Archive for April, 2014


Progressively Worse – A Subversive Text

April 28, 2014

This book review is a (very slightly edited) version of the foreword I wrote to Robert Peal’s Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. It should make it clear why I think the book is worth reading.

progressively worse cover

Few publications can claim to be subversive, but that is a fitting description for Robert Peal’s book. He has related a piece of educational history and described a debate that many educationalists, managers and inspectors will not want teachers to be aware of. It is not simply that his arguments against the influence that progressive education has on our education system will challenge many of those in a position of undeserved power and authority; he also provides the context that is lacking for so many of those who are, or soon will be, a part of our education system.

While academics and journalists (or even bloggers like myself) might talk of an ongoing and established debate over education methods between progressives and traditionalists, it is not something that one can expect to hear much of when one becomes a teacher. It is entirely possible to be trained as a teacher in a university and in schools and teach for several years without ever hearing that there is any doubt over whether teacher talk is harmful; discovery learning is effective; or knowledge is less important than skills. To inform teachers that these disputes exist is to cast doubt on the expertise of most of those who train teachers; many of those who run schools; and also those with the greatest power in education: the schools inspectorate – OFSTED. For at least some readers, this will be the first time they have heard that certain orthodoxies have been, or can be, challenged.

Of course, for the informed reader this may not be the first time such challenges to the progressive consensus have been encountered in print. The last few years have seen the publication of titles such as Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof and Katharine Birbalsingh’s To Miss With Love, which have demonstrated the existence of influential voices in education expressing views many teachers have never heard before. This has been supplemented further by many, many bloggers who have been hostile to the ideological status quo. Additionally, it has also been informed by influential books from the United States by individuals such as Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov and E.D. Hirsch. These writers, while not necessarily writing polemical or ideological tracts, have nevertheless confidently explored ideas about the curriculum, teaching methods and the psychology of learning that fell far outside the comfort zone of the English education system.

However, I believe Robert Peal is now making a unique and essential contribution to this debate by providing the political and historical context of the arguments. Neither progressives nor traditionalists can claim to represent a new development in education. With the possible exception of some of the latest evidence from cognitive psychology for the effectiveness of traditional teaching, almost all the arguments described here have been part of the history of our education system for more than five decades. Generations have fought these battles, proved their points and bucked the system, only to be airbrushed from history by an educational establishment only too keen to recycle ideas from 1967’s Plowden Report as the latest innovation. The historical chapters here analyse and present the history of those arguments in a way which perhaps most closely resembles Left Back, Diane Ravitch’s magisterial recounting of the ‘education wars’ in the United States. If this causes teachers to realise that they can find ideas and inspiration, not just in the contemporary critics of progressive education, but in the writings of Michael Oakeshott or R.S. Peters, then the educational discussion will be thoroughly enriched. The debate on education is not one limited to the present generation; it is not a scrap between, for example, Sir Ken Robinson and Michael Gove. It is a conversation that dates back, at least to the nineteenth century, in which figures such as Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis have had something to say on one side or the other. We should not let the latest iteration of the disagreement, with its talk of ‘21st Century Skills’ and ‘flipped classrooms’, blind us to that wider perspective.

A historical perspective should also save us from being convinced that this row is one conducted along narrow party political lines. While their efforts to stem the tide of progressivism may have faltered in office, it is impossible to miss the extent to which some of the voices speaking out against the education establishment were those of Labour politicians such as Callaghan, Blunkett and Blair. While the influence of progressive education seems to have been greater on the left than the right, the case against it can be made on egalitarian grounds as easily as conservative ones. Robert Tressell, the undoubtedly working-class political activist and author, wrote in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:

What we call civilisation – the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal – he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.

