Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


The campaign against discipline

December 16, 2018

It seems a long time since the days of 2013, when putting more knowledge in the curriculum could inspire 100 educationalists to write a letter claiming this:

….could severely erode educational standards. The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Progressives have retreated. These days they are more likely to say that they are the true advocates of knowledge, while putting forward teaching methods and curriculum ideas that obstruct the learning of knowledge, than claim knowledge is harmful. In fact, these days they hardly seem to be trying to win any arguments with teachers about pedagogy and curriculum.

The traditionalist viewpoint has become mainstream. It seems like you can’t throw a brick in a secondary school these days without hitting a teacher who is talking about knowledge, explicit instruction, retrieval practice or interleaving. While much of what is happening is just lip service, and plenty of schools have just added a few techniques that work to a list of things that don’t, things have moved on. Perhaps not at all levels, and certainly not so much among teacher trainers, but the debate has turned round on curriculum and pedagogy.

However, if you did throw that brick, then progressives probably would take the time to argue that you can’t be held responsible for that and that the person you threw it at had brought it on themselves by ignoring your unmet needs. The battleground is once again behaviour. And while few secondary teachers, even those who are entirely progressive on the curriculum and pedagogy, have much sympathy for the progressive cause on behaviour, there is a receptive audience in the media and among politicians. As well as repeated school shamings for any school that makes a big deal of enforcing rules and routines, there has been a lot of commentary about what schools do about the students with the most extreme behaviour.

So far this year we have seen:

  • Media coverage, reports from charities, inspectors and politicians saying that exclusions are a bad thing. Much of this has referred to both fixed term and permanent exclusions.
  • Media coverage and online campaigns saying that internal exclusion (i.e. when a child is taken out of lessons but not sent home) is a bad thing.
  • OFSTED and political comment on “off rolling”. While rightly critical of attempts to manipulate league tables by removing kids from school rolls, or to do permanent exclusions unofficially, this has led to a lot of blanket condemnation of schools that lose kids for any reason. This includes managed moves (i.e. a change of school due to behaviour) or the unfortunate situation where parents refuse to cooperate with a school that expects their child to behave.

Unfortunately, any idea associated with OFSTED and any idea getting press coverage, immediately becomes currency. Anecdotally, there are already tales of LAs and MATs telling schools to reduce exclusions and inspectors asking lots of questions about internal exclusions. A school leader trying to play it safe would be looking to avoid exclusions, managed moves, and internal exclusions. But this leaves an obvious question about what to do about the most extreme behaviour.

The alternatives to actually removing kids with extreme behaviour are:

  • Tolerating extreme behaviour.
  • Er… that’s it.

Non-teachers (particularly those offering their services to schools for a price or writing about social justice in academia) will claim that the problems can be dealt with by “meeting unmet needs” or “restorative justice”, but teachers know that these things are never sufficient. Kids behave badly because they can get away with it and because it has become normal. When discipline systems have no strong sanctions, behaviour breaks down; teachers are left with nothing but appeasement as a discipline strategy. “Behaviour management” becomes a matter of begging, bribing and ignoring. We have seen behaviour go wrong here, particularly in the 2000s, and we have seen it in other countries. And once discipline breaks down, and teachers are not coping, there will be a concerted effort by progressives to claim we need to reconsider pedagogy and curriculum to address these problems.

Could this campaign succeed? My view is that it will only happen if politicians lose sight of the big picture. If they take action against exclusions, internal exclusion and off-rolling, without realising that this will leave schools with no options, we will lose control of behaviour in our schools. Whenever one of these issues is raised we need to ask “What is the alternative?” And if it doesn’t involve actually removing kids from classrooms or schools when their behaviour is out of control, then we need to object as a profession. We also need to see political leadership. We need politicians willing to say “I stand for safe and orderly schools and those who don’t like this are dangerously wrong”.


Can ideology blind us to what is genuinely dangerous?

December 8, 2018

Recently I have been discussing at length the opposition to permanent exclusions.

I wrote about the ideology behind some of this.

I also wrote about what happens when schools don’t permanently exclude:

There have been a few recurring arguments that permanent exclusions, as they currently happen, are unfair. I wrote posts addressing whether they are unfair because of SEND or because of racism.

Ultimately the strongest argument to protect the right of schools to exclude is that of safety. While opponents of school exclusions seem to think that young people are permanently excluded to manipulate exam results, or due to racism, the reality is far more alarming. The Mirror reported that:

Sexual violence and harassment in schools will be probed by MPs for the first time after figures showed 200 pupils claim they have been raped every year.

