; good training, maybe – but that’s not what I do…

My understanding of education, and what The System now says it wants have moved so far apart that I no longer feel prepared to work within it. The quality and breadth of what I am allowed to offer has withered – and the quantity of mindless, time-pressured compliance ballooned. What it permits me to do as an individual, intelligent professional, and what it expects me to deliver are so at odds with my expectations, let alone what is realistically possible – that I am leaving.

I have had enough feedback over the years to know that pupils did identify and appreciate my qualities as a teacher, even if it sometimes took them a while to do so; that was part of the plan. I was told the other day that my ‘problem’ is that I have developed too complex a view of education for an increasingly crude system to value. Be that as it may, those who wish to run education on production-line principles simply do not see what they are missing – and they have never given the likes of me a chance to argue. Such closed-mindedness is not the mark of educational success.

On my own terms, I succeeded as a teacher over a period of thirty years. After a hesitant start, I developed my skills and understanding to become the unique teacher that each individual can only be; not something valued in a corporate age. The System has judged me less favourably because I was not able or willing to confine myself to blinkered and often self-serving agendas.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes it impossible to know who is ‘right’. But the manifest contradictions in much of what the present system claims to be trying to achieve – that many people seem simply to ignore – speak to me of something much less considered or coherent than it claims.

So let’s just say that there exist two educational worlds, one like mine – and The System, which increasingly do not mix. I think mine works and can be intellectually supported – but if it’s not what this utilitarian, materialistic, increasingly harsh – and uneducated – country wants, then who am I to argue?


The Eurostar of teachers


There seems to be a tide in the affairs of my life whose flood I have no choice but take: several of its defining moments have been unexpected and opportunistic to say the least. I doubt that’s particularly unusual – but it shows the folly of believing we can plan our lives with much certainty at all.

The recent particularly high tide has left me well and truly beached; four and a half months now and counting, since I did any teaching. At long last there have been some signs of more substantial improvement in my state of mind, though it’s by no means stable or consistent yet. Life has assumed a sort of non-routine in which the mornings remain largely useless and the afternoons consist of dabbling with small activities and doing some of the household chores.

But it’s not coming before major changes in my working life. It looks increasingly as though I am headed for the exit door from my school, after almost three decades. The fact that I am struggling to get my head round this probably shows just how necessary change is.

I am under a cloud that I fervently believe is not of my own making. There is probably not a teacher left in the country who would admit to being less than ‘good’: you can’t afford to admit human weakness these days. I don’t have difficulties with admitting my own real shortcomings – but despite that, I know my work has been good. I don’t need anyone with a tick-sheet to recall the positive effect had on many young people, the opportunities I devised for them, the relationships nurtured, the humour shared, the growth witnessed.

But I can’t deny the fact that modern schools only seem interested in pumping out exam results, and you really are only as good as your last figures. No matter that experience suggests my results were in line with the children’s abilities – a single, abstract figure, a computer-derived target missed, I believe due to its gross inaccuracy, looks as though it will be used to end my time at the school. And that single figure is enough to raise institutional doubts about my efficacy as a teacher, no matter what the mitigating circumstances.

There is no point in arguing; if that is what the system thinks it wants, then I guess it is entitled to do so. For my turn, I have never taken targets as anything more than a guide. Life is not simple or certain enough to do otherwise; all we are doing is creating hostages to fortune.

I could not accept that it was the rightful job of a teacher to force unwilling kids through a sausage-machine that left decreasing time for other aspects of learning or personal development. It is not fair on the willing ones either. Nor that that is all there is to education in any case.

Bringing out the potential in people is one thing –  that does sometimes require ‘gentle’ coercion – but there is a difference between that and the compulsion that now seems the rule. It’s also a long-term process, like playing a strong fish on a line – not a drag-net for bulk small fry.

I cannot be part of a corporate machine that seems intent on ingesting people at an ever earlier age – for what? It’s hardly as though the evidence of a thriving society is all around us.

I still consider that the role of the teacher is fundamentally a job of cultivation; my recent experience is not going to change that view. I don’t see education as a process of stamping conformity on people – in fact quite the opposite. The freest societies are those that allow individuals to follow their own paths, by breaking the mould if necessary. In the process, one hopefully builds a society good enough that people choose to opt back into it.

