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Play

August 7, 2014

I should have learnt from the experience described here, or from phonics denialists, that for a lot of tweeters and bloggers, the methods used in the teaching of younger children is not a subject open for debate or even the mildest form of questioning. I don’t really have any views on the details of early years teaching, and don’t really have much insight into what small children are like. I’ve so very little to say on the issue, and yet it’s really easy to lose a day on twitter just dealing with misrepresentations and attacks dealt towards anybody who is seen as questioning the orthodoxy. But I suppose I might as well state the grand sum of my views here; ask the questions that I am actually interested in, and then let it drop.

Let’s deal with my only real opinion on something to do with early years. Back in March of this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote what seemed to be a fairly sensible letter pointing out that OFSTED did not require a particular method of teaching, even in early years, and instead said he expected “inspectors to apply common sense when observing how well children learn and how effectively adults teach children to develop skills, knowledge and understanding”. He made some pretty uncontentious (to an outsider) suggestions about looking into whether the early stages of maths and English were taught and whether children were being prepared for school. However, the response was intense.

A bunch of the usual suspects wrote a letter to the Telegraph describing this as a “Gradgrind for tiny tots”.

This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon England’s young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well-being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.

They even ended with what appeared to be a call for civil disobedience. Much of the comment I saw on Twitter considered it a threat to “play-based” learning. One NUT activist  who was a signatory complained:

We know exactly what Wilshaw means when he makes a pronouncement such as this- an erosion in children’s right to learn through play and exploration.

Another signatory made the following complaint:

This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning. I tend towards letting teachers choose their methods unless they are outright harmful or so dumb as to undermine the profession. While I don’t really get play-based learning or how it works, I know it hasn’t always been the in-thing and other countries (well, France) are rumoured to manage without it, so I don’t see why it needs to be compulsory here. I don’t have views on the the best ways to teach in early years. I don’t have views on how much play small children should have during the school day. I don’t even claim to really understand what play-based learning is. I just think that children should be expected to learn and that teachers should have freedom over methods.

Now, you’d think that might be the end of it. I don’t know much about it; I don’t have much to say about it; I don’t have a method to push.

But of course not. There have been multiple objections to what I said back then.

Firstly, there’s an ideology here:

Flowchart

To question the need for play-based learning was taken to be indicative of a whole attitude to children. No distinction was made between being against compulsory play-based learning in schools and nurseries and being against any play-based learning in schools and nurseries. Nor between that and being against children learning from play at all. Nor between that and being against play. Nor between that and being against children enjoying themselves. You either wanted compulsory play-based learning or 2 year olds behind desks being lectured in Latin and kept in cages. Nothing in-between was allowed as far as I could tell.

Away from the ad hominems, there were two main arguments. One was that play-based learning was unavoidable. Either there were no other teaching methods (which is odd as play-based learning seemed to have been in and out of fashion in my lifetime). Or alternatively, everything really small children did was a form of play. Not knowing anything about small children, I can’t reject this out of hand as a claim, but it seemed self-defeating as an argument. If play-based learning was unavoidable then there was even less reason for OFSTED to compel it. Another variation of this was to demand I define “play” and pick fault with that. This was interesting in as much as it turned out that I actually seemed to have more of a positive view of play, as something enjoyable and worth doing for its own sake, than many of the advocates of play who seemed to present it only as a means to an end. But again, this seemed a self-defeating argument. If play couldn’t be usefully defined then that was another argument against making play-based learning compulsory.

The other argument was about the benefits of play-based learning. Remarkably some of the people keenest to dismiss the masses of evidence about how best to teach reading, were far keener to accept the evidence on play-based learning. As I understand it, there are some positive studies, but nothing so overwhelming that it could justify making it compulsory. But, and this is where I drifted into controversy again, and this is why I was controversial today, there was considerable opinion that play was very, very necessary for learning and development. Not being against play I tended to accept this at first, but as time went on I started wondering. How does anyone actually know this? Are there case studies of children who were deprived of play and nothing else? Are there ethically dubious RCTs where children were stopped from playing and the effects measured? There might be correlations between play and development, but the obvious explanation for that would be that development drives play, not that play derives development. It’s not that I thought that depriving children of play wouldn’t harm their development, it seemed likely that it would, I just wondered how we knew that it would, and generally, how could we know how important it was.