If this point is then accepted, education, in the sense of the full entitlement to the best of our society’s culture and knowledge, is not a relic of a discredited tradition, but wealth that should be distributed to all. Comprehensive education, when viewed as an academic education for all, might represent a core principle of the left. By contrast, progressive education, with its contempt for the accumulated knowledge of mankind, is likely to work only to deprive the disadvantaged and excluded of an asset that will remain the exclusive property of the privileged and powerful. Middle-class partisans of both right and left would happily misrepresent the education debate as a mere reflection of wider political disagreements. However, many of us who identify our politics most closely with the aspirational, working-class tradition within the Labour Party are happy to campaign as firmly against the excesses of progressive education as we do against the excesses of free-market capitalism. This is for fundamentally the same reason; it increases the deprivation of the less fortunate for the sake of an ideological experiment conducted at their expense by those with little to lose personally.

So with this in mind, I welcome what Robert Peal has achieved. He has provided a much needed perspective on a debate that has been at best narrowed, and at worst hidden. It should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to engage with an argument that has raged for over a century, and shows every sign of continuing. For those unfamiliar with educational politics, appropriately it will be an education. For those who have only seen the disagreements over education described from the perspective of progressive educationalists, it will be a shock. For those within the education system who are already sympathetic to his cause, it will be a call for subversion.


Blogs for the Week Ending 27th April 2014

April 28, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week (apologies for the slight delay due to technical difficulties). If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. There is (as far as I know) no Chalk Talk Podcast this week, but I would still like to choose the blogpost of the week some time soon. Any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below, or on twitter, directed to @oldandrewuk

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Spot The Difference: Part 2

April 20, 2014

About a year ago I wrote a blogpost entitled “Spot the Difference” comparing what Tristram Hunt was saying about the history curriculum before he became part of Labour’s education team and after. This quick post is the sequel.

Here are Tristram Hunt’s views on AS levels, interviewed by Total Politics in 2012:

With history, kids are over-examined and under-taught. Personally, I’d get rid of AS Levels – they’ve been a waste of time. You don’t need the relentless examination system; when kids leave at the age of 18, they’re ‘exam trauma victims’.

Here, from the TES website, is an account by William Stewart of what Tristram Hunt told the NASUWT conference yesterday:

AS-levels would return under Labour, pledges Tristram Hunt

Labour today pledged a “swift reversal” of the government’s unpopular decision to stop AS marks counting towards final A-level grades.

Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, told the NASUWT conference in Birmingham that Labour would not continue with the controversial policy of “decoupling” AS and A-level qualifications.

“When we assume office in May 2015, there will be a swift reversal of this policy and I am giving teachers and school leaders clear indication of that today,” he said.

To be honest, I’ve never had particularly strong views either way on AS levels. There’s strong arguments for the status quo and for reversing it. But I do know that, politically, the second position is the cheap shot. It’s a predictable position that provides easy attacks for an opposition, but unnecessary hassle for any future Labour government and uncertainty for those likely to be affected by any changes. There are those who will be happy if Labour’s education policy in 2015 is a list of items such as this, i.e. changes Michael Gove has made that will be reversed. Such a list might please the education establishment, but it is not a serious programme for government. “Back to 2010” is not an appealing slogan even for those of us in the small minority who voted Labour in 2010.


Blogs for the Week Ending 13th April 2014

April 13, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. There is no  Chalk Talk Podcast  this week, but I would still like to choose the blogpost of the week some time tomorrow. Any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below, or on twitter, directed to  @oldandrewuk

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OFSTED Culture

April 12, 2014

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_ImageI can’t resist passing on a few bits and pieces about the effect OFSTED has on schools. I have done a little editing, here and there for the sake of clarity and anonymity, but made no significant changes.

The first is from a teacher’s comment on my last blogpost.

We’ve had OFSTED in twice this year, and the DfE. Additionally, we have an adviser appointed by the academy chain who is also a lead inspector and receives a ludicrous amount of money in order to try to impose “what OFSTED want to see”. He’s quite open about it and also very insistent that listening to Wilshaw is tantamount to professional negligence in that it’s almost certain to land you in a category. I really don’t want to get into a debate about the existence of ‘a preferred teaching style’; there is no debate.

