Thursday, 23 October 2014

Teachers' Workload?

This is the latest (to quote Alan Partridge, or at least his radio jingle)...Hot...Topic...doing the rounds. New-ish Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (I expect she'll stop being called 'new' when she actually does something) is keen to hear from teachers for practical ways to reduce their workload, thereby increasing their workload in the process. Far be it for me to suggest that all this talk of workload has something to to with next year's election, but the two major parties do suddenly seem to have become the parties of care. Whether a workload is light, heavy or excessive is very much in the eye of the worker, and I have worked in day Schools and boarding Schools, single-sex and mixed Schools, City Schools and rural Schools and I can say with some certainty that the definition of hard work varies wildly from teacher to teacher. People vary in levels of efficiency and capacity and to talk about 'teacher workloads' as a catch-all term makes no sense. I have worked in the same School with people who worked extraordinarily hard and didn't seem to bat an eyelid and others who did precious little but still found time to moan (the sort of people who don't actually say hello in the corridor, but raise their eyes just a little as they pass you, just to let you know that the weight of some globe or other is still fixed to their shoulders).

Managing workload is a collective responsibility, jointly held by the individual and the School's management. It seems reasonable to expect that teachers will work long hours during term time. The job affords around 3 to 4 times as much holiday time as other professions and the job security could be said to offset the relatively meagre financial rewards. It is sensible to start with an expectation that days will be long during term time, whilst remembering that you're rarely more than six weeks or so from at least one week off. I don't know if teachers feel that they have a monopoly onlong days and hard work, but I don't remember many of my friends who worked in the City coming home on the 5pm train. They may have earned far more than I did, but they sold their souls in the process!

But lest this blog become a 'back in your box' message for teachers, here's some ideas about how the individual and School management can come together to make life easier (or at least more effective):


This should not inform all that you do. This should not hang like a Damoclean sword above your head. You should rarely (if ever) ask yourself whether Ofsted like this. You should never get in trainers who talk about what Ofsted like. Inspections happen once every few years or so and you will teach several thousand lessons in between ones that are observed during inspection.  Concentrate on these lessons, do things that you find work, the things that allow the pupils to learn things. Ofsted don't know your pupils, you do, and you should have the courage to teach the best way that you can, not with some manual in the background. Being in charge, feeling empowered to teach the best way that you can is a pretty good feeling.


It's really important, but it's not *that* important. You can set work that takes 3 hours to mark and the pupils won't have learned any more than if it took sub-1 hour. Don't be a martyr. Multiple choice questions are great for many subjects and can be marked quickly. Occasionally (very occasionally) pupil marking is fine. Pupils need time to read; give them that time. Give good feedback, but make sure that the time you spend marking isn't so excessive that that feedback gets lost in a mass of ticks, crosses and marks out of 300.


This is really important too, but it has to be worthwhile. Anodyne reports that say very little are often worse than no reports at all. Move away from an 'end of term' model where teachers need to mark exams and then write 150 reports. They will end up sounding generic. Stagger your reporting throughout the year so that teachers only have to write a maximum of half that number each session. 'No-one grew taller by being measured more often' is certainly true, but make sure you space out your sessions appropriately. Too often and people are writing reports almost every week, not often enough and you'll drop the baby. Not all reports need to be sent home; try short, pithy (and honest) internal comments on pupils.

Data generation

The data that you generate should be valid, understandable and must lead to worthwhile things happening. Being able to praise colleagues where the raw data doesn't show anything special is important, likewise being able to support colleagues who are struggling. Setting appropriate targets for individual pupils, being able to treat pupils as individuals, not as merely a part of a top or bottom set - data can help with this. Make it someone's job to produce and present the data - teachers then only need to read it to help their understanding of the pupils they teach. Don't use data to beat people - use it to support and enhance professional judgement.

Activities, worksheets and powerpoints

These can take ages. Make sure that any time you spend designing activities or producing worksheets is worth it. A fantastic lesson is not characterised by the number of different activities you have going on. Starters, Post-Its, white-boards, plenaries might all be useful at certain times, but you don't need them every lesson! especially if planning time is tight. Too many teaching strategies these days seem to be less about teaching and more about engaging the reluctant learner. If your delivery is dynamic, if you're the most interesting thing in the classroom and if you can transmit enthusiasm for your subject, you won't have reluctant learners. If you ever hear yourself say that you need to create a ppt for every lesson because then you've got them forever, the profession just might not be for you.

It's supposed to be enjoyable

Most teachers will be delivering the subject in which they have a degree, certainly in the world of secondary School teaching. This was the subject for which you rejected all others. This is the subject you may have studied for nigh on 15 years at School, then at university. You may even have a doctorate. You now get to communicate all that knowledge and enthusiasm to a captive (for some of the time) audience. When I'm making gunpowder, synthesising paracetamol, extracting capsaicin or eugenol or just live-following the announcement of the Nobel prize in chemistry, I feel this is the best job in the world, and no amount of paperwork, books to mark, stroppy parents or Saturday night pub duties will disabuse me of this fact. And then I get to coach football in the afternoon. What's not to love? 

Workload? If it all feels like work, I think you're missing the point.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Working out what works?

The title of this blog is almost exactly the same as the website address of ResearchEd, Tom Bennett's education site, festival and behemoth. ResearchEd has mushroomed in the last couple of years, and the many hundred teachers that packed the rooms of Tom's School were testament to his energy in putting educational research somewhere near the heart of the education debate.