And this is where I seemed to have caused most offence. A lot of advocacy of play-based learning seems to start from making assertions about the benefits of play, then jumping to the idea that, given these benefits, it only makes sense to use play in teaching. To actually ask about the empirical evidence for these benefits and their extent is to undermine the arguments. There were a few pointers towards the benefits of particular types of play, but these were often contested. There were a lot of theories from any number of disciplines to explain why play should, in theory, have benefits. There were any number of reports from advocacy groups which made claims about the benefits of play, but there was a distinct lack of empirical evidence. There were those who insisted there was huge amounts of evidence out there, but seemed unable to narrow it down in such a way that I  might actually find any of it. Mainly I had to deal with people who were outraged that, as far as they were concerned, I must have suggested that children don’t learn from play. Of course, children do learn from play, but that does not establish how necessary play is for learning. It is also, again, a self-defeating argument as far as the controversy over OFSTED goes, because the objection hinges on the idea that by looking for learning OFSTED are undermining play.

A few interesting things did come up, and I hope to find time to read some of them, but I think we are still as far away from as ever from having any real justification for so many of the claims made about play, let alone anything that would justify making play-based learning the only permissible method of teaching in the early years.

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First Impressions of the New OFSTED Handbook

July 31, 2014

The new OFSTED handbook is out and can be found here. Although it was meant to be simplified, it replaces not just the old handbook but the old subsidiary guidance and, therefore, is actually quite lengthy. I am too busy to be able to read it from cover to cover, but I have had time to look into a few of the key issues that I’ve been blogging about.

The new handbook really spells out what I would want it to on observations; stating that there is no grading and no required style of teaching.

From the description of what should happen during an inspection:

The key objectives of lesson observations are to inform the evaluation of the overall quality of teaching over time and its contribution to learning and achievement, and to assess the behaviour and safety of pupils and the impact of leadership and management in the classroom. When inspectors carry out observations in lessons, they should not grade the quality of teaching for that individual session or indeed the overall quality of the lesson…

…Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment. They will not look for a preferred methodology but must record aspects of teaching and learning that they consider are effective, and identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved…

…Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection…

…When giving feedback to teachers following lesson observations, inspectors should not provide an overall grade for the lesson or for the quality of teaching (numerically or in words). If asked, inspectors should provide feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of what they have observed. Inspectors must ensure that this feedback does not constitute a view about whether the teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or otherwise, or indeed whether the quality of teaching itself was ‘good’ or otherwise, as neither of these will be graded.

The guidance on how to grade teaching and learning in a school makes the same point and spells out what inspectors should not be looking out for or taking objection to:

Inspectors should not grade the quality of teaching in individual lesson observations, learning walks or equivalent activities. In arriving at a judgement on the overall quality of teaching, inspectors must considerstrengths and weaknesses of teaching observed across the broad range of lessons. These must then be placed in the context of other evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time, including work in their books and folders, how well they can explain their knowledge and understanding in subjects, and outcomes in tests and examinations…

…Ofsted does not favour any particular teaching style and inspectors must not give the impression that it does. School leaders and teachers should decide for themselves how best to teach, and be given the opportunity, through questioning by inspectors, to explain why they have made the decisions they have and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their choices. Moreover, inspectors must not inspect or report in any way that is not stipulated in the framework or this handbook. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to expect that all work in all lessons will be matched to the specific needs of each individual pupil. Inspectors should not expect to see pupils working on their own or in groups for periods of time in all lessons. They should not make the assumption that a particular way of working is always necessary or desirable. Its effectiveness depends on the impact of the quality and challenge of the work set. Pupils may rightly be expected to sit and listen to teachers, which of itself is an ‘active’ method through which knowledge and understanding can be acquired effectively. Inspectors should not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding. When observing teaching, inspectors should be ‘looking at’ and reflecting on the effectiveness of what is being done to promote learning, not ‘looking for’ specific or particular things. Inspectors should gather robust evidence to judge and report on how well pupils acquire knowledge, learn well and engage with lessons.

It also states clearly that the information that inspectors will want to see includes “records of the evaluation of the quality of teaching, but inspectors should not expect to see records of graded lesson observations” [their underlining]. This really gives managers little excuse for grading lessons. This needs to be widely publicised, and I would hope that trade unions would start making sure their representatives and members are fully aware that any attempt to grade teachers in observations is neither required by OFSTED, nor in line with OFSTED’s practices, but entirely down to the willingness of managers to grasp at excuses to label their teachers.

I’m hoping that the guidance on marking is vague enough that it might help break the delusion that marking must be acted on in writing to count. As before inspectors are to look for “[c]onsistently high quality marking and constructive feedback” as part of outstanding teaching but elsewhere they are simply looking for “whether marking, assessment and testing are carried out in line with the school’s policy and whether they are used effectively to help teachers improve pupils’ learning”. I hope this causes some schools to reflect on whether their marking policy actually helps teachers and students, or is there only to appease OFSTED.

