Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


Book Review: The Truth About Teaching by Greg Ashman

May 15, 2021

The Truth about Teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers by Greg Ashman. Sage Publishing. £17.28 on Amazon.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books. I intend to review those that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased. 

This book is aimed at new teachers, not those of us who have been in the job for a while, but I still loved it. It’s exactly the book I could have done with 20 years ago. A guide to teaching with a twist. The twist is that the content is true and useful. There are no claims that engaging lessons will solve behaviour problems. There are no claims that group work and chatting in class will mean better learning. There’s no Bloom’s Taxonomy, brain gym or attachment theory. There’s no chapter on SEN that pretends that being on a list makes everything different. There’s just how to teach, based on the evidence.

The best part though is that the whole book is framed around the actual history, debate and research in education. There is no claim to be above it all, and no assumption that nowadays all disputes have all been resolved in favour of progressivism. Alternative ideas about education are presented and an evidence based case is made for what actually works. Explanations are given for what is effective and how we know it’s effective, alongside practical advice, and some exploration of current controversies such as phonics, and the use of technology.

Greg is based in Australia, but he worked in schools in England (at their worst) for years, so the book is somewhat generic in what it shares. It’s not a guide to teaching in a particular country, just a guide to teaching. But that is probably the reason it gets its priorities right. I think it’s the first book of it’s type that I’ve seen which puts the chapter on classroom management before the chapters on learning, motivating students, teaching, planning and assessment.

The case is made for explicit teaching: actually telling kids the stuff they need to know and making sure they learn it. This is accompanied by advice on how best to do it, and the limitations of the alternatives. The references are thorough enough that it would also serve as a good guide to further reading about the ideas in the text.

I don’t imagine a book like this will be appearing on too many PGCE reading lists any time soon. Even if ideas about explicit teaching weren’t anathema to the ideology of many university education departments, the idea that teachers should be uncovering “the truth”, by use of reason and evidence, would be. I can, however, imagine teachers recommending it to their new colleagues. It’s a useful place to start your reading about teaching if you’re just starting out, and a good recap if you’re not.


Book Review: The researchED Guide to Explicit and Direct Instruction. Edited by Adam Boxer

May 8, 2021


The researchED Guide to Explicit & Direct Instruction: An evidence-informed guide for teachers edited by Adam Boxer. Published by John Catt Educational Limited. £12 

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books. I intend to review those that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased. 

This is one of those short, but packed, education books that are probably best bought in bulk, or on special offer. This one covers the benefits of explicit instruction, the history of Englemann’s Direct Instruction, and more detailed explanation of how his ideas might be used in practice. In the end, I think I’d rather have seen more of the first two and rather less of the third.

Having become a teacher in an era where teacher talk was demonised, I think it’s great to see books about the value of explicit instruction. The most interesting chapters are those that talk about the history of Englemann’s Direct Instruction – a method of explicit teaching based on carefully designed scripted lessons – and how it was vindicated by a massive research trial entitled “Project Follow Through” – but somehow subsequently neglected for being against the tide of educational opinion.

Other parts of the book explain the benefits of explicit instruction in general, but also outline what was unique about Englemann’s contribution. A lot of the chapters explain how Englemann sequenced his work through various principles that determined what examples, and patterns of examples, would be most effective. While it’s intellectually interesting to see the connections between pedagogy and reasoning, a lot of these parts of the book assume the reader will have a lot of time to plan examples and sequences of instruction which, unfortunately, is not the case for a lot of classroom teachers. Perhaps those parts of the book are most useful for those creating resources, or planning curriculums.

Some chapters give examples of applying Englemann’s ideas in practice, but in some cases these examples are probably too subject specific for those unfamiliar with the topic to get much from. I was completely lost in the chapter about teaching electrolysis, but more at home in the one about teaching fractions. There’s probably a gap in the market for anyone who can find a way to write about these ideas without relying too much on subject specific examples. Alternatively, what may be needed is subject specific books on these ideas.

