Archive for December, 2017


Should teachers question authority?

December 30, 2017

It’s often unpredictable what will cause people to kick off after a blogpost. A few recent controversies caught me by surprise.

The first was in the aftermath of these two posts:

In the first of these posts I had been quite reductive about PE and drama. I had reduced PE to being about sport, and drama to being about acting. The curious thing was that PE teachers were able to immediately come back and say that PE was also about fitness and participation (points I accepted in the second post) and drama teachers came back with dozens of different, often contradictory, suggestions for what I’d left out that suggested no consensus whatsoever about what should be in drama other than acting. But what was most curious of all, was that people attempted to argue their case about what was essential in drama by referring to the GCSE specification. The entire debate had been about whether examinations were appropriate for certain subjects, yet for some people it was unthinkable that anyone in the debate would disagree with what the examiners had said about the subject.

The other surprise controversy was over this post:

Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you

In this post I had quoted from a couple of posts from The Diary Of a Not So Ordinary Boy a blog written by a (then) teacher about her son. The quotations included the name of the son, and in the first version of the post I included his name, and mentioned who he was in the description of the blog. Nothing I mentioned was not a direct reference to the blog. Nothing I said involved any information that I had acquired personally rather than read on a public site that the author had shared on Twitter to over 7000 people. The quoted material had also been published years ago and left up. The blog had also won an award from the TES and been publicised that way. However, both the author and a variety of other people declared that I had endangered her son, or committed a safeguarding breach, by quoting the blog and/or mentioning what the blog was about. I hadn’t realised that the blog’s author had used her son’s real name in her blog, so when she complained I removed her son’s name, expecting her to do the same for her blog. She didn’t. She, and other people, were of the view that parental consent meant that she could publish whatever information she liked about her son to an audience of thousands, but if anybody else mentioned what the blog was about, they’d need her permission. Why? Because that’s how it works in schools. Schools can only publish information about identifiable children with parental consent, therefore, parental consent must make all the difference. Of course, parental consent makes sense in schools,, it is making sure there is shared responsibility for any risks, no matter how small, that a child might be exposed to. It means that schools that work directly with children need to seriously consider whether the information they have about those children is confidential. It has absolutely no bearing on whether anyone can refer to information that has already been published to thousands of people and a moment’s thought about all the times reviewers of books, films, or TV programmes have mentioned by name children who appeared in those books, films or TV  programmes would make that clear. However, for many, the rules that govern schools revealed timeless moral truths that were applicable beyond schools, rather than a pragmatic basis for how schools should operate.

Finally, there was a fuss over some of the comments I’d made about exclusion. I won’t go into too much detail as I covered it in this post Children are human beings, not labels but again I found people with an absolutely entrenched belief that the authorities had determined what could be debated. There were people who believed that any suggestion still in official guidance about being inclusive of SEND, meant the policy of Inclusion that was abandoned 10 years ago was still in place (or alternatively had never existed as a distinct policy). There were people who believed that as The Equalities Act (2010) required “reasonable adjustments” for those with disabilities, then allowing the badly behaved to treat teachers like dirt was required by law (stretching both the concept of reasonable adjustment and the concept of disability to breaking point) and no teacher could debate this point without being unfit to be in the classroom.

All of these controversies involved people taking something that had been written down by an authority, that was authoritative in their working lives, or in their online activism, and assuming that it was authoritative in other circumstances. So examiners’ ideas about what to examine in drama were authoritative in debates over the nature of the subject. Child protection guidance for schools is authoritative, even over people referencing what had already been published about children they have never met. The laws and guidance about SEND determine what should be done about behaviour, even in cases where SEND is not known to be an issue, or where the established interpretation of the laws and guidance says something else entirely.