You may also recall that here I described a school whch had been marked down, despite good results, apparently for an achievement gap:

Roughly speaking, this school has absolutely great results (best in the city in most respects) but has been graded as “Requires Improvement” because the relatively small number of FSM children at the school have, despite doing well, not done as spectacularly well as the non-FSM meals students.

Now this school is known to be one of the best there is in the area, and had been “outstanding” previously. Rumour has it, it’s a school that OFSTED inspectors have been known to send their own children to. While closing the gap between FSM and non-FSM students is important, an OFSTED grade of “Requires Improvement” becomes meaningless if it ignores the great success of the majority of students in the school, and only pays attention to a minority of students. It becomes more than meaningless, but actually ridiculous, if the minority whose results do count are judged, not by the standards of other schools, but by the high standards of the school. In effect, it tells schools that they can do badly in OFSTED if the majority of their students do too well. Rumours from the school involve inspectors who, when observing lessons, were only interested in what FSM pupils did. None of these inspectors appear to be HMI. If this is what OFSTED’s emphasis on “closing the gap” amounts to, it’s as destructive to schools as any of their other demands.

This now seems to have been addressed. Guidance on achievement says:

Where in-school gaps are narrowing, inspectors should check that this is because the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils is rising, and not because the progress or attainment of non-disadvantaged pupils is falling. Where an in-school attainment gap exists or widens, inspectors should consider whether this is because disadvantaged pupils attain more highly than other pupils nationally, while non-disadvantaged pupils in the school attain even more highly.

Several footnotes might also help make judgements based on the achievement gap less unfair. It is stated that that inspectors should be “considering in-school gaps in the context of national gaps”. Outstanding achievement now has an exception to the rule that the results of the disadvantaged most be rapidly approaching other groups: “[w]here the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is high, any in-school attainment gaps need not be closing rapidly”. Good achievement has a similar exception: “[w]here the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is high, in-school attainment gaps may exist”.

I can see why OFSTED were confident about meeting me last week. The new handbook does seem to have addressed most of the points I’ve raised. However, I may well return to it if I uncover anything that seems less positive. Let me know if you find anything. Also, when term starts, let me know if inspectors are doing what they are supposed to. Just today I got an email from somebody, who went through an OFSTED during last half-term, telling me:

…the inspector asked to see my planning and she graded me and the lesson she’d observed.  She said she knew she shouldn’t be doing it, but did anyway!!  I was most surprised about both.

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My Meeting With Sean Harford, OFSTED’s National Director for Schools Policy

July 30, 2014

You may recall (see here)  that in February a group of bloggers met Mike Cladingbowl, one of OFSTED’s biggest cheeses, as part of an exercise in bridge-building with the online teacher world. It was a bit noticeable at the time that I wasn’t invited, despite the effort I had been putting into blogging about OFSTED. It almost seemed as if they were willing to reach out to teachers on social media, but not if it meant having to answer some of the questions I was asking. However, I was pleased to get an invitation for a chat from @HarfordSean, who is now (I think this is a recent appointment) their national director for schools policy. I went to meet him in OFSTED’s secret base (sort of) in the West Midlands last Friday, with my associates Gwen  (@Gwenelope) and David (@LearningSpy).

Before I go through the content of the discussion, it is probably worth mentioning the general tone of the meeting. Sean was not defensive. When told OFSTED horror stories, either recent or from the bad old days of last year, he did not make excuses and would ask about what could be done. At times he even seemed to pre-empt the possible criticisms of how OFSTED operates, facing them head on rather than skirting round them. He had a message to put across about what was being put into place, but was keen to discuss ideas. This was the voice of a reformed, or at least reforming OFSTED. When I left, I remembered reading some cynics, back in February, had made very pessimistic remarks on social media about the bloggers’ meeting being a PR exercise designed to lull the critical faculties of those invited by flattering their egos. I could imagine the same criticism being made of my meeting, in that I did leave feeling far less concerned or angry about OFSTED than I arrived. I do hope, however, that this is because the substance of the discussion gave some genuine grounds for hope.

