Top rated posts in 2020

January 1, 2021

Apologies for my disappearance from blogging the last few months, I’ll try to get back in the habit this year.

The following posts got the most views in 2020. Many of them weren’t actually written in 2020, so do check the date before reading.

  1. The tragedy of grades based on predictions
  2. Behaviour is not all about relationships
  3. Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist
  4. Another look at exclusions and SEND
  5. A Scottish Teacher writes…
  6. Could Fad CPD Harm Your School?
  7. Good Year Heads
  8. Corporal Punishment
  9. Are campaigners against exclusions willing to tolerate sexual assault in schools?
  10. How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay
  11. Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think
  12. How to Destroy NQTs
  13. Finding or advertising a teaching job on Twitter with #teachingvacancyuk
  14. Teachers on the Edge
  15. Attachment Myths
  16. The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 2
  17. Isolation Booths
  18. Has there been a behaviour miracle in Scotland?
  19. A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act
  20. Good culture mitigates bad behaviour, it doesn’t cure it

Happy new year.


Are campaigners against exclusions willing to tolerate sexual assault in schools?

October 26, 2020

Every so often I get told that nobody wants to ban all exclusions from schools. Therefore, I’m told, extreme examples like sexual assault are not relevant to the debate on permanent exclusion. Nobody would tolerate sexual assault, or think that the interests of the perpetrators of sexual assault are more important than the victims. The existence of the campaigning group “No More Exclusions” campaigning for no more exclusions was not sufficient evidence that these extreme views exist.

Today, I was directed to evidence of just how extreme this group is. On their webpage (no link as it seems to have been suspended since I accessed it) I read their Frequently Asked Questions document. In it they clearly state their aims:

No More Exclusions is an abolitionist movement. That means we want to stop exclusions altogether – abolish the whole process of exclusion.

Incredibly, instead of just ignoring the real danger some young people present to their peers, they actually address the question “What about sexual abuse and violence in schools?”. In a section that begins with the words “Sexual violence is a serious issue. However…” they explain that they don’t think young sex offenders should be punished. This might be concerning enough, but the explanation of their alternative to exclusion is actually staggering. Adult authority over children turns out to be the true culprit in sexual assault and the only culprit they would seek to confront.

Abuse is about power, and it is also important to address abuse by adults towards young people in schools and other institutions. As children we are taught just to accept the authority of adults, and this can lead us to learn to ignore our own sense of discomfort.

By creating a culture of consent, not just among students but also between students to staff, we both allow young people to have their agency and also make them less likely to want to transgress someone’s else’s boundaries, encouraging people to respect each other and hold themselves to account. By contrast, in environments in which their consent is constantly violated, young people might wonder: “Why should I care about someone else’s boundaries if mine are always being transgressed?”

That, is their answer to sexual assault in schools: end adult authority over children, and hope it makes young sex offenders respect their victims’ boundaries. Speaking of victims, incredibly there is also a section answering the question: “What about the Victims?” While the answer speaks of support for victims, it then tries the most outrageous argument yet.

Another important question to consider is who we count as a victim. So often when we talk about victims and perpetrators, we focus only on situations involving interpersonal violence, ignoring people who are harmed by state and structural violence – for example people experiencing the everyday violence and material deprivation caused by economic inequality and racism. The education system should recognise these forms of harm and ensure that those experiencing it are also supported.

Exclusion is a humiliating experience; it is the violent removal of a child from the classroom. We need to challenge and remove violence from our classrooms, not respond violently by excluding children, even those who have acted violently. No teacher should consider a child to be unteachable. Instead we need a model where the victim of violence can experience justice, for example by explaining their feelings so that the perpetrator can understand the harm they have caused. The perpetrator should also be allowed to explain what made them angry and violent and be given room to reflect on the way they acted.

If you are reacting to this like I have, with shock, then remember the No More Exclusions campaign has been given plenty of publicity and airtime. It seems to have particularly strong links with some activists in the NEU. While teachers have largely remained reluctant to speak out on the issue of exclusions, for fear that their schools will be accused of not being inclusive, campaigners against exclusion have dominated the debate without anyone much holding them to account for their extreme views and the danger they would put children in.

Another No More Exclusions document, is still available here. On page 10 it lists people and organisations they claim as supporters. Tempting though it is, I’ve decided not to include that list here, just in case it’s not accurate. But I do encourage you to look at that page and see that this is apparently not a fringe organisation, this is the mainstream of educational campaigning, and it’s dangerously irresponsible.



Teachers describe their anti-racism training

October 25, 2020

A few of my recent posts have touched on ideas around whether schools may be accepting bad ideas around racism, or push contentious political ideas about racism to students.

I’m clearly not the only person concerned about this, as equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has recently made a speech about race that included comments on the teaching of contentious ideas such as White Privilege in schools.

A couple of teachers have recently told me their experiences of training and consultancy on issues relating to race. I have more direct confirmation of the first account than the second, but I know that both are teachers and see no obvious reason to doubt them.