The Commons Women and Equalities Committee launches an investigation today after shocking figures revealed the scale of sexual offences between teenagers.

Data last year showed 5,500 alleged sexual offences were recorded in UK schools – including more than 600 alleged rapes – over three years.

Another 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults were recorded, the data revealed.

Research has claimed some teachers are turning a blind eye to the problem as the rise of practices like ‘sexting’ raise issues of personal privacy.

A YouGov poll of 16-18 year olds in 2010 found 29% of girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and 71% said they frequently heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school.

Permanent exclusion for students who show themselves to be dangerous is one of the key ways we would expect schools to keep their children safe from serious assaults and sexual harassment. Out of control children are also a danger to themselves. The following news stories that I found for a blogpost a few years ago all involve students being killed or maimed in circumstances where students disobeyed teachers:

It seems incredible that anyone could endanger children by demanding that schools either stop excluding, or be constrained in their right to exclude on the basis of whether the student facing exclusion is of a particular ethnicity or has been labelled as having SEN, but that is precisely what we are seeing at the moment. Some proposed alternatives to exclusion are ridiculously naive. Some seem to think it could be sufficient to explain to a dangerous child that their bad behaviour is wrong, or ask them to talk about their feelings and what the school can do to make them happier. At times the willingness to endanger children would actually be funny if it wasn’t so serious. And this has made me wonder how common it is for people to be so blinded by ideology that they will put themselves or others at serious risk of harm. Are there examples of this from outside of education?

The first example that springs to mind are the many “humanitarians” who think that dangerous criminals should not be in prison. It is easy to find examples of violent criminals being treated leniently despite the risk to the public. The most recent case I’ve seen was that of rapist John Warboys who was due to be released from prison. The head of the parole board resigned after it was found that Warboys, who was convicted of one rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges and was believed by police to have committed crimes against more than 100 women between 2002 and 2008, had his release approved without sufficient attempt to find out if he was likely to still be dangerous. His release was only stopped after 2 of his victims launched a legal challenge.

While those who are simply overly sympathetic to criminals and apparently unconcerned with their victims are common in criminal justice systems in western democracies, there have been those who, blinded by ideology, have been exceptionally unwise. In his book, The Psychopath Test, John Ronson describes the pioneering work of Elliott Barker at the Oak Ridge Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ontario in the 60s and 70s.

[Elliott Barker] successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD….handpicked a group of psychopaths…led them into what he named the Total Encounter Capsule , a small room painted bright green, and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first ever marathon Nude Psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Elliott’s raw, naked LSD-fuelled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches. …they were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for each other even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time ‘in a state of arousal while doing so’.

Elliott himself was absent, watching it all from behind a one way mirror. He would not be the one to treat the psychopaths. They would tear down the bourgeois constructs of traditional psychotherapy and be each other’s psychiatrists.

Other experiments, equally unbelievable, also took place and this chapter of Ronson’s book is genuinely fascinating. Incredibly, some psychopaths showed signs of improvement and were even released following their treatment and apparent cure.

I learnt that, fascinatingly, two researchers had in the early 1990s undertaken a detailed study of the long-term recidivism rates of psychopaths who’d been through Elliott’s programme and let out into society…. In regular circumstances 60 per cent of criminal psychopaths released into the outside world would reoffend. What percentage of their psychopaths had?

As it turned out: eighty per cent.

The Capsule had made the psychopaths worse.

The crimes of some of the released psychopaths were absolutely horrific. Yet the authorities had condoned these ridiculous, experimental treatments and people had died as a result. Yet even now some of those involved defended what they did.

Not every case of ideological blindness to human evil endangers others. Sometimes people only endanger themselves. Two American cyclists and bloggers, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, had a very strong belief in the kindness of human beings. According to the New York Times, they formed a plan to cycle all over the world. While on their expedition, they affirmed their positive view of humanity:

“You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,” Mr. Austin wrote. “People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.

“I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own … By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.”

“No greater revelation has come from our journey than this,” he wrote.