I have my suspicions about the real agenda. Top of the list has to be the disposal of expensive teachers in the least expensive way. But it is both cowardly and cruel not to do the right thing by people who have given good – and long – service: to throw them on the scrap-heap simply because it’s the cheapest thing to do. And doubly so, if my suspicions are right, to engineer situations by which to ‘justify’ those actions, to the extent of exploiting people’s weaknesses or misfortunes.

The worst part is that I will not have the opportunity to clear my name. If my departure does come to pass, I will go down on the list of ‘necessarily removed failures’ rather than much-missed assets. I know this is deeply unjust – but it will probably still be the case.

I am unclear what the future holds. At 53, I am hardly at peak employable age; I will come expensive to any school that might want me. I am the Eurostar of teachers – the latest thing in its day, now mid-life but good for plenty more, given a bit of T.L.C. But now being prematurely scrapped because big business thinks it costlier to refurbish than replace. What a waste!

In any case, I am not sure I have much left to give: at present, this experience feels as though it has drained what was left of my will to work in education.

I look at those glossy adverts for teaching and want to shout, “Don’t do it – if only you knew…!” Not because teaching is a bad job; on the contrary, it is an excellent job. But it has been turned bad by a system that has lost sight of what it is actually for, that needlessly makes teachers’ lives so difficult that almost no one feels as though they can do it well and stay sane.

And then, when it has had enough of you, that same system actively helps you to feel even worse about yourself.

The solution to the teacher shortage is not glossy adverts; it is about creating a system that is realistic in its expectations, manageable in its demands – and doesn’t burn people up in the process, because I know I’m not the only Eurostar teacher.



I have an email from a parent, thanking me for five years’ teaching her child. The grade at G.C.S.E. was not high – but given that the child had significant learning difficulties, as a colleague observed, it probably still represents positive value added. According to the parent, my subject was the only one at school the child had really engaged with, thanks to my teaching.

I have a second email from a pupil in the same class thanking me, as I mentioned previously, for my support when the going got tough. That pupil got an A*.

Unfortunately, an algorithm predicted that the first pupil ‘ought’ to have scored four grades higher (even though the pupil didn’t manage that in any subject), whereas the second pupil simply got what was expected. I submitted both emails as annual review evidence; I cannot be certain they have even been read.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman reportedly gave a speech this week criticising schools for their obsession with league tables. She rightly pointed out that gaming the system simply to improve schools’ standing is in effect a corruption of the education process. Sean Harford of the same organisation has apparently said that data is a signpost, not a destination.

And yet we continue to be deluged with initiatives, from the College of Teaching down, seemingly intent on furthering ‘research-driven’ teaching. Presumably the research relies heavily on data for its ‘proof’.

I cannot accept that this is anything more than a distortion of the education process – and I have never been able to let my own teaching be driven by such concerns. The emails mentioned above might suggest why. As far as I am concerned, both of those pupils fulfilled their potential and equally important, had an affirming experience along the way.

Data/evidence/research/league tables have nothing to do with how educated young people become; knowing you got an A* may be a validation, but it is not being ‘educated’ per se. No, this obsession is not about pupils at all – but everything about teachers and schools ‘proving’ they have met political requirements. The sheer energy going into this at the moment shows just how narcissistic the education sector has (been forced to?) become.

Educational data simply cannot be impartial: there are too many unknowns involved. But if the system is going to set so much store by them, then it has a profound responsibility to get it right to a very high level of confidence. And if one accepts my concerns, then that it cannot but fail to do.

I will restrict myself to a couple of observations, which are not without personal signficance.

  1. Little heed is paid to the volatility of small data sets. In a class of 25, each child represents a +/- 4% effect on the data. One child’s performance makes a significant difference. Quite apart from the inherent instability, it is not consistent directly to compare the results for a teacher who had, say 75 exam candidates (and hence a less volatility) with one who only had 25.
  2. The breakdown of classes makes a difference. A former colleague had two classes in the same year group. One group scored 100% A*-C; the other scored 25%. Nobody questioned that because the classes were of different ability. And yet my colleague’s average A*-C percentage is lower than the one that got me into trouble with a mixed ability class. It came down to an arbitrary judgement that my result ‘ought’ to have been higher – even though comparison of ‘my’ grades with the same pupils in their other subjects suggests otherwise.

That is not a rigorous use of data, but equally, it is not clear what would be – and this is the reason I have no faith in this approach. Selective use of data thus becomes just another managerial weapon.