Overall, this book reads like a starting point, and perhaps the aim is to get people engaged with a wider body of work that is already out there, rather than a source of ideas that can be immediately applied. Somewhere I have a copy of Englemann’s Theory Of Instruction, and this book certainly increased my enthusiasm to get started on it.


Guest Post: Sexual assault, or why my school will never really be “good”.

March 30, 2021

This blogpost (not written by me) first appeared on the Red Or Green Pen blog in August 2013. It is shared here with the permission of the author as I think that blog is no longer accessible.

I’ve read too much and heard too much about sexual assault of girls in our schools recently. It’s horrible. It makes me incredibly angry. Try these blogs for starters:

My life as a cynical teacher


I’m sure there are many more, but these immediately come to mind.

I went to private school (boo, hiss etc). My immediate thought when I read bigkids’ blog post was: If this had happened to me, I would have been out of that school faster than you can say “privilege“. I’m absolutely certain of that. My sister was bullied for a short while in secondary school. When my mum found out, she said “right, we are having a meeting with the Headmistress tomorrow morning, and we are digging the prospectuses out”.

For Christ’s sake. You shouldn’t have to pay to avoid sexual assault.

Meanwhile, in the school I now teach at, sexual assault has almost become part of the furniture. The Head has talked about how much of a problem it is. He sent some staff on a training day about it. He’s kept boys back after assembly and given them a bollocking. He’s kept girls back after assembly and told them he’s given the boys a bollocking. It hasn’t really helped. It’s a culture. A culture takes a lot more than an assembly to change.

It’s as if this whole issue is a pesky mosquito buzzing round his head, that he limply swats at occasionally when it bothers him too much.

When SLT talk about how good a school we are, how we’re aiming for an Outstanding Ofsted next year, how great our progress stats are, I want to shake them and say “how can you apply positive adjectives to a school where girls are just resigned to being felt up now and again? Where pupils with police reprimands and warnings for assaulting girls walk the corridors alongside the victims? Where your own pupil voice survey says that the majority of pupils do not feel safe?” The idea that we are currently an Ofsted “Good” school is laughable, not when you compare us to other Ofsted Good schools – then it actually seems reasonable – but when you think about what the word “good” means to the layperson.

I look at schools like King Solomon Academy where “no student could think of an occasion when [bullying had occurred]” (Ofsted, 2013). It can be done. But our priorities need to change. We need to stop accepting that a bit of bullying, a bit of sexual assault, a bit of fighting is normal in a secondary school. We need to stop obsessing about whether iGCSEs would add a couple of extra points to our results and start looking at ethos and values. Guess what? When students aren’t terrified of coming into school, and are allowed to work hard without taunting, those league table results have a tendency to fix themselves anyway.


Book Review: The Great Exception By Ian Stock

March 28, 2021

The Great Exception by Ian Stock. Published by John Catt Educational Limited. £15 

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books. I intend to review those that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies.. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased. 

This is an unusual book. It is a book by an experienced classroom teacher discussing teaching that is offering informed opinions, rather than advice on how to do the job. At no point does it say “this is how to best teach”, it just tries to get under the skin of the job. It’s the sort of book that would be more common if we expected teachers to last in the classroom long enough to be able to reflect on it at length, while still being primarily engaged in teaching. In a world where people who haven’t taught regular lessons to kids in decades are considered experts on teaching, and in many contexts given authority to speak on behalf of teachers, a book like this that reflects on the job without offering advice is a rarity.

How much you get out of it might depend on how much you agree with the analysis and agree that it is saying something important. Stock relies a bit much on just a few ideas, like “Affluenza”*, managerialism and the limits of both market approaches and scientific approaches to the craft of teaching. But even if you think other factors are more important in shaping the profession these days, there seems to be truth in all these points. Perhaps it is at times unsatisfying that Stock doesn’t take the ideas to an extreme where you can really disagree with him. You are more likely to think “but he doesn’t mention X” than to think “he is completely wrong about Y”. You are more likely to think that your own experience differs from his, than to think he is misleading you about what he is seeing in schools.