In July this year, they were cycling in Tajikistan when they were spotted by men loyal to the Islamic State and were murdered.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

It is not just dangers from human beings that we can under-estimate if influenced by the wrong ideology. Eccentric millionaire, John Aspinall, who died in 2000, owned a number of zoos and wildlife parks that regularly appeared in the news for all the wrong reasons. From his Guardian obituary:

The parks have been dogged by controversy after five zookeepers were killed in 20 years, three of them mauled to death by tigers. Yet Aspinall maintained his belief that keepers should be allowed to enter the enclosures where tigers roamed and bond with them.

Aspinall said his philosophy was to encourage keepers to come into close contact with potentially dangerous animals.

However, in 1980, he was forced to shoot two Siberian tigresses that killed two keepers at Howletts, and four years later a keeper was crushed to death by an Indian bull elephant in Port Lympne.

In 1994, the head keeper at Howletts was killed by a Siberian tiger. The most recent victim was Darren Cockrill, 27, who was crushed by elephant La Petite in its enclosure at Port Lympne in February.

In 1996, Aspinall won a high court case to maintain the controversial practice of keepers mingling with tigers, even though in May of that year, a boy was awarded £132,000 because his arm was ripped off by a chimpanzee at Port Lympne in 1989.

There is something in human beings, that means we can adopt belief systems that endanger ourselves and others. We can become convinced that multiple rapists need a second chance; that psychopaths can be cured with nude acid trips; that there are no parts of the world where people will murder us for the sake of it, or that wild animals just want to be our friends. In some of these cases, those who endangered others were in positions of power and influence, and could use their position or their wealth to put others at risk.

I am, obviously, not arguing that excluded children are the same as rapists, psychopaths, ISIS terrorists or wild animals. But we should be wary of those who refuse to see the danger in letting children run wild. People can endanger themselves and others with naive beliefs. People will use their power, influence and “expertise” in ways that put others at risk. I would argue that what we are seeing in the anti-exclusion movement is exactly that kind of ideologically-driven, dangerous naivety.


Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 3

December 1, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. In Part 1 and Part 2, I shared blogposts relevant to this topic written by others. Here I will put forward my own views.

I am happy to be described as an educational traditionalist. There are three reasons I don’t have a problem with the term.

Firstly, although in recent political discourse “progressive” is seen as a positive word, meaning little more than liberal and supportive of change, these are not the only way to view it. Firstly, I accept the arguments in Part 2 about not wanting to support change for the sake of change. It is okay to consider yourself left wing, yet want to conserve some things. Just because you want political action to make society more just, does not not mean you have to believe that everything needs to change or that the very fabric of society needs to be torn down. Although I do believe we can change society through politics, ill-thought-out change can destroy trust and divide. More importantly, political progressives don’t always appreciate the history of the word. The “Progressive Movement” in the United States, from which we seem to have inherited the word, while having many achievements to be proud of, was associated not only with progressive education but also with Prohibition and eugenics. Even in this country we often forget that “enlightened” left wing intellectuals supported eugenics. If you feel uncomfortable being on the side of G.K. Chesterton, rather than Bertrand Russell, on education; you can reassure yourself that you probably also side with Chesterton over Russell on eugenics.

Secondly, the word “traditionalist” implies something more than “old fashioned”. Tradition is something that is passed on. The origins of the word “tradition” are in the Latin for “handed over”. Those of us who think the basis of education is in handing over knowledge from teacher to student, should not have a problem with that idea of a tradition. While some subjects may teach things that are being handed over to the next generation for the first time, some of us share knowledge that has been being passed on for over two thousand years. If we celebrate the passing on of knowledge, then we are loyal to a tradition. We need to be clear that the tradition is “the best of what has been though and said” rather than simply what’s oldest, and that we don’t necessarily believe that what is old is always better, or that values and knowledge shouldn’t change. But there’s nothing wrong with seeing teaching as being about handing over something which already exists. Nor is there anything wrong with being sceptical of the idea that we can force the world to “progress” by changing what we teach to fit in with contemporary concerns. Those who want to throw out great books and great thinkers, or even great thought, in order to save the next generation from thought crime are not really seeking to educate. The tradition changes with culture, but the point of education is not to change culture through selective ignorance. Those who want to engineer utopia through schools, may be more progressive than traditionalist, but they are the enemies of education.

