More on School Chain Shaming

March 3, 2019

I wrote here about “school chain shaming” and the involvement of the TES website in sharing accusations about two MATs.

They began their contribution to the shaming campaign by finding a flimsy pretext to share the following uncorroborated accusation from John Tomsett’s blog:

In the blog, Mr Tomsett refers to “a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called ‘flattening the grass’ rolling assemblies”.

The blog goes on: “Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en-masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour.

“Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry.

“If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner.

“The students are the ‘grass’ which is ‘flattened’ by the experience.”

The TES named a MAT which did have a practice referred to as “flattening the grass” without actually providing any evidence that it resembled the practice described above.

In the aftermath of sharing this gossip, they then printed pretty much any accusation they could find about the MAT (no matter how different or vague); called that “flattening the grass”, and claimed it corroborated the original story. One of their earliest reports even flatly contradicted the original accusation. This is what they reported about one of the former employees attacking the MAT:

The senior leader [the TES source] …. said the executives did not select children in advance to target, but rather “just indiscriminately picked on children either in the line or in the assembly”.

The TES campaign has continued since then, dragging in another MAT, so that now, on the basis of what seems to be a handful of disgruntled (probably ex-) employees over 80 schools have been smeared on the basis of an original accusation that nobody now seems able to support.

A TES journalist has continued to defend this story, on the grounds that the people coming forward to accuse the school is sufficient evidence to support the story, rather than simply down to the fact that when you show that you are willing to smear dozens of schools, former employees with a grudge will get in touch and people who know it is not true will steer clear of you. In fact, far from there being anything unusual about this, I easily found hundreds of teachers who thought the same thing could be done to their school:

Shamed schools have learnt to their cost that there is nothing they can do to put the record straight. So we cannot expect to see the named trusts challenge the details of the story. However, after showing my willingness to challenge these stories, I was contacted by two edutwitter users who were willing to give me an anonymous account of what happened in their experience of the trust. Obviously, I acknowledge that my sources are just one side of the story. My claim is not that they can prove what happened in all 80 schools in the two trusts, only that if the TES had actively sought corroboration for the original accusations, and had not just been interested in dishing dirt, they would have found this other side to the accusations.

This is from a teacher, no longer working at the MAT:

I trained with [this MAT], then worked at one [of their schools] for a few years, and visited lots more. I’ve never been in a flattening the grass assembly, but have visited a school newly taken on, and discussed the plan for how they go into a new school with senior staff. Flattening the grass is just an assembly to state the rules when they take over a school. People are missing the context. They’re going into very difficult schools and enforcing order. In the minutes found where the term ‘flattening the grass’ went public: the point before ‘flattening the grass’ is a kid was expelled for setting the changing rooms on fire at another school they had just taken over. In the point that mentions flattening the grass, it finishes with reporting that students sought out a member of staff to say they felt safer in the school.

From the minutes with the names of the schools removed.

I’ve seen people fixate on the ‘rolling assembly point’, It’s a “rolling assembly” is just because in most schools you can’t get all the kids in the school into the hall at the same time. They only have the assembly once each. It only happens when they take over a new school, to set the new rules. I have only been in a behaviour assembly once, a few weeks into term with 1 year group, because a large minority were behaving poorly across the school, so the rules were firmly restated to all. It is certainly not a regular thing in the trust to have behaviour assemblies. I don’t think the assemblies are particularly nice, because every time they state a new rule a kid makes a fart noise or shouts something. You can imagine. They then pull them out and issue a detention. When they first take over a school detentions are in the hall, because so many kids test the system. Lots then fail the detention, so isolation the following day will be in multiple rooms. There’s a huge spike in consequences after they take over, but it soon settles when the kids accept it. They then gradually introduce more rules. They aren’t trying to destroy kids, just settle the school down so teachers can teach and kids can learn.

I never heard the pre-selection line [i.e. the claim that kids were chosen in advance to be shouted at], and generally the behaviour policy is that you don’t shout. It explicitly says that you’re supposed to issue sanctions in as calm, detached and unemotional way as possible to not give kids the reaction they often want. I’ve had training in the behaviour system multiple times from very senior staff in the trust. No one ever told me to shout, and in fact they all emphasised that point that getting angry or pretending to generally doesn’t work. I disagree with [this MAT] on several things, but these reports, and the social media reaction, seem totally over the top.

