Archive for May, 2016


My post for @LabourTeachers : The Five Worst Education Clichés

May 27, 2016

I wrote a post for Labour Teachers the week before last. As it was about education, I thought I’d share it here. Graphics courtesy of @JamesTheo.

George Orwell, in Politics And The English Language, described how a stock phrase, or cliché, could stifle thought. Sentiments that seem disreputable, if clearly expressed, will instead be expressed obscurely and in familiar, over-used phrases.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

If I had to identify the phrases used in education that do most to obscure the clear expression of ideas, I would pick the following:


1) “regurgitating facts”. This cliché has become such a crutch for those who oppose testing that I’ve seen it used twice in the same Guardian letters page. But as unpleasant as it sounds, it means little more than “recalling knowledge”. You could argue that the word “facts” indicates a particularly disjointed or atomised form of knowledge, but in practice it would be hard to distinguish between information recalled as facts and that recalled in any other form. Regurgitation might seem to suggest that the recalled knowledge is in some way undigested, but how do we “digest” knowledge other than by recalling it?


2) “a political football”. Education, properly understood, involves consideration of what is worth learning. This is a  philosophical argument, and one where its conclusions will determine the spending of billions of pounds of public money. This is necessarily and obviously political. To put the power to make such ideological judgements outside of democratic control, seems immediately tyrannical. And that’s where this cliché comes in. Public discourse involving those who have been elected to office and are subject to public scrutiny, is dismissed as a game by those who would see less democracy in education and more bureaucracy and control by unaccountable vested interests.


3)  “exam factories”. Another cliché used to argue against academic education and testing. Rather than arguing over what forms of assessment work, or are necessary, we have this dismissal of exams and the implication is that to actually find out objectively, and on a large scale, what is being learnt in schools requires an artificial and mechanical process. While exam systems can be bureaucratic and unhelpful, only in education would objectivity and efficiency be feared. Though the greatest irony here is that, in many respects, the alternatives to exams might seem more like factory work. Anyone involved in the “manufacture” of coursework might see the irony here. Those recommending subjective teacher assessment as an alternative to exams are surely only imitating the “performance management” culture of many private companies, including those that run factories.


4) “educating the whole child”. An odd phrase, given that I have never met a teacher that sought only to educate parts of a child. In practice, of course, it is not the child that is to be treated as a whole, but their life. If you want to extend the scope of education beyond the academic, into therapy, social work, entertainment, preaching and parenting, then this cliché can be used to suggest all aspects of a child’s life fall in the domain of teachers. If you have any faith in parents or a wider community; any belief learning is so important that there should be a profession dedicated to helping children with this above all else, or if you are simply concerned about the intrusion of the state into family life and leisure, then you can, as a teacher, happily develop the whole child’s intellect without feeling you are only doing part of your job.


5) “one size fits all”. We tend to assume that, at least as a default, human beings should have equal rights and equal entitlements. Therefore, if children are to be treated differently, we would hope to justify it by demonstrating that the outcomes might still be equal or, if that’s not the case, by demonstrating that inequality is justified in pursuit of another aim. The “one size fits all” cliché, beloved both of right wing advocates of selection and left wing opponents of an academic tradition, seeks to reverse this principle. Suddenly those who support equal rights and equal entitlements for all children are expected to explain why they are ignoring differences between children, rather than those who support inequality demonstrating that the differences they perceive justify different and/or unequal treatment.

My challenge to anyone who feels inclined to use any of these phrases in education discussion is to try to express the same idea in your own words. If you find that this makes your argument fall apart, or your opinion seem less plausible, then take this as an indicator that it is time to reconsider.


Catching Up With The College Of Teaching

May 13, 2016

As you may recall, plans for a new professional body for teachers have been hijacked by a group of vested interests who, with the promise of taxpayers’ money, have begun setting up their own body which seems to have a lot of interest in those who already have power in education, and very little interest in those working in classrooms,

It’s been a while since I last commented on them, and some new developments have taken place, so I guess it’s time for another post.

Firstly, you may recall that I pointed out that the “teachers” among the trustees of the College consisted of 3 heads, 3 middle or senior managers, and a grand total of 2 unpromoted teachers. At the time, one of the managers complained that although he was head of English, he did teach almost a full time table:

This did not deal with the complaint that the trustees were already people with a position of power over teachers, it did suggest he might be on the side of building an organisation that was of use to classroom teachers, rather than their bosses. Unfortunately, it says here:

Victoria Walker, Teacher and Head of English at Addey and Stanhope School in London, is joining the Board of Trustees. Victoria has been a teacher for the past 10 years and is a Teacher Leader at the Prince’s Teaching Institute and a member of University College Oxford’s Student Support and Access Committee.