Only the question mark at the end is added by me. I attended ResearchEd 2014 last week, and found the whole day confusing and ultimately rather unsatisfactory. Maybe this is at least partially the point - education research is so full of complexity, counter-intuitive findings and uncertainty that I would have been foolish to expect the opposite. However, I spent several hours at Raine's Foundation School, and I don't think I took away anything that could be used practically in a classroom.

I deliberately stayed away from the usual suspects - Smith, McInerney, Didau etc. I have heard them speak before and felt that it was healthy to diversify. I did listen to Dylan Wiliam (he's the conference equivalent of crispy pork belly - if it's a choice on the menu, you have to make it) and he made most sense on the day, explaining why teaching will never be a research-based profession. The usually reliable Rob Coe followed him up, in part as counter-argument, but he seemed miffed that so many people had evacuated the hall post-Wiliam and failed to convince. I have seen the Sutton Trust Toolkit graph (plotting effect size vs cost per pupil for various educational strategies) on multiple occasions now, and much of it makes sense and tallies with my experience. Points that go against our instinct are useful discussion starters, and it's always wise to approach an educational conversation with an open mind.

I find it difficult to explain why ResearchEd was so frustrating. The quality of the presentations I watched were poor, but maybe I was unlucky. There was much reading from PowerPoint (one presented in Comic Sans) and several of the presenters had moved so far away from the classroom that I even felt their anecdotes were out of date. The presentations I watched in the afternoon didn't really have a beginning or an end - it was as though I has stumbled upon lecture 5 or 6 of a 12 part series. The whole concept and title of ResearchEd appeared to be constrictive, with people skewing their presentations to fit in with the theme. This was quite unlike the Education Festival at Wellington College back in June, which gave speakers the freedom to present on far-reaching issues in education and was more inspiring as a result.

Many of the pertinent questions went unanswered: should teachers undertake their own research; should Schools employ a Head of Research (or Research Champion); can one apply with confidence research findings of 'what works', and if so, how does one look to embed this on a daily basis? These for me are the key questions, but I never felt that the conference got to the real meat. We skated on the surface and oft-quoted the phrase about things being a bit more complicated than that. The strategies that 'work' only work if done well, and if not done well, they actually have negative effects. I was also left wondering if many of the teachers who undertake their own research have simply reached that point in their career where they needed something else to occupy them; intellectually curious people looking for a project.

The aim of the conference is noble; all teachers should be interested in improving their practice. Finding out what works and committing to that. Teaching as a profession does need to improve, and the best way of doing that is to know what improvement looks like. Questioning what it is that we do, and how we can do it better, should be central to the profession. Teachers shouldn't be made to feel under pressure from above (or anywhere) but striving for 'good enough' is under-ambitious and a culture of improving through training or otherwise is healthy. Teachers should be supported in their wish to improve, and an awareness of research is just one part of that. In teaching, all strategies should be evaluated in terms of time spent vs measurable outcomes. Using educational research to work out what works seems to be nigh on impossible, given the occasionally conflicting evidence and the possibility of positive and negative effects of the same area of focus. Dylan Wiliam talks about 'loving the one you're with', and states that all teachers can improve, whilst taking care to note that it's not because they are not good enough in the first place. I do agree with this, but I also feel that raising the quality of those who enter the profession in the first place is important. Teachers are not regarded with the same distrust and loathing as bankers, but it is not a profession with the status it deserves.

The characteristics of excellent teaching are hard to define, but a non-controversial short list should include subject mastery, ability to communicate that subject at all levels, application of consistently high standards for one's pupils, a willingness to work hard and a level of intuition that is palpable. How much of this is innate and how much can be trained? To what extent can an interest in education research help to improve teaching in these areas? I suspect the answer is not much. Willingness to accept training is a key part of improvement and without mentioning growth mindset, an understanding that we can all get better and should look to do so is vital. You cannot expect the same level of performance from everyone, but appointing clever, talented people in the first place is always a good start. We should not be looking for minimum competence, but to appoint teachers that will have a positive impact on those around them. Sharers, not hoggers; subject experts, not those a few pages ahead of pupils; confidence, not arrogance; making people feel better, not worse; making people's lives easier, not harder; giving people the support they need to improve, not setting targets without showing teachers how to attain them. 

I'm not sure it could ever be possible to evaluate the impact of ResearchEd on those that attended, but it did very little for me. I'm delighted that so many of my colleagues across the country display an interest, but you'll get a lot more from a nice summer day at Wellington College.

Friday, 15 August 2014

The case against AS

24 hours after A level results were released to pupils, so the dust begins to settle.  Maths overtakes English as the most popular A level (re-tweeted with glee by Liz Truss), A* is up, A is down, overall passes down for the first time since 1982, many girls did a lot of jumping, someone got 11 A levels at A*/A and said their time-management was poor.  There are probably some twins who got identical results, and an 8 year old who got an A level in Computer Science, but these stories must have passed me by, at least for one year.

The legacy of Gove is being celebrated by some and damned by others.  Entries for facilitating subjects (for the uninitiated, this means hard) are up at AS, A grades are down for the A level, a record number of students are likely to go to university.  But in fact, the changes are statistically pretty minor, and that is to be expected, because the only real change this year was that pupils were not able to take/re-take their AS levels in January.  They still had the opportunity to re-take AS modules at the end of their Upper Sixth, but they didn't have the opportunity to take some AS modules four times, which was the case previously.  The true legacy of Gove may well be noticed in a year or two's time, when the first cohort of pupils on linear courses receive their grades in 2016.