All this reminded me of when I first started blogging. I would repeatedly be told that I must believe in the ideology promoted by the DfES or DCSF (as the DfE was then known), by the GTC(E) in their teaching standards, by OFSTED, and by schools. There could be no argument about knowledge in the curriculum, because the official curriculum already marginalised knowledge. There could be no debate about behaviour, because Inclusion was the official policy and the Steer Report had said there wasn’t a serious problem. There could be no debate about teaching, because OFSTED had already told us the correct way to teach and the GTC(E) had already told us what we must believe about how to teach. I had to be anonymous back then, and the most common argument against me was not that I was wrong, but that I was not allowed to even hold the views I do and still teach in state schools. The authorities had spoken and debate was no longer necessary.

Ironically, given that many educators have problems with adult authority over children, there is a long tradition in the profession of uncritical acceptance of authority over teachers. Policymakers and administrators have to make decisions that people have to abide by, but those decisions are never above critique. What is written down about what teachers should do or think is contingent on time and place, and is applicable only in that context, and never in the context of determining what can be debated. To be a profession, we must have freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Not because there are no right or wrong answers, or no legitimate authorities, but because debating ideas is necessary in order to develop our thinking, and as professionals, we are obliged to think about what we do.


Schools should be championed not shamed

December 24, 2017

Back when I started blogging, back in the days when there was a consensus between government, inspectors, and a multitude of quangos that progressive education was the only thing that worked, one of the phrases used most often by progressives was “an attack on teachers” which was used to describe opposing opinions. The narrative was that of a united profession being undermined by right-wing politicians and journalists who dared suggest that kids could learn more, or behave better. Those of us in the teaching profession who thought expectations could be higher were forced into anonymity, and then accused of being dinosaurs, working in independent schools or just plain lying about what was happening in schools.

This seems like a lifetime ago. Nowadays when you see a progressive on social media they are likely to be a consultant, journalist or an educationalist, and they are likely to be attacking a named school for being too traditionalist. School shaming is their weapon of choice, pick a single school that symbolises traditionalism and then attack it again and again for anything they can think of. The staff are demonised on social media (the progressives have no qualms about naming practices they disagree with as “abusive”), negative stories are fed to the press, and the schools are bombarded with Freedom Of Information requests to be answered. A targeted school might see complaints about them sent to their MAT, their LA, OFSTED, charities and even random celebrities on social media. If you want a flavour of the abuse a shamed school might get, read these 3 posts:

Those responsible for these hate campaigns take little responsibility for what they are doing. As Jon Ronson pointed out in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, “the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”. People will simply dismiss the cumulative effect of attacks and claim that their personal contribution to the witch hunt is justified because schools should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. Some even claim that the phrase “school shaming” should not be used at all, or should be used to describe any negative comment about unnamed schools, and refuse to acknowledge that individual schools are being subjected to sustained vilification on social media. They will say they are simply debating policies.

There’s basically two categories of “crimes” schools get accused of during a school shaming.

  1. Doing things that are unusual. Examples are silent corridors, or compulsory school lunches. People are encouraged to think these must be wrong because they are weird.
  2. Doing things that are really common. People are encouraged to complain about these because they exemplify what’s wrong with schools and teachers.

Of course, even if a policy is unusual, there’s little enthusiasm to debate those policies without a named school in the firing line. When I wrote this post about a controversial policy I got very few hits and very few responses. The year before, a school that had this same policy was on the end of weeks of online abuse from thousands of people. The difference is striking; policies are only outrageous when there are individual teachers to be distressed by the condemnation.

That individual schools get condemned for practices that are really common seems bizarre, but with some help from edu-twitter (thanks) I compiled a list of things that are really common in schools, but individual schools or teachers have been attacked for on social media:

  1. Calling the students in a school “kids”. (This complaint was made by somebody who had repeatedly used the word “kids” themselves).
  2. Getting students to write thank you letters.
  3. Letting students out in the rain.
  4. Expecting students not to turn their backs on teachers who are talking to them.
  5. Enforcing school uniform rules.
  6. Students leaving since the previous year. (One school got an FOI request about how many students had been removed from the school roll at the start of the school year. Although this included students who had never attended, and was not exceptionally high, this was then used as evidence of “off-rolling”.)
  7. Teachers saying their school is better than other schools.
  8. Excluding badly behaved students.
  9. Using angle diagrams that aren’t drawn to scale in maths lessons. (Really)
  10. Having seats facing the board not the window. (Admittedly most of this last one came from some bizarre Americans who stumbled onto UK edutwitter).