Instead, the book seeks to prompt discussion more than it seeks to give answers. At times this is a weakness, and some of it seems more suited to, say, a thought-provoking  column in an education periodical, than the chapter of a book. (Seriously, he should be given a regular column in TES or Schools Week or whatever.) But it’s also a strength in that the book would be great for a teachers’ book group to discuss. Even in the shortest chapters could probably be discussed for hours by a group of experienced teachers.

I want people to buy the book, because I want there to be books out there that simply say what the job is like from a particular position of experience and wisdom.

* “the dysfunction brought by effects of socially competitive greed” (from the Oliver James book)


How misleading was today’s Guardian article on exclusions?

March 25, 2021

As I said in this morning’s post, I spent a lot of time on Twitter from November to February interrogating the claims, particularly the statistical ones, of the conspiracy theorists alleging that the result of the 2020 November US presidential election was won through fraud. When it came to looking at the numbers, the same tactics were used again and again.

Ignore the big picture.

The 2020 election was won by the favourite. The only surprise in the result was that he didn’t win by quite as much as the polls suggested and lost some states he might have been expected to win. Yet conspiracy theorists would ignore this and talk as if Joe Biden’s victory was inexplicable.

Scour the data for anomalies in the details.

An anomaly is something improbable in the data. All elections have anomalies and there are always unprecedented features for any election result (as XKCD show here). Because of the scale of US elections then just at random there will some unlikely events. If a million things have happened then you would expect to find even a one in a million fluke occurring somewhere. If you look at the smallest possible subdivisions of the electorate, counties and precincts rather than whole states, then you get a lot of opportunities to find unlikely events. Conspiracy theorist statistics showing fraud were often based around results at county level (and occasionally precincts). It would actually be more suspicious if there weren’t any unusual results and, of course, they did not consider anomalies that worked in the favour of the losing candidate to be evidence of fraud by his side.

Assume all anomalies are explained by fraud

Once an alleged anomaly is found it was assumed to be evidence of fraud. Other explanations, like changing demographics or the effects of high turn out were ignored. Even results that were largely the same as 2016 were treated as suspicious this time. Errors made by election officials were given as evidence of fraud. Even errors made by journalists reporting on the election were seen as evidence of fraud.

It’s not that an anomaly couldn’t be evidence of fraud, but even the most serious anomalies are more like a smoke alarm going off than seeing your house burn down. It is necessary to look at all explanations. It is also necessary to ask “even if we don’t have an explanation for this anomaly, does fraud actually explain it?” Many anomalies were simply irrelevant to the result of the election, but were seen as evidence that there was fraud everywhere.

Uncritically repeat false or misleading claims.

Finally, and this is probably the most frequently used tactics, false claims (like Pennsylvania counting more mail in ballots than they sent out) or misleading information (like exit polls results in an election where a huge proportion of voters voted by post) would be repeated without any effort being made to see if they were false or misleading. Even mathematical errors, like an incorrectly calculated percentage, would be repeated without checking.

What does this have to do with education?

I was reminded of all this when I saw today’s Guardian story about exclusions being racist. I should point out it is about Fixed Term Exclusions i.e. pupils be sent home for a short time, often just a day.  I am neither bothered about FTEs as an issue (ultimately schools have alternatives if there is political pressure to reduce FTEs) or convinced there is no evidence of racism in the pattern of FTEs. However, given that the headline does not mention that the article is about FTEs, I do fear that this may impact the debate on permanent exclusions which I do care about, so this is worth commenting on to see if the article is accurate. And what I see is all the same tricks that drove me to distraction on MAGA twitter.

Ignore the big picture.