Thirdly, even if “traditionalist” is not an attractive name, that’s not without its advantages. Whenever traditionalism is repackaged to emphasise some element of traditionalism, such as “knowledge led teaching”, “a knowledge rich curriculum”, “high expectations of behaviour” or “whole class interactive teaching” it seems to take about 5 minutes before progressives claim the title for themselves. Progressives have a remarkable knack of being able to explain how the ideas they have supported all along are actually “knowledge led”, or are also “high expectations of behaviour” whatever the evidence to the contrary. In fact, it has almost become a cliché in education debate that the moment traditionalists get the upper hand in the debate for and against X, then progressives will claim that “nobody was ever against X”; “all teachers support X”; “we should stop having this divisve debate about X”, and before too long they will be promoting an expensive training course about X which somehow seems to be indistinguishable in content from the very same ideas they had back when they were against X. If the opponents of systematic synthetic phonics now claim that everyone supports phonics, why would they not do the same for any other part of traditionalist education? An attractive name for traditionalism actually ends up being devalued. The single best reason for calling traditionalism by the name “traditionalism” even if it might put some people off, is that the only reason to call yourself a traditionalist is because you actually believe it. I cannot say the same about any other title or aspect of traditional education. Whatever momentary advantage there is in saying “I don’t consider myself a traditionalist, I believe in X” is immediately diluted as a hundred progressives tell you they also believe in X.

So let’s stick with the name. If you really believe in passing on knowledge, explicit instruction and discipline based on adult authority, call yourself a traditionalist, and at least then we’ll know you really mean it.



What happens when a school listens to campaigners against internal exclusion?

November 28, 2018

We’ve had a lot of attacks on schools for keeping kids safe lately.

When schools exclude they are accused of leading kids into knife crime or being racist. When they use managed moves, or help kids find a more suitable education, they are accused of off-rolling. When they have strict rules, or simply enforce the rules that most schools have, they are accused of being draconian. For a lot of ideologues, any attempt to enforce the will of adults on children, no matter how advantageous it is to the interests of the majority of children, is oppression and cruelty.

So it was only a matter of time before the use of “isolation” came under fire. The campaign has been less than clear, presumably because “isolation” sounds more like imprisonment than support, and clarity would only undermine the campaign. Some seem to be objecting to the mere act of removing a child from a lesson they are disrupting. However, most seem to be objecting to internal exclusion. This is when a child is kept out of lessons after serious, persistent or defiant behaviour but is not sent home. This is mainly used to avoid Fixed Term Exclusions, i.e. suspension from school, and is appropriate when there are safeguarding issues at home; when there is reason to think a child might welcome exclusion or when the original offence is so serious that more than five days exclusion is appropriate, and something (legally) needs to be provided after five days.

Few teachers, particularly in non-selective, state secondaries object to internal exclusion, particularly as the alternatives are more controversial or more obviously harmful. But a lot of non-teachers seem to have got this campaign going. I noticed Paul Dix, a behaviour consultant, featuring in a lot of the coverage, eg. from the BBC:

Paul Dix says he has probably visited more isolation facilities than anyone else in his work as a behavioural consultant in schools across England.

He says he has seen 50 children at one time in isolation in one school and children with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD in isolation rooms and met one child who said they had spent 36 days in isolation in one school year.

“That is not education, it is a custodial sentence,” he said.

“Where’s the regulation around it, where’s the reporting, where is the accountability?”

He said he has heard of pupils being placed into isolation for not bringing a pen or wearing the right shoes.

Paul says disruptive pupils may need to be removed from classrooms but believes they should be returned after a short period and a discussion of their behaviour with an experienced teacher.

“That is the intelligent way. Isolation is desperation,” he said.

I think it is worth considering whether he knows what he is doing when he advises schools to limit internal exclusion. A few years ago he wrote a blogpost praising a school for reducing its use of “the referral room”:

The behaviour at QK have [sic] improved so dramatically in the past year and staff are to be applauded for their efforts. When I first visited the referral room, it was full with a queue of students lining up outside the door. On this day of training, there was just one child in the referral room, yesterday there had been none.

This is a whole school approach, every adult singing from the same song sheet, led by the vision of an excellent Head [name removed] and driven by the determination of all adults to create a school where excellent behaviour is normalized. And it is working brilliantly.

A couple of years later, while still being led by the same “excellent” head, OFSTED inspected the school and found:

Previously good personal development, welfare and behaviour [i.e. from before the above blogpost was written] have deteriorated and are inadequate. Leaders have not secured a consistent and effective approach to tackling poor behaviour…

Leaders and managers have not maintained pupils’ good behaviour and positive attitudes to learning since the previous inspection. They have not ensured that staff are confident to challenge disorderly behaviour and use effective methods to deal with disruption. As a result of an inconsistent approach to dealing with discipline in classrooms, pupils’ learning is diminished.