These complaints often result in a lot of teachers saying “hang on, we do that, have done for years, and nobody complains”. But even this fuels the witch hunt. I’ve now reached the point where I think discussing the accusations may be counter-productive. I think the time has come to take the following approach:

  1. Respond to any criticism of a named school with an immediate request to stop the shaming.
  2. Save any debate about the content of the criticism to a blogpost or tweet a week or two later that does not mention the school in the original accusation.

That’s what I will be doing. If you feel the same way, feel free to use the following graphic (designed by @jamestheo)

It’s time to champion teachers and support schools. The social media witch hunts need to be challenged for what they are: dishonest, ideologically-motivated bullying.

Merry Christmas.



Children are human beings, not labels

December 17, 2017

I am fascinated by the way politics interacts with education. Often what politicians ask for is distorted beyond all recognition at the implementation phase. One example of this was the 1997 Labour manifesto, it promised “We will encourage the use of the most effective teaching methods, including phonics for reading and whole class interactive teaching for maths” and yet while the government made some short-lived progress in maths, a report found in 2006 that the evidence on phonics was still being widely ignored. A bigger issue under that government was behaviour. The 1997 manifesto promised that:

Teachers will be entitled to positive support from parents to promote good attendance and sound discipline. Schools suffer from unruly and disruptive pupils. Exclusion or suspension may sometimes be necessary. We will, however, pilot new pupil referral units so that schools are protected but these pupils are not lost to education or the country.

In practice, behaviour was undermined. And the way it happened was a classic example of how good intentions can be distorted by the education system and turned into something terrible. Labour’s education secretary, David Blunkett, was blind and in his youth had an unpleasant experience of a school for the blind. He wanted the disabled to be taught in mainstream schools as much as possible. And it was this commitment, that came to be known as “Inclusion” that was used to undermine Labour’s policy on discipline.

By the time I started teaching in 2001, it was already well established that Inclusion meant 2 things. Firstly, that special schools were a bad thing and should generally be run down and only used for children with the most severe problems. Secondly, that if a child was badly behaved they should be kept in lessons and in schools as much as possible. In my second year of teaching a senior figure from the Local Education Authority came to my school and told all the staff there that this academic year there would be no exclusions. That year, order broke down in the school. It was impossible to get any acknowledgement of even some of the most unpleasant behaviour. I have a particularly strong memory of a new teacher being spat on, and nothing happening. I also recall some concerned parents coming in, unable to believe their daughter had called me a dickhead when I asked her to move seats, not because they thought their daughter was incapable of the offence, but because they couldn’t believe she wasn’t excluded for it. When parents come in asking why their children aren’t being punished enough, you know you have a problem.

But what had happened to cause discipline to break down was never intended. A perfectly reasonable desire to include the disabled had been distorted by those who believe that children cannot make bad choices. If you believe that children are natural saints, then all their bad behaviour must have a cause beyond the control of the child. You can blame society; you can blame their teachers, or you can claim that they have some medical, or psychological problem that has to be identified and treated. We went through a period where the standard response to children behaving badly was to try to find a label that fitted their “symptoms” and produce paperwork about how we were dealing with it. This was often done by complete amateurs. In that first school I worked in, an IEP stated that a child might have suspected “Turrets”. In another school I worked in, a SENCo made a provisional diagnosis of “Tourects”. Both children had sworn at teachers repeatedly, and an adult who had heard that Tourette’s Syndrome was a condition related to swearing, but had no idea what Tourette’s Syndrome was or how to spell it, had decided that might be the cause. That’s where we were.

Eventually the tide turned and the policy of Inclusion was abandoned. People started defending special schools, and from 2007 they stopped dying off. A number of different reviews found the SEN system to be bureaucratic and amateurish and concern was widely raised at how many children were being labelled. A government Green Paper stated that:

Although the proportion of pupils with statements of SEN has remained relatively stable over time, there has been a considerable increase in recent years in the number of pupils with SEN without statements,9 from 10 per cent of all pupils in 1995 to 18.2 per cent or 1.5 million pupils in 2010.