The first account is from a large MAT’s very recent CPD session on race,

Early in the session it was explained that race is internalised. We internalise it as a victor or as superior: we benefit and see status from our race. Or we internalise it as inferior, with feelings of self hate and resentment. The session then went through a series of terms to be defined. Privilege was explained as how white people are able to access society without barriers, without their skin colour being an impediment and without having to over-prove themselves, unlike a person of colour. It was explained that there is some controversy over the usage of the term ‘white privilege’ but that it was a fact. A result of this is fragility. This is how people feel attacked or defensive. This is apparently understandable and normal but needs to be challenged. If we are uncomfortable and not happy with how this has all been experienced, it’s because we have internalised our race and our privilege and our fragility is a response to this.

More was discussed, including the difference between equality and equity. Various case studies were used to show legitimate and important examples of how racial views have interfered in schools, such as not dealing with race based bullying or staff members who feel marginalised because of their race. The need to understand the trauma of racism was discussed and how this can lead to lifelong problems that need addressing.

A final section focused on a discussion of ‘Power and Rank’. This made clear that the basis of the whole discussion was about the power dynamics between different groups. This was described as ‘formal power, informal power, local rank, psychological rank, spiritual rank.’ Each of us have power but that varies and affects our ‘rank’ and [the speaker] argued that ‘Going into a bank, I might have less rank in those situations.’ I found this hard to follow and wasn’t quite sure what our rank referred to. A rank like a position? Or a rank like a rank order? We were asked to consider: “Where do you believe you have rank/power privilege? How does it feel? Where do you not have it? How does that feel?”

We were told that we need to be aware of unconscious bias and to consciously use our power to help the powerless. As the session finished she was asked a question about Kemi Badenoch’s statement to parliament about CRT [Critical Race Theory] and not teaching these things as uncontested facts. She said she believed that Kemi had an incomplete understanding of CRT and was clutching more at the stereotype of it. My thoughts on this were mainly a real discomfort at being told theoretical ideas as uncontested facts. This wasn’t put forward as a debate or discussion but an explanation of racial power dynamics that were entirely seen through a CRT lens. The circular logic is presented as fact and makes any rejection of the theory merely a ‘fragile’ response. To disagree is to have internalised racism as a net benefit and to resist and rest that being adjusted. There is simply no disagreement without confirming the theory even further.

The other account comes from a teacher whose school paid for the services of a consultant to help decolonise the curriculum.

In a different school to the one I teach in now, we had a famous consultant harangue the staff for our harsh treatment of BAME pupils, noting that they accounted for almost all detentions and all FTEs [Fixed Term Exclusions]; he didn’t respond well when it was explained that the school was 97% BAME.

He also had a go at the English department about Macbeth as being evidence of systemic racism, and often played in blackface.

“You’re thinking about Othello.”

“No, Macbeth.”

“No, I can confidently tell you that Macbeth has never been played in blackface.”

He did concede that Macbeth might have been intended to be white after I explained that there were four characters in all of Shakespeare coded as black and only three were people, but he stubbornly insisted that I could not prove that Macbeth had never been performed in blackface.

It admittedly wasn’t a good idea to welcome him into my classroom to observe a GCSE lesson, but I didn’t expect to hear him accuse me of manifesting ‘white supremacy’ in front of a class of 32 with only one ethnically white British pupil. The kids thought he was rude and unhinged.

And that’s my cautionary tale about inviting in consultants to ‘decolonise [your] curriculum’ (He evidently did the same thing in the 100% BAME led and taught maths department and got short shrift). I think it was imagined he’d have meaningful insights as to educational equality and diversity. He ended up berating white males as an abstract entity – there were 3 in a staff team of 140 – and misunderstanding every aspect of the curriculum he was faced with.

I leave it to the reader’s judgement to decide whether these two examples represent practice that is either good or legal.


Attachment Myths

October 24, 2020

There seems to be a sudden upsurge in talk about attachment lately, so I thought I’d let you know about a book chapter on this topic I wrote a year ago. It can be found in The REsearchED Guide to Education Myths, edited by Craig Barton and published by John Catt.

My chapter is entitled Attachment Myths and reviews some of the strange ideas about attachment teachers are often led to believe. Details and references can be found in the book, but I thought I’d give you a short preview of the content here.

At the time of writing, the importance of attachment and “attachment disorder” had recently been mentioned in the Timpson Review of School Exclusions as a significant issue relating to behaviour in schools. Yet it has been disputed whether attachment has any predictive power for behaviour at all; there is no single condition called “attachment disorder”, and significant concern has been raised about the popularity of incorrect ideas about attachment.

Attachment is an infant’s deep emotional bond to a primary care giver. The two big names in the study of it are John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, whose work spans several decades. Many of their ideas have since been challenged and revised within mainstream psychology, but their ideas have also been developed in quite disturbing and even dangerous ways by those outside the mainstream, which means teachers need to be careful not to be misled by fringe thinkers.

Most importantly, there are pseudo-scientific “controversial attachment therapies” that have been implicated in the deaths of several children and the abuse of many others. Advocating little more than deliberate cruelty to make a child feel powerless, these ideas are often promoted to the worried parents of adopted children. While I have not heard of these ideas being used in schools, teachers should be aware that they need to be careful to avoid these dangerous cranks if they search online, or ask on social media, for information about attachment.