It is probably worth noting what seemed to be Sean’s main message, or at least his main message for those of us there. The guidance for inspectors was being cut back and simplified to prevent too much scope for misinterpretation. The subject guidance used for survey visits (as criticised here) have now been removed from the website. The guidance on quality of teaching (out soon) will be crystal clear that it is not about doing particular things. This will be backed up by the training, the briefing of HMI and the changes in who will be inspecting. Current practitioners should be more involved in inspecting, and can even be part of some training activities. Inspectors will be looking for a broad and balanced curriculum, which is intended to prevent OFSTED being used as an excuse for a narrow curriculum.

Gwen, who had recently taught at a “Category 4″ school, described what it was like working at a school under the scrutiny of OFSTED. Managers constantly second-guess OFSTED and there is constant pressure on teachers to conform to whatever ideas, no matter how counter-productive, the managers come up with. I suggested that the worst effect OFSTED has is this indirect effect; that any recommendation in an OFSTED report becomes the school’s priority and open to bizarre interpretations that actually make teaching less effective. This raised the issue of why schools don’t just concentrate on achievement in order to show improvement. Sean seemed confident that this would be the best strategy in most cases, particularly as teaching grades tend to match achievement grades and grading of lesson observations should end completely from September. He described schools that get rid of teachers whose classes get good results as behaving in a way that is “ridiculous” and “bizarre”. I pointed out that this relies on schools feeling they can influence the achievement grade by improving results, rather than the achievement grade being an unpredictable result of particular inspectors’ concerns.

This moved us on to the topic of reliability. Sean feels that schools should be able to predict their achievement grade in advance of the inspection from their results, something which, in my experience, hasn’t been the case. He said that he had in the past felt there was an argument for having an algorithm that analysed all schools on published data and gave some kind of grade for that, although he would not consider that as enough on its own to analyse achievement. I felt that this would, at least, give schools some better guidance as to what needed to improve. We discussed some recent blogs (more recent than my examples) that described disagreements with inspectors over data. Sean accepted that sometimes inspectors have got things wrong and that his priority was improving on that. I asked what was done to ensure reliability and validity and, in particular, whether there was any attempt to ensure that different teams would reach the same judgement about a school. There is apparently some scrutiny of “outliers” among judgements but no actual direct checks for reliability, i.e. consistency, between inspectors. There was a bit of discussion about whether two inspectors, or two inspection teams, could inspect the same school to see if they come up with the same judgement as part of quality assurance. With hindsight, it is staggering that this hasn’t been routine practice after every major change in inspection methods. Reliability should be a fundamental consideration of any method of measuring anything.

David raised questions about how inspectors will be hired in future. Unfortunately it looks impractical to stop serving inspectors acting as consultants and there will be limits to how much inspection work can be done by serving school leaders. He also discussed the use of the behaviour and safety part of the report to make “stealth” judgements about teaching practice. Sean was well aware of the issue. Hopefully David will be blogging about some of this discussion before too long; he even raised Trojan Horse.

From my point of view, the meeting served to reassure me about some of the points about which I’ve been most critical of OFSTED and to raise some ongoing issues about the impact the organisation is having. I don’t want to imply that this means anything is resolved or solved, but we have moved on considerably from a situation where communication about what OFSTED wants seemed to go via consultants & CPD providers, through SMT, and only reached the classroom once it had been turned into a compulsory style of teaching that the frontline had to comply with. I think we still have a long way to go before schools shake off the “OFSTED-culture” where schools are motivated largely by fear of inspectors, but I do hope OFSTED seem a little less scary than they were this time last year. But I will be a lot happier when there exists a collection of good evidence that OFSTED judgements are both valid and reliable.

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An Example of OFSTED’s Inconsistency

July 24, 2014

This is something that has (as you’ll see below) already been pointed out during Michael Wilshaw’s appearance before the House of Common’s Education Committee a couple of weeks ago, but it’s worth bringing up here as an almost perfect example of how the same evidence can be interpreted in different ways by inspectors.

When Oldknow Academy was inspected in January 2013 it was found to be outstanding in every respect. One piece of evidence for this was:

The very wide range of additional activities and extra-curricular opportunities motivates the pupils and results in extremely positive attitudes towards school. For example, pupils love the academy’s farm and the opportunity to look after and interact with a range of animals from goats and rabbits to snakes and geckos. They feel they are fortunate to be in an academy which offers them opportunities such as the week-long visit for 40 pupils to participate in a trip to Saudi Arabia. For pupils who spoke to the inspectors, last year’s trip had clearly been a life-changing experience…

…The academy does all it can to remove any barriers to learning and to ensure that every pupil has equal opportunities to succeed. The large amount of pupil premium funding is used to ensure this happens. Funding has been used to reduce the number of pupils in each class, so that those who need it can have more individual attention. Funding is also used to subsidise uniforms, trips and even large-scale trips, such as the ones to Saudi Arabia, to ensure that any pupil is able to participate.