Victoria replaces Simon Dowling, Head of English at Colchester Royal Grammar School, who has made the difficult decision to step down due to increases in his teaching commitments for the remainder of the academic year.

So much for that then.

Secondly, two of the teachers were appointed chair and vice-chair of the College of Teaching and this is announced on the Claim Your College website:

College of Teaching outlines key governance appointments

4th December – Teacher led and teacher driven – College of Teaching outlines key governance appointments

As Founding Trustees prepare to gather in London tomorrow (Saturday 5th December), the meeting marks a number of developments in the governance of the College of Teaching.

Classroom teachers are leading and driving the College forward with the appointment of Claire Dockar and Victoria McDowell as Chair and Vice Chair (respectively).

Incredibly, no such prominence was given to the appointment of the third vice chair. I happened to notice the following section on a 4 year timeline of the College’s development:

Screenshot 2016-04-07 at 22.23.12

In case you missed that: “Sonia Blandford, Founding Trustee, joins Vicky McDowell as Vice Chair of the College”. Why was this not announced with a headline? The most likely reason is because unlike the chair and vice chair, Sonia Blandford is one of the non-teaching trustees. If you recall, the College Of Teaching was at this point meant to have been consulting with teachers about whether non-teachers could, as originally agreed, be members. Yet, somehow, they decided to go ahead and appoint a non-teacher to a leadership position while the consultation was still happening. And they did it discreetly, while trumpeting the appointment of teachers. And, as if it couldn’t get worse, when I pointed out what they’d done, they changed the website to say:

Sonia Blandford, Founding Trustee, joins Vicky McDowell as a Vice Chair of the board to the College of Teaching.

The distinction between leading the trustee board and leading the College had not been made previously. And generally hasn’t been made elsewhere, particularly when they were appointing teachers to similar positions. At the very least, they are aware enough of what they are doing to try to conceal it.

Thirdly, and this one still staggers me, there was a regional conference. It happened last week, details here. Now remember, this is an organisation that is meant to be for teachers, and would presumably deny that they have continually prioritised the involvement of non-teachers such as educationalists, and managers over ordinary classroom teachers. This is the sort of event they decided to hold:

  1. An event at 2pm on a school day.
  2. An event in a university education department.
  3. An event held during the Key Stage 1 testing period, a few days before Key Stage 2 tests, and in the month where Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 exams start.
  4. An event advertised for ” teachers, headteachers, Teaching Schools and Academy Trust representatives and system leaders” [my emphasis].

And it’s not as if they haven’t been criticised enough times previously for events on school days. I count myself among those who first gave up on the College Of Teaching when its launch was announced at an event on a school day.

And one last thing, just in case you thought this organisation is just a way of conning the government out of money that could be spent supporting teachers, but which won’t actually have any power over teachers, Schools Week reported today just what powers the educationalists, SMT and CPD providers behind this are seeking to gain:

The proposed College of Teaching wants to be the “gatekeeper of standards for teacher training”, Angela McFarlane, a founding trustee of the fledgling organisation, has told professionals.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum event on Tuesday about the future of teaching, McFarlane said she hoped the organisation would be in a position to take over the regulation of teacher training providers from the government.

Responding to a question from a member of the audience on what the college could take responsibility for from the Department for Education, McFarlane said: “My personal view is that I would love to see the profession in a place where the criteria for entry is actually set by a professional body run by experts in that profession.”

I can’t have been the only one to wonder whether “experts in the profession” means “experts who are part of the profession” or “experts in telling the profession what to do”.


My post for @LabourTeachers : Defending teachers who work in academies

May 8, 2016

I wrote a post for Labour Teachers the week before last. As it was about education, I thought I’d share it here. Minor edits have been made to update it.

You may recall I wrote a post called “Stop Demonising Academies” about some of the rhetoric being used in response to the government’s plans to force all schools to become academies. I started by making it clear that I don’t support those plans:

The government’s plan to make all schools convert to academy status over the next 6 years is an example of the sort of policy-making that gives politicians a bad name. It creates huge disruption and uncertainty without having any clear benefits.

I then complained about the willingness of some on the left to talk as if all academies were behaving badly, and to be completely indifferent to what those accusations might feel like to those teachers working in academies. I gave two examples of that rhetoric, neither of which came from official Labour sources, although one of them was shared on Twitter by Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary. I did not defend forced academisation and I did not oppose Labour policy.

The post got one of the most positive responses I have ever had to anything I’ve written on Labour Teachers. It very quickly became Labour Teachers top rated post of 2016 (and remained so for all of eight days), mainly through being shared by teachers on social media. It turns out there’s quite a few teachers working in academies, or other types of schools that are being demonised for not being LA controlled, who felt the same way I did. No teacher likes being told they are less caring than other teachers just because they work at a type of school somebody has an ideological grievance about.