More common in schools, but still very misguided, is a belief in a single condition called “attachment disorder” that is common in adopted or fostered children that results in challenging behaviour. While there is a condition called “Reactive Attachment Disorder” (and in some diagnostic manuals another condition called “Disinhibited Attachment Disorder”) this is relatively rare and should not be assumed to underlie the difficulties maltreated children may have. Even where children have a history of maltreatment there are many other associated conditions that might underlie behaviour problems. Additionally, there is no real consensus on treatment for RAD, and teachers should be aware that many who claim RAD is an important cause of bad behaviour, and that they have a treatment for it, will be the advocates of “controversial attachment therapies”.

Finally, there are claims that attachment theory itself may be useful to teachers. While this may be true, teachers should be sceptical about unsupported claims. There is not a strong body of evidence for applying the insights of attachment theory to older children. Additionally, anthropologists have come to doubt whether attachment theory describes universal behaviours of human beings, rather than western cultural norms of child rearing. Do not be blinded by claims to scientific authority which go beyond the evidence. Teachers have every reason to ask questions when any claims are made to them about attachment.

As well as my chapter on attachment myths, The researchED Guide to Education Myths, although short, also contains chapters by Clare Sealey, Doug Lemov, Greg Ashman and many others on a wide variety of topics.


The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 2

October 17, 2020

In my previous post I began discussing the recent RSE guidance. Please read that post first, as I continue the discussion here.

Is the guidance addressing real concerns?

One of the obvious complaints to make about the new RSE guidance is to suggest it was unnecessary, particularly at a time like this. I think the concern that a problem hasn’t been proved to exist is often overstated. When people ask if there is evidence that a problem the government seeks to address is real, I’m acutely aware that we often apply a double standard. For many years schools were attempting to deal with the problem of FGM, even though there had literally been no convictions (the first conviction in the UK was in 2019). Asking schools to look out for a problem is often part of the process of gathering evidence that there is a problem. For this reason, I’m not prepared to say you must prove there is a problem before action is taken, although that is a valid concern if the action is costly or has significant down sides. Where action is cheap and convenient, like a few words of guidance, then reasonable suspicion that a problem exists is enough.

So is there an issue of political bias in schools? In almost 20 years of teaching I have never encountered a teacher showing political bias in the classroom (although there was a TA once). Many teachers I know have very different experiences with this, although I’ve noticed almost all of those who tell me that teachers have been blatantly biased in the classroom in their experience have worked in London. Before the guidance came out, I would have said classroom bias was an insignificant issue. However, some of the online criticism of the guidance I’ve seen since it did come out seems to suggest that a significant number (although not necessarily a large proportion) of teachers were unaware of their statutory obligations to be balanced and impartial. Some teachers have been arguing quite explicitly that such an obligation is unreasonable. While I suspect scrutiny of what is taught about bias in teacher training might be more useful than new guidance, I accept there is an issue to be addressed.

The other part of the guidance where some expressed doubt there is an actual problem is over gender identity. In particular, does any external organisation that works in schools teach that, “non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity”?

I think there’s a few points of evidence that the organisation Mermaids, despite denials, has promoted that view (although I cannot confirm this has occurred in schools).

This slide – note the toys at the bottom – was used in a training session for the police:

The Mermaids website used to claim the following:

And a factsheet Mermaids wrote, still used by some LAs, said this:

So, again, I am convinced the guidance is addressing a genuine issue, although I don’t know how common it is in schools.

Myths about the guidance

Finally, it is worth mentioning some of the sheer nonsense in the reaction to the debate over the guidance. According to the Guardian:

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the measures effectively outlawed reference in schools to key events in British history, and that it symbolised growing “authoritarianism” within the governing Conservative party…

…McDonnell said: “On this basis it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of British history and politics including the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism.

“This is another step in the culture war and this drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace and should worry anyone who believes that democracy requires freedom of speech and an educated populace.”

This is obvious nonsense, but several myths seem to have circulated:

  1. It’s a new law. It’s guidance. The law already included obligations to be politically neutral. Having the guidance makes it harder to break the law and say that was unintentional, but it only clarifies existing obligations.
  2. The guidance is about all subjects. It is not. It was about RSE. While teachers existing obligations apply across the curriculum, this clarification was rather specific. Claims that it affects teaching in history and English are baseless.
  3. It bans teaching about injustice. You can refer to injustice without creating “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. Or at least you should be able to. It seems unlikely that such a phrase refers to uncontroversial facts, rather than highly controversial political statements.
  4. The guidance refers to all critics of capitalism and all “anti-capitalists”. The guidance warned about groups that have “a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow … capitalism”. If one wants to interpret this as referring to everyone to the left of Milton Friedman, one can, but it would make more sense to see this as referring to revolutionaries.
  5. The guidance is about what can be studied. The warnings about extreme groups referred to “resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances”. The examples given in the guidance are:
    • lesson plans
    • complete curriculum plans
    • other classroom materials such as videos or posters

    This would indicate teaching resources, i.e. resources designed for teachers, rather than anything and everything a teacher might ask students to study. So even if the guidance did apply to other subjects, it wouldn’t prohibit historical sources or works of literature.