So clearly, the Saudi Arabia trip was a positive and an example of how equal opportunities were important to the school. Yet when the school was re-inspected during the Trojan Horse affair and found to be Inadequate, the following piece of evidence appeared:

Leaders have not assessed adequately the risks to pupils associated with trips, visitors and links with other institutions. For example, the academy has links with a school in Saudi Arabia but could not tell inspectors whether risk assessment had been carried out on the people or materials that pupils may come into contact with…

…Governors have used the academy’s budget to subsidise a trip to Saudi Arabia for only Muslim staff and pupils. The choice of destination meant that pupils from other faiths were not able to join the trip. Governors who accompany the trip are paid for from the academy budget. Inspectors were told that in 2013 a relative of the academy’s governor joined the trip from Pakistan without the necessary checks having been made.

So inspectors managed to look at the same trip, and the fact that it was subsidised, and in one case use it as evidence of something positive about the school, and in the other case use it to prove something negative about the school.

As I said, this did come up  during the chief inspector’s appearance (alongside another HMI, Andrew Cook) before the House of Common’s Education Committee:

Q57  Chair: If you want honesty about performance from everyone else, is it not also important that you be honest about your capabilities? Lorna [Fitzjohn, Regional Director for the West Midlands] was talking about changes -as were you, Sir Michael—and saying that a rapid turnover of staff contributes to a different picture painted by Ofsted. However, when at Oldknow academy a visit to Saudi Arabia is picked out for particular praise as suggesting the extracurricular activities and the richness of the offer of the school in January 2013, and the self‑same visit is picked out as a particular sign of a cause for concern in April 2014, that does suggest some kind of inconsistency. It will raise questions about your capacity and capability to have an objective assessment when you are involved in a national moral panic and when you are not.

Sir Michael Wilshaw: But it does reinforce the point I had previously made, which is that in the first inspection we looked at a whole range of things, not just governance and leadership. On the second inspection we looked in much greater depth at governance and leadership—and in relation to Pat Glass’ point, we looked at how much money was being spent from the school budget to send children to Saudi Arabia and also whether it was open to all children and not just to some.

Q58  Chair: You would hope that if someone was bang to rights and had made an error, they would just put their hands up, would you not? Is that not what your inspectors would hope for from schools? Is that not what I have just invited you to do? You have just given me a carefully worded explanation of why the clearly unacceptable inconsistency was somehow okay. I would suggest to you it was not and that it would have been better to put your hands up and say, “That particular instance does not reflect well on us.” Would that not be better for the kind of transparency, openness and honesty that we all want to see from everyone?

Sir Michael Wilshaw: We hope we are transparent and honest. I am very keen that the people we inspect have confidence in the quality of our inspections and the quality of our inspectors. I believe the quality of inspection and the quality of our inspectors has gone up over the last few years.

Q59  Chair: Part of that confidence is trust. When you try to make out that it is okay to find exactly the same thing great one minute and a sign of weakness another, and you cannot even say, “That was embarrassing; we got it wrong,” that does not encourage confidence in your systems, does it?

Sir Michael Wilshaw: Before Andrew comes in, I just want to emphasise the point that the two inspections were very different. One looked at a whole range of issues. The second inspection looked at leadership and governance, and was where that HMI could really explore how that money was spent sending those youngsters to Saudi Arabia.

Q60  Chair: Forgive me for being unconvinced. Andrew, convince me.

Andrew Cook: I was on the Oldknow inspection and I think it would be very fair to say, as Sir Michael has just said, that we drilled down very much into some of the safeguarding issues around the trip. It would also be fair to say that this is again a school where staff were completely polarised. There were very many unhappy staff in that school, and many of those staff were beginning to tell us things about the school and unearth evidence that had not been seen before. It was because of that, and because of our focus on safeguarding and looking at the management of that trip, that we identified some concerns about it.

Q61  Chair: It was particularly about the exclusion of some children from it. In truth, while it looked originally like a good, classic example of an enriching activity, it turned out it was rather a narrow, limited and unfairly distributed school good. Is that the point?

Andrew Cook: There was also, as reported, some issues around whether or not all of the safeguarding checks on all of those adults that attended the trip had been done as thoroughly as they should have been done.

Q62  Ian Mearns: That still leaves massive questions in my mind about the first inspection. It really does leave massive questions about the first inspection. A school has been declared outstanding even though all of those shortcomings were there. The problem was that the Ofsted inspectors on site did not unearth any of that. Now that, to me, tells me that there is a significant shortcoming in the regime of Ofsted inspections per se. That is the conclusion that I draw.

