That Primary School Teacher Post

August 9, 2014

There were lots of comments on twitter about that post yesterday from a new primary school teacher. I thought it was genuine and worth sharing because:

  • The ideology described was consistent with what I had been describing in my previous post;
  • The ideology criticised was consistent with so much of what I’ve seen expressed on primary school teachers’ blogs;
  • It was consistent with what I have heard from plenty of others who have gone into primary teaching, particularly the academically able;
  • The effects of the ideology are very consistent with what I see as a teacher of year 7;
  • It is consistent with what we know about academic attainment in basic skills, not just in year 7 but throughout the population, i.e. they have declined over time as the teaching methods have gor more progressive;
  • I assumed that the many primary teachers doing a good job and opposing this ideology would either agree with the post or want it debated, rather than claim to be personally insulted at the suggestion that anyone ever disagreed or that everything wasn’t perfect.

I knew it would be controversial. As I said in my previous post, when it comes to early years there is a general hostility to questioning around methods. I also know from long experience that criticism of anything in the primary sector gets a far more hostile and personal reaction than criticism of anything in secondary. Criticise a fad in secondary or FE and everybody says “aren’t our managers idiots for forcing this on us?” Criticise a fad, or even the same fad, in primary and it’s like you just appeared on the News at Ten to declare that everyone in primary, staff and students alike, are completely shit and should be put down. Despite a number of brilliant exceptions among primary bloggers, there just doesn’t seem to be the same capacity for debate as in secondary or FE.

Some of the response was predictable. It was part of a fairly heated debate and was originally in the comments, so, of course, any passing member of the “tone police” could complain about the style of writing. Inevitably there were those who, having seen that I’d recently asked for evidence for some bold and apparently technical claims about the psychology of child development, thought it must, therefore, be appropriate to ignore context and ask for evidence for personal experience and opinion. And, of course, people were all too willing to interpret any general claim to be about what was universal rather than what was normal. But apart from these obvious time wasters, I was actually surprised at a lot of the other comments. There were a lot of attempts by primary teachers to claim nobody among their number held the opinions that were criticised in the post (what a relief) but these seemed to be arriving in my twitter timeline alongside those primary teachers who were claiming that nobody in primary education (other than the author) disagreed with the opinions criticised in the post. Simultaneously, I was seeing two arguments that appeared to refute each other. Additionally, there were people who simply seemed unaware that any of the debate from the last few years has happened. Some defended the criticised position on the basis of learning styles (although the worst offender later found reasons to delete her tweets). Others defended it on the grounds that discovery learning works well. One person even tweeted me this: 

Also surprising to me were some of the ad hominems. In particular:

  • It probably isn’t a primary teacher who wrote it (alongside claims it’s a wind up and declarations of disbelief and shock to be reading such views);
  • They show a lack of understanding, particularly of play, development, learning etc. (said several times over and it was also claimed they cannot be educated or that they needed to be trained);
  • “I hope this teacher never teaches my kids”;
  • It’s depressing or bad they want to be a teacher;
  • If they cared they’d come and visit us (really appealing when said to somebody saying something controversial anonymously);
  • They are attacking the professionalism of other teachers including those who say they don’t use the methods criticised;
  • The author is projecting their own problems onto the system.

I wasn’t so much surprised that ad hominem attacks were made. I was surprised how familiar they were. Look at the comments on my blog (and other blogs) from when I started and you will see pretty much all of them. This is exactly how I used to be dismissed. Of course, as time went on and lots of other tweeters and bloggers appeared expressing similar opinions, and it became obvious I had a significant following, this sort of attack has become rarer and rarer. It was a way to stop the debate and it didn’t work. I don’t think it’s going to work here either. Of course, the author might have had a bad experience but they haven’t had a rare experience. Of course, there are other views about pedagogy, but isn’t it time they were defended on the basis of evidence and reason not by demonising those who oppose them?

Oh, and just one more point, it was remarkable how many people assumed the author of the post was a man (and the only exception that really stood out was a male primary teacher). Any suggestion as to what that signifies? It could be stereotypes about former accountants, or it could tell us something about the sexual politics of primary teaching. Your opinions on this would be appreciated.