There has been a marked increase in certain primary need types of SEN in recent years. For example, the numbers of pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties has increased by 23 per cent between 2005 and 2010, to 158,000 pupils; the number of pupils with speech, language and communication needs
has increased by 58 per cent, to 113,000 pupils; and the number of children with autistic spectrum disorder has increased by 61 per cent, to 56,000 pupils.

Reforms took place. On behaviour, there was a longer fight, but it became a political issue and there was far more acceptance that trying to cover it up in order to avoid exclusions was not the way forward. Exclusions are now rising as schools take behaviour seriously once again. The category “‘behavioural, emotional and social difficulties” which seemed to assume that poor behaviour was a special need was replaced with “Social, emotional and mental health difficulties” and the 2014 Code Of Practice stated clearly that “difficult or withdrawn behaviour does not necessarily mean that a child has SEN”. Some schools do still have a tendency to claim that poor behaviour indicates a special needs, and a high rate of SEN diagnoses among the excluded remain a concern, but things have moved on.

Incredibly though, there is a vocal minority who have still not accepted those changes. Some claim the policy of Inclusion from 10 years ago was never abandoned. There are still consultants out there selling advice on reducing exclusions. No school needs advice on how to do this, it just means tolerating more bad behaviour.  When I wrote a blogpost entitled “What happens when schools don’t permanently exclude?” where teachers described their experience of schools that wouldn’t act when teachers and children were put at danger, I was condemned by a number of educationalists and consultants for letting the truth be known. Reaction to my most popular tweet ever, showed the divide between consultants and those who have to deal with bad behaviour in the classroom.

There is an activist minority, who ignore the fact that the SEND Code Of Practice makes it clear that poor behaviour does not imply SEND, and that if SEND is a causal factor in behaviour that should be identified, not assumed. They claim that as The Equalities Act calls for “reasonable adjustments” for those with disabilities, we must tolerate bad behaviour because we can assume it is caused by SEND. They look towards broad diagnoses like Autistic Spectrum Disorder and claim that almost any school rule is unfair to a theoretic child whose autism stops them behaving. They also argue that almost any demand, no matter how insane, is a reasonable adjustment and, therefore, teachers who disagree are breaking the law. The SEND Code Of Practice, by contrast, is clear, that nothing done to include those with SEND should prevent “the efficient education of others or the efficient use of resources”.

As teachers we have to teach the children in front of us. That means if their behaviour is bad we have to confront that behaviour, not tolerate it on the basis of a label. Children with SEND need boundaries as much as, or sometimes more, than other children. These should be set with love, but set to ensure everyone is safe and able to learn. Clear boundaries work a lot better than fuzzy ones, particularly for children with SEND. There are two things I always remind those who think that the badly behaved actually have SEND and are the victims in all this. The first is that exceptions should be exceptional. We should never abandon the school rules because one, often theoretical child, might be unable to comply. If there is an extraordinary case, it should be treated as extraordinary – all schools and all teachers do that. The second is that behaviour is on a spectrum of seriousness. Those who refuse to draw any lines are, by omission, defending the most horrendous acts. It has been reported that there are 200 rapes in schools in a year. Does any principle justify including rapists in class? Is there a SEND that makes being a rapist okay? If we want children to be safe, they need an environment where no child, whatever their needs, can just do what they want regardless of the consequences.

As a final point, the abuse I have encountered online since my tweet above has been incredible. Those people who label anyone who disagrees with the now abandoned policy of Inclusion as hating children with SEND, should be challenged for their name-calling. My closest friends include two who went to special schools as children and others with SEN. It is not prejudice that makes one view the badly behaved, even those with SEND, as responsible for their behaviour; it is respect for their humanity. And those of us who care about the children we teach with SEND, know that conflating them with the badly behaved, would be a gross insult to some of the most delightful children we work with. Both the badly behaved, and children with SEND, and, of course, children who are both, need the love and support of their teachers and help with specific needs. They don’t need virtue-signalling non-teachers writing them off.