I said last time that there were some odd phrases in the guidance, as if it was intended to contribute more to online culture wars than the classroom. However, I think the worst criticism that can be made of it is that it is a trap intended for teachers. And this is why the angry reaction to it was ill-judged, because if somebody sets a trap for you, throwing yourself into it is not a good idea.


The Strange and Controversial RSE Guidance Part 1

October 11, 2020

In my last blogpost, Ends and Means, I mentioned the obligations on teachers to be politically neutral. In particular, I referred to the Education Act 1996 which outlines those duties.

406 Political indoctrination.

  1. The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall forbid—
    (a) the pursuit of partisan political activities by any of those registered pupils at a maintained school who are junior pupils, and
    (b) the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.
  2. In the case of activities which take place otherwise than on the school premises, subsection (1)(a) applies only where arrangements for junior pupils to take part in the activities are made by—
    (a) any member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such), or
    (b) anyone acting on behalf of the school or of a member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such)…

407 Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues.

  1. (1) The local authority, governing body and head teacher shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils while they are—
    (a) in attendance at a maintained school, or
    (b) taking part in extra-curricular activities which are provided or organised for registered pupils at the school by or on behalf of the school, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.

Recent government guidance on RSE apparently seeks to give some more guidance about how this is to be achieved in RSE lessons, with reference to contemporary issues affecting RSE.

What’s strange and controversial about the guidance?

The guidance has some surprising features, most of which I would suggest seem to reflect recent online debates and controversies. In a section on external agencies, alongside reminders that reflect the legislation quoted above and the need for familiarity with the values of external organisations providing training in schools, it states:

Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme positions or use materials produced by such agencies. Examples of extreme positions include, but are not limited to:

  • promoting non-democratic political systems rather than those based on democracy, whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • teaching that requirements of English civil or criminal law may be disregarded whether for political or religious reasons or otherwise
  • engaging in or encouraging active or persistent harassment or intimidation of individuals in support of their cause
  • promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society
  • selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions

Some of this seems to just reflect, fairly enough, obligations that already exist. The reference to “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society” must have puzzled many people who are not already involved with debating cultural politics online. In recent years, there have been online “culture wars” relating to race, sexuality and gender in which the status of particular groups as oppressed or marginalised has been of key importance. While few people would deny that racism, sexism or transphobia exist, there have been heated arguments about the relative severity of different forms of discrimination, and how some of the key terms should be applied. This is likely to be due to the phenomena, (described here as “identitarian deference”), whereby debates are to be resolved by blindly accepting the views of those assumed to be speaking for the most marginalised identity group. This has ensured the importance of establishing from one’s identity characteristics whether one has victim status and to what extent. To those involved in such discussions, which often take place online, “divisive or victim narratives” is easy to understand as referring to claims that some groups are always to be almost always recognised as victims, and some rarely or never are. But without that background in online discourse, the reference to “victim narratives” must be thoroughly confusing in a way government guidance really shouldn’t be.

In a section on resources, it is stated that:

Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters. This is the case even if the material itself is not extreme, as the use of it could imply endorsement or support of the organisation. Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to:

  • a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections
  • opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience
  • the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications
    the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity
  • a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property

Providing one reasonably\ interprets the meaning of “resources” as something used to study a subject rather than the object of study (i.e. a worksheet rather than an example of a political poster) this seems reasonable. It’s really not obvious why you would get your lessons plans from revolutionary groups. However, the mention of “capitalism” is provocative. Presumably there could be an argument to be made that seeking to “abolish or overthrow… capitalism” is not extreme, although I’ve yet to see anyone make it without interpreting the phrase in ways that seem unlikely to reflect what was intended, or apparently ignoring it entirely.

A section on ensuring content is appropriate includes this section:

We are aware that topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material. While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.

Gender identity is incredibly controversial at the moment in online discourse, with battle lines being drawn and redrawn every day and calls to ostracise people for expressing the wrong views on gender identity, or even not expressing the right ones, are very common. While I could link to thousands of examples of this, the best possible (but rather lengthy) discussion of cancel culture and gender identity I have ever seen is in this youtube video which, whether you agree with it or not, vividly illustrates how fraught this debate has become.

Further controversy has been caused, not by the guidance itself, but a slide in one of the training modules advising teachers to:

Explain the harm caused by ‘cancel culture’ and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of association to a tolerant and free society.

Teach that censorship and ‘no platforming’ are harmful and damaging.

Explain that seeking to get people ‘cancelled’ (e.g. having them removed from their position of authority or job) simply because you disagree with them, is a form of bullying and is not acceptable.

If one believes, as I do, that “cancel culture” is a form of bullying and that freedom of speech is both a human right (when threatened by the state) and a British value (when threatened by anyone) then this is not inconsistent with what exists already. However, I can’t help but see this as being in a particular type of language that I have mostly encountered online and stemming from online culture wars, rather than education concerns.

So overall, I’m not disagreeing with the guidance, and I’m absolutely convinced that the government has a right to do this, but I do find myself wondering about why some of the language has been chosen, and whether some of the controversy was caused deliberately.

