Archive for April, 2013


Spot the Difference

April 29, 2013

I think this is worth pointing out regarding my comments last time on Labour’s education team.

Here are the views of Tristram Hunt MP on the emphasis on British history in the new national curriculum before he became part of the shadow education team (from the Times):

For all the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Education’s new history curriculum he is passionate about the past. What is more, he is right to put British history at the forefront of teaching. The extraordinarily aggressive response by teachers and professionals to the Gove plans misreads history’s place in the education system. Unlike chemistry or English literature, teaching history involves not just traditional academic skills, but also difficult questions of identity and citizenship. This is the reason why its revision inspires such fury and why it is right for democratically elected politicians to be involved in framing the content.

At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and wrong-headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story”. Surely, tomorrow’s citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?

In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the past — extended families; churches and chapels; Cubs and Scouts; political parties — are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.

…For progressives, a focus on British history should be welcome. a sense of historical struggle — the line of march — was a traditional prerequisite for Labour pamphleteering. Michael Foot liked to recall how his Liberal father Isaac’s interweaving of past and present informed his political philosophy. “Historical figures and their modern counterparts melted into one,” Foot wrote. “Brewers, protectionists, papists, apologists for Lord North and the Chamberlain family; Spanish tyrants and Stuart kings; men of Munich and Suez; sons of Belial and Beelzebub, normally disguised as West Country Tories, an especially reprehensible branch of the species.”

I think Michael Foot might have welcomed a curriculum that includes the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and Annie Besant. Let’s hope the publicity surrounding the new syllabus might even help to address the criminal gap that still exists in access to history between middle and working-class communities. In Knowsley, near Liverpool, only 16.8 per cent of pupils are entered for history GCSE, in contrast to 45.4 per cent in Richmond upon Thames. Whole generations are denied a sense of national belonging — let alone the sheer richness of the past.

And here are his views expressed shortly after his promotion at a meeting of “Defend School History” a campaign group which, as far as I can tell, is organised by supporters of the Socialist Workers Party:

This is a highly political project by Michael Gove. We have education questions in parliament once every five weeks and, without fail, on that order paper, when Conservative backbenchers ask questions it will be about the teaching of British history. “Why isn’t there more teaching of British history?”; “What’s happened to the teaching of British history in our syllabus?” and it speaks to a deep, deep discomfort that the Conservative Party has with modern Britain and they are using the history syllabus as a sort of psychological tool for their levels of discomfort with the nature of modern Britain. And so behind this whole conversation is a sort of psychological journey on behalf of the Conservative Party. With that, Michael Gove knows that, from his own political stance, it’s a rather easy, cost-free way of appealing to this base and appealing to this politics, to have the kind of rhetoric that he’s employed about the nature of our past, and the teaching of our past, and how our teachers are all betraying our children and not teaching our wonderful island story.

So there is a political element to this; a psychological element to this, but also … an element of arrogance by Michael Gove. The way in which this syllabus developed and the conversations that were had, and the consultations that were had, and the sort of traditional ways in which things were just about being managed. And then it all came to a stop and it’s almost as if you can see that he took it away for the weekend and rewrote it himself. And those of us who are scholars of Michael Gove can see the turns of phrase; the reference points; the fact that as it were the end of hisotry ends with the fall of Margaret Thatcher; a Fukuyama kind of way. This language about the follies of mankind. it is a very sort of, on the one hand, Whiggish account of British history and then, as it were, a very sort of sceptical Tory account about [how] there is nothing to learn from the past, at the same time.

The other point about the nature of the syllabus, and why it was political, is that there isn’t much wrong it seems to me with key stages 3 and 4 in terms of the history syllabus and if… you were of a mind as a teacher to teach a certain narrative of the past in terms of the teaching of Britishness and British history you have the space within the syllabus to do that. And actually as every single report from Michael Madison has pointed out and the Ofsted reports show – he’s the history inspector for Ofsted; he’s in the schools week in week out – actually the syllabus is working fairly effectively. It gives quite a nice broad range. It allows you to specialise in local history; go international, teach British history. … If you are going to focus your energies somewhere as a minister that’s not necessarily where you would; that’s not the problem. It’s a problem for the Conservative Party because of their relationship with modern Britain but it’s not a problem in terms of the teaching of history and the nature of history in our schools.

So there you go, on the one hand, as told to the Times, a narrative version of history, concentrating on British history, is right in principle, meeting a genuine need. Objections are mistaken and it should be accepted by the left. On the other hand, as told to Defend School History, it is politically motivated, ideologically biased to both Whiggery and Toryism and completely unnecessary because the curriculum is fine as it is.