I don't care for modularity.  I don't think the introduction of AS has offered breadth.  I don't think the AS enables pupils to decide which subjects they wish to take to full A level.  I don't think exams at the end of the Lower Sixth help to focus or to motivate.  I don't think AS exams enable pupils to bank marks with the long term goal of higher overall grades.  I think it is patronising to suggest that pupils cannot cope with linear courses and that the material needs to be boxed up bite-sized for them.  Tristram Hunt's popular political statement to re-introduce AS (if elected) is anti-educational and a retrograde step.  In any case, Gove never 'banned' AS grades, he simply de-coupled them from A levels, following consultation with universities.

I experienced linear courses when I studied in the Sixth Form, and when I first become a teacher I taught linear A levels.  I taught though the introduction of modular courses in 2000, and the new re-vamped modular A levels in 2008.  I have taught the linear Cambridge Pre-U for the last 3 years.  I have taught in four different Schools.  I do not state a preference for linearity and then seek to justify; it is evidence that bring me to this point.  I do not think this is an exact science, and there are certainly some pupils for whom a modular approach is best.  Some subjects are perhaps more modular than others, and some do not suffer so much by the compartmentalisation of knowledge.  However, in a utilitarian world, linearity wins for me.

To make a case against AS, here's a de-bunking of the commonly quoted reasons for keeping them:

Pupils need to bank marks

Pupils in their GCSE year are well capable of learning two or three years' worth of material for terminal examinations.  In ten subjects.  Quite why they have become unable to cope with three (or four) subjects over two years is beyond me.  It is precisely those pupils who do not need to bank marks (the top academics) who end up doing so, and those pupils who should be banking the marks that end up sitting linear A levels anyway, given their need to re-take everything.

No pupil will be more linguistically developed at the end of the Lower Sixth, compared with that same pupil a year later.  No pupil will have a more advanced problem-solving ability.  Complex ideas need time to bed in, pupils need time to mature and adapt.  Starting a School at 13 means that each pupil will have around 150 weeks of build-up to their GCSEs.  Starting in the Sixth Form leaves you with just over 20 to get the AS syllabus completed.

The 'bad day'

The likelihood of such a 'bad day' is directly proportional to how well prepared you are for an examination.  The likelihood of said bad day can be nigh on eliminated by being very well prepared indeed.  All Pre-U linear courses involve four assessment modules, one of which is usually a coursework assignment.  Even accepting the fact that a pupil might mess up one of the questions (or even a whole paper), there are still three further chances (one different days) to atone.

Pupils are focussed/motivated by the AS exams

This is a fairly lazy argument, offered by the sort of teacher who attempts to gain the attention of pupils by stating that the current topic is 'popular with the examiners'.  'This is a question that often comes up' might be used as a way to raise Lower Sixth Formers from their slumbers.  But these pupils should be motivated by the subject material, after all they have rejected over half their GCSE subjects to study your course in the Sixth Form.  I want my pupils to be interested in the work for its own sake, to build up knowledge, to gain an interest (and facility) in solving problems.  I don't want them to feel that everything is building up to this examination, occurring just 25 School weeks after they started the course in the first place.

Options are cut off

I have no problem with pupils studying four subjects through the Lower Sixth, and then dropping one at the end of the year.  They just don't have to take an AS in that subject.  I read an article in The Independent yesterday stating that without the AS exam, the pupils will not know which subject is their weakest, and which they should drop.  Surely after 30 weeks of study, any pupil can tell which subject they have struggled with the most/enjoy the least.  You can also still give them an internal exam (which might even be an AS past paper), just in case they couldn't tell from the 200 lessons, numerous pieces of marked work, reports, feedback etc.  How many university courses require an extra AS, on top of three grades, when that could be made up with an EPQ anyway?  Some require four grades, and an extra AS wouldn't count towards that anyway.  

I encourage pupils to make positive choices - this is a subject I am good at, this is a subject about which I want to learn more, this is a subject I wish to study for two years.  The presence of AS can lead to a more negative mindset - if you're asking the question: what if I want to drop it after a year, there's a good chance you shouldn't be picking it in the first place.  If there's a course call Literature in English, it's best to pick it only if you like reading books.

The pupils have nothing to show for a year's study

Learning is generally more fun when there's no exam at the end of it.  If a pupil has studied Art, Economics, English or Physics for a year, they have gained plenty from that year.  The fact that they have no letter on a piece of paper to show for it does not make the year's learning worthless.  The existance of necessary knowledge (that which appears on a syllabus) and useless knowledge (about which no questions will be asked) is a fallacy.  

AS and A2 papers are completely different

This seems to be a flaw in the chosen syllabus.  If all the easy ideas are crammed into the Lower Sixth, pupils may well gain a false idea of their progress within that subject.  Incorrect information is worse than no information at all.

And if results are still all-important, and trump everything else about the educational experience, it's worth noting that where we have moved to linear assessment, results have improved.  In every subject.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


Toilet roll: check.  Glow-stick: check.  Rock of weed wrapped in cellophane: check.  DM boots with band names marked in tippex: check.  Girl in bikini top on shoulders: check.  This is my imagined festival essentials list from 1993, the last time you'd have seen Kurt Cobain on the circuit and probably the last time you might have seen me packing for a real festival.