In Part 2, I will look at whether the guidance addresses real problems, and some of the myths about it.





Ends and Means

October 4, 2020

In recent years I’ve started to fear that, politically, people have lost sight of the difference between the ends and means in politics. Democracy and the rule of law are not ends; they don’t always turn out well. We cannot be sure the right people are always elected or the law is always fair. Democracy and the rule of law are means; they are a way to achieve our ends. Democracy is a set of rules for who takes power, justified by the way it allows peaceful transitions and gives rulers an incentive to pay attention to the ruled, rather than a way to ensure that the best people are always in power. The rule of law is not preferable because of any claim that laws are always beneficial, fair and well drafted. The rule of law is preferable because it prevents the arbitrary use of power and allows legal challenges to those who would exceed their powers. A similar argument can be made for those human rights that apply in the political sphere. The rights to hold our own beliefs, to have freedom of speech and to associate with people of our choosing are not rights that will always be used to achieve good things, but they are a means that should be available to all. It is only by giving those rights to everyone that we can ensure they are always available to those who would use them to achieve good things. Finally, we could also consider virtues and behaviours we might wish for from the participants in a democracy, like thoughtfulness, honesty and moderation. I could add to these a preference for rational debate over personal attacks and a tolerance for disagreement. These things often seem lacking at the moment from politicians and public alike. But again, if they are desirable in political life, they are means rather than ends. We should see them as something we want from everybody (or nobody); those we agree with and those we disagree with. They shouldn’t be something we attack our opponents for lacking, while being unembarrassed to see that those we support also lack them.

Obviously this is an education blog rather than a political blog, but before I apply the idea of a difference between ends and means in politics to education, I’ll apply it to politics generally. I should point out that I’m biased about the places where I’ve noticed this distinction is lacking. It stands out to me most in debates where I may agree with people about political ends, but not their means, so this is mainly a gripe about others I see on the left of centre. It concerns me that up until last December, many of my fellow “remain” voters were arguing that the result of the EU referendum be ignored even though they’d never have argued this if they hadn’t lost. It concerns me that there are campaigns to put newspapers I disagree with out of business through corporate pressure via advertising, even though we’d never think it was fair if corporate power was used to silence people we agreed with. It concerns me that there are now people on my end of the political spectrum arguing that certain types of speech should be banned for being offensive, even though we would argue for our own rights to offend the sensibilities of those we disagree with. And don’t get me started on those who make excuses for violent protests when they sympathise with the cause, and are horrified by violence, or even protest, from those they feel are less enlightened.

We need to be able to consider means apart from ends. We cannot say “this is a good way to achieve a political end, because it will enable us to get our way” if we would never accept that it was fair for others to use it for their ends. If getting our way is the only thing that matters, we should not complain when those we disagree with are equally ruthless in pursuit of their goals. There is a fallacy of special pleading, where people make arbitrary exceptions to general principles. If we think it is desirable for our opponents to follow certain rules, or adhere to certain standards of behaviour, then it is “special pleading” to say that we needn’t bother with that because our cause is just. And, if that doesn’t seem right to you, then you perhaps need to ask if you really want a political system where there are no universal rules or universal principles.

There’s been a few debates in education in the last year or so that have worried me because teachers seemed unaware that in a democracy we should all play by the same rules. The first, was the debate over the climate strikes. People argued that it was acceptable for schoolchildren to truant from school in order to protest over climate change. When asked whether it would be acceptable for children to be absent from school to protest about other causes, particularly ones they disagreed with, that was invariably “different”. It was simply to be accepted that those with strong beliefs about the importance and urgency of climate change did not have to follow the same principles as those less enlightened people with different concerns. Then there was an outbreak of debate about racism, after the death of George Floyd and we saw the same argument again that this issue was “different”. Particular views about race, whether that was the existence of white privilege or systemic racism; the rightness of the Black Lives Matters movement, or the effectiveness of implicit bias training were not open to debate. These views could be imposed on schools without debate, or the need to find any kind of consensus, because racism was a special case. Opinions were to be treated as facts when they were the right opinions according to those who would never tolerate the imposition of a wide variety of other viewpoints that are equally, or less, controversial. Those who argued that teaching British values in British schools was outrageous, argued that teaching Critical Race Theory was essential.

Finally, there was a fuss over recent SRE guidance. There’s enough controversial elements of that guidance that I hope to blog about it properly, but incredibly there were teachers arguing against it, not because of the controversial parts, but because they felt entitled to push their political views, and even extreme political views, in the classroom. People who would complain if a teacher expressed right-wing views on social media, were happy to argue that left-wing views should be preached in the classroom. Apparently many had no idea that the Education Act 1996 requires schools to forbid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school” and “secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils… they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”. Some even argued that this, a legal requirement, was impossible and should be ignored.

We need to remember that however deeply we hold our views, those who disagree are not so different that they need to be given different rights, or held to different standards. Teachers tend to be more left-wing than the electorate. If we argue that schools are to be used for indoctrination, we will find that the precedent this sets won’t actually favour the views of the teaching profession, but the views of the government of the day. If you don’t want British governments to use schools to indoctrinate our students, we need to stop arguing that we should be doing the same thing ourselves.