This is from a teacher currently working at a school in the MAT:

The first time I heard the ‘flattening the grass’ phrase was looking around a [the second MAT named in the story] Academy when I was looking for another job. My life under the previous organisation of my school had become so awful that I was considering leaving teaching after 15 years, not just the school.

When we found out [the MAT in the original story] were to take over [my school], there was a huge amount of apprehension among staff. This was partly due to their reputation and partly due to the inevitability of redundancies. These weren’t due to anything other than a significant fall in students on roll that had never been addressed, with teachers replacing those who left, rather than taking advantage of natural wastage.

When [the MAT] arrived, I was present in some of the assemblies. They were done by year group because there wasn’t a space to contain all our students. I saw one child removed, having stood up and sworn at the member of SLT delivering the assembly. No one was otherwise singled out or shouted at. Moreover,  vulnerable and SEND students had already had a meeting with the new principal, where the new expectations and rules were explained so that they would not be subjected to undue stress.

As [the MAT] sent in a team to patrol the corridors and help the resident staff and SLT to enforce the new standards, each was paired with an experienced member of staff to ensure that no vulnerable students were put in difficult situations because those challenging them were not aware of their circumstances. To address one particularly ridiculous claim, I’ve never had a lesson on shouting at students.

A second reason I haven’t become involved in any of the [MAT]-bashing online is because I’m too concerned about the reaction of people I otherwise respect on Twitter. I realise it’s a wildly unpopular view at the moment, but I’m happier in my job than I’ve been for years. I can actually teach. In the first few weeks after take over, I regularly failed to plan adequately, with 10 to 15 minutes left at the end of the lesson where I had to make up activities. This is when I genuinely realised just how poor behaviour had been before. I’d been subconsciously planning to include spending 25% of lesson time dealing with low level disruption.

Don’t expect to see stories like this in the TES any time soon.


The silliest feedback from work scrutinies

February 24, 2019

If you teach in a state school in England, you have probably experienced a “work scrutiny” where your superiors take some of your students’ books and try to determine something about the quality of your curriculum, teaching or marking.

Here are some of the things teachers have been told after book scrutinies (collected from this thread, thanks to all who contributed).

That I’d misspelled the word ‘smile’ in several books. It actually said ‘simile’. Who the hell would be writing ‘great smile’ on children’s work?

Not responding to my student’s responses to my initial marking. In detail.

You should have used group work. There were only 5 in the class.

I had an amazing work stamper, that all of the kids in my class wanted as I didn’t give it out very often (highly motivational for year 5). Sometimes it was used daily, but mostly it was every few weeks, and kids didn’t care. [The Headteacher] saw it during a book scrutiny and demanded it be used weekly, and it had to appear in all kids books at least once per fortnight (ruining the point of good work). Also, it was a rewards policy that I hadn’t cleared with him! When I was in KS1, the HOD was *very* Keen to impose rules, and her book scrutinies were terrible; she would be v critical, but never show her own. A teacher 10 years her senior lost it at her when she was told that her ‘pink for think’ writing, was the wrong shade of pink. This same HOD year 1 teacher told me my marking should be more detailed… for year 1. In September.

Worked not marked = Inadequate.
Worked marked regularly = RI.
Children ‘responding’ to marking = Good.
Teacher’s ‘responding’ back to children’s response = Outstanding.
(From an inspector + advisor c. 2009)

‘this child has got every question correct in maths and this is a big problem’.

That [a] Well Done stamp has more value than “well done” written in pen

A direct quote from SLT:
“I can’t believe you manage to get the results you do without using the ‘Verbal Feedback Given’ stamp.”

[My wife] runs media studies and most work saved on line so “no evidence” of feedback in quite rightly sparsely filled out books. Solution – suggested she should use a dictaphone to record the feedback given to each pupil!