In the survey of staff views, less than half of those who responded agreed that pupils’ behaviour is at least good…

Newly qualified teachers should not be appointed at the school because pupils’ behaviour is inadequate…

The governing body has not held the school’s leaders sufficiently to account in order to secure rapid and sustained improvements. They are aware that the quality of teaching is variable, that assessment information is not precise enough and that behaviour in lessons disrupts learning. However, members of the governing body have not ensured that leaders have addressed these key priorities for development sufficiently rapidly…

Some pupils do not feel safe at school because they have little confidence in the way the school deals with concerns about bullying. Too many pupils expressed concerns about the standard of behaviour in lessons and the way disruption is dealt with…

Pupils and parents reported variability in the response from staff to bullying issues they raise. Pupils’ confidence in the school’s determination and ability to take action to keep pupils safe from bullying is weak.

Pupils said they are unable to focus fully on their learning when they are worried about disorderly behaviour of pupils in classrooms. As a result, pupils’ emotional and social development is not supported effectively…

The behaviour of pupils is inadequate.

Pupils told inspectors that their learning was regularly interrupted by the poor conduct and lack of self-discipline of a significant minority of their peers. Some pupils lack respect towards other pupils and staff. Inspectors observed examples of pupils’ deliberately disorderly actions. The school’s records of pupils’ behaviour over time show that, across a variety of subjects, pupils’ behaviour contributes to reduced learning.

The proportion of pupils who have been excluded from school for a fixed period of time has decreased since the previous inspection and is below average. The proportion of all pupils and of disadvantaged pupils excluded from school on more than one occasion has also decreased and is smaller than the national average. However, rates of fixed term exclusions remain well above the national average, including for disadvantaged pupils and pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.

I’m glad to say the school has now reopened under a new name (which is why I have not attempted to hide which school it was) and new leadership and that the new school has a behaviour policy that includes provision for internal exclusion. But there are still schools out there paying to get the same behaviour advice as the old school did.

Obviously, you never know how accurate an OFSTED report is, or what else the school did to prompt that report. However, I would recommend any school leaders planning to seek advice on behaviour and any politician being lobbied by the opponents of internal exclusion, that they be very careful before they start listening to any “expert” who tells them teachers are wrong to think that internal exclusion works to keep them and their students safe.


Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 2

November 24, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. I wish to look at these arguments in my next few blogposts.

Previously I have linked to one blogpost and shared another where teachers whose educational ideas might be considered traditionalist, rather than progressive, explained why they didn’t like the word “traditionalist”. I don’t have a problem with this term. Nor do I like the term “progressive” even when it is used outside the educational context. I don’t mind having left of centre politics but not progressive politics. It is this argument I want to look at here.

This time I have another blogpost to share which has been published before but is no longer available. At the risk of going off-topic, this is a blogpost about politics rather than education. It was written by a Labour supporter, who is not a teacher, during the days of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and it makes a case for why left of centre politics do not have to be “progressive”.


Why I am not a progressive

I doubt I’ll shock anyone when I say that I’m not a progressive, or at least that I don’t consider myself to be one – apart from anything else it’s a conversation that often goes in circles round the 140 characters of Twitter, but one I thought probably deserved a slightly longer write-up. It’s also unfortunate (welcome to the Blue Labour debate) that the opposite of progressive is generally seen as conservative, and that this gets confused with Conservative (a party which is certainly not conservative). Clear as mud. Of course I support progressive taxation, but then since our tax system spent most of my life becoming less progressive, that meant I wanted to conserve something.

Anyway. I’m not a progressive because I don’t believe change is automatically, or even usually, for the better. GA Cohen explained this with an extended analogy about a college (long, but worth watching).

Gladys Knight put it more simply –  “as bad as we think they are, these will become the good old days for our children”. Of course science and technology advance, but to read across from that and assume that politics (or, perhaps, even society) move in the same way, seems optimistic at best. It appears that, in this if nothing else, I am normal, and it’s the progressives who are unusual.

Related to this is a problem across much of the left in particular to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. Since I am a million miles away from that mindset, I don’t fully understand it, but it seems to be “Imagine a substantive change you would like; think of an unrelated procedural change; convince yourself that the latter will deliver the former”.