Don’t let phonics denialists move the goal posts after PIRLS 2016

December 9, 2017

A big difference between scepticism and denialism is that sceptics can identify what evidence would persuade them and then change their position when they have it. Denialists will move the goalposts, acting as if the evidence has no consequences for their arguments. When dealing with denialists you have to constantly remind them of their own arguments otherwise they will simply move on.

The recent PIRLS results, that assessed reading in “4th grade” in 61 countries, and allowed for comparisons between countries and with previous scores was a perfect example of this. This was the first PIRLS cohort to have been through the phonics check. They indicated who was right and who was wrong in their predictions about the effects of the phonics check. The results showed that since the previous round of PIRLS, reading scores in England had improved (to their highest ever) with spectacular gains for the weakest readers.

Supporters of the phonics check had claimed it would improve reading, and that it would be particularly beneficial for the weakest readers. The supporters of the check had made a correct prediction and had reason to feel vindicated. Phonics denialists, who had not predicted the improvement, and often claim that phonics won’t help the weakest readers, immediately started to find reasons these results were irrelevant to the debate. A summary of the denialist arguments can be found here and roughly speaking are:

  1. England is not the only country with an increase in reading scores.
  2. It’s not the only increase ever to have occurred in England.
  3. For the students in the sample, the phonics test score, was not a good predictor of PIRLS scores.
  4. You cannot attribute an improvement to one policy.

Point 3 is just ridiculous. There was a statistically significant correlation of 0.52 on tests 4 years apart where the worst performers would have had extensive remedial help after the first test. The data actually proves the opposite point to the claim being made.

However, the other points are correct. They also show complete amnesia about what phonics denialists were arguing before these results came out.

Did the phonics denialists claim that the phonics check would be followed by improvements in reading but that would prove nothing? Of course not. They suggested reading would be harmed. Opposition politicians, trade unionists, activists and education establishment figures wrote a letter to the Guardian in 2012 claiming:

Many of those working in primary education fear that these tests could undermine rather than benefit children’s progress and development.

Yet somehow reading has improved.

Did phonics denialists claim that an improvement in reading would be irrelevant to assessing the effects of the phonics check before there was evidence of an improvement in reading? Of course not, when Australia was looking at implementing the phonics check a few weeks ago, this was in one of the most popular articles arguing against it:

As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects…

…What does the research say?

Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.

Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23%. This means around 90% of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like “yune” and “thrand”.

However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.

And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.

So in September, phonics denialists were arguing that a lack of evidence for an improvement in reading showed the phonics test might not be working. Now in December, they argue that an improvement in reading is irrelevant to assessing the effects of the phonics check.

Did phonics denialists argue that PIRLS results were irrelevant to analysis of the policy on phonics before these results came out? Of course not. Janet Downs of the Local Schools Network, a loose online coalition of hard leftists and education progressives, dismissed the 2016 PIRLS results as irrelevant in articles like this one this week. Back in 2012,  she was arguing in an article entitled “10 year-olds from England and Northern Ireland shine like PIRLS in global reading test” that PIRLS results showed that reading was fine without the phonics check and the long tail of underachievement was perfectly normal:

Schools minister, Elizabeth Truss, said the rise in reading performance was “encouraging” but England was being held back because of a “too long tail of under-performance”. While it’s true that 5% of English 10 year-olds didn’t reach the lowest level, 3% of Singapore’s 10 year-olds didn’t reach it either. And in Australia and New Zealand 7% and 8% respectively didn’t reach the lowest level.

Having thrown cold water on these results, Truss used them to promote the controversial phonics test. But PIRLS doesn’t test decoding – it tests comprehension.

So it seems that analysis of PIRLS results was fine when claiming that everything was okay before the phonics check, but cannot be used to judge improvement after the test.