And what about the data suggesting that pupils’ results may correlate with their teachers’ state of mental health? Bitter experience makes this plausible for me; it is only on such grounds that I might be prepared to concede some deficiency. But it is hardly something I should be held accountable for, particularly when my working conditions arguably have been the cause to start with. Amanda Spielman may perhaps be thinking similarly – but in my case it is looking increasingly as though I am going to pay for my earlier obduracy with my career.

If statistics are inherently so powerful, then ones for mental health surely ought to be treated seriously and the root cause of the problem addressed. Yet the system seems intent on doing the opposite by just scrapping people when they burn out.

Furthermore, by using such tenuous grounds to make teachers’ lives more difficult, the sector is contributing to its own difficulties by wantonly disposing of experienced staff who, in any wider reading may be doing a perfectly good job.

And that is just warped.

Stiff Upper Lip

Resilience is an issue close to my heart at the moment. The organisational machinery is currently whirring around me. School is not unreasonably enacting its procedures for long-term absence. My Union is now in action too – but there are limits to what they can do, based on their regulations and no doubt pressure on resources.

Whether I will be able to attend the meeting the school wishes to have with me next week is as yet uncertain. I still find it hard enough to go out just to visit my G.P. without the anxiety symptoms returning.

It is both frustrating and embarrassing – though that is probably only my problem because everyone around is being very supportive. It is very easy to feel ‘pathetic’ right now, but for some reason the anxiety returned last week it is not something I can really control yet. But The System has only so much time for individual weakness.

The Daily Telegraph is reporting research finding that children who attend private schools tend to be more resilient than those who attend state ones.

That doesn’t surprise me, having had contact with both. The interviews within the report attribute this greater maturity to the breadth of experience offered. Very little about the hot-housing for exams that the state sector is besotted with.

Resilience and maturity are surely things that education should develop – but recent experience which seems to have focussed more on running the teachers ragged to ‘deliver’ what the children ‘need’ (or are ‘entitled’ to) is unlikely to develop this, so much as Little Emperor Syndrome. And in the meantime, it is clear what it can do to the teachers.

The state sector is often critical of the independent one, for reasons I largely share. But I suspect this research has hit on something, and I doubt it is only connected with the privileged backgrounds of private school pupils.

I had been feeling that my own resilience leaves a lot to be desired at the moment – until it was pointed out to me that three decades working in a state school is enough to test the resilience of a saint.

Affirmative Assessment

People don’t like feeling threatened, so it’s no surprise that children look worried when I announce a no-notice assessment; tests are traditionally seen as threatening. Many of my lower school pupils have been doing their first round of ‘brain only’ tests, and the reactions continue to be interesting.

I’ve written about these before, but to summarise, they consist of a mind-map projected onto the board, with a few topic headings and sometimes some content hints but nothing else. The purpose is to put the onus 100% on the pupils to show what they know, without support of any kind. I refuse to give anything more away than clarification of the summary points, which forces pupils to make their own decisions about their knowledge and how to use it. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and a number of colleagues have also taken up the idea, which has the added benefit of being blissfully straightforward to implement.

The rationale, which I share with my pupils, is that things that have been properly learned should be ‘in there’ just waiting to pop back out; mugging for a test is inherently artificial, and prone to immediate forgetting once the ‘threat’ has passed. This way, they can’t do that; we are effectively testing long-term rather than short-term memory.

Judging from the initial reactions of those who have never done this before, the idea of relying entirely on their own cognitive resources is distinctly unfamiliar. I worry that so much teaching in the past decade has revolved around the idea of easy accessibility that we have scaffolded learning to the point where children themselves rarely have to break a sweat. Some seem unfamiliar with the concept of actually being expected to know anything long-term; when I mention the problem of leaving your learning at the lesson door, some (metaphorically) nod in recognition. This way plays to the ‘Quiet’ qualities of inner knowledge – and there is no escape.

So after a brief preamble, they are let loose and spend the remainder of the hour working on their mind maps. Pupils are given A3 paper on which to communicate their ideas as they decide. This format is helpful because it allows pupils to start writing at whatever point they feel they can. Getting started is often the most difficult part, after which everything does indeed just ‘pop back out’, with many writing at length. Credit is given for (correct) extra information that pupils can provide from their own knowledge.