I was reassured though, that when the post was brought to the attention of Lucy Powell on Twitter, she distanced herself from that rhetoric, denying a claim that Labour’s response to white paper has been “relentlessly anti academy”, saying:

that’s not come from us… we’ve always reiterate[d] that many academies are good or outstanding. Read my speeches & comments.

Which brings us to yesterday, and the following exchange during education questions:

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)This weekend, the Conservative-led County Councils Network added its very strong opposition to the Secretary of State’s plans to force all schools to become academies, adding to that already expressed by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders, parents, the National Governors Association, leading names in the academies programme such as the chief executive of the Harris Foundation and the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association, as well as a growing number of her own Back Benchers. It is hardly a list of what she might call—or, in fact, what she just called—the vested interests. Can she therefore clarify today for those who have these very serious concerns whether she will bring forward legislation to force good and outstanding schools to become academies against their wishes?

Nicky Morgan I have already set out very clearly our desire to make sure that every child gets the best start in life. We believe that academies, as the House has heard from other Conservative Members, are absolutely the right vehicle for innovation on curriculum, pay and freedom for headteachers. I wonder whether the hon. Lady in her vocal opposition has taken account of the writer on the Labour teachers blog, who said that

“we have people on the left describing thousands of schools, in fact a majority of secondary schools, and the hundreds of thousands of teachers who work in them, in terms that are so unjust as to be deceitful.”

Is that how the hon. Lady wants to be taken?

Mr Speaker Order. I simply point out to the Secretary of State that she is not responsible for what is written on Labour blogs and that there is a shortage of time on topical questions. We must press on, without extraneous matters being introduced.

I was not particularly pleased to be quoted as if I was talking about Lucy Powell, although, to be fair to Nicky Morgan, she did phrase that part as a question. The immediate social media response was predictable. Not for the first time Labour Teachers was attacked for failing to censor ideologically impure contributions, for claiming to speak for the party (we don’t) and for disagreeing with party policy (I didn’t). Despite the positive reaction  to the original article from so many Labour supporting teachers, people who may never have been inside an academy told me that I had betrayed the party by daring to suggest that myself, my colleagues, and 1000s of other teachers working in academies are not evil. That Lucy Powell had denied the party had an anti-academies position seemed irrelevant to those convinced that to oppose such a position was to attack the party. Nor was the fact that I am a teacher working in an academy considered relevant, the only possible agenda behind my post was that I was a Blairite attacking Jeremy Corbyn and I should be stopped.

Obviously this changes nothing for Labour Teachers. The Labour Teachers blog will still be open to all Labour supporting teachers. Posts will still only represent the author, not the party, nor any organisation called “Labour Teachers”. We still exist to allow debate among Labour supporting teachers. The extra irony here is that I had not even disagreed with the party, only with a Twitter account that explicitly says “Please note, we don’t speak for @jeremycorbyn or @UKLabour” and with an article on The Independent website.

Unfortunately, we seem to have reached a situation where, on a number of issues, opposing even the rhetoric of extremists is seen as disloyalty. Years of campaigning for the party, the strength of one’s argument and the actual details of Labour Party policy are all seen as irrelevant compared with one’s loyalty to particular factions, including ones operating largely outside the party. If the party cannot distance itself from those who would remake Labour in the image of the SWP, we will only have ourselves to blame when the Tories win an inevitable landslide in 2020.


Mental Health Champion Axed

May 4, 2016

Twitter just brought my attention to the following story in the Guardian:

Mental health champion for UK schools axed after criticising government

Department of Education denies axing of role is connected to Natasha Devon’s criticism of policies such as increased testing

The government has dropped its mental health champion for schools after she publicly criticised current education policies, in particular the testing regime which she claims is detrimental to children’s mental health.

Natasha Devon was appointed by the government last August to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding young people’s mental health, as part of a wider £1.25bn drive to improve care.

On Wednesday however, it emerged that the high-profile role had been axed, raising concerns that the government was attempting to silence her.

You may recall that Natasha Devon has been popping up a lot recently in these parts. Over on the Labour Teachers blog (which I edit), Nick Rose revealed she had a history of advocating NLP, a solidly debunked bit of pseudo-science that should be kept out of schools. I wrote a blogpost about her when it turned out she was judging and shortlisting for TES’s teacher blogger of the year award (the shortlisting part of which appears to have been done rather badly) mainly dealing with her habit of being insulting about bloggers. She was insulting about anyone who challenged her on social media, but she also attacked Tom Bennett who had not even mentioned her:


One of her particular concerns was children being bullied on social media.

She managed to react to my complaint that she was rude to bloggers by suggesting that her critics “mixed things which were true with things that weren’t in order to create the impression of truth which, incidentally, was a technique favoured by Hitler”.