My festival essentials list for Wellington College last weekend were very different: map (to assist with locating the 'Spiritual Room', list of Twitterati I wished to meet, iPad and name badge (in the vain hope that someone bounded up to talk about this blog).  More festival nerd than festival chic, but I was excited for the event nonetheless.  The promise of 'freshly brewed organic beats' for the Friday night entertainment (presumably some recent Wellington leavers playing ukuleles whilst dressed in red cords) made me glad I was heading into London for the evening, but it was the daytime treats I was most looking forward to.  And here's what I did:

Day 1

Christopher Waugh

Donnie Darko disciple and wearer of double denim, Chris gave his excellent talk 'Deus ex Machina' about pupil choice, pupil voice and the co-creation of curricula.  He is certainly high up on my list to visit at the London Nautical School next year.  An idealist but also a realist, he draws you in with his enthusiasm and clear love of teaching and of his pupils.

Tom Sherrington

Predictably good.  I have read his blog for some years now, and he writes with great clarity but also humility - his gravitas comes from the fact that he is so able; he is collaborative and open to ideas without forcing them upon you.  I felt the talk was a little rambling, but maybe that was the purpose - look for a conclusion yourself rather than having it rammed down your throat.

Keiron Sparrowhawk

How could you not go to this talk?  He sounds like a cross between a fast bowler from the Leeward Islands and an LAPD traffic cop.  Sadly, he was neither.  His talk was on 'what makes a great leader' and during the 30 minutes I managed to stick it, I learned that pupils often thought MLK and Gandhi were great leaders, that I needed a mixture of luck and hard work, and I should drink only in moderation and eat my 5-a-day.

Laura McInerney

Laura is very sharp; her writing on education is perceptive; her Twitter feed is excellent.  I am sure that she gives excellent talks for the majority of the time.  This was not one of them.  Probably the most disappointing thing I saw because I know how excellent she could have been.  Instead, in her talk 'what makes a great education secretary' she presented a data-trawl on numbers of children, months of birth and time spent in the job, all to no obvious end or conclusion.  The more time in the job, the more they got done (and the more loathed they tended to be) and most of them were born in the summer.  Er...that was about it.

Dylan Wiliam

This man is superb.  He talks with articulacy, clarity and when he says 'research shows...' you know that he has read it, and really understands it.  Some teachers have chosen to trivialise AfL, but that's hardly his fault, and his embedding formative assessment materials are excellent.  He is interesting, inspirational and forces you to reflect on practice.  His 'debate' with David Didau was more 'Brokeback Mountain' for educationalists, but did provide for high-quality musing on some philosophical points of education.  When intelligent able people get together to talk education, it's a privilege to be able to sit back and watch.  

Day 2 

Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis spoke impeccably for 40 minutes without notes.  His talk ranged from School governance to apprenticeships and though perhaps of limited relevance to me, here was clearly a man with a fine moral compass and serious ability.  The former 'thin controller' makes one wonder what might have happened had he been given the chance to push on his vision.

Ian Leslie

The find of the tournament for me.  There's something of the Gareth Malone about him, but far less irritating.  He spoke about his book 'Curiosity', and curiosity in general.  I love this word, and it has yet to be bastardised in the same way of 'passion' and 'engagement'.  With just the right amount of certainty, conjecture and whimsy, I found myself taken in by his calm manner.  Note to self: book him in for next year.

Kris Boulton

I liked him a lot, and clearly so do a lot of others, as room 1 of the Mandarin Pagoda was packed to the rafters.  All the gang were here in support: Daisy, Andrew Smith, Katie Ashford; just don't call them the 'new traditionalists'.  Kris is very likeable and earnest, and talked a lot of sense.  I got the feeling (as I get with a lot of the relatively inexperienced teacher bloggers) that his ideas are in the process of being formed rather than fully formed and that he is reacting to the circumstances in which he has found himself, rather than extolling some deep educational philosophy.  It felt a little as though I was in some sort of clandestine 'cell' a la Hans Fallada/George Orwell, where people of like mind felt able to express themselves without fear of Ofsted and/or progressive reprisal.  I agreed with pretty much all he said, and expect that he's an excellent teachers; I just don't recognise the system he's railing against.

Geoff Barton

I expect that he's given this talk (or something similar) many times before, so polished it was.  However, he could power the College with his enthusiasm, and the message is just as impressive as the man.  When I check Twitter at 6am, there's always some Barton to read already that morning.  He makes me want to read more, he makes me feel like a grammatical ignoramus and he does it all with plenty of jokes and being genuinely likeable.  What a star.  

Keith Vaz, Katie Hopkins, David Starkey, Claire Fox

Drivel from start to finish.  Keith quotes abstract soundbites (we need to give our children the best, it's not all about A* grades), Katie sounds like a rabid right-wing housewife (some people are failures and need to go into catering), David says f*ck and praises Brighton College and Claire says little, probably bemused by the directionless shambles of D-list celebrities with whom she's having to share a stage.

David Baddiel and Cosmo Landesman

David Baddiel was excellent, as always, but was let down in a huge way by his interviewer.  I had never heard of Cosmo, but he was very poor, with no research, no ability to sit and listen and seemingly no idea that people hadn't come to see him.  Even David was struggling by the end, resorting to telling a feeble anecdote about Gove just to get off the topic of pornography.