I just want to mention the following. Firstly, ‘didactic’ is no longer a description of a teaching style. It seems it’s now an egregious expletive which has the ability to induce a physical reaction in certain quarters.Secondly, apparently well planned, orderly, productive lessons in which there is demonstrable evidence of progress can and are routinely awarded a 3 on the grounds that they lack either: “glitter”, “sparkle” or “oomph”. Lastly, I’d like to point out the perils of success through means which fail to exhibit the necessary degree of glittery crypto-progressive orthodoxy. My school has one highly successful department; the only one which regularly gets within spitting distance of national progress targets. Staff, students, parents and SLT all regard it as outstanding within the school’s context. Although, for the latter, it’s always been a little bit of a black sheep given that its methods are somewhat ‘traditional’-I was going to say didactic but I didn’t want any unsuspecting OFSTED types choking on their lattes.

Anyway, come the feedback, this department was slated for its approach while the others more wedded to ‘preferred’ styles were deemed as having ‘effective strategies for improvement in place’. Little stall was placed in the inconvenient fact that these ‘strategies’ had patently failed to make any impression on results in the previous three years. Rather, it was suggested that SLT direct a ‘learning enquiry’ at the one successful department in order to ‘improve engagement and boost progress’.

Now I wasn’t especially surprised at this turn. What did take me aback was the embarrassed silence that greeted my assertion that possibly this finding was a tad inverted and perverse. I saw a see of concerned but indulgent faces who seemed to regard me as a precocious child lacking the intellectual sophistication to grasp the sheer naivety of my statement. I must stress – I really must stress – that these people weren’t simply suggesting that what I had said was inconvenient; that we all had to just ‘play the game’; that we could get back to the real world once the inspector had left the building. They actually agreed with the inspectors.

It was a clear sign to me of the tragic cognitive dissonance OFSTED induces. These were ostensibly professional competent educationalists who, faced with overwhelming unequivocal evidence tending toward conclusion X, instead, presumably due to a form of conditioned response mechanism, arrived confidently at conclusion not X.

Two things are clear:

  • I have to get out of teaching
  • OFSTED must die.


The second is from a chair of governors at a primary school who emailed me, about the effect of OFSTED on their school. They asked if I was aware of the recent guidance about grading lesson observations and explained how it contradicted everything they’d been told to do previously.

 In one of our regular chats recently our head was fairly incandescent about it the new guidance. It’s not so long since our school, despite being consistently in the top 5% – 10% in the authority in terms of attainment and progress measures, was graded “requires improvement” on the basis of the quality of teaching, due to individual lessons being judged as RI, for reasons such as “that high-achievers group could have been off doing independent research”.

In our post-OFSTED action plan, we have paid our dues in terms of doing all the things that seem to be expected of us, and trying to encourage a dispirited staff to push on towards the re-inspection. Now it seems the rules have changed again. It doesn’t seem so long since I was reading a rubric about what proportion of lessons had to be judged good for the overall judgement to be “good”.

I’m keen to get this sort of sentiment published. I feel one of my roles as a chair of governors is to provide a sympathetic ear and to some degree calm him down, but as I said explicitly to him recently, I recognise I don’t have as much “skin in the game” as he has. I think I hear some echoes of the things I hear at our school in your work: that feeling of being judged by people who don’t really have an appropriate level of accountability for judgements they are making.

As a governor, I do want the best from our staff, but I also feel quite protective towards them as well. They should have a reasonable degree of work/life balance, and I’m keen that they are treated in a way to ensure their longevity in the teaching profession. One thing that has disturbed me as a result of our poor outcome last time round is the seeming desire from OFSTED and HMI to see “blood on the carpet”. This arrived in the shape of one of our teachers deciding she had had enough and was moving on to other things. On the one hand, it does give us something it seems OFSTED/HMI want to hear  (“separating the wheat and the chaff”), but on the other, this didn’t seem to me to be a case of a bad teacher ; just one that couldn’t fit with the current regime.

Certainly, anecdotally, it seems to be getting more and more difficult to fill teaching posts. In particular, I shudder at the day our head moves on. One of our assistant heads would certainly be a good candidate, but I believe he really has no interest in applying. Can’t say I blame him – the stakes are just too high – even if you turn in the numbers an inspection team can walk in and after a fairly cursory examination decide you’re still not good enough.