Sir Michael Wilshaw: I strongly refute that. We have banged on over the last hour about the reasons why these schools declined. The main reason is because the heads left—were forced out—and there was huge instability. That instability can happen within weeks of the head leaving. That is why I think in the first inspection we did not pick that up: the heads were still there.

So just in case schools were wondering where they stand, what you do can be both evidence for being outstanding and for being inadequate at the same time, it all depends on what the inspectors happen to be looking for at the time and who happens to be in charge at the time of the inspection.

And people wonder why schools are so desperate for any information about what OFSTED really want, and what they will look for.

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Quick Tips for New Education Bloggers

July 23, 2014

My considered advice for education bloggers (complete with explanations of my opinions and discussion) can be found here.

However, below you read my quick tips. Some may be similar, but these were ones I posted on Twitter a few days ago, and as a result are based mainly on blind prejudice, no justification and little thought.

Hope they are helpful.

  1. “Musings” and “Ramblings” are massively overused in blog titles. Try “meanderings”. (Or maybe not)
  2. Use WordPress. Hosted on WordPress. Really.
  3. Pick an unambiguous title. I’m still justifying and explaining mine almost 8 years later.
  4. If you use the words “learning” or “teaching” in your blog title make the other words memorable. eg. Learning Hippo. Seriously, these two words are much overused. There are actually two different blogs called “Learning Science”.
  5. You don’t have to write only about education, but set out your stall early. Don’t start write about dieting 6 months in. (Or your children, pets or favourite songs).
  6. Tweet. (I organised a curry for bloggers a few months back. The one person that almost everybody asked “who’s he?” about was the one person who doesn’t tweet. It has to be done.)
  7. Don’t call yourself a “guru”, “expert” or “leader”. There are more fun ways to make everyone hate you. Hours of “fun” can be had on the internet arguing over who is actually an authority about teaching and who a) has too little classroom experience, b) has left the classroom too eagerly or c) is now a vested interest who can no longer be trusted.
  8. Try to keep blogposts usually under 1000 words, mostly under 1,500. Split into more than one post when necessary, even if you post them in rapid succession. I swear there are bloggers out there whose first paragraphs are read by thousands, but you can’t find anyone who ever got to the end.
  9. A picture is worth a 1000 words, but after the first picture it starts to feel like reading 1000 words too. Or, at the very least, it starts feeling like watching a Powerpoint presentation. Assume blog readers can get through several consecutive paragraphs of text without having a panic attack.
  10. Criticising people without naming them is not politer, it’s just cowardly.

 

 

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Spot The Difference Part 3

July 22, 2014

I’ve commented previously on the difference in Tristram Hunt’s views before and after he became part of Labour’s education team. So far I’ve commented on:

However, these are pretty small issues compared with the one that most often leads middle class Labour politicians to fail their own supporters. This is the issue of whether working class kids should aspire to the same levels of academic achievement as middle class kids, or whether other people’s children need to take a “non-academic” route, perhaps one that involves working with their hands.

On this issue, Tristram used to sound almost Gove-like in his views. From “The forward march of Labour restarted?” in November 2011:

What then are the contemporary sociological forces that the left needs to understand and seek to grasp? … I would highlight four in particular… [the] [t]hird [is]: the crisis of educational attainment. Despite major strides in improving educational standards after 1997, we cannot be satisfied by Britain’s slide down the international rankings. In 2000, British 15-year-olds ranked fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in mathematics. By 2009, those rankings had slumped to 16th, 25th and 28th respectively. Unsurprisingly, this crisis is most pronounced among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2010, only 16 per cent of pupils achieved a grade C or above in the subjects that will become the English baccalaureate. For children eligible for free school meals, this figure falls to a staggering 4 per cent (House of Commons 2011). This could have major long-term implications for the Labour movement. It is not hard to see how a lack of educational attainment could combine with the decline in living standards and the decline of skilled or semi-skilled manual work to form a toxic cocktail of entrenched disadvantage.

So back then he thought that it was a “crisis” that more students, particularly FSM students, didn’t study Ebacc subjects and a decline in the importance of manual work made neglecting this problem a particularly great risk.

However, the Tristram Hunt of 2014 has a completely different attitude to the importance of academic qualifications and the importance of manual work. From a local newspaper article entitled “Shadow education minister Tristram Hunt: It’s vocation, vocation, vocation for Labour” in May 2014:

Mr Hunt, who is MP for Stoke on Trent, believes many of the region’s young people will benefit from a more hands-on approach.