This was an outstanding educational occasion.  The opportunity to be inspired, to discuss, debate and to network was a great privilege and this is surely the gold standard by which all educational meets can be judged.  And the toilets were fragrant.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Numbers and memory

This time last year I talked a lot about numbers. I talked about the number of small prizes won and commendations awarded. There were over 2000 academic awards made last year; the number this year is similar.

Our lives are dominated by numbers.  Sometimes we are bombarded with so many numbers, they become tangled and lose meaning.  Understanding the meaning of numbers can help us to understand the progress we make at School, but in order to understand progress, we need to understand the numbers – is 65% good, or disappointing? It can be both, seen through the eyes of two different people.  Here’s an example, and I’d like you all to have a go: how long is a million seconds?  I haven’t given you very long, but if you said 11 and a half days, well done.  Now have a go at a billion seconds?  If you said 32 years, well done.  That’s how long it would take you to count to a billion, one number per second.  Translating those initial numbers into a more understandable format helped to give them meaning.

What are the numbers that are relevant to you this year?  Commendations gained, runs scored and wickets taken, exam percentages, netball results, A* grades predicted, Twitter followers, Facebook friends.  These are all numbers. Some matter, some are meaningless.  Make sure you concentrate on the ones that matter.  The number of A and A* grades achieved matters, number of Facebook friends doesn't. I am not suggesting that your number of actual friends doesn't matter, merely the number of Facebook acquaintances, which is hardly necessarily a measure of real friendship.

You need to make sure that certain numbers are going up - exam scores for example, and others go down - pink cards. Human lives can't be measured purely in numerical terms, but they give you a good idea of how that life is going.  Of course this relies on your being able to remember your numbers from last Quarter, or last year.  If you don’t remember anything from the past, it’s difficult to gauge how you are performing in the present.  I am always amazed by what pupils do and don’t remember.  We can't always control what we take away with us from days, but days are where we live.  Some advice that I give and I really want to stick gets forgotten immediately (it will happen during this assembly), and other throwaway comments are remembered for years.  Sometimes pupils ask me years later if I remember saying this or that to them, and even if someone did say it to them once, I'm pretty sure it wasn't me.

R S Thomas, in his poem Abersoch, touches on the nature of memory:

There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

I wonder how many of you will remember this poem, its sentiment, its name and the name of the poet?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

It's the process, stupid

I came across the following quote, linked from a link from a link. It's a quote from Saracens Rugby chief executive, Edward Griffiths: 

I think this can apply to Schools, at least in some ways. Appointing clever, hardworking people, who have a broad range of interests themselves and are able to communicate with the pupils they teach is the most important part of my job. If you get it right, your School will develop organically into an effective institution without very much tinkering from the top.

Treating people well is important, but it is perhaps more complex in a School than in a rugby club. The players in a premiership rugby club are all men, and will be aged between about 20 and 35. The Oktoberfest (and similar) trips might be the stuff of dreams to lads in their 20s, but the thought of transposing my common room to Bavaria in the autumn doesn't sound like a very good, or realistic idea. People certainly need to feel valued, but being thanked at the end of a lesson by the pupils you have just taught is enough for me. I want management to give me a decent space for teaching, a reasonable timetable, a variety of classes and a sensible extra curricular load. I also want to feel supported in the sense that if I need help, I know who to ask. They should be able to help me, and won't judge me for asking. Beyond that, the rewards of the role are obvious: when pupils understand something that they didn't understand before, when they enjoy a book you have introduced them to, when they ask a question that makes you think about a topic in a whole new way. These are the daily rewards, and they have nothing to do with finding note-cards in your pigeon hole thanking you for something that was part of your job anyway. Small gestures, such as buying a colleague a drink at the end of a long day, are likely to be more appreciated than financial rewards, or timetable allowances, which lack the personal touch.

Perhaps where the Saracens approach most closely mirrors that of Schools is in the need to build a community. It is perhaps easier at a Boarding School, but if the majority of your common room treat the School as an office (enter at 9, leave at 5 - and yes, I know everyone marks and plans at home), it's hard to build that community. Helping pupils before or after School, having a drink with your colleagues at the end of the day, speaking with parents at Saturday sports fixtures, these all help to build a community where pupils, teachers and parents feel welcome. Never ask what your community can do for you. Communication can be effective over email or social media, but your community is easier to build if it has firm foundations - it must be centered.

The other point I think is worth emphasising is results being seen as outcomes of process. If you get the process right, you don't really need to worry about results. Again this is different for Saracens and Schools. Saracens play a lot of one-off 'winner takes all' ties, certainly in the cup competitions. In the latter stages of these competitions, all of the teams are good, and any team can beat any other team on any given day. One of the joys of sport is its unpredictability: the bounce of the ball, the Schoolboy error, the moment of genius that can decide games at the highest level, and Griffiths is right when he says that judgement on results alone is futile. The concept of 'deserving' in sport is often mentioned, with managers bemoaning the negative result when they had the majority of the possession and chances. You certainly don't always get what you deserve in top-level sport, but when it comes to examination results (at least from a whole-School perspective), you do get what you deserve. You are not competing against anyone else; one moment of genius from another pupil in the exam hall does not take away your grade, nor does another pupil not reading the question boost you to a higher level. You are in control of the situation, more like a snooker player in the balls than a rugby player scrapping to secure possession.