Good culture mitigates bad behaviour, it doesn’t cure it

September 26, 2020

My last post, Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think was, as I said at the time, a bit delayed. It was originally prompted by some of the debate about the effects of facemasks. Teachers had been worried that facemasks would be compulsory in lessons and that this would have an impact on behaviour. In practice – at least I think for most of us – facemasks haven’t been compulsory in lessons and they aren’t comfortable enough for kids to choose to wear them all day. My experience is that, where they have been worn, they’ve had relatively little effect on behaviour. Had they been compulsory in lessons, I think there would have had a more significant impact, but I could be wrong.

In that last post, I noted the extent to which those who dismissed concerns about masks were non-teachers, but there was something else I noticed about that discussion. People would claim that if masks would have a negative effect on behaviour in a school, then that showed that the culture of behaviour in that school was poor. This was even suggested about schools with an absolutely exemplary reputation for behaviour. And facemasks are not the only discussion where a claim about negative effects on behaviour has been met with a claim about culture. I saw a similar comment yesterday about the effects of kids staying in the same classroom all day due to Covid. There seems to be the assumption that if we can expect to see behaviour get worse, then there’s something wrong with school culture.

I think we should avoid this sort of argument, and I say that as somebody who believes all schools with good behaviour have a good culture. I do think that culture does the most to determine how good behaviour is in schools. How kids behave is, most of the time, how they expect to behave, and much of that time, it’s how their peers behave. The beliefs a child has about how one usually behaves in school seem to have more impact than any behaviour policy, or individual teachers, or set of sanctions, or anything. This is why the best behaviour managers will still struggle in a new school, and why in some schools good behaviour seems almost effortless to achieve.

However, we need to appreciate that unless you have the most exceptional parents, good culture is constructed deliberately by schools. Schools have a good culture of behaviour, because bad behaviour is dealt with. They have it because potential bad behaviour is anticipated and prevented. They have it because any attempt to undermine expectations will be thwarted. All those elements of behaviour management that are not as important as culture, like rules, sanctions and teacher consistency, work together to build culture. This is why it is a mistake to think that if a school has a good culture of behaviour, we can stop worrying about behaviour. Schools with the best behaviour are not the ones where you stop worrying about behaviour, they are ones where you never stop addressing behaviour, not because bad behaviour is common, but because it can always be even rarer.

And this is why I think we should never argue “X won’t be a problem in a school where the culture is really good”. Culture mitigates bad behaviour, it does not cure it. It might mean that a wasp coming in the classroom causes five seconds of distraction, not five minutes, but the way to get that good culture is to keep working on getting it down to five nanoseconds. In schools with bad behaviour, people make decisions that will make behaviour worse without even thinking about it. In schools with great behaviour, people avoid decisions that will make behaviour worse, even if the effect is marginal. Sometimes decisions that will have a negative effect on behaviour are inevitable – living with Covid has certainly forced schools to make tough choices they’d not have made otherwise – but such decisions should never be made thoughtlessly. It doesn’t matter how good a school’s behaviour is, we should never be casual about making it worse, even in a marginal way. If you think your school’s good culture means you don’t have to worry about behaviour, it won’t have that good culture for long. Schools rapidly go from having great behaviour to “good enough” behaviour and from “good enough” behaviour to poor behaviour. So let’s give teachers who worry about losing ten seconds of teaching time, or having one more interruption in the lesson, some respect. Attentiveness to the potential for behaviour becoming worse is a building block of the great culture that ensures it doesn’t.


Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think

September 19, 2020

I wrote this at the start of term for an education publication that then didn’t use it. Apologies that it’s slightly out of date.

Like a lot of teachers, I found the prospect of returning to school after lockdown to be daunting. I’d be teaching in unfamiliar parts of my school; the make-up of many classes would be different; break and lunchtime routines would be transformed. In the last few days of the holiday it was announced that face masks might be required in schools. Regardless of whether it is the right policy, it was an extra complication for teachers and, for many, an unwelcome one. A particular concern was how it would affect behaviour if children’s faces were partially covered. As teachers took to the media (and social media) to express their apprehension, I was surprised to see a number of ex-teachers explaining how there would be no behaviour difficulties of note and dismissing concerns. I hoped they were right, and I’m sure some teachers agreed with them. Nevertheless, how could anyone who wasn’t currently experiencing the changes in classroom routines, and the general stress of being about to return to the classroom on a regular basis after months of working from home, possibly judge the impact of last minute changes? Who are they to tell us our concerns are not reasonable?

Of course, an ad hominem argument is fallacious. Whether somebody is right or wrong does not depend on who they are, but on what they say. Ex-teachers and even people who have never been teachers, have frequently told me things about teaching and learning that I have found useful and wise. So why do I sometimes lose patience with those opinions expressed from outside of the profession? I think that some people show insufficient respect for the insights of those who still teach.