“It’s great that they have responded to your targets, and that you’ve then gone back and checked their responses- but you need them to respond to your response to show real dialogue.”- Back when triple marking still wasn’t enough.

I should be dating / signing each time I mark the books otherwise I could just be doing it in one go before book check as the pen colour is the same!

You haven’t used the ‘You’ve smashed it today!’ Stamp enough.

Every piece of work, even just notes, needs a GCSE grade (for all years), an effort grade, and a ‘quality of written communication’ grade. Each of these requires a sheet to be highlighted and glued in. Go back and do it to all work from September. ~ this was in February.

No numeracy in a book full of calculations
Incomplete worksheets despite being done in on the [exercise book] pages
Lack of work in [exercise books] despite having been told to focus on coursework for the last month

SEND pupils are doing too many questions and their presentation is poor as a result.
I asked three times if they seriously wanted me to get the kids doing fewer questions but more neatly. They did.

The worksheets weren’t glued in correctly

You haven’t personalised the feedback or praised the student. Written in the book was “Amazing work here x, I know you found this really hard so well done for not giving up”. This was a general comment in addition to strengths & targets given. I was graded 4 based on this too

“That writing in the margin was enough to fail me as a teacher, As opposed to finding unrelated space on another page to write corrections, rather than where the corrections actually needed to be made.”
“Funny, I was told off for writing on the next page and that I should write in the margins!”

I received a grade 2 for the [percentage] of dates and titles which were underlined in a random selection of five students’ exercise books. In ICT. Where we used exercise books purely so we could show marking. This was in the first half-term of a September.

Some children had the same target as each other. That’s not individualised feedback, which is ‘best practice’.

“You seem to tell a lot of pupils that they need to support their arguments with evidence.”

You are STILL marking in red pen!

‘They look a bit dog eared’

SLT:Your literacy was not marked in pink highlighter
ME: it takes longer to mark (Maths) work in two different colours
SLT: Bring me these books when you have marked them (backdated two months), no later than 3pm tomorrow. This is non negotiable.
I moved to a more sensible school.

“It’s hard to see progress here”
1) Well obviously.
2) It was the start of a new year. They had new books. They’d done about three lessons.

You wrote VF for verbal feedback but didn’t write down what the verbal feedback was.

Teach KS1, (Year 2), a new genre in 11 hours.

Your green pen needs to be lighter.

X appears to be missing a great deal of work – X had been in Australia

3. And I have no idea what that meant.

Not enough mistakes in maths books.

A parent was furious that their child had done no written work for ten days. I indicated that half term would have probably impacted this…

A child getting too many things right means I don’t challenge enough. Not that I taught a lesson well and they understood it! The teacher who had a child getting lots wrong challenged them more apparently

Not writing homework above homework, they were but they wrote it in Spanish, which is what I used to teach. Not good apparently, as the person checking didn’t understand!

Where are your books?
I teach music.
I gave them a cd of the kids work with my marksheet scanned in.

Why is there no work in the books? That would be because performing layered patterns and incorporating a call and response structure whilst working in groups using djembes isn’t something that can be written or stuck in a book.

I was once told to take pictures to stick in their books as a way of showing evidence 🙄 I taught every student in KS3, can you imagine the printing bill?

How about feedback on my marking feedback? “You failed to address the date and title not being underlined. Your expectations of your team clearly doesn’t match that of the school’s.”

From Ofsted, the inspector said that although my feedback was clearly effective because she could see students work improving over time, I still needed more written comments (I was using a combination of flash marking/WCF at the time).

At a previous school-
Head: why is there nothing in the books for Monday?
Me: we were on a class trip.
Head: that doesn’t answer my question.

Difficult to assess because in IT some of the work is stored electronically……

One Y11 student’s work as more disorganised than the rest. Inability to revise from his notes would mean he would underachieve. Same student dropped three marks (/240) in the mock exam a month earlier. Nailed-on Nine.

Standard coloured pen issue.
No reds left so I used pink.
That was … a mistake.

I was pulled up on the shade of my pink and green highlighter once. Coral instead of hot pink and my green had a touch of turquoise! I was raked over the coals for my transgression!

‘You’ve not used the ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp….’