On three counts here, the goal posts have been moved. Of course, there is a limit to what the PIRLS results show. What they show is not that the phonics check definitely caused an improvement in reading, but that the predictions of the supporters of the phonics check were right, and the opponents of the phonics check do not actually respond to evidence. The latter is something we already knew, but now we have even more evidence that opposition to the phonics check is based on ignoring evidence.

Oh, and one final point, one of the claims made by the opponents of the check, and by phonics denialists generally, is that assessing decoding does not tell us anything useful about reading ability in the future. The 2012 letter I quoted above claimed:

…we do not believe that this will help parents know how well their children are learning to read…

They will not show whether a child can understand the words they are reading, nor provide teachers with any information about children’s reading ability they did not already know. The use of made-up words – like snemp, osk, jound – risks confusing children for whom English is a second language and those with special educational needs, and frustrate those who can already read

This argument has already been discredited by looking at Key Stage 1 reading results. However, we now have additional evidence. Here is a graph of average PIRLS score against phonics check scores:

The link between decoding scores and reading performance here is remarkable. So this is another case where, if the phonics denialists were honest, they’d be admitting right now they were wrong about this.


Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you

December 2, 2017

Last week I wrote about phonics denialism for the first time in ages. About 24 hours after listing the arguments I most often hear from those who deny the evidence about early reading I remembered I missed one out. So here it is.

4) When phonics doesn’t work

Some children struggle to learn to read. There are a number of possible reasons for this. It could be that the child has some particular difficulty. It could be that even where they were supposedly taught high quality SSP, they weren’t, but learning to read goes wrong sometimes.

Now, in some cases there may be a problem, for instance with hearing, that can be treated directly, but generally most difficulties are lumped together under labels such as dyslexia. This, combined with those children with the opposite aptitude, who learnt to read more quickly than expected, has led to a notion of different types of learners needing different methods of teaching reading. A few decades ago the argument was made that SSP was only suitable for dyslexic students, while everybody else needed the discredited denialist methods. Nowadays the argument has been reversed, and the denialist methods are for those students who make slow progress even with phonics instruction. But neither of these are supported by the evidence, only by the argument that “if evidence based methods didn’t work the first time, we have to resort to magic”. If there were special learners who can only learn to read through denialist methods, nobody has yet found a reliable way to identify them. They still appear largely in anecdotes, not reliable research.

More importantly, what about those with identified reading disabilities, who will be those where phonics may well have failed first time round? Here is what a review of the best evidence for interventions for them found.

“The results revealed that phonics instruction is ….the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed..”

Despite the anecdotes, the evidence is that phonics is still the best shot. Some people, however, prefer anecdotes to evidence, so here’s one about how believing that phonics cannot work for a child can be wrong.

This is from Nancy Gedge’s award winning blog in January 2014 about how her son, needed something other than phonics:

The phonics weren’t working, so, …, I made him a set of flashcards of whole words instead.

I was astonished at how quickly he picked it up.  Before long, I had made him a set of interchangeable cards that made sentences, and enjoyed showing him how they fitted together.

I didn’t know that he would go through what felt like a string of teachers who insisted, despite the way his brain processes information more slowly than an ordinary child, that a phonic approach would work, that if they kept on banging his head against the brick wall of unattached letters and sounds he would eventually ‘get’ it.  I wasn’t going to accept any more the battering that his self-esteem was taking at his continual confusion, and my increasing frustration.

I’m not denying that phonics doesn’t work as an excellent way to teach children to read. I use it myself.  But if [he] has taught me anything, it’s that there is always an exception to the rule.

This is what she wrote in June 2014:

If you had asked me three years ago whether [he] would be reading using a synthetic phonic based approach, I would have laughed in your face.  We tried, we really did, but when it came to reading, [he] couldn’t blend efficiently enough to create words out of print, let alone any meaning out of a sentence….

At thirteen years old he has had a year of instruction on a phonics programme, and guess what?  He’s reading.  He’s reading all sorts of things.  From posters to calendars to road traffic signs to Which Caravan Magazine to the blessed reading book that still comes home, after all these years.

Her account (if not her interpretation of the events) fits with the evidence. The best intervention when phonics doesn’t work, is more phonics.

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