Schools need to be brave enough to ignore the quick fix. Don't start with the results and ask 'how can we improve?' Start with your process of education, start with your philosophy of education - and then question this. Exams are simply a celebration of knowledge gained up until that point. You might have two years with this set of pupils. How are you going to create the best set of chemists/geographers/mathematicians/linguists that they can be? A few weeks before the two years are up, you can then prepare them assiduously for an examination, but don't let the examination drive you. If you want to create pupils with a serious interest in literature, introduce them to everything you think is worth reading, don't simply plough through the ponderous Of Mice and Men (sorry, couldn't resist) because it represents the quickest and easiest route from A to B. You are not really doing the best for your pupils.

In summary: concentrate on process and results will be the glorious byproduct; look to build a community that includes everyone connected with the School; small daily rewards provide all the job satisfaction that most people need; working with talented and committed individuals day in, day out is something we should all be grateful for.

And if you do decide on Oktoberfest, remember to pace yourself and don't go for your first wee too soon.

Written for @edutronic_net #blogsync June 2014

Thursday, 29 May 2014

That's Rich

I remember this image from my School days.  It's certainly quite powerful.  Given the likely scale of the 100th anniversary celebrations (books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, historical dramas, things starring Benedict Cumberbatch, programmes beginning 'The Real...' on Channel 5), it may well be the case that in twenty years time children will be asking their fathers what they did during the Great War festival of remembrance. It may go on for so long that you'll get trench foot sat in front of the TV or neuralgia from squinting at Max Hastings' latest tome.

I wonder if anyone in years to come will ask the question 'What did you do during the great Of Mice and Men debate?'. Twitter has been pretty red hot on this issue since the published changes to GCSE English Literature were made public last week.  Hashtags so ridiculous they would have made Robin Thicke wince were developed such as #govekillsmockingbird and #getgovereading. Celebrities as well as us normal folk jumped on the bandwagon, without bothering to read up on the detail of what was actually happening; the bandwagon swiftly gained momentum and wild assertions followed that books from outside the UK had been banned. Familiar Gove-bashing themes such as his (supposed) obsession with C19 literature, the Little Englander mentality etc didn't take long to be trotted out. It is amazing how quickly things snowball when people know what they want to believe. Even when people had the good grace to apologise later, it still came with a but...

If you were unfamiliar with the texts under discussion, you might have believed that Of Mice and Men in such an essential text that it trumps all others.  Once you've read this book, essentially you're done, because no book encapsulates racism/sexism/economic hardship and cultural change in the way that OMAM can, and all in around 100 pages too.  Hey, there's a film too, and a stage play, and if you're really lucky, that chap from Stars In Their Eyes might be playing Lennie.  OMAM is very good; it's relatively easy to read (and short); the characterisation is strong; it deals with fundamental human issues.  I can see why people would want to teach it, but surely it has become something of a crutch if around 9 of every ten pupils studied OMAM for their GCSE English Literature examination last year.  This can't be right can it?

I remember reading the book as a double-header with Cannery Row and I found the latter to be far more powerful, in particular with its depiction of maintaining dignity despite poverty and the strength that can be gained by being part of a community.  OMAM is not the only book that allows pupils to explore the issues it touches upon. A widening of the texts to be studied, an appreciation of the great literature produced in this country, with no text from anywhere being banned.  Not that controversial, surely?

The problem of teaching time was cited by many as a key objection to the new syllabus - there simply isn't enough time to cover the material, they say. Given that many Schools took advantage of the modular approach to GCSEs by sitting exams in year 10, thus voluntarily diminishing teaching time, this argument is specious. The other main argument was that the changes to the syllabus would harm the 'lower grade' pupils, or as I also had it put to me, the 'disadvantaged' pupils. Now I suspect that the latter comment referred to pupils who are less rich, economically speaking, though I was assured that it referred to the 'disadvantaged reader' (you may work out for yourself what that means). I believe that is it the most common and most dangerous fallacy in education that cultural capital is the preserve of the wealthy. Education should be the greatest driver of social mobility, but as long as well-meaning though misguided individuals continue to perpetuate the myth that great works of literature, Art, music are for 'Them not Us', we will continue to preserve this schism in education. We should be ambitious and expect our pupils to show ambition. We should not shy away from the seemingly difficult texts just because the language isn't modern. After all, Twilight has a larger vocabulary than Sense and Sensibility.

Bank account wealth does not equal cultural wealth, but education can be the key to both. A weekend in Dubai will set you back a four figure sum. A weekend spent reading Orwell won't cost you any money at all, but your eyes will be opened that bit wider. I noted a petition with 50,000+ signatures demanding a volte-face on the new GCSE specification. It is these petitioners that will hold back pupils, through a lack of ambition and a misguided sense that academic education isn't for everyone.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Some reflections at the end of the School year

Writing this on 19 May will undoubtedly irritate some people.  It's not even close to the end of the School year.  In my defence, the Upper Sixth and Fifth Form have gone (gone into exam overdrive, certainly) and the sun is out, which means that it is summer.  I have also taught 26 Saturdays this year, so in terms of days taught, my 19 May is your 1 July.