Firstly, there are those who claim that teachers are wrong about what they experience at work, particularly the problems of the job. They suggest that workload can’t be all that bad with those long leisurely holidays, or that children’s bad behaviour can’t be that serious. I’ve lost count of the number of times people who, having never taught in a challenging school, or having traded the classroom for the office at the first opportunity, have told me their hot takes about behaviour I see every day, or how well they understand the children they no longer encounter.

Secondly, there are those who know how to do the job of teaching better than those who do it. Behaviour worries would melt away if you just shook hands with students at the door. Shakespeare would entrance every student if you just explained how it was like rap music. Simultaneous equations would be grasped in a second if you used graphs that showed how phone companies charge. Indeed, listening to some ex-teachers you’d have to wonder how so many of those apparently infallible and endlessly caring practitioners would ever have come to abandon the classroom.

Thirdly, there are those who claim to speak for teachers. Over the years I’ve read newspaper headlines about what teachers are saying, or even petitions supposedly signed by thousands of teachers, that actually just represented the opinions of educationalists, consultants, or full time trade union activists. Too often, teachers are seen not as individuals, but as a single interest group, supposedly signed up to some simple political idea that actually doesn’t reflect the priorities of anyone in the classroom.

Finally, there are those who wish to take power from teachers. There are influential organisations that have been set up to represent teachers which ended up dominated by those who no longer teach. I’ve known some educationalists to be outraged when politicians and policymakers show signs of listening to those still in the classroom rather than non-teaching “experts” in teaching.

I’ll calm down now, because I have learnt loads from governors, advisors, academics and MAT CEOs. I don’t believe for a second that only teachers are worth listening to. But there are definitely times, like now, when the only people who can really know what it’s like to be teaching, are teachers.


Another look at exclusions and SEND

September 12, 2020

A couple of years ago I looked at the rhetoric around permanent exclusions and SEND in this blogpost. As I explained, it is argued that…

…a disproportionate number of excluded pupils have SEND (Special educational needs and disability). This is a favourite fact of those who believe that children are not responsible for their bad behaviour. The impression is given that a child will only behave badly because they have SEND, then schools cruelly exclude them rather than supporting them with their SEND. Some get so carried away with the idea that they will talk about badly behaved children and the disabled as if they were interchangeable. One Australian article on exclusions actually illustrated the connection between SEND and exclusions with a picture of a young person in a wheel chair, as if those with physical disabilities were likely to be excluded.

A lot of this is designed to fool politicians, or parents, who may have no idea how the SEND system works. They may imagine a precise, objective system of identifying a coherent category of genuine needs and disabilities in a small minority on the basis of scientific evidence in order to assist them in ways that have been shown to work. Having made this mistake it would be easy to assume that there is no reason why students with SEND would be disproportionately represented in the exclusion figures, unless they were the victims of prejudice or their bad behaviour resulted from their SEND in a way that suggests it was not their fault. This then allows the anti-exclusion lobby to claim that exclusions are a form of discrimination against the disabled, an issue of social justice, and very probably illegal.

Roughly speaking, those who wish to obstruct or prevent permanent exclusions argue that the situation looks like this.

I argued that there were two problems with this picture.

  1. The labelling of students with SEND is not a precise process of diagnosis which identifies a meaningful difference between SEND and non-SEND students. It covers a fairly arbitrary category of students, pretty much anyone who needs extra help for any reason. The one exception to this is those whose difficulties are due to not speaking English as a first language, which is considered to be distinct from all other difficulties and given a different category.
  2. If a child is badly behaved, and particularly if they are at risk of exclusion, there are lots of incentives to look for SEND and to label them SEND, including types of SEND that are identified mainly from bad behaviour.

Taking this into account the process looks more like this:

When I wrote that previous post I argued mainly from

  • experience;
  • reports into the SEND system;
  • the rules regarding identifying SEND,
  • and the rules regarding exclusions.

As a whole, these generally seemed to indicate that it was easy for a school to classify a child as SEND if they want to, and that there are incentives to label badly behaved children as having SEND. However, while this seems plausible, and plenty of teachers confirmed this was their experience, I didn’t indicate whether this was supported by the data. I am now able to do this.

My first claim above was about how arbitrary the category of SEND is, and in particular, the extent to which, if you look for SEND in a student, you will find it. The New Labour years saw an expansion of the SEN bureaucracy and teachers can tell you just how much paperwork they saw produced on students which identified trivial problems, or made amateur diagnoses of fashionable problems, and recommended interventions that were impractical and not evidence based. FFT Education Datalab looked at the SEN data and, in a blogpost entitled More pupils have special educational needs than you might think, they confirmed the scale of the phenomenon. Looking at the cohort of students who were in year 11 in 2016/17 they found that “44% of the cohort had ever been classified as having SEN by the time they reached the end of Year 11”. As most permanent exclusions involve boys, I asked on Twitter what was the percentage of boys who were classified as SEN at some point was, and was told:

So it would appear, that for some cohorts it was possible to identify a majority of boys as having special needs at some point, which is a curious definition of “special” in itself. I think this is good evidence for my first point: when you look hard enough for SEND in a child, you will find it.