So whether it was the revival of radical socialism that was going to come with AV, the flowering of international solidarity we were going to get by joining the Euro, or the mass democratic renewal that will come by electing 80 senators for 15 years each on the basis of regional STV, energy is diverted from campaigning for substantive change, to campaigning for procedural change. Which is not to say that process doesn’t matter – the institutions which mediate political debate impact massively on the eventual outcomes, of course. A list of things I waste time being against when there are bigger battles to fight, there.

More importantly, ‘progressive’ is a word whose meaning shifts according to who is using it. So, when people wanted to cobble-together an anti-Tory Parliamentary alliance after the last General Election, they dubbed it the “progressive coalition”. When people want to pretend the left has been disadvantaged primarily by the electoral system rather than by often being less popular, they talk of a ‘progressive majority’. When David Cameron wants to sound like a moderate, he talks of Progressive Conservatism. Of course, the “Not left or right, but forward” model of spatial politics was introduced to our discourse by David Icke, but never mind.

I don’t make a habit of linking to Lib Dems, but Andrew Emmerson cites a relevant opinion poll, pointing out that in the public mind, “progressive” is devoid of almost all political content. A majority think it is about being “reforming” or “modernising”. An appreciable number think it is about being “enterprising” or “advanced”. Bringing up the rear are those who believe it means being liberal (16%) or left-wing (7%). On this basis, Cameron’s right – the Coalition is progressive too. Blair was particularly progressive – to the point of neophilia, some of the time it felt as though something merely needed to exist for the government to seek to change it. Organisational restructuring, particularly in health, was done, undone, and redone faster than anyone could realistically hope to evaluate its impact.

Still, there’s a vacancy for a better word, here. Radical conservatism makes a neat sort of intellectual sense, but is even worse marketing than Blue Labour. People calling themselves progressives (hello the London County Council) have done important and valuable things in the history of the left. But I want things to be better, not different for the sake of it, especially not if it puts us at risk of losing that which is already good. If I’m really lucky, by 2015 that’ll be what people think of when they hear the word “Labour”.


Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 1

November 18, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. I wish to look at these arguments in this series of blogposts.

A recent blogpost about not wanting to be called a traditionalist can be found here: A Plea to Drop the TRAD label. An older blogpost on a similar theme has been removed from the site where it originally appeared. So with the permission of the author I’m presenting it here:


I’m a trad but wish it was called something else

I’m a Trad. I reject progressivism for the measurable damage it has done to education and for its corruption of beautiful subjects in the name of the twenty-first century. My heroes are Hirsch, Engelmann and Rosenshine.

Curriculum is King in my classroom. The knowledge dictates the activity, not the other way around. I have no time for distractions in the name of engagement or relevance. The engagement comes from mastery of a noble and powerful subject. The fact that it is not relevant is precisely why it must be taught, and taught well. If I limit my teaching to the interests of my students, or try to force a link, then I have failed those students.

And so because of this ideology if you like, I want to know about what works. I want to know about cognitive science, retrieval practice, and schemas. I want to study the language of curriculum and the philosophy of knowledge, and I curse every day of the eleven years I spent labouring under progressive dogma, days I could have been reading about these things and putting them into practice.
So to summarise my philosophy of teaching, and one I think that many Trads would subscribe to: We are committed to our subjects and we believe our job is to teach these subjects well to our students. We seek out research, techniques, and philosophy to help us do this. We reject progressive doctrine because it is a) not true to our subjects and b) has been shown to hinder the teaching of our subjects.

I have a problem though. All the things I have described above are part of the Traditional Teaching set. But the term “traditional teaching” also refers to the way teaching has  been done traditionally, since Socrates and before. I am going to use “Traditional Teaching” for the current set of ideology, techniques and authorities, the thing that if you subscribe to it you are a Trad, and “traditional teaching” for the teaching that has happened in much the same way through the millenia. There is significant overlap between these two sets but they are not the same thing.

Let’s consider research first. Research into cognitive science is much younger than traditional teaching. Cognitive science has shown why many aspects of traditional teaching are successful: things such as desks facing the front, teachers telling students information, and frequent low-stakes testing. But cognitive science also throws up new things that teaching through the ages hasn’t incorporated. An example of this is the concerns raised by David Didau about reading along to text whilst listening to it.  So although research tends to align with traditional teaching, where research contradicts tradition, I would want to go with the research because I want to teach my subject in the best possible way. Of course it is not as simple as that. Just as scientists subscribe to Popper but act according to Kuhn, and rightly so, we as teachers would not do well to ditch tried-and-tested for every lab-based study that comes our way. But as an ideal, it is important I think in defining our outlook on teaching. In principle, if the evidence showed that a less traditional method was better, I would use it, because of my commitment to my subject.