  1. A few points:
    “Oh, and just one more point, it was remarkable how many people assumed the author of the post was a man (and the only exception that really stood out was a male primary teacher).”
    I think you’ll find @heymisssmith used the pronoun “she”. I certainly didn’t presume. And looking at the comments I didn’t see too many respondents point to a male poster. Or did you mean on Twitter generally?
    2) “Of course, the author might have had a bad experience but they haven’t had a rare experience.”
    Judging by the reaction on Twitter it does appear that way unless leagues of primary teachers come forwards to concur. It’s your opinion not the reality, yet, maybe. So some people might be forgiven for thinking it rare at this point in time. No-one is saying it didn’t happen and so:
    3) Ad hominems – you can’t play by dinner party lexical logical rules if it’s an opinion piece – (cake and eat it come to mind) other narratives are available and just because they take a different stance and purport to stem from a (supposedly) wider experience (maybe it doesn’t count for much) – it’s not an ad hominem – it’s just questioning scope of experience.
    You can agree or disagree with that but it’s not an ad hominem and that’s an easy way to shut down discussion.
    4) “Motherly types” and behaviour is an absurd stereotyping and not in any way proven – I’ve already commented why in last post – again not Ad Hominem just questioning. Linking bad behaviour to “teachers who have adopted a motherly approach” seems at odds with my and plenty of other people’s experiences never mind seeing a definite correlation between the two.
    I will call someone out on that last point and that is not an ad hominem that is a questioning of the causes. Again I’ve said why in the last post.
    As I have said before – I’m more interested in strategies that work rather than throwing brickbats; if people did that more, rather than have spurious “debates” which boil down to thinkpieces no-one is going to agree on and waste everyone’s time, then we might get somewhere.
    Bigging up “controversial” posts (no not really Andrew) isn’t really going to move any notional or real debate on, is it?
    How about some questions that people can answer and give credence to, rather than scatter gun ideas for what might cause what rare or otherwise.

    • 1) Just remarking on the Twitter response. I’m sure not everyone assumed it was a “he” but given most primary teachers are female it was remarkable how many did on all sides. Of course, as I said it may be to do with stereotypes about accountants.
      2) Depends what counts as the response doesn’t it? Include parents who have seen their kids taught that way, and include those who defend teaching that way as evidence, and the response seems to confirm the post wasn’t far off. As I said, half the people objecting seem to prove the other half wrong.
      3) Look at the list of ad hominems that were included. It isn’t about experience is it?
      4) It’s not an unreasonable opinion. Even in secondary there are those that think they are substitute parents with only the vaguest academic responsibility.

      And, yes, bigging up dissent to the dominant view is exactly how debate starts. The education establishment constantly claim to be speaking for teachers and are usually accepted as such by the media. And they aren’t careful to be polite or reasonable with those who disagree with them.

      • 1) Fair enough – again I seem to know more female accountants because my partner deals with a lot of them so I can’t judge either – I’d not link the views as “masculine” or “feminine” either just as I wouldn’t link motherly to consequences for behaviour.
        2) They are not proving the other half wrong they are just accounting a different experience for their personal circumstance – it’s just that particular school seen to be run in a perceived way – that’s not really a debate is it?
        Primary schools are run in all sorts of ways and I would imagine free schools will be even more diverse. I used to have parents in my classes on a regular basis (does it happen in secondary? Of course it does, sometimes, I would imagine) when those parents moved house and to a new school they weren’t let over the school threshold – they were shocked because they’d seen that as the norm. I’m all for accountability and parental involvement.
        3) Scope of experience possibly – but not an ad hominem and can be justly contested I’d reckon. That probably won’t get anyone far either I’ll concede unless you polled everyone.
        4) I’d rather see concrete proposals than opinions about others – in that way people can agree on what to do rather than what views we suppose them to have and how their actions might follow on from that. Then you start to make progress with the truth.
        I’m sure you can find just as many people who feel comfortable with their children in a mixture of schools with different ways of going about teaching and learning and with a variety of successes/ failures but I suspect there’s more diversity than might appear at first – I do really doubt all primary schools are uniformly “progressive”…
        One interesting thing that has come out of this is that lack of curriculum in some new academies coupled with no apparent direction or benchmarking where people are going; that doesn’t appear to be a great thing. I wonder if more of that will come out in the wash as time goes by.