The end of the School year approaches, and this means cricket and exams.  Some other things happen at this time of the year too, but these are the most important.  There are just over 1100 pupils at my School, and as each pupil group shifts up a year, the current Upper Sixth will drop off the end and are let loose into the real world.  Around 10% of the 155-strong teaching body will spread their wings and fly (or fold back their wings and retire).  So the School prepares for its 459th new year, and everything changes.

I play a part in the lives of others, and I neither under nor over-estimate my impact.  My abiding sense of guilt means that I try to ensure that I could have done no more to help any pupil that under-performs.  When such a poor performance occurs, I like the line (delivered to the pupil): I suppose it is fair to say that we have both failed.  I, at least, have tried.  I've never used this line of course, and I don't suppose I ever will.  Taking responsibility for the performance of those you teach is one of the fundamental parts of getting teaching.  There are teachers who trumpet the part they played in the excellence of grades achieved, but explain the poor results with a they get what they get shrug of the shoulders.  I like the approach which involves stepping into the shadows when the result is excellent and stepping forward with a comforting arm when the result is poor.

I was 17 years old when I left School and I am 37 years old now.  This is my 20th year out of Schooling from a pupil perspective, though I will complete my 16th year of teaching in June.  I have been hanging out with School pupils for roughly 30 of 37 years and the longest time I've ever spent not in School was the first four years of my life.  Maybe I should find out what the real world is like some time?

Can one ever become friends with pupils they have taught?  I think it depends on the nature of your dealings with them.  As a senior manager, it is hard enough to make genuine friendships with colleagues let alone pupils.  Many of us like to put people in boxes and from a pupil perspective I think I'm well and truly in the person who tells you how hard you should be working all the time in assemblies and there's no way I want to listen to that any more than I have to kind of guy.  Perhaps the thought of a drink with me the year or two after leaving School isn't all that appealing.  We can't turn our perception of people on and off like a switch, and I don't resent that italicised perception.  How I really like to be perceived is summed up quite neatly here:


In every year group there are a select group pupils in whom I take a real interest - these are the ones I wonder where they will end up in years to come.  They are sometimes the ones who don't quite get it right at School and you want to know whether the extra freedom will allow them to shine.  Open the cage door and some fly, others fall and some can't seem the leave the perch.  Or they happen to be the pupils I think have genuine deep human qualities and I hope that others allow this to be realised.  I stay in touch with some, but it should be more; after all, it's easy not to lose contact, but I'd quite like them to want to stay in touch too.  Maybe I should teach the last lesson with my Twitter handle and Facebook address on the board, but then suppose no-one followed or added?  

I think many friendships are a matter of convenience.  How many friendships survive because of geography or dwindle because of the hassle of keeping them going?  Many friends are quite tangential - brilliant fun to play cricket with during the summer but put back in their cricket box come September.  Anyway, it's possible to have fun with almost any individual for a short amount of time: most people bring out their best stories upon first meeting.

I think I'll post this now, just as it is.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Do we really need to know this?

Questions form a large part of the educative process.  Teachers ask a lot of questions and are asked many in turn.  Most of the questions are welcomed, but the one in the title never falls into this category.  I have never answered the question with a straight 'no' (I tend to employ my best withering stare), but I wonder what the response to this answer would be?  To pack up one's books and leave?  To tune out until the material becomes more relevant?

What the pupil is really asking is whether they are likely to be directly questioned on this material in an examination.  This implies that all knowledge can be categorised as necessary or unnecessary.  The necessary stuff is to be found on the GCSE or A level syllabus, and the unnecessary stuff, well, that's simply unnecessary.  Why would you ever want to know anything that you weren't going to be tested on?

Examinations are important, or at least doing well in examinations is important, but examinations are best seen as a celebration of all knowledge gained up to that point.  The examination syllabus guides the teaching and revision process, and in the run-up to examinations, it becomes an almost biblical document.  But for most of the educative process, we do not find ourselves in the run-up to public examinations, and it is important to realise that not all great literature is to be found in the GCSE English syllabus and one cannot find all that is worth knowing about philosophy and ethics in the GCSE RS syllabus.

Teachers tend to blame the syllabus and to use it as a crutch in roughly equal measure.  If the pupils aren't finding the work interesting, laying the blame at the door of the syllabus is a standard strategy: 'we have to get through this, it's in the syllabus'.  Highlighting work that 'comes up on the exam all the time' is another tried and tested method to perk up the reluctant learner.  I do think it's important for pupils to know why one topic leads on to another and to be aware of how the subject is structured, but this shouldn't be done simply because section 3.1a of the syllabus leads into section 3.1b.  I wonder how many Lower Sixth lessons go by before exams, coursework, modules and syllabus are mentioned?

A simple philosophy for all Sixth Form teachers is this: you have two years to allow pupils to become the best Physicists/Historians/Hispanists they can be, and at the end of this time, you need to assiduously prepare these pupils for the examinations that will allow them to access the Higher Education institution of their choice.

Going back to the concept of necessary and unnecessary knowledge, can it be argued that any knowledge is unnecessary?  After all, even the most trivial fact might help you win some money in a pub quiz.  But it's far more than that, and I firmly believe that knowledge enhances your life.  Knowledge of the painter El Greco makes a visit to Toledo far richer; driving large distances when in the US is more pleasurable having read works by Kerouac and Steinbeck; knowledge of the Hillsborough disaster makes the recent Liverpool surge to the title far more poignant.  None of this knowledge will ever help you pass an examination, but without them, Toledo is simply a pretty town, a long drive in the US is simply necessary to get from A to B and Hillsborough is just a football stadium in Sheffield.  Knowledge means interest, knowledge means context and (in some cases) knowledge means power.  