It would be great to think that Tristram Hunt had ended up at the Defend School History meeting because his predecessor had agreed to attend, and that his seeming contradictions were down to carelessness and desperation at needing to please a potentially hostile crowd.

However, there is another, more disturbing possibility. Within about a week, he may have gone native. He may be assuming that Ofsted reports on teaching history are a source of neutral expertise that he must accept as accurate. His comments suggest he may be looking at the report “History for All” which declares that:

The most effective subject pedagogy, which ensured high achievement in history, was shown by teachers whose approach focused on well-structured enquiry, embracing independent thinking and learning. This approach was generally more evident and successful in the schools visited for this survey than in those visited for the previous 2004–07 survey. The following example
illustrates highly effective practice in developing pupils’ enquiry skills.

Students in Year 9 were given the task of investigating changes in bombing strategy, comparing the First and Second World Wars. They devised their enquiries and structured them appropriately with individual guidance from the class teacher. Each student had her or his own laptop and used both academic and general interest websites to research data and find different interpretations. This valuable exercise led to some valid independent work. It was enhanced by the fact that, although students were given a broad framework and a key question which they were required to answer, the structure of the enquiry was not prescribed and
the students were able to develop their own styles and structures.

In the very best lessons seen, teachers developed pupils’ enquiry skills by: „

  • providing a clear framework and sense of direction for the investigation
  • controlling the scope of pupils’ expectations and encouraging them to identify and pursue valid lines of enquiry
  • ensuring that research activities were matched by high levels of cognitive challenge
  • encouraging pupils to think for themselves and giving them sufficient time to consider what they were studying and what this told them about, for example, the importance of an event, or the consequences of an action
  • maintaining a relentless focus on subject-specific thinking which helped to develop pupils’ willingness to work things out for themselves, pose high quality historical questions and propose hypotheses about the past.

Not surprisingly, from a point of view that says children working things out for themselves is the best sort of teaching, then there is nothing wrong with the current dumbed-down, skills-based history curriculum. From this perspective, the new-knowledge-based curriculum is an unnecessary change forced on history teachers by those reactionary souls who want kids to actually know stuff.

Tristram Hunt is one of the few Labour MPs with a record of opposing dumbing-down. I can only hope that his latest speech is an aberration, and he does not feel that his new job requires him to spout the line, and accept the advice of the education establishment in supporting a situation which leaves kids staggeringly short of basic historical knowledge.


How do I know progress is being made in my classroom? April #blogsync

April 27, 2013

Yes, I can reblog twice in one morning. Want to make something of it?


Why isn’t our education system working?

April 27, 2013

Another excellent blog from Joe Kirby

Best bets




‘Educational inequality is the civil rights issue of our time’

Barack Obama, 2011


Our retention, training, curriculum and assessment aren’t strong enough

In 1807, radical journalist William Cobbett used an analogy to suggest that, just as his hunting dogs in training had lost the scent because he’d laid a false trail of red herrings, politics had become distracted. Some two hundred years on, the same could be said of the English education system and the fierce debates it often finds itself embroiled in: for trainee teachers, it’s a trail littered with red herrings.

One of the things that has most surprised me since starting as a trainee teacher is the sheer number of misleading diversions, which seem to distract us from what matters most: improving teaching and learning in schools and classrooms. Here are some examples of those debates that create more heat than insight: whether…

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The father and mother of effective classroom learning

April 26, 2013

Here you go, from Webs of Substance.


Michael Gove’s Favourite Bloggers (or why my credibility is now shot)

April 25, 2013

I have to mention this. From a speech Michael Gove gave today to… I think it was some SMT types.

And just as the impact of great teaching is becoming more visible so the voices of great teachers are becoming more audible in the education debate.

Voices across the political spectrum are talking honestly about the profession’s strengths and weaknesses; successes, failures and priorities for the future.

I’m a great fan of Andrew Old, whose brilliant blog Scenes from the Battleground provides one of the most insightful commentaries on the current and future curriculum that I’ve ever read; but I’m also an admirer of John Blake of Labour Teachers, who has transcended party politics to praise all schools which succeed for their pupils, even if they are academies or free schools…

I also hugely enjoy the always provocative work of Tom Bennett, the Behaviour Guru, who champions teachers at every turn while challenging them to up their game. And one of the brightest young voices in the education debate is the Birmingham teacher Matthew Hunter, whose work online and in Standpoint magazine reinforces my view that those who are have entered the profession in the last few years – and are entering now – are hugely ambitious for the children in their care.