  2. If we stick to evidence, there really is no genuinely concrete and agreed evidence that standards of numeracy and literacy have fallen over time.
    If we look at GCSE, In 1959, around 9 per cent of 16-year-olds got five or more O-levels. Now, the proportion gaining five or more GCSEs including Ma and Eng is near 60 per cent. So grade inflation is very likely but the other side of that coin is that on a like for like comparison we would have to compare A* grades now with O level C grades then. If standards are lower now the C grades then would have to be better than the A* grades now. Of course they might have been but I think that is at the very least debatable.
    Modern society demands much higher levels of numeracy and literacy of the whole population now, so certainly no room for complacency. There are not the jobs available now for illiterate people that were available in 1959. This easily explains the crisis over numeracy and literacy now. It’s simply that the world is more not less demanding of higher standards in these basic skills across the whole population not just the 10% previously being lined up for university. Getting 60% of the population to the level that was previously expected of only the top 10% is a really daunting prospect. The question is how to do it? Clearly the methods of 1959 won’t work because they didn’t get more that 10% there then. There is some dubious practice no doubt but teachers have never been more inspected or more pressured to get results in these areas, particularly in primary schools so why would anyone find a strong reaction to what is essentially a mass ad hominem attack in the context of that pressure and stress at all surprising? That is the real puzzle.

  3. The problem with the original article, which I read very carefully, was that it is was unsophisticated. I have seen absurdly low expectations of,especially poor , children in some schools. I have seen terrible behaviour and crap teaching. BUT it is no where as common as that article suggests. It is all too common to take a small truth and take it to the extreme which is what the article did. It was, to be frank, a stupid article which has a lot of truth in it.

  4. I find all the denial on twitter that this person could even be a primary teacher really genuinely odd. The piece has some hyperbole – ‘all play’ but the writer is sounding off in the comment section of a blog, not writing an academic article. Making sweeping statements is hardly a sign of fraudulence.
    It is perfectly possible that this teacher has experience of schools with very poor behaviour management. Who is it that thinks really bad behaviour suddenly starts at secondary level? We all know that at least some schools have very poor behaviour.
    The denial that learning through play might be stressed seems even more odd to me for two reasons. First I know that ‘play based/learning through doing’ are encouraged by educationalists even for top primary kids because I have read stuff over time in which they do, blogs but also articles and websites.It is perfectly feasible this was strongly pushed in this person’s ITT and whatever the practicalities on the ground some schools pay at least lip service to these ideas.
    Second I know there are schools that follow these ideas more closely because my own daughter’s did. That was why I withdrew her from that school…
    Or is it just that these critics just don’t believe any primary teacher could form such opinions from their experiences?

  5. One thing that really strikes me here is that you note the difference between primary and secondary colleagues and responses to criticism. I do think (and this is just my opinion) that primary teachers are possibly more sensitive because we are accountable for the progress of the whole child; at secondary level and beyond this is shared with a number of others so there is not that level of intensity and sense of outrage when someone points the finger! I can remember challenging a lecturer from my son’s sixth form college for discussing with us at parents’ evening a completely different student (I’m good at reading upside down!) That wouldn’t happen at primary level! ! It also leads me to an aside in wondering what can of worms would be opened by asking how many teachers at secondary and beyond actually know their pupils? That could change the nature of that debate!!
    To return to the post I confess to being flippant but that may be because you elevated a reply into something more – did the person consent to this by the way? It may be they would have written something more reasoned and articulate and that you
    have actually done them a disservice –
    although they haven’t actually put their
    name to it which seems rather bizarre
    (unless…see above)
    I am more than happy to engage in debate with a named person (don’t need to know more ) but frankly this poster is probably better off remaining anonymous.
    PS happy for you to put this on a separate

    • I didn’t ask permission because I don’t expect follow-up posts like that to get much of a look-in, particularly this time of year. Obviously, now that it’s on it’s way to 2000 views in 2 days in the dead zone of the summer holidays I am beginning to wonder if I should have.

      • That’s because we are all on holiday! ! Am enjoying tweeting with no pressure! ! It would be interesting if person comes forward to ask if they would be willing to post an update