“You consistently write ‘S’ for a spelling error. The school marking policy clearly states ‘SP’”

Got grief for sticking in examples of different types of task completed when the previous scrutiny criticised us for a lack of evidence of variety of tasks

I remember feedback saying that the pencils weren’t sharp enough that some students had drawn tables in and so my books weren’t well presented.

From a few years back: Can you dot or sign each page that doesn’t need marking? So that even if it’s just ‘lesson notes’ we know that you’ve seen it…and another brilliant comment: ‘Your marking could be the reason we end up in a category’.

My feedback needs to be handwritten rather than typed (and so I continued to type)

Too many ticks, not enough challenge.
Okay, but what you don’t see is the support and discussion that went on within that lesson to get those ticks.

We use folders…
How come every student hasn’t done every correction?
How come you haven’t regraded every correction?
How come very student doesn’t have every page in the exact same order?

“Well… I thought teaching them was more important than paperwork…”

The pink pen you’ve used for the ‘tickled pink’ feedback is a bit too red looking.

I got told off for using a dark orange pen when I had no red pens left in the house mad marking at stupid o’clock. I laughed.

Previous school: Your handwriting isn’t the same as the school standard handwriting.
Me: I’m 39. I can’t change it now!
Previous school – staff meeting where the head demonstrates the school standard handwriting.
Me: Here’s my letter of resignation. [Not in school standard handwriting]

‘There needs to be 12 stamps every week and 6 of them should have comments with them.’ Department marking policy gone mad and completely meaningless.

Every page of student work must have evidence that it has been seen by a teacher.

ie. there must be at least a tick on every page…

“Brilliant standard of work for year 9, but I need to see how they got there, why don’t you take photos of the mini whiteboard work and glue them in”

Head – Why haven’t they done handwriting for 2 weeks
Me – I’ve been on paternity leave for 2 weeks and the deputy heads been covering me
Head – I don’t want excuses, don’t let it happen again

That although I achieved 98% on book scrutiny for quality of work and pupil progress it would still be rated by OFSTED as requires improvement as not all dates and titles underlined with a ruler. Then told to underline them myself.

1st shocking [experience] of state school book scrutiny 3 yrs ago (after 8yrs in independent school). I teach languages. Scrutineer asked if there could be more written evidence of pupils’ oral work.
Me: Well, there could, but that would SERIOUSLY detract from the time they spend doing oral work

I got told my ticks were too big

Get students to write “homework” at the top of homework, so that the person reading it would know it was homework. So, naturally, every time I marked a set of books, I would be the one writing “homework” at the top.

Some children got them all correct which doesn’t show progress.

Get students to respond to [verbal feedback] in their books

You haven’t given written feedback since July (book scrutiny first week of September) – oh really?

They could use sharper pencils

Told off for letting kids fold worksheets when they stick them in – apparently unfolding paper impedes learning

“you haven’t stuck a teacher assessed sticker next to the piece of work” “No but I wrote detailed notes justifying the level, sub level achieved and ways forward for the piece of work” “But how do we know it was teacher assessed without the sticker?”

‘Wow I like these whole class feedback things but you should really consider writing all this feedback in your Pupil Premium books as well as give them the feedback sheets…’

There isn’t any marking for SPaG [spelling and grammar] evident in books.
That’s because there aren’t any SPaG errors

“Student X’s book hasn’t been marked since December”
Student X had moved house and was no longer on the register but his book was in the bottom of the box.

Comments should always be written straight and on the lines to show respect to students (not slanted). I was writing at an angle because certain words won’t fit in the margin if you don’t.

You should pre-trim your [work]sheets.

‘No targets for improvement’ – the pupil never made mistakes and excelled in every subject at GCSE all A* and all As at A level. He could write me targets !

Head: There was no green highlighting.
Me: he met all the objectives brilliantly and his effort was outstanding, (He’s year 4)
Head: FIND something he needs to do better!

Use a consistent colour of green pen!