Well there you go, the rumours are true. The secretary of state for education reads this crap and has told everyone about it despite the fact my last blogpost was an attack on one of his policies which was cross-posted to Labour Teachers.

I wonder if any politician from the party I’ve been an active member of for the last twenty years will notice me now? Seems unlikely, given that  my main belief (that kids should be made to learn lots of stuff even if they don’t want to)  seems to be the one area where arch-Blairite Labour frontbenchers are currently finding common cause with the Socialist Workers Party.

Oh well.

P.S. Vote Labour.


“Shelby doesn’t do Supply”

April 24, 2013

This is the reality of “inclusion” in all its glory.

The Modern Miss

Today I met Shelby.

If you’ve ever been to the school I was at, I’m sure you’ll have met Shelby too. In fact, I imagine every teacher within a ten-mile radius has met Shelby.

Supply work is always thin on the ground the first few weeks of a new term, so when my agency asked me to travel nearly twice my usual maximum distance, I really had little choice – that, or no work.

I arrived at school to be greeted with an ominous warning, “You’re in room C3 all day. That means you’ve got Shelby for a triple period.” As it turned out, I didn’t, but that was down to Shelby, not the timetable.

The first two lessons were fine, the children were generally well behaved and they completed the set work. I began to think that the day was going to be a good one, one where I…

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Do we really have high expectations of our students? Or is it just talk? Part Two: Curriculum.

April 20, 2013

You were probably expecting this.


It’s Official: 21st Century Skills don’t yet exist

April 19, 2013

Excellent stuff.


Why I’m against Performance-Related Pay

April 17, 2013

There is no shortage of reasons to be against performance related-pay for teachers. The video which I have shared here is a good starting point. Another might be the brief summary of its history and general ineffectiveness as a method of raising results given here by Diane Ravitch or an evaluation of the research can be found here.

However, my opposition to performance related-pay for teachers is not based on whether it can be empirically established if it would raise grades or not. I object to it for more fundamental reasons.

1) I do not want to compete with my colleagues.

If the best teachers are to be rewarded with extra cash, particularly if it is to be distributed by schools, then it would be foolish to try to help your colleagues get better at teaching. A teacher who did so would risk losing money to those they helped. It would be better to surround yourself with weak and inexperienced teachers and let them flounder.

2) I do not want to be formally judged.

Attempts to assess teachers through observations, results, performance management interviews, inspections or student feedback are already a nightmare. Rarely do they actually judge the right things. SMT or OFSTED are not better teachers than those who stay in the classroom. There is little reason to think they are good at judging teachers or interpreting data. All they are good at is generating tick-lists for teachers to comply with. This creates more work for teachers and actually reduces their effectiveness. Why make a bad situation worse by making money depend on it?

3) I do not want to chase money.

If I cared about the cash that much then I wouldn’t be a teacher in the first place. The only people who are in teaching for the cash are usually those who are too incompetent to have ever made a career in a more lucrative profession. This will not reward the competent, it will reward the greedy. The system will be gamed like every other system in education by those who have the time and the inclination to do so, meanwhile those of us who just want to get on with the job will stay out of it.

4) It’s insulting.

Seriously. I really want my students to learn. That’s my motivation. Giving me a cash prize when that happens would actually make me feel like it was an added extra, like doing a lunch duty or private tuition, not the reason I joined the profession in the first place. Being paid for what you do out of love (here I refer to the extra effort to make sure students do well, not the whole job) can only diminish it. If a teacher lacks the motivation to do the job then they are better off leaving the profession than having money thrown at them until they reacquire it. I find it rude to suggest I need to be offered money to work as hard as I do. It’s not that I don’t want teachers to get what they deserve, it’s that a cash bonus is not it. In teaching, respect for being good at your job is in short supply, but it is not the lack of rewards that damages motivation. The real problem is the way the system obstructs good work and good teaching. That is what needs to change. It’s the disincentives that are the problem for teacher motivation, not a lack of incentives.

Ultimately, performance-related pay is the technocratic outsider’s solution to poor teaching. Those of us in the system know that the solution to poor teaching is to stop encouraging it. Classroom teachers are still a better judge of good teaching than anyone else in the system, any attempt to manipulate them from far away will undermine, rather than improve, their effectiveness.

Update 20/4/2013: This post also appears on the Labour Teachers website.


Perspectives on Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006)

April 16, 2013

More on discovery learning

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