    • Most primary teachers go straight from 6th form to a 3- or 4- year teacher training course, sometimes with no more than a couple of Es in General Studies & the like. Five years ago we did a survey of ITT reading lists for primary English, and most of the titles represented a severely restricted and partisan view of education. By contrast, most secondary school teachers have a degree in an academic subject and a desire to pass on what they have learnt, and with only a few months of ITT they have relatively little emotional capital tied up in theoretical issues. They are more likely to view the blob with scepticism, and are generally more open-minded.
      To illustrate this contrast, in 1996 I was invited by a suburban Norwich comprehensive to teach literacy skills because their feeder schools were doctrinaire whole-language establishments and the literacy skills of their intakes were abysmal. They were fed up with teaching kids with normal intelligence who had a reading age of 7 or 8, so I was welcomed with open arms by staff and SLT. Previously I had been teaching many of these kids privately and I had made a lot of enemies in these primary schools. This wasn’t because I wanted to create trouble, but rather that these schools were doing their damndest to undo my teaching by encouraging children to ‘guess’ unknown words instead of decoding them, and to use ‘invented spellings’ to compensate for the lack of attention they paid to this crucial skill. They were encouraging children to use cursive script when we were still trying to get them to form single letters properly–never mind that these kids were just making random marks trying to copy cursive script and their fluency was actually getting worse. Trying to explain to these teachers the obvious harm that was being done was a waste of breath.
      It didn’t help that Norfolk LA advisers at that time fully supported these detrimental practices. Once we started publishig our own materials, we got a lot of support from SEN advisers in quite a few LAs, and the reception we got in their primary schools ranged from positive to enthusiastic. It doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about these things–a lot of primary school teachers are very well educated–and it takes a lot of courage to stand up the received wisdom in any profession.

  6. I don’t feel I am in any position to comment on primary education, as I have no experience in this phase, but I do try to pay some attention as obviously what happens in the primary phase has implications for secondary teachers. So, please don’t take this comment as expressing any opinion on the original post or the responses. However the IoE evidence mentioned in an earlier comment applies to a relative recent period and therefore perhaps isn’t all that relavant to this discussion since it can certainly be argued that it doesn’t show a contrast between outcomes prior to more progressive methods being introduced and the current situation (whatever that might be). This is possibly better evidence http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000650.htm and http://www.nrdc.org.uk/publications_details.asp?ID=181 are the two UK reports I’m aware of on literacy in England, and the OECD PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills 2013 http://skills.oecd.org/skillsoutlook.html This is the report which led to headlines last year about low standards of literacy and numeracy in England. It includes a measure of the difference between skills of school-leavers and much older adults. All three, but particularly the latter, need to be read in more detail for the context. Whether the conclusions offer useful information in this debate will depend on one’s views on whether the data collected relates to what matters in terms of post-war trends in literacy and numeracy. I hope that is vaguely useful.

  7. I’ve finally realised why so many primary teachers think the comment is fake. They really, really are all reading this blog comment totally literally.
    In that case I agree with them all.
    I agree that it is highly unlikely that any school in the land actually allows students to do *absolutely anything* they like.
    There are no schools that really really *only* do play based learning.
    There are no primaries that really don’t manage to teach *any* of their kids to read and write.
    How outrageous of his person to make such claims…
    I am forewarned that if I tell any of these teachers who are up in arms that while watching a scary film, ‘I literally thought I’d die of fright’, they will think I am lying about the whole experience. A fake. The film was actually a rom com. They will point out that in their experience no one has ever died of fright watching a scary film. How can anything I say be credible when I am clearly a liar?

  8. For my part the post got me thinking again about something which I think has been prevalent in secondary which I can only describe as the blending up into one bland soup of what is taught and how it is taught. The child’s experience must feel very samey. In every subject we (hopefully all now in the past) have been told to include VAK, group learning, discovery learning, high order thinking questioning etc. Children have not been encouraged to get a ‘proper taste’ of the subject. Let subjects teach the way which is best for their subject if that means sitting behind desks in rows so be it but let them ‘do’ PE let them do practicals in science, let them cook etc
    In the same way I believe children do need to play. But I don’t think it helps to mix play and school. In countries like France and Scandinavian countries where there is a tradition of playing until the age of 6 or 7, that is exactly what they do. They don’t call it play based learning – it’s play. They have a genuine belief in building foundation for learning through discovery. But when children start school – they are taught, instructed even – no whiteboards, no gimmicks and they know the teacher is the expert in the room. I think what seems to have happened is that play and schooling has become a mush. We have blurred the boundaries. We all know what happens to children and teenagers when we do that.
    As for literacy rates – anecdotal I agree – my mum left school at 14, she could read, write beautifully, spell perfectly and she was very numerate. One reason why I believe so few got an O level in 1959 was because they weren’t in school, they had already left to get an apprenticeship, join secretarial college etc (don’t you remember the hoards of people needed to do those admin jobs before computers – they all needed to be literate and numerate).
    And most of all when you talk to children and young people what do they want from a teacher. Someone who can keep order, who knows what they are talking about and who doesn’t let them ‘get away with anything’.