“we need to evidence marking”

My sole PM [Performance Management] target at MPS6 was to use different coloured pens to mark. Under ‘resources needed to achieve PM target’ I wrote ‘different coloured pens’… under ‘action plan to achieve PM target I wrote, ‘go to shop and buy pens’… That was the PM that got me to UPS…

That I didn’t have as much in our books compared to science. I teach music.

That the 2 staff on long term illness for whose classes i was setting work for, teaching every set on a rotation to ensure some quality input and checking their work with flick marking hasn’t had their books marked well enough…

“Why isn’t there any writing in your Literacy books for two whole weeks?” (It was the Easter holidays.)

Many years ago, I was told that the cloud/bubble I drew for the child’s repsonse wasn’t cloudy enough…. I received an hour’s inset and looked at colleagues book’s to develop my clouds……


School Chain Shaming

February 23, 2019

I’ve been writing about school shamings for quite a while now.

A school shaming is where somebody on social media or in conventional media denounces a school in public and encourages others to denounce it too. The school staff get loads of abuse and more accusations come forward. While school shamings in local newspapers show no sign of stopping, the most recent school shaming on social media was the one that started like this:

And in the end it kind of backfired. There was more criticism for the trolls who started it, and joined in the abuse, than for the school, and it didn’t get into conventional media.

However, in the last couple of weeks we seem to have moved into a new phase of school shaming, where MATs are targeted rather than individual schools. This changes things in two ways:

  1. Because more schools are in the firing line (the recent chain shaming started with a MAT with 30 schools then added another MAT with 50 schools) it is very hard for anybody to say that none of the accusations are true anywhere. In fact, when you are dealing with dozens of schools and multiple accusations, the odds are that something will be true somewhere. After all, no chain  is going to have nothing but perfectly run schools. And anyone questioning whether the shaming is deserved will be told, “You can’t prove it didn’t happen in any school.”.
  2. Far more people will make accusations. Every school has disgruntled ex-employees, and 80 schools will have a multitude between them. You will get normally sensible people saying, “Well I heard bad things from a friend about this chain.” and warning you not to challenge the shaming. And because there will be more people to make accusations, and it will be harder to disprove every accusation for every school implicated, the education press are more likely to claim the story has been corroborated and run it. Journalists who would not think of shaming a single school because of the claims of one disgruntled employee, might nevertheless shame 80 schools on the word of 80 (or far fewer) disgruntled employees, even though the evidence base is proportionately the same. In this case, poor journalism by the TES is responsible for much of what has happened.

However, in other respects nothing much has changed. Witch hunts follow a typical pattern.

  • Accusations are made.
  • Accusations are widely accepted as true.
  • Any challenge to the accusations is interpreted as defending the behaviour people are accused of, not the truth of the accusations.
  • Any attempt by those accused to defend themselves make it worse.
  • When accusations start to seem unreliable, the accusations change.
  • People actively seek out new things to accuse the target of.

I’m not going to link directly to the stories as I don’t want to encourage people to share them, but just looking at what was published in the TES we see many of these features.

In this case the original accusation, for which no supporting evidence seems to have been found, was from a blogpost, but repeated by the TES:

In the blog, Mr Tomsett refers to “a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called ‘flattening the grass’ rolling assemblies”.

The blog goes on: “Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en-masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour.

“Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry.

“If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner.

“The students are the ‘grass’ which is ‘flattened’ by the experience.”

In my experience schools do not tend to use public humiliation as a punishment; nor do they try to make kids cry, and targeting particular students in public is likely to backfire. This juicy gossip, in a blog that did not even name the MAT, would be a story if it was more than gossip. And a MAT was named on Twitter as having a policy called “flattening the grass”. A MAT spokesman denied any connection between assemblies and “flattening the grass” but, bizarrely, the TES managed to report this as not being a denial even though it contradicted the main accusation.

Within a week the TES was backtracking, changing the story and introducing new accusations. The TES found plenty of disgruntled former employees to denounce the trust. But one of them said:

The senior leader [the TES source] …. said the executives did not select children in advance to target, but rather “just indiscriminately picked on children either in the line or in the assembly”.