He told The Journal: “One thing Labour would change quickly is the current lack of focus on technical and vocational education. That means decent apprenticeships and a more flexible curriculum that suits the needs of each region and its young people going forward…

“I think a lot of young people begin to get bored by their learning environment and that is why a one-size-fits-all curriculum simply doesn’t work from region to region. We need to make education relevant and interesting. It’s about raising young people’s aspirations, not putting them off.”

Labour’s reforms would also involve greater responsibility being placed on schools to track what their pupils go on to do, whether it be further education, training or work.

Schools that fail to ensure pupils progress in this way would face losing funding, with the money used to transform careers guidance in those schools and going to local employers to develop partnership programmes offering structured careers advice…

He said the proposals would address the talents of the “forgotten 50%” of young people who want to pursue vocational routes through education.

And perhaps even more disturbingly in an interview in the Guardian last month:

So we do talk for a while about vocational and technical education, where Labour proposes “a revolution in apprenticeships, putting business in the driving seat” and new Institutes of Technical Education to provide “gold-standard delivery” of a proposed technical baccalaureate. The latter would be one of two optional streams – the other would be a general (presumably mainly academic) baccalaureate _ within a national baccalaureate for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Would these supersede GCSEs and A-levels, as many teachers wish? Hunt replies – to my complete lack of surprise – that they wouldn’t. “But GCSEs and A-levels won’t be the be-all and end-all. We’re trying to get away from the exam factory model.” He explains that the new Bacc will have four components: the established exams, including those that lead to vocational qualifications; an extended project; maths and English for all; and “personal development skills”

There’s something of a myth that Hunt has done badly as shadow education secretary because he has failed to disagree with the Tories enough. This is mistaken. When it comes to the key controversy of recent years, the debate over the idea that an academic education is the best option for all children, Hunt has not just disagreed with the Tories, he’s disagreed with himself. Is Labour really going to go into a general election telling aspirational working class parents that Labour’s top educational priorities in government will be concentrating resources on non-academic options for children who are “bored by their learning environment” and on assessing “personal development skills”? I could see this happening when Stephen Twigg was shadow education secretary, but Hunt is capable of so much more if he was just encouraged to follow the convictions he held when he got the job.

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Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 2

July 20, 2014

As I mentioned here, I recently attended the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar. Obviously my motivation was as much to do with being a Labour activist as it is to do with being an education blogger, although one of the main reasons for attending was to hear from a couple of people I have met through education blogging. That said, given the subject matter of this blog, I only intend to reflect here almost exclusively on those aspects of discussion I thought are relevant to the education debate.

I consider myself to be, ideologically, Blue Labour. I like it when Labour politics are broad enough to be presentable in churches, mosques, factories, shop floors and on the doorstep in deprived areas, rather than the preserve of life-long political professionals, journalists and under-achieving members of the middle class who get very angry while watching Question Time on a Thursday night. I like it when people’s politics are shaped more by their workplace, their parents and their neighbours than by a university education or what they read in a newspaper. I like it when you don’t have to apologise for not following the latest ideological fashion (you noticed?) or dismiss the mass of the population as brainwashed by the Daily Mail. There’s probably very few who like the label “Blue Labour”, but a lot of the grassroots of the Labour Party, particularly in the heartlands, combine an affinity to the Labour Party with a conservatism about the power of politicians or public servants to determine values or culture for the rest of society.

However, I also have an educational agenda. I think that the disastrous involvement of the left with progressive education may have stemmed from a wider ideological failing of seeing state education as a tool by which an enlightened middle-class could deconstruct and re-engineer culture and society rather than as a way to meet working class aspirations. I think this has resulted in two terrible ideas. Firstly, the idea that the working class needed to be protected from the bourgeois culture of the educated by not being taught the same content as those in private or grammar schools. Secondly, the idea that while (with middle class supervision) the lot of the working class as a whole could be improved, the individuals within that class must be told to “rise with your class, not beyond it” (in the phrase I heard from Scottish educational David Cameron late in the 43rd minute of this video). Both attitudes, while left-wing on the face of it, have helped restrict education to an elite. I do see Blue Labour ideas as challenging the paternalism of these attitudes and potentially challenging Labour’s intermittent but frequent lapses into signing off on the ideas of progressive education.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the Blue Labour seminar was a relatively small affair, despite being advertised online, it seemed fairly exclusive. It was actually a bit disconcerting to be greeted personally by the key people on arrival, which doesn’t tend to happen at any political events (or for that matter education events) I normally attend. A lot of the people there already knew each other and there was far more of a sense of it being about like-minded people sharing ideas with each other, than the building of anything larger or an attempt to reach a wider audience. Even though there was a Twitter hashtag for the event it often looked like I was almost the only one tweeting, and part way through there was a warning to be careful about tweeting names as well as ideas. I will, where I’m not quoting something already public, try to follow this advice in this blog, although I suspect it might be an over-reaction to a past history of Blue Labour people being condemned for various forms of political incorrectness when expressing utterly unremarkable opinions.