Absence of knowledge can never be a good thing; this point I feel is unarguable and some fault must lie with the approach taken by teachers.  'Extra' knowledge, that is knowledge beyond the confines of the syllabus, is too often seen as being the privilege of the academically able, with academic extension something that is laid on for the scholars, the bright and the interested.  Of course this is not true; academic extension is for everyone, though it is inevitable that the nature of that extension will differ from pupil to pupil.  It is fundamentally wrong that any pupil should fail to interact with material that raises them from the bare bones of a subject.  A certain academic liberation exists when learning is done for its own sake.  Improving one's knowledge is an enjoyable process and in turn this leads to greater enjoyment of the world around us.  We need to get away from the mentality that all learning is simply a means to an end; I often hear pupils stating that they 'have to read this book as part of preparation for Oxbridge'.  If this is literally true, and it is simply being read for some necessary progression up the academic ladder, is the enjoyment of the book not removed, or at least seriously diminished?

And just to be clear, if any doubt remains: yes, you really do need to know this.    

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition

I spend a fair amount of time reading education blogs and interacting with teachers on Twitter.  It is very clear that outside my sector the spectre of Ofsted looms large and the fear is genuine.  Ofsted's directives of 'progress every 15 minutes' and preferred styles of teaching are used as sticks with which to beat teachers by those in power in Schools.  Teachers cower before their SLT and the members of the SLT are beholden to do the will of Ofsted.  Ofsted knows what outstanding teaching looks like, and woe betide any teacher who does not fall in to line with the wishes of Wilshaw.  The difference between 'outstanding' and 'requires improvement' often seems to be whether one is willing to play the game and show Ofsted what they want to see.  This week's #SLTchat is an Ofsted special and @learningspy 's blog on his visit to Ofsted has broken viewing records.  It seems that the whole teaching fraternity in the maintained sector has an unhealthy obsession with the 'O' word.  

But I feel very much like an outsider on this one and the sensations I have described come only from the written experiences of others.  I don't know of any member of the teaching staff at my School who feels compelled to teach in a certain style nor any member who lives in constant fear of having their lessons graded.  We had a trainer in recently to deliver a PD session on 'outstanding teaching'; he spent a fair amount of time talking about what Ofsted like to see, and after a while people switched off, considering this to be less than relevant.  Gimmicks were high up on the agenda - all techniques designed to engage the reluctant learner - starting from the principle that no pupil is interested in working hard or learning about stuff.  They would all appreciate an easy way to memorise the names of all 20 teams in the Premier League, however.  

I felt more part of the gang when we received notification 23 days ago that our School was to be inspected (by ISI) 7 days later.  The inspection lasted for around 80 hours; it involved 15 inspectors, 154 teachers, support staff and 1100 pupils.  Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

1.  The inspection process is very stressful.  It's been a while since I felt the need to justify (over an extended period) what I do and how I do it to anyone, but inspection week felt like nothing else.  We were last inspected in 2008 and it felt as though 6 years of progress was being put to the test.  Would the inspectors see where progress had been made?  Would they understand our vision and ambitions for the School?  

I had four separate meetings (though they felt like interviews) and by the end my preferred approach was limit the talking (Ofsted would have liked this) and to simply feed each inspector a diet of paperwork comprising exam analysis, value added data, pupil voice mechanism and appraisal process.  Clearly the documentation could explain things better than I could.

2.  An Inspection brings people together.  Pupils are proud of the School.  Teachers are proud of the School.  Both groups take a pride in the role they play in making the School successful.  A deep sense of 'caring' was palpable during inspection week and this had the effect of knitting the community just a little more tightly together.  

3.  It doesn't take long to go out of touch.  I took up my current position in 2009 and when I think about how I (and my surroundings) have changed, it's by a factor of plenty.  Changes in the educational landscape take place quickly, with change dictated both by the Government and by technology.  Some of our inspectors had been retired from the front-line from around 2009 and have been retired from the classroom for even longer.  The excitement with which one of them greeted a ceiling-mounted projector suggested that the impact of Moore's Law had rather passed him by.

4.  Common ground is important to inspection success.  It seemed that often the things picked out for being examples of particularly good educational practice were related to things being done in the Inspectors' Schools, or things that they were looking to embed soon.  If an initiative is to be embraced, it requires teachers to be on-side.  Little is different for the Inspectors.

5.  Inspection is a good time to reassess your own priorities.  All I really wanted to do when I entered the profession was to teach really well (actually, I think moderately competently was the ambition in the early days but I can pretend that I set my sights higher).  I am proud of all the paperwork, policies, tracking, reporting etc but it isn't the reason I became a teacher.  I still teach a 60% timetable and I think I will find it hard to reduce this any time soon.

6.  After it's over, does anything change?  I don't know any School that is perfect.  There are always things to work on and to improve.  If a team of inspectors could unearth significant and systematic weaknesses that you were hitherto unaware of during the 3 days they spend with you, it suggests that your School management is highly deficient.  It's good when no far-reaching recommendations are found, but this is accompanied by a slight sense of anti-climax. 

And following on from point 5, what happened during my lessons in inspection week?  I thought they were pretty good, as it happened, but the inspectors wouldn't know that; no-one came to see me.