My second point was the extent to which it’s the case that badly behaved students would be identified as having SEND, rather than it being the case that students who have SEND would be likely to be badly behaved. We know that excluded students are likely to have SEND. If it is bad behaviour that results in students being labelled SEND, we would expect the categories of SEND that are most linked to exclusion to be those which are likely to be diagnosed from bad behaviour. We would also expect those students with an EHC Plan, or statement of SEN, i.e. those for whom more evidence of genuine need has been identified, to have a lower risk of exclusion than those just labelled by schools. We would also expect non-specific SEND labels, where a school has decided a child has SEN, but has not even identified enough evidence to say what the SEN is, to be well represented among the excluded. If, however, SEND causes bad behaviour, or permanent exclusions discriminate against those with SEND, we would expect a wide variety of SEND categories to be represented among the permanently excluded and we would expect those with more evidence of genuine SEND (i.e. those with an EHC Plan or statement of SEN) and those with more clearly identified SEND, to be more likely to be excluded.

Fortunately the Timpson report, looked at whether SEND was a risk factor for exclusion after controlling for other factors.

This chart shows the risk of a student without SEND being excluded as a horizontal line, and those categories of SEND that depart significantly from this level of risk are in dark blue. Those categories of SEND with no statistically significant difference in risk from those with no SEND are in light blue.

As you can see, the data shows that having an EHC plan, or statement of SEN, for anything other than “Behavioural emotional and social difficulties” and “social, emotional and mental health”, the two categories most likely to be diagnosed from extreme poor behaviour, actually lowers the risk of exclusion. For those who are identified by schools as having SEND, but without an EHCP/statement, the very high odds of exclusion are found in those same two categories and the miscellaneous category of “SEN type not recorded”. Although there is a statistically significant higher risk for some other categories of SEN, they are not much higher, given the incentives for diagnosis. This is all far more consistent with the “bad behaviour leads to being labelled SEND” hypothesis than the “having SEND leads to exclusion” hypothesis. For those involved in the debate around this issue, where children who are excluded unfairly for behaviour related to their autism feature prominently in the rhetoric, it is particularly noticeable that children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder do not have a high risk of being permanently excluded. If they have a EHC plan or a statement of SEN, they have less chance of being excluded (everything else being equal) than a student without SEND.

This will not stop the debate. Those who believe that permanent exclusions are never justified, will argue that even the most extreme behaviour is a result of “unmet needs” regardless of the data. It’s impossible to exaggerate the tenuous nature of the reasoning used to portray excluded children as helpless victims, and school leaders as villains. A report on exclusions from the think tank IPPR, followed up the claim that SEND is a causal factor in exclusions with the following argument for believing it likely that all excluded students have mental health problems:

In 2015/16, one in fifty children in the general population was recognised as having a social, emotional and mental health need (SEMH). In schools for excluded pupils this rose to one in two. Yet the incidence of mental ill health among excluded pupils is likely to be much higher than these figures suggest. Only half of children with clinically diagnosed conduct disorders and a third of children with similarly diagnosed emotional disorders are recognised in their schools as having special educational needs. This means the proportion of excluded children with mental health problems is likely closer to 100 per cent.

The errors of reasoning in this are incredible. SEMH is not synonymous with “mental health problems”; it’s a category that can include those whose difficulty is that they are badly behaved. “Schools for excluded pupils” here appears to be Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which, while they are often attended by excluded pupils, are actually institutions for any students who are unable to attend school, including those who are unable to attend due to SEMH. Therefore, their SEMH figures tell us nothing about the rate of SEMH among excluded children. It is, of course, possible to find out the actual proportion of excluded students with a label of SEMH that year by looking at the figures. In 2015/2016 the number of excluded children labelled as having SEMH was 1 860 out of 6 685 or 27.8% (which is surprisingly low given that poor behaviour is a common reason to label a child with SEMH). The “clinically diagnosed conduct disorders” and “similarly diagnosed emotional disorders” were diagnosed from survey data (collected from parents, teachers and children themselves) by a method that found 6% of young people to have a conduct disorder and 4% to have an emotional disorder and not from direct assessments by clinicians. While the survey did find that a large minority of the former category, and almost two thirds of the latter category, did not have officially recognised Special Educational Needs at that time, this was not referring specifically to either permanently excluded children or children in PRUs which may be wildly different. Any one of these errors (assuming this is just an extremely unlikely series of mistakes, rather than a deliberate intention to deceive) would invalidate the argument; so many errors in one paragraph suggests the IPPR was not too bothered about factual accuracy.

Does it matter that such dodgy data is being used? Well the IPPR is a well-established and supposedly reputable think tank. The author of this report went on to set up The Difference, a very influential charity that has done a lot to oppose schools’ right to exclude. The one in two figure was quoted as fact, sometimes alongside the 100% figure, by The BBC, Schools Week, The Huffington Post, the Guardian and even referred to by a report of the House Of Commons Education Committee. Invented and contrived statistics about exclusions can be widely circulated by the media, politicians, charities and think tanks. However the fact that excluded children often have the label of SEND is not evidence that innocent children with SEND are being unfairly excluded, only evidence that we label the children likely to be excluded as having SEND, and it’s time the public debate reflected this truth, rather than the horror stories of the anti-exclusion lobby.

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