Whatever the limitations of the event’s structure for reaching a wider audience or prompting productive action, it served as almost constant mental stimulation for me. It seemed like every speaker and  every member of the audience had something interesting to say. A fair number had implications for education even if they weren’t directly about education. The key note speech by Ruth Davis, which can be found here, raised the question of the role of science in politics, in a way that reminded of the debate over research in education, warning against both the extremes of “classification, measurement, and codification” hollowing out other methods of understanding, and “the mad, the bad, or the silly” believing that “we make our own reality”. Remarks from Lord Glasman about the word “progressive” (and how it is not something you want to hear from your doctor) probably amused me as a teacher (and critic of “progressive” education).

A session about “Challenging Left Orthodoxies” with several different speakers also touched on issues relating to education mainly because some of the worst orthodoxies on the left have been used to justify progressive education. One speaker identified “anti-authoritarianism” as such an orthodoxy, and directly connected that to the rise of “child-centred” education. Another identified the rhetoric of “challenging orthodoxies” as something of a recurring narrative in the Labour Party, something I am also familiar with from education (see here, particularly the comments). The other speaker identified “post-modernism” as the worst of the orthodoxies that limit the effectiveness of the left, observing that it makes academic discourse a problem as it assumes relativism. He quoted an unidentified university lecturer as advising him that “you never see a poor post-modernist”. Obviously, I don’t endorse the use of an ad hominem argument, but hard to miss how in education a post-modern scepticism about science, tradition, morality or reason is remarkably often used by those with power in institutions to resist calls for a change in the status quo, rather than to challenge privilege.

After lunch there was, and this was the major reason I’d wished to attend, a panel on “Education, Community and Family” which included my fellow education blogger Michael Merrick (who writes Outside In). He was the only panellist to talk mainly about education (although another spent time explaining why he has sent his children to private and faith schools despite pre-existing convictions to the contrary). Michael’s talk can be found here and is well worth reading. His argument that a belief that education was for employment led to a belief that academic education was not for all, and to reinforce class segregation, went down particularly well. Another panellist’s response to this seemed to suggest that some assumed that he was asking for more respect for vocational qualifications, where as I assumed he was suggesting that they might be part of the problem. He also questioned the focus on social mobility:

For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

And again, another panellist seemed to assume that this was a reference to Michael Young’s critique of meritocracy as anti-egalitarian, rather than, as I took it, a criticism of a narrow view of what the well-educated should aspire to. Finally, his most controversial point was to suggest that free schools and faith schools served to build a stronger sense of community, which is not really something I’d ever considered about free schools. It is certainly worth considering whether complaints about an “atomised” school system on the left actually reflect a concern about an atomised bureaucracy rather than atomised communities.

While there was further discussion around education, most of it reflected fairly conventional debates. At one point a Birmingham City Councillor claimed that the creation of free schools had created the perfect situation for “Trojan Horse style” problems, which, given the irony of the source, will probably stick with me as the best possible evidence that debate over Trojan Horse is largely about allocating blame according to the opinions one already held. Perhaps the only other point to make me reflect on education, was when it was suggested that a symptom of the modern condition was people who hate their parents. It made me wonder whether that forms the motivation for many who (in R.S. Peters’ phrase) see schools as “orphanages for children with parents”. Do people who want schools to take over more and more of the parental sphere in providing values, compassion and guidance in life, have the faults of their own parents in mind?

I realise the two posts on Blue Labour may have wondered into some fairly obscure territory, and I do intend to let it drop here, but I thought it worth sharing some of these reflections. Education politics is fundamentally about values, but it is staggeringly rare to find outlets in politics where one can discuss values explicitly rather than assuming them. Too often in politics moral superiority is to be assumed, but never justified.  Even the most obviously ethical components of political discussion are treated as purely technical matters where the underlying principles are already agreed, and only the mad or depraved would doubt them. At the very least, Blue Labour has been willing to challenge that type of thinking.

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