I have refined the process over the years – I judge more carefully the point at which they are allowed to consult their books deferring it if it seems appropriate. This is a one-way decision of their own choosing, following which they notionally score marks at half the rate. They must write in a different colour from that point, for which we now use GREEN – the idea being that knowledge which requires book consultation is effectively that which needs further work.

I have used this across the ability range, with very little modification – the intention being for all to aim as high as they can. I  level the results broadly using KS3 levels, with five or above needing reasonable explanation and six or more needing analysis. Writing diagnostic comments is easy – and the scripts are relatively quick to mark.

But the best bit is that, once familiar with the process, many pupils say they like the format. Quite a few rise to my challenge not to need to open their books – and very many report being pleasantly surprised at how much they find they do know; that is very empowering. I find it rewarding, too, to observe the explicit effects of my teaching. There is ample scope for positive reinforcement, and it also forces a realisation upon those who struggle that maybe they do need to pay more attention. Over time, this procedure provides an incentive to try to retain what they learn in lessons, as they now know they will be expect to demonstrate it. We are talking about real learning here, not just short-term performance.

Progressive teachers may be nodding knowingly at this point – but I see little to contradict the traditionalist ethos either, in giving pupils what amounts to a half-termly exam in silence. The key thing is that the task is demanding but still affirmative. And it has an interesting effect on behaviour, which also makes me wonder what the pupils are experiencing across their education more generally as a result of the all-singing-all-dancing type of lesson they perhaps more frequently encounter.

For all that they often seem unable to focus for long, when given a challenging task of this sort for which they have no option but to concentrate on their own resources, many do seem perfectly capable of rising to the challenge. Last period on Friday, I had a sometimes-difficult low ability class writing in silence for an hour without any bidding from me. Now that has to be worth doing.

You Take the High Road…

the path forks

The end of a year in which the contradictions within education became even more apparent – as did the inequalities between the paths one can take…

The balance is shifting towards traditional teaching.

Though my instinct has always been for traditional techniques, years of exposure to progressive doctrine had their effect, especially while one’s perceived success as a teacher palpably hung on its adoption. But things have begun to change: most importantly, a coherent rationale is emerging for traditional approaches. This is important because it counters the claim from progressives that traditionalism is little more than the confirmation-bias of a bunch of luddites.

But whether it will translate to anything more substantial in schools remains to be seen. From my own experience, the progressive message has gone distinctly quiet, but the alternatives are hardly being given coverage.

My own determination to adopt a more traditional approach was sustained. I am not claiming unequivocal success: as with all outcomes in education, it’s not as simple as that. But despite the difficulties encountered with pupils whose expectations were clearly of something else entirely, I can cautiously say that plenty did start to exhibit (and expect) more formal educational behaviours.

We need a clearer path for classroom teachers

One of the problems with traditional teaching has been the lack of career progression. Once one had mastered one’s classroom, there was little left to do except gradually turn into Mr. Chips – hardly a mark of success in a career-obsessed world. This, fundamentally, is the reason for the growth of Management – it provides a more acceptable and defined career path for teachers. But in doing so, it removes people from the core business.

Many of my teacher-friends in Switzerland exhibit little desire to take the management route: they seem happy developing their academic and pedagogical skills, and this seems far more acceptable than it is in Britain. I suspect that the flatter management structures and the relative lack of career snobbery make it easier. My closest friend in particular seemed perfectly happy until his recent retirement (and despite his doctorate) to develop his personal practice without the need for hierarchical validation; he is not alone.

In the U.K., remaining in the classroom is still seen as a dead-end that is becoming increasingly unattractive due to the growing pressure on classroom teachers from elsewhere. We need a more appealing second route – and it needs its own type of performance criteria.

Despite initiatives such as Advanced Skills Teachers, it is not easy to pin down good teaching in ways that make it short-term accountable – or rewardable – in a system dependent on tick-box criteria. But it may not be necessary either. So long as teachers’ incomes are not significantly eroded, people who follow this path may be less concerned about hierarchical prestige or financial reward in the first place. What is more important is preserving the autonomy for them to teach as they need.

It is quite possible for teachers to ‘plateau’ once they have mastered their classroom – but I increasingly think this is not the end of the matter. My reading over the past couple of years has yielded many insights into behavioural and philosophical matters that have enriched my understanding of what I do, materially influenced my professional behaviour and increased the effectiveness with which I respond to my pupils.