The saving grace in our case seemed to be that the parents just didn’t really believe the outcome of the inspection, which does seem to be something that happens elsewhere.

Finally, and you may have already seen this, we have an example of a school complaining about OFSTED. Obviously, a school with a lowered grade has a vested interest in complaining, and their results are such that the judgement is not a huge surprise, but some of the comments about the behaviour of inspectors are worth reading. This is mainly because none of them sound particularly unlikely or at odds with the sort of story I hear about OFSTED all the time.

Lateness of inspectors disrupted timetabled lessons. KS3 students who were to meet with the inspectors waited in the designated classroom for the entire break time yet they did not all arrive to interview them. They were then asked to return at the start of lunch, however, the inspector was not ready to see them then either. The meeting for students  with inspectors, when it did take place, overran by approximately 10 minutes during which time the class due to go in were waiting in the corridor. The corridors are narrow and this caused some congestion. The member of staff whose classroom it was had knocked and politely asked when they would be finishing but was told she would ‘have to wait’… The inspection feedback criticised the congestion in this corridor with the inspector in question commenting that she actually felt ‘unsafe and intimidated’ by our students. The congestion and late entry to the lesson was of the inspectors own making.

…Following an observation of an ICT lesson the inspector demonstrated little understanding of the subject and criticised the topic despite the fact that the teacher had followed a lesson suggested by the exam board. The member of staff was also criticised for not demonstrating progress in the exercise books despite being told that the member of staff had returned from maternity leave just the previous day and this was the very first lesson with her new group.

The quality of observation of a History lesson can also be questioned as the member of staff was informed that her lesson was a secure 2 and when asked how it could have been a 1 she was informed that she should have turned her classroom into Parliament House to set the scene. This comment has no relevance to a member of staff who teaches in over 11 classrooms due to inadequate space within the school building.

…During feedback to a member of the Maths department, the inspector stated that the lesson was a secure 2 but, when asked, could not provide any suggestion as to how to increase this to a 1 and was told ‘keep doing what you are doing’.  In the same lesson the staff member was praised on progress as it was evident that Level 4 students were understanding Level 7 work yet after being informed that the significant majority of the class were performing at least their expected levels and, in most cases, above these levels andhad been for the past two years, the inspector stated that he could not judge progress over time. He did not look into the students’ books so it is unclear how he arrived at this judgement.

As I mentioned last time, Civitas are interested in hearing about people’s recent OFSTED experiences. I genuinely believe that the attempts to reform OFSTED currently taking place are sincere, but I think it might take decades to undo the damage they have already done to teaching and learning in schools.


(Slightly Delayed) Blogs for the Week Ending 6th April 2014

April 7, 2014

The Echo Chamber

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. There is no Chalk Talk Podcast this week, but I would still like to choose the blogpost of the week some time tomorrow. Any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below, or on twitter, directed to @oldandrewuk

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An OFSTED Round Up

April 2, 2014

I’m afraid I have rather neglected my blog during this last half term. Some of this has been due to the distractions of ordinary life, but a lot of it has been due to taking some of the opportunities that have come up as a result of blogging. There will be various announcements to come, but one that is relevant to this post, was my brief interview about OFSTED, from the weekend before last, on the Chalk Talk Podcast, which can be found here.

Hopefully, I will now be able to return to regular blogging, but inevitably I will recommence blogging with some comments and news about OFSTED. There’s been a few developments worth noting or commenting on.

1) Bloggers (but not me) meeting OFSTED

A delegation of bloggers were invited in to meet Mike Cladingbowl, OFSTED’s director of schools, in half term. Their accounts can be found below:

I can’t fault those they invited, and I’m particularly happy to see Shena there who, while probably less well-known than the others, has been invaluable to me (and no doubt to many others) in pointing out certain OFSTED developments. But, I’m not going to let false modesty (or any other kind) stop me making the obvious gripe that I wasn’t invited. David commented that:

We have tentatively agreed that a further meeting would be a positive step. Several of us raised the glaring absence of the education blogger most synonymous with holding Ofsted to account. Like Banquo’s ghost, Old Andrew palpably haunted the meeting somewhat. We were told that Ofsted were wary of engaging with anonymous bloggers but now that Andrew has revealed his secret identity in a recent Radio 4 interview maybe they can see their way clear to inviting him (and very possibly others) next time.