What about the philosophy of curriculum stuff? When you look at old textbooks you do get a sense that the authors had a much better sense of  core, hinterland and foreshadowing for example., but as far as I know the explicit discussion of it, led so brilliantly by Christine Counsell, is a relatively new phenomenon. I am grateful for the insight it has given me and I see it now as an integral part of my professional identity. I don’t think it is in conflict with traditional teaching at all, but I think the discussions happening now are new and not traditional.

And, this seems so obvious that it’s not worth saying, but I think it perhaps needs remembering, traditional teaching has not made use of visualisers but has very much made use of corporal punishment.

So I think that “Traditional Teaching” doesn’t mean “traditional teaching”, despite the significant overlap. This is a problem for me for a few reasons.

Many of us have colleagues we like and respect who are firmly in the progressive camp. When I talk about “Traditional Teaching” to people in this group, they don’t hear “love of the subject” – they hear “chalkdust and the cane” and I feel I’m set up to fail before I’ve even started. I hesitate to put “Trad” in my Twitter bio in case a colleague comes across it and misunderstands. I’d like to develop my team’s professional identity, as subject specialists, interested in research, rejectors of flim-flammery. The teachers in my team are all these things but they are not familiar with the term Traditional Teaching and I fear that the term will cause some to switch off, because it means something different to them.

And my own professional identity… it’s a great feeling to be part of a community of people who share a philosophy… and it’s an irritating feeling that the name doesn’t really do what a name should do. We have the term “Neo-Trads” and maybe I should seek to identify myself under this banner. But it seems to be used more as a derogatory term and I’m sort of hoping for something that reflects the centrality of the subject to my philosophy.

I liked the sound of Bernard Andrews’ “educational fideism” before I read about it – I still like it but not for the reason I thought. I thought the “fide” was to do with “fidelity” – that’s what I want, fidelity to my subject, but instead it is to do with faith rather than evidence as a justification, and while I think that fits in fine with my philosophy as described above, I’m seeking something different in a name.

“Fidelism” seemed like a good name until I looked it up and learned it was for acolytes of Castro! Not what I was looking for – glad I looked it up! I thought about “subject loyalty”, or perhaps “curriculum loyalty”, but that would make me a “subject loyalist”, and there are of course political connotations there.

A synonym of fidelity is “fealty”. I rather like the sound of “curriculum fealty”. That would make me a “curriculum fealtist”. This term is a more accurate reflection of my educational outlook than “Traditional Teaching”. I’m still a Trad, but I’m clearer about what that means to me now I’ve thought about my problems with the term. I employ methods such as explicit instruction and Shed Loads Of Practice because I am a curriculum fealtist. I read educational research because I am a curriculum fealtist. I think “curriculum fealty” could help me in my own critical ontology and that of my team, and in my conversations with people new to the debate. I’m not suggesting that we start calling Trads “curriculum fealtists”, but I think it might be useful in some contexts, to bring clarity and hopefully bridge some of the gaps in the debate. Curriculum is my king and my country. Onwards and upwards for our beautiful, noble subjects.



Are school shaming and trolling now accepted as normal?

November 11, 2018

I’ve been campaigning against school shaming for quite a while now.

You can look at the posts above, but a rough summary of what I’ve said so far is:

  • A school shaming is when a school is subjected to a hate campaign, i.e. ongoing abuse. This happens through social media, but also by email and phone calls to staff at the school.
  • It is usually provoked initially by criticism of the school in the media, or on social media.
  • Usually schools are criticised for enforcing or having rules people don’t like, but school shamings can be used against any school with even a single disgruntled parent.
  • Schools have been shamed for things that are normal for schools in their circumstances; things that are untrue, and for things where their actions are justified, but cannot be debated due to confidentiality.
  • The control of whether a school shaming happens is almost entirely with those who initiate the campaign, not the school. Schools have reacted in different ways, and so far, complete social media and press silence has appeared to be the best strategy.
  • School shamings escalate from accusations, to abuse incredibly quickly. Comparisons with concentration camps and accusations of child abuse are common. As it the use of the c-word and attacks based on personal appearance.
  • Social media shamings of individuals are best described by this book. School shamings are simply the same idea applied to schools.
  • It is entirely possible to criticise opinions expressed by people at a school, or ideas about how a school is run, without starting a school shaming.
  • More recently, educational progressives have adopted school shaming as a tactic. Schools that are seen as too traditionalist are named and then repeatedly attacked, often progressives return to the same school again and again to dig up more ammunition.
  • A couple of schools subjected to a long series of accusations, as part of a prolonged school shaming, were inspected by OFSTED and none of the allegations were supported.