Little of this is outwardly observable, let alone box-tickable, and little of it needs to be implemented in an unremitting, doctrinaire way. It is more a matter of the person one becomes – and the ways in which this informs one’s personal practice. There is a pleasing solidity to the inner knowledge that, at last, one has reached a degree of professional depth and resilience that endures, no matter what ‘the system’ throws at you.

So just at a time when the future appeared to promise only ‘more of the same’, through the clouds new heights have become visible – and maybe therein lies a way to develop a more profound definition of what it means to be a classroom professional. It needs to become more possible and acceptable for people to pursue this route – and this means providing the means for development equal to those available to managers.


You can’t go down both paths.

A vacancy arose for Head of Department, and at long last I felt confident that I could do the job and address the specific issues. But it became clear that I am too far down the Mr. Chips path and the role went to a young chap a couple of years in. I am sure he will learn (steeply) – but I doubt the wisdom of closing off such roles to those with the insight of years; time was when many heads of department were in the latter stages of their careers.

Maybe I am a late developer – but I know things now that would make for more considered decision-making, and the implementation of far sounder educational practices than when I was younger. I think it was the unformed awareness of this that prevented me from making a more convincing case for promotion in my own early years. But external appearances count – even though, as Kahneman observes, brassy confidence may simply betray lacking awareness of the limits of the possible. It seems as though one must choose at a stage of one’s career when these greater truths are still invisible.

There is still only one route open to the success-hungry teacher – and it leads away from the classroom. What is more, those left behind are ever more closely controlled by people who took it. By taking the path labelled ‘management’ one starts dining at entirely different tables – and one’s diet becomes that of effective management rather than effective teaching; they are not necessarily the same thing, even if those in charge seem to think otherwise.  Thereafter, developing further as a teacher is either taken for granted – or of limited interest. Clearly, management is needed – but why is the path of pedagogy allowed to peter out in a thicket, while that of management leads on to ever richer pastures?

How will this lead to better education in the future?

TP will be taking its customary break over the summer; no doubt issues will arise that require comment – but normal service will resume in September.

What did you expect?

The boy was confident; despite his mere twelve years, he betrayed no sense that he might need to moderate what he said to an adult more than four times his age, and one of his teachers at that.

“I don’t concentrate because Geography’s hard. It’s not fun and I don’t like it”.

My heart sank a little; whatever our views on teaching, this is not really what we want to hear. But the reasoning is worth exploring further:

  1. I expect lessons above all to be fun;
  2. This subject is difficult;
  3. Therefore it is not fun;
  4. Therefore I don’t like it;
  5. Therefore I am justified in not engaging with it.

I had held him back after a lesson because he has been presenting low-level issues with poor attention and work-rate. He is something of an attention-seeker and one of the many children I encounter who, I would consider, have a self-confidence vastly inflated beyond the normal egocentrism of childhood.

But my teaching has clearly not engaged this pupil, and that gives cause for reflection. Needless to say, my reading of the situation was different. Consistent with the views of colleagues who also teach him, the lad’s reasoning needs to be reversed: being an attention-seeker, he tends to ignore the rules of the classroom, and he needs regular steering in order to keep him on task. He tends to shrug off gentle reprimand and needs firm treatment before he begins to take notice. He is of moderate ability and has struggled to understand the work as a result of his inattention.  His need for instant gratification means he lacks the tenacity when the going gets difficult. In short, he is not equipped for the secondary-school classroom.

There is a clash of expectations here that says much about the central conflict within education.

Given that the pupil concerned has been in this school for less than a year, much of his outlook has probably carried over from his earlier experiences. Whether the attention-seeking is simply temperament, the effects of over-indulgent parenting or a sign of something more complex is not yet clear. Whatever, this boy clearly perceives his schooling as something where his response and effort are conditional, rather than – as I would prefer – an opportunity at which he has a duty to try his hardest. How to turn this round?

He appears not to distinguish between himself and adults in terms of knowledge or authority; while not disrespectful, he shows no embarrassment when reprimanded, and considers it acceptable to respond with his own view.  This may be part of regular childish immaturity, but the over-assurance of the response perhaps is not. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of his home.