The big picture on FTEs and race is that in the most recent data the rate of fixed period exclusions (number of FTEs as a percentage of the headcount of pupils) is 3.91 for minority ethnic pupils and 5.80 for white pupils. In itself, that would be grounds for doubting racism, but it’s fair enough to look more closely. The single minority ethnic statistic hides that there’s a big difference between Asian and Black pupils, with FTE rates of 2.03 and 5.54 respectively. And if we break down data further we will find significant discrepancies in FTEs rates between ethnic groups, although we would still find most ethnic groups have a lower FTE rate than white pupils and particularly white British pupils. Nevertheless, some groups do have a much higher rate. The big picture here is that there is no clear pattern of racism, but there is inequality that cannot be simply explained by any one cause I’m aware of.

Scour the data for anomalies in the details.

If you have to describe the method used by the Guardian article it is this:

  1. Find the ethnic groups with the highest FTE rates.
  2. Find the LAs with the highest FTE rates for those ethnic groups (ignoring those with less than 100 pupils from those ethnic groups).
  3. Report the above information as a comparison with white pupils where possible.

This is a deliberate strategy of looking for the most anomalous results (favouring the racism hypothesis) and reporting only those. There is no way this method would not find dramatic discrepancies apparently favouring white pupils, even if the number of FTEs was distributed completely by chance. It is cherry picking, with even the choice of white pupils (FTE rate 5.80) over white British pupils (FTE rate 6.01) being made to increase the discrepancies found. I should point out that the data was released on February 24th, but it has apparently taken a month to subdivide it sufficiently to get the story the Guardian was looking for.

Perhaps some will say this is a fair method of finding evidence of racism, so I’m going to give them a challenge. Use the exact same method but replace “white” with “Asian” or “black”. Do you get equally convincing discrepancies showing FTEs favour Asian or black pupils? Unless the decision to ignore LAs where the relevant ethnic minority has a headcount less than 100 scuppers it, this would almost certainly find even greater discrepancies than carrying out this procedure for white pupils.

Assume all anomalies are explained by racism.

It is entirely possible that some of the discrepancies could be explained by racism. There could be some LAs where exclusion policies operate in racist ways. However, the article’s only concession to the fact that other explanations are available is an admission that it’s most extreme anomaly involving Black Caribbean pupils (the figure for Cambridgeshire) might be partially explained by the “relatively small number of Caribbean students”. No attempt is made to work out if any discrepancy is explained by social class, even though London is known for having a lot of wealth alongside its disadvantage. No attempt is made to look at the reasons for exclusions, despite these also varying quite noticeably between ethnic groups. I have no idea why the largest category for exclusions for black and Asian pupils is physical assault against another pupil while it is only the fourth highest category of exclusions for white pupils, but it seems like it might be relevant to the analysis and certainly likely to be relevant to policy suggestions to address discrepancies. But assault is not mentioned, and yet “uniform policies” are mentioned as a reason for exclusion.

Uncritically repeat false or misleading claims.

This to me is the worst part of the article. For all the cherry picking, the groups with the highest FTE rates might be discriminated against. But, when you then use this as evidence for discrimination against groups that don’t have high FTE rates, you are at best mistaken and at worst lying. The article quotes people getting this wrong without correcting it.

We are told of:

an “incredible injustice” for schoolchildren from minority ethnic backgrounds

a “PRU [pupil referral unit] to prison” pipeline for working-class black children.

BAME … children being disproportionately excluded

an “incredible injustice” for schoolchildren from an ethnic minority background [again]

Yet as pointed out above, none of the categories I’ve emphasised here are at greater risk of FTEs than white British pupils. The writer of the article knows this as these claims are all attributed to others (with the repeated claim being attributed to both “experts” and a politician) rather than claimed by the Guardian. Yet they are reported uncritically despite being at best misleading and, at worst, dishonest.

There is no excuse for reporting that consists of cherry picking statistics to fit a hypothesis that contradicts the big picture, presenting only one explanation and then repeating objectively false claims uncritically to ensure people are misled. If this Guardian article alone convinced you that exclusions are racist, then you should be equally convinced that Democrats stole the US election. If you aren’t, you should ask yourself why, before our schools end up looking like the riot on Capitol Hill.

All statistics cited by me in this blogpost come from here.


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.


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.




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