I can’t help but point out that it is a little difficult to accept that OFSTED were unaware that I was no longer anonymous, given that the Radio 4 interview David mentioned was actually part of a programme about OFSTED.

That said, I’m slightly more positive about what transpired than many have been. While a good number of people have made comments to me along the lines of “who are OFSTED trying to kid with this stunt?”, it does sound as if Mike Cladingbowl is doing something important. The accounts suggest that he is, as far as I can tell, actually following the same line as the Chief Inspector. My past experience of OFSTED employees was that they simply ignored everything that Michael Wilshaw said about schools, so I’ll happily take that as progress. The other positive development was the announcement (first at the meeting then in this document) that inspectors shouldn’t be grading individual lessons. Graded observations have been key to the enforcement of the “OFSTED teaching style” and this could make a huge difference. Although, it also raises the rather obvious question as to why OFSTED’s director of schools was completely oblivious to how inspectors have actually been operating.

2) The Policy Exchange report “Watching the Watchmen”.

This can be found here. I rate it highly, simply because it seems to focus on what I, and I think many teachers, see as the key issues. It discusses the saga of the “OFSTED teaching style”, (with my NUT article quoted as a source). It criticises the unaccountable nature of the inspectors and, particularly, the arms length employment of most of them through private companies. It also highlights the unreliable nature of lesson observations. All of these have been common enough topics on social media, and among teachers, but the reaction to the report suggests that this report has indicated them to a much wider audience. That said, the most prominently discussed proposals were those aimed at reducing the burden of inspection on “good” schools. I am not particularly convinced that this will help matters. The issues with OFSTED are to do with the unfair and unaccountable nature of their decisions, and the absurd nature of the incentives they provide, and while many critics of OFSTED are reluctant to emphasise this point, this is as much a problem with declaring the unacceptable to be good as with attacking the excellent.

3) Michael Wilshaw’s ASCL apeech

This can be found here. Again, the proposals for less inspection of “good” schools, similar to the Policy Exchange proposals, got the most publicity. What interested me most were the remarks about the private companies involved in inspection:

…Ofsted needs to undertake a root and branch review of outsourced inspection. Inspection, as far as I’m concerned, is just too important for Ofsted to simply have oversight of third party arrangements.

The tendering for the contracts is up for renewal fairly soon and I’ll make my decision about the future of outsourced inspection when that time comes.

There are a number of other suggestions and observations that suggest the Chief Inspector is finally grasping the nature of the organisation he is attempting to lead. That said, I think Rob Peal has it about right here in pointing out that he seemed to deny the very problems which elsewhere he had promised to address.

4) Tribal’s letter to inspectors

This can be found on John Bald’s blog here and I suggest reading it. If genuine (and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be) it would indicate that Tribal, a Regional Inspection Provider, is sufficiently worried about scrutiny from above leading to financial penalties, to warn its inspection teams to do everything by the book. In practice, this could mean even more in the way of check-lists and bureaucracy and I’d be amazed if OFSTED did have the nerve to stand up to a contractor, but it would seem to indicate that a shift in power is occurring in OFSTED and the centre is now asserting itself. As ever, it does nothing to reverse the damage already done, but at least it provides some indicator about a seriousness of intent within OFSTED’s leadership.

5) Civitas Call for Evidence

The think tank Civitas are interested in hearing (in confidence) from people who have been inspected since last December who can answer the following questions:

• Were particular teaching styles criticised or praised in your written inspection report?

• Were particular teaching styles criticised or praised in your verbal feedback?

• Have you being told by senior leaders or CPD providers to teach in a certain style to suit Ofsted?

• Were you graded on the basis of an individual lesson, as opposed to a wide variety of evidence?

If you are able to help, then there are full details here.

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