She then turned up again when I blogged about various newspaper articles that seemed to be using very misleading statistics to suggest there is a mental health crisis in schools. She has been at the forefront of trying to create panic over mental health, often being quite dismissive of anybody who dares try to put the issue into perspective.

The Guardian, unfortunately, has not considered whether her abusive comments on social media, her scaremongering, or her indifference to evidence may have been the reason the government cut her loose. They are right that she has criticised the government for testing children, although they are mistaken if they think that the government has increased testing. Is it really that long ago that they were under fire for decoupling AS-levels and discouraging resits and modular exams? It seems unlikely that her criticisms did any more than bring to their attention that her anti-academic agenda is not their own.

The government should not be criticised for letting her go, but for appointing her in the first place. There is an all too familiar pattern here where politicians publicly cosy up to charities that work with children. I would argue that Natasha Devon, like Camila Batmanghelidjh before her, is somebody with the best of intentions, some very odd ideas and whose greatest talent lies in getting media attention. Politicians who want to make a difference to young people should stop looking for photo-opportunities, and ask “Am I dealing with somebody who knows what they are doing?”


The mental health fad in schools

May 2, 2016

I’ve observed in the past that it is often the posts that just straighten out the facts that are most controversial. This has once more been true in my post yesterday saying that the statistics being used to show that there was a mental health crisis in schools don’t actually seem to show that. There have been lots of responses objecting to the idea that anyone could doubt that there was.

I was restrained. I am the last person to think that mental health is not important. I’ve suffered stress at work including leaving schools over it, and more than one person close to me has suffered from mental health problems. I’ve repeatedly blogged about teacher stress and depression. I am the last person to treat mental health issues as insignificant or try to add to the stigma.

But, I do have the following opinions:

  1. Teachers are not therapists and not doctors. We can try to be supportive and we have an important duty to try to refer students to those who can help. But we are not qualified to treat mental health problems.
  2. Like SEN, mental health is full of folk tales and quack treatments. Anything done to support people with mental health problems, or to prevent mental health problems, should be based on the best evidence and judged by people with appropriate clinical qualifications. Even some of the treatments with the best average effects are ineffective or even harmful in some cases.
  3. The causes of mental health problems are complex. It is simply not good enough to assume that anything any child could worry about is a cause of mental health problems that has to be eliminated. The aim of removing worry from childhood, anxiety from adolescence or pressure from studying is not a realistic one.
  4. Charities working with young people should not be given a free pass. We know from Kids Company that it is perfectly possible for them to be wasting money on vanity projects. It is not impossible for them to be promoting nonsense or ripping off schools. They should be scrutinised, just as schools should.

I do think CAMHS is very important. I do not have a problem with trained counsellors in schools. I do think teachers should be familiar with the signs of mental illness. But we should be very careful. Firstly, panic will not help anybody, least of all the emotionally vulnerable. Secondly, there are snake oil salesmen out there willing to exploit the ignorance of those hoping to assist children with their mental health. One reader passed on this:



NLP is a discredited fad whose practitioners keep looking for opportunities to get into an educational setting. A mental health scare is another such opportunity. Another reader passed on a “fact” about mental health that actually came from a practitioner of “alternative medicine”. Thirdly, there are ethical issues in intervening in students’ lives and hoping to change their thoughts and beliefs. They are entitled to privacy, even about their problems. While I believe that meditation and mindfulness is probably good for mental health, I have grave ethical concerns about religious practices being passed on in a secularised form to children whose parents have not chosen to send them to a faith school. Trying to avoid causing upset to students may lead to attempts to curtail free speech or to remove challenging content from their studies. Finally, my concern is that there is a political debate being obscured by this. Progressives have always promoted their vision of education by claiming that it is better for student wellbeing, and by trying to pursue non-academic aims. A panic about student mental health can be used to pursue this agenda. It is repeatedly being used as an excuse to call for an end to testing, despite no evidence that testing is a cause of serious mental health problems.

So let’s be very careful here. Do not be won over by those who simply assert they are raising awareness, removing stigma, saving lives or making children happy. Mental health is an area where evidence matters and much of it is already out there and tells us that there are no simple answers. We do not have a duty to turn schools into therapeutic establishments or campaign groups. There really is no mandate for the projects mentioned here, where a school is introducing “yoga in KS4 PSHE”, building “a mental health app”, or  “producing a film on the dangers of high consumption of High Energy Drinks”. No matter how worthy it sounds, no matter how much it gives us a chance to announce our compassion, we should be wary. Boundless compassion and no evidence won’t save children from mental illness; it will turn schools into a version of Kids Company. Pastoral responsibilities are utterly vital, but we should never forget that the biggest difference we make in children’s lives is by educating them.

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