No matter how unacceptable I find this boy’s attitude, I am nonetheless required to address it. Indeed, it is going to be necessary to break through it before it is possible to educate him effectively. By the age of twelve, it may already be too late, and the degree of progress possible is unclear, for all that I will continue to correct his behaviour. Maybe the lad will find the teacher who ignites him, but I’m not holding my breath.  Any change is more likely to be gradual and partly a matter of how he matures. We cannot claim sole credit for that…

The progressive movement correctly identified this problem: we cannot, ultimately, control the autonomous actions of our pupils – only influence them (however strongly). But it arrived at precisely the worst conclusion – that therefore we need to curry our pupils’ favour by making school ‘fun’. The problem with this is its denial of the conditions necessary for learning. Most subjects vary internally in their appeal, but learning is also matter of hard work. Then there is the historic fact that children have disliked school throughout the ages – probably because of the loss of freedom that it represents as much as anything more specific. Believing that one can address this by changing the nature of lessons is a step too far.

Failure to face the difficulty of learning causes avoidance of precisely those elements essential to advance it.  This is not the approach advocated in other fields – for example it is accepted that prowess at sport requires graft, and musicianship likewise. So why does collective wisdom insist that academic learning must primarily be ‘fun’? We should be showing children that it’s more important than that.

I’m not sure that Geography is inherently ‘fun’ anyway. It has its appealing topics – but in the final reckoning, it is what it is – the rational study of the complex world around us. Developing an awareness and understanding of that is a profoundly important activity – but in my experience, the only way to make it self-consciously ‘fun’ is by using activities that distract from the content by masking it with trivia. Real interest requires a mindset that is prepared to find the world interesting, and which enjoys challenge. It is not something that can be generated by jelly-carving or puppet shows, and I suspect that the same is actually true of most subjects. By the time children arrive at my door, they need at least an implicit acceptance of that.

Interest (rather than ‘fun’) comes from the role- and knowledge-model that I present to my pupils. One can sometimes ‘hook’ children by reference to prior experiences – but this is restricted to things they already know about. Formalising our ‘study’ is just as good – and there are other ways: my classroom persona and wit are helpful tools for engagement, as is narrative, as is my ‘desk-side manner’ – all parts of the teacher-craft that conventional performance measures tend to diminish. Communicating the importance and ‘bigger picture’ of education plays a part too.

But what are we to do about pupils who are already lost to this? While much of the problem may come from beyond school, we do need to examine the expectations that the school system itself is creating. Children’s expectations of school inevitably come principally from what they encounter there, both formally and through peer contact.  I suspect that the call for ‘fun’ comes largely from unstructured primary school experiences, which may explain the difficulty some children find in coping with more formal situations.

In secondary schools, we should be careful with the messages we send: if we create specific expectations regarding teachers’ methods, it is hardly surprising if pupils respond accordingly. Almost as bad is the emphasis on engagement over all else; by highlighting this, we are all but legitimising disengagement. This also affects how teachers decide to teach. If enough opt for the high fun/low learning approach because that is what has been stipulated, then it is hardly surprising if pupils struggle when they encounter a teacher who makes more formal demands. It is hardly fair to judge the teacher alone on the consequences.

I am not suggesting that teachers should give no consideration to how they present their subject – but we need greater realism about the purpose of secondary education, and it is essential that pupils are equipped to cope with it. It is of course incumbent on teachers to teach as well as they can – though what that means and how it is defined is much wider than the mechanics of what happens in a specific lesson. But how, and to what extent they can be deemed responsible for the learning that results is another matter, especially when they are facing ill-prepared pupils. Neither am I convinced that less able pupils need ‘more fun’ in the name of differentiation – I have seen plenty of children of modest ability who coped perfectly well with formal learning; what makes all the difference is the expectation.

I was satisfied with one comment from my pupil: he is finding the subject difficult. Were that not the case, then I could stand guilty of pitching my lessons too low. But how we change the highly limiting perceptions he expressed is much less obvious. He needs to work harder and concentrate more – but how to ‘persuade’ him when that is not already engrained belief is much harder. It is not, I think, a bone of contention between traditionalists and progressives that the most effective learning requires intrinsic motivation; the problem is what to do where that does not already exist.

I may be required to address the situation as I find it – but what success might reasonably be expected for issues that range wider than – and possibly predate – my intervention is far from clear.

Turning it all around #3: Held to account.

Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Pasi Sahlberg

One so often sees in education the application of extraordinarily blunt instruments to a subtle and intricate process that it’s easy to wonder whether those devising them really have much understanding of that process at all.  Holding professionals to ‘account’ might seem like a perfectly reasonable step within a complex modern society – until one reflects further on both the meaning of the word, and the nature of what is being attempted.

I have no difficulty whatsoever for being held responsible for my actions as a teacher – but therein lies the first nuance: responsibility is accepted, but accountability is imposed. What is more, accountability has a whiff of retribution about it, suggesting no consideration of the circumstances whatsoever, whereas responsibility again is more nuanced, and has positive as well as negative connotations. But what, therefore, am I to make of the advice from a senior manager some years ago, that one should never apologise (to a parent)?

Teaching is not like working on a production line. Unlike machinery, people do not usually submit willingly to direct control – and immature ones especially so. Many of the impacts of my work depend on how others react to what I do – and I have little direct control of that: influence is the best I can really hope for. Claiming that failure is simply the premeditated failure of the professional to get it right vastly over-simplifies the nature of the situations we deal with.

Increasing the intervention may even result in the opposite effect to that desired. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that the more I do for my pupils, the less they feel they need to do for themselves, and I have colleagues who are finding the same. The incitement to teachers to do more may well be having a negative effect, while a ‘failure’ to act may just as easily be the result of insightful judgement as neglect.

There is a multitude of external factors that also affect the outcomes of a teacher’s work, many of which involve purely reactive relationships. And yet institutional thinking believes it reasonable to hold teachers individually to account for many such situations – sometimes so precisely that a numerical target is applied. This is a denial of reality, for production targets are meaningless in real educational terms, more subject to apparent chance than anything else.

Such has been the emphasis on the supply-side of education in recent years that my pupils often react with surprise when I remind them that their teachers also exist to assess how they respond to the education they are being given. Many now seem to see schooling as a situation where they are the purely passive recipients of a service, where they need take no responsibility for any of their actions or outcomes.  This has been exacerbated by the demise of things that ‘remind’ them of those responsibilities, such as end-of-year exams in lower-secondary education.

Teaching children such responsibility is in itself part of their education.The effect of ramping up the demands on precisely those who have only partial control of the situation has been to shift the emphasis away from those whom we are really seeking to influence. The argument that children have diminished responsibility on account of their immaturity misses the point in typically progressive fashion: the whole purpose of education is to develop such understandings in them, not give in to the fact they don’t already have them. It is, in my view, entirely reasonable to place upon children a requirement that they too accept some responsibility for their actions, and that includes engaging with the educational process. But I would also argue that a teacher’s responsibility therefore also extends to not duping them into believing that lessons are simple matters of transient fun, with no longer-term consequences.

To remove from children any sense of their own ability or need to influence their own futures is about as great a disservice to them as I can imagine.  What is more, the zero-sum argument that children only have one chance in life is just another denial that reality is not perfect. Some children will always ‘fail’, whatever the criteria we use, through no fault of our own. And it is also worth remembering that without ‘failure’ there can also be no ‘success’ either. Forcing people onto the defensive about this is hardly helpful.

I would not wish to visit accountability on others – but if we are going to use it, then it needs to be done wisely. The key considerations must surely be:

  • an accurate identification of what the real determinants of a situation actually are;
  • where and to what extent control of them really lies, and
  • the appropriateness with which success and failure are defined.

I find it perfectly acceptable to be held responsible for my actions as a teacher – to a degree proportionate with the real influence I have over the situation. This must include an acceptance that I do not have the benefit of hindsight when making decisions about particular courses of action. I also accept it on condition that the criteria for success or failure reflect the reality of the situation, and that the assessment is made by those who have sufficient sophistication themselves to understand the interplay between all of the relevant factors.

But I do not accept it unconditionally in order to become a fall-guy whose function is to absorb the poor decisions and risk-offloading of others simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

Responsibility is a complex dynamic, particularly in collegiate institutions such as schools, and I think the balance is currently so far from being correct that it is probably doing more harm than good. If we are going to continue with such notions, there is probably only one indicator which comes close to giving a proportionate and realistic assessment – and that is intent.