A typical school shaming. A Twitter progressive with 20 000 followers claims falsely that a named school isn’t for students with special needs. This immediately leads to it being compared to a concentration camp. The original tweeter then ‘likes’ that comment.

Recently, progressives on edutwitter have felt the need to defend school shaming as a tactic. The two main arguments have been:

  • School shaming is just criticism or even a form of accountability. I dealt with this argument here.
  • Schools can’t feel shame. This argument is so obviously silly that I don’t think I’ve answered it but Greg Ashman did here.

Beyond those arguments, most of what has been done to defend school shaming has been trolling those who criticise it. A recent example of this was a blogpost entitled ‘School shaming’ and the reactionary politics of neotrads which declared that those of us who prefer not to see a headteacher called a cunt 20 times, are motivated by right-wing politics. So Greg Ashman, who has been a member of both the UK Labour Party and Australian Labor party is identified among “neoconservative reactionaries”. Katharine Birbalsingh, a black headmistress whose school has mostly black students and who has been subjected to racism online, is accused of not understanding “structural racism”. Most incredibly though, the blog alleges that those of us who object to school shaming are directly influenced by the far right.

Along with phrases appropriated directly from the so-called alt-right, a small group of neotraditionalist educators have invented the concept of ‘school shaming’ to make their reactionary politics seem, well, less reactionary.

And in case you wonder who precisely this is, the group who have invented the concept of school shaming, is later narrowed down:

the empty concept of ‘school shaming’ … seems to have been invented by Andrew Smith (@oldandrewuk),

And, no, he didn’t ask my permission before sharing my real name. So there you have it. In the mind of one troll, whose blog is full of conspiracy theories and identity politics: it’s me who can be linked “directly” to the far right. I’m a lifelong Labour voter who was also a Labour activist and member until I left over the party’s refusal to deal with anti-semitism. I work in an inner city state school with mainly non-white students (unlike the post’s author who works in an extremely expensive private school). Far from being motivated by right-wing politics, I started campaigning against school shaming in reaction to stories in the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper, long before anyone knew that the Daily Mail’s teacher bashing tactics would be adopted by those who claim to be left-wing opponents of racism. This blog is telling a malicious lie.

Now you might ask so what? After all trolling has become common on edutwitter. My employers are more than aware that trolls and schools shamers lie and will not believe I have neo-Nazi sympathies. Why am I bringing up this smear? Because this stuff seems to have become mainstream. I was not upset by the post. It is neither the first false accusation the author has made about me, nor the nastiest thing he has written about Greg Ashman or Katharine Birbalsingh. I was, however, upset by how widely this defamatory and dishonest post was shared.

  1. Schools Week, a publication I have had a long association with, recommended the post in a blog review column written by Debra Kidd.
  2. Stephen Drew, former headteacher and reality TV star, not somebody I associate with school shaming or online trolling, shared it on Twitter saying “It is a work of profound analysis and absolutely nails what is going on in schools”.
  3. Mary Bousted, of the NEU, the largest teaching union, shared the post on Twitter and the blog review and defended both of them. This is despite the fact that I am currently (but not for much longer) a member of her union. When challenged about this the most I could get her to say about the case of one of her members being defamed was “I accept your assertion that you are not aligned with the far right.” Pretty thin stuff after 18 years of union membership on my part.
  4. It was widely shared by progressives on edutwitter including many who work as consultants or educationalists. Some have since been tweeting about how nasty edutwitter is. But few had the moral fibre to see anything wrong with falsely linking a teacher to the far right, or with all the other name calling.

I am of the view that progressives are beginning to realise they may be on the losing side of a paradigm shift in education. I believe that in England they are largely on the defensive. But this has not made them any less dangerous to individual teachers. Stand against their ideology, and they will lie about you, smear you, and try to silence you.

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