  9. That Primary School Teacher puzzled me, as the scenarios described are not those of my experience in Primary teaching. Having said that, for the past 14 years I’ve worked (as Deputy and now Head) at schools where suspicion of “new initiatives” is high and many consultants viewed as “purveyors of snake oil”, so maybe my experiences of Primary teaching are at the opposite end of the spectrum from “That Primary School teacher”. I do think I’ve missed the pressure to conform to the latest thing/idea viewed as “what ofsted are looking for” as our concern has always (and only) been how will this help our children achieve the highest standards they can?
    At the school where I am now we have three main values/ideas/aims (call them what you want) that direct everything we do.
    ➢ Children get one chance in life at being in Y1/Y2 etc and it’s our job to make sure they get the best out of that chance. Our children start school at a disadvantage and leave us with highly literate and numerate. That’s because we put a lot of emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to apply it. But most importantly, we teach using the methods needed to enable children to acquire the knowledge they need, not using the latest methods everyone thinks ofsted are looking for.
    ➢ School will be for our least fortunate child what home is for our most fortunate. For us, this means that we will give our children the support, encouragement and love that a fortunate child receives at home. But we will also teach them the self-discipline, manners and good behaviour that a fortunate child receives at home.
    ➢ We will prepare our children for uncertain futures(children will work in jobs that don’t exist with technology yet to be invented). I know this concept can make many of you wince. But I’m not talking about the whole debate of skills over knowledge. Our belief is that, if we don’t know what future job-markets/technologies look like, then we have to consider what will our children need to meet this uncertainty. They need to be literate, numerate (see point 1) and socially capable. For us socially capable means, as well as the areas covered in point 2, they need to be responsible, self-motivated, independent and autonomous. But, this needs to be taught not discovered!
    Where do our aims take us to? In an school where FSM and deprivation indicators are sig+ the national, 96% of our pupils leave with Reading/writing/Maths at Level 4 and this year 54% leave with Level 5 in all three. In fact, our focus on acquisition of knowledge in maths means that, this year 75% of our pupils achieved Lv5 in maths. No matter where we go outside of school, everyone compliments us on the behaviour of our children. Our external specialist music and sports teachers tell us we’re their favourite school to visit. In addition, almost every supply teacher who comes into our school tells us what a great school it is and how much they enjoy working here.
    I know it’s not like this in all schools and just because it doesn’t happen here doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But I also know it’s not like how that Primary School Teacher describes it in all schools and just because it has happened there, doesn’t mean it happens everywhere.

  10. I wonder how much this highlights the difference between training/PGCE offerings and the real job?

    I may be well be totally wrong but it sounds like the Primary School Teacher is in qualification mode and the reactions are from more seasoned professionals.

  11. While not denying the validity of ‘new primary teacher’s’ experience it is bafflingly unfamiliar. 20 years ago maybe- but the literacy and numeracy projects ( then strategies) and the ‘3 wise men’ reports sounded the death knell ( thank God) for the excesses of discovery learning – at least everywhere I’ve ever been as a teacher/ headteacher/SIP. But maybe things vary hugely geographically? I always think that when people start on about primary teachers not teaching systematic phonics when every school I know has been doing it for the last 17 or so years…but I suppose there must be places where it doesn’t happen as people presumably aren’t making this stuff up.
    Can we all try and overcome this primary: secondary tribalism and get in each other’s schools and learn from each other?

    • I expect it depends to a large extent upon LA advisers. We’ve had huge support in Suffolk, Soton and Glos, and I’ve conducted a lot of training and the teachers were genuinely keen to find out more about synthetic phonics. I recall that after one session in Glos where there were a couple of sceptical teachers, another teacher reassured me that “we know that what we’re doing now isn’t working”. This was definitely a case where a functioning LA was making successful efforts to promote good practice and where clusters were an effective means of organisation.

      On the other hand, last year I taught an eight-year-old Norfolk pupil who could barely read a word. His parents told me that his school had forbidden him to “sound out” words. Having lived and taught in Norfolk for a long time, this didn’t surprise me. And a couple of years back my nephew tried to qualify in a SCITT course run by the London Diocesan Board of Schools and validated by Roehampton. His training schools virtually ignored phonics–one half-hearted “Letters and Sounds” lesson per week was all they did. His tutors slandered Ruth Miskin at every opportuntity, virutally calling her the whore of Babylon. Since my nephew had worked with Ruth, he failed the course.

      Perhaps more typical was another Norfolk pupil I recently taught whose school sent him home with instructions to ‘guess’ at unknown words. The school was genuinely shocked to find that this was completely contrary to the basic principles of synthetic phonics. In other words, they had reverted to the default mode that was common under the National Literacy Strategy.

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