In other words, we need to examine people’s motives, for this is the clearest indicator of whether they are acting in good faith or not, while also accepting that we do not live in a perfect or predictable world. This is in itself difficult, but it comes back to the concept of an on-going, individual professional ethic. Appraising this – over a suitable period of time – would provide a fairer and more accurate reflection of a teacher’s conduct that any number of attempts to pin on individuals blame for situations whose outcomes they could neither accurately predict nor fully control – or whose causes were actually collective.

But the real problem is the misidentification of the locus of responsibility in the first place. Of course teachers need to discharge their duties as well as humanly possible – but that is rarely in genuine doubt. Therefore they are not usually deserving of blame. We need to spend less time holding teachers to account and more time ensuring that the expectations of the children themselves are sufficiently demanding.

Weasel Words 1: Success

I’ve been reading on through Dominic Cummings’ magnum opus. It’s interesting, if heavy reading – the guy clearly isn’t ever going to be a poet… I’m finding his insistence that the solution to education’s (and Society’s) problems lies in a techno-fix to be questionable, if predictable. Some of his observations are enlightening and concerning in equal amount – consider the following:

“Given the lack of empirical research into what pupils with different levels of cognitive ability are capable of with good teachers…and given excellent schools (private or state) show high performance is possible, it is important to err on the side of over-ambition rather than continue the current low expectations.”

(Amen to that.)

“Because so many of those responsible for devaluing standards use some of the language of cutting edge science (e.g. ‘peer collaboration’), it has provoked many of those who wish to reverse such devaluation to reject arguments that are based on science because they sound like pseudoscience to people who have to listen to debates about schools.”

(Too true – though he goes on to say that some of those methods are not in themselves flawed – a reasonable observation)

“One of the main problems is that state schools have defined success according to flawed league table systems based on flawed GCSEs while private schools have defined success according to getting pupils into elite universities and therefore taught beyond A Levels”.

The question that is racing through my mind on reading this is how does Cummings define ‘success’?

This of course is a much wider issue. The education system is now riddled with the casual use of words like ‘success’, ‘progress’, ‘good’, ‘bad’ and of course ‘failing’. I am left wondering whether they actually have any real meaning any more, or whether like ‘Outstanding’, they have been completely devalued.

‘Success’ is surely a weasel-word if ever there was one – it can mean what you want: is a happily married individual a personal ‘success’ or – if they valued this above workaholia – a career failure? It all depends what you’re looking for.  Schools regularly talk about pupils’ ‘success’ when what I think they mean is ‘exam success’. And even then, one person’s success might be another’s failure. What they actually mean is the number of students who got high grades – not at all the same thing.

I wonder whether Cummings also has this in mind as his chosen indicator; I’m not decrying exams as one measure of students’ capabilities, but that is a different term entirely – and we should use the concept more carefully. I don’t think that exams are particularly good at measuring even intellectual success, especially now that so much effort goes into drilling pupils in exam tactics: crossing grade thresholds has become a more important objective than actually demonstrating knowledge and understanding per se. Cummings’ comment in the third extract above shows the dangers of this. Real, inherent intellectual ability barely comes into it any more  – and it could be added that both schools and exam boards have colluded in this by weakening the exam system though providing huge quantities of analysis, information and hot-housing in  the name of transparency and ‘accessibility’. Or is it actually for demonstrating ever-rising pass-rates? The chart below, extracted from Cummings’ essay makes interesting viewing.

Chart: Comparison of English performance in international surveys versus GCSE scores (Coe)


I think we need to rediscover a much wider definition of success. I’m not being bleeding-heart about it – I’m unsentimental that in order to identify success, one also needs the existence of failure (which is where many educationalists go all weak-kneed) – just that we should be much more circumspect in the use of such terms. This is especially so when we slip into fake-quantification of such terms, often without defining our criteria or parameters – and then go on to make far-reaching judgments about students or teachers based on what are actually highly subjective observations conveniently dressed up in pseudo-scientific terms.

I sometimes think of teachers as ‘planters of seeds’ – we cultivate the ground, sow the seed and nourish it for a short while. But we rarely see the crop come to ripeness – that takes several decades. This is success of a largely unseen, unquantifiable kind, but I would argue, by far the most important, whether for the individuals concerned, or for society as a whole. What the bean-counters are measuring is not intellectual, academic or personal success (which is what I thought we were about) – but simply those who succeeded in riding the system.

The same could be said for judgments passed about ‘good’ or ‘talented’ teachers. I will return to that another day…