This should have been the point at which the TES admitted the original story had not been corroborated. Instead the accusation changed to become vaguer and more subjective. There was inappropriate shouting and this was seen as a positive. Staff felt bullied. And, somehow, the second trust with 50 schools were dragged into the story. “Flattening the grass” ceased to refer to a policy of identifying kids in advance and deliberately making them cry in assemblies, and became a catch-all covering any behaviour that somebody didn’t like.

In 80 schools, it is highly likely that some staff felt bullied. As for regrettable shouting, many of us have been there:

It is possible that a line was crossed. No, let me take that back, if we are looking at a collection of 80 schools – any collection of 80 schools – it is probable that lines were crossed in some of them at some point. But there are few schools without disgruntled ex-employees, and fewer still without that teacher who thinks everyone else is beastly to the darling little kiddlywinks and that only they truly care.

Teachers often don’t agree about what is appropriate. Following this I had quite an amusing discussion on Twitter with various people who claimed only to “raise their voice” not to “shout”, so convinced were they that they were morally superior to those of us who have actually shouted.

What’s appropriate, when it’s appropriate and even what counts as shouting are all subjective. Too strict and not strict enough are all subjective. The only thing that ever made this chain stand out as doing something wrong, that couldn’t be claimed about hundreds of other schools, was the initial accusation of a policy called “flattening the grass” that meant identifying kids in advance, then publicly humiliating them until they cry. When that was being denied even by sources critical of the school, the story should have ended there and the TES should have apologised.






February 9, 2019

Children are noisy. This is something people often don’t appreciate if they don’t work in schools, as can be seen by the recurring experiments with “open plan classrooms” that seem to happen every few years. Before I became a teacher, if I walked past a school at break or lunchtime, I was shocked by the sheer volume emitted by even very young kids playing. As a secondary teacher, I have noticed how kids are sometimes so noisy at break and lunch times, particularly if it’s windy, that even the politest kids might come into the classroom unintentionally shouting because that is the volume they’ve been talking at during their break.

Year 7 student: “HELLO, SIR!”

Me, standing back and covering my ears: “Hello. Why are you shouting?”

Year 7 student, now at the volume of a light aircraft taking off: “I’M NOT SHOUTING!”

Me, ears ringing: Okay, Caitlyn, just go to your seat and don’t talk, thank you. Dear Lord, please, don’t talk.

Another Year 7 student arriving: “HELLO, SIR. I DID THE HOMEWORK!”

Me, now standing at the doorway. looking pained: “Hello, Martin. Okay, year 7, just come in silently. Just go to your seat absolutely silently. No need to say hello, just go to your seat without talking. WITHOUT TALKING! ABSOLUTE SILENCE, YEAR 7! Thank you.”

Left to their own devices kids get loud, perhaps without realising it. Younger secondary students often just enjoy expending the energy involved in a loud conversation. Older secondary students are often asserting their position in the dominance hierarchy by talking over each other in ever louder voices. Once kids are talking in the classroom, the usual trajectory is for the noise to get louder, unless interrupted, and while sometimes a piece of work that requires an unexpected amount of concentration will cause a class to spontaneously become quieter, that is the memorable exception and not the rule for most classes. In fact, often a class getting quieter without being asked is so exceptional that it is immediately followed by one student shouting “WHY HAS IT GONE QUIET?”

One year, not very long ago, around autumn half term, I had a bit of an epiphany. Other than sixth form teaching, my main class was a very large bottom set in year 7 with a huge range of ability. As year 7 classes often do, they had begun the year barely speaking in lessons. I didn’t worry about that; this can often be a good time to enforce the expectation that you learn by listening to the teacher, not staring out of the window and then asking the person next to you what the teacher has just said. As the weeks went on, they had became more comfortable and were able to talk sensibly about the work. Then, as it got towards half term, their talking (for a small but significant minority of students) was becoming less about the work and more about winding each other up, and putting each off. Lesson starts were also becoming far slower as they stopped on the way in to chat, with some students having to be reminded that behaviour like going to your seat and getting out a pen should be immediate, and not left until the last possible moment. My epiphany consisted of the realisation that they had been easier to manage, and apparently learning more, when they were in silence; because of the size of the class, it really wasn’t practical to monitor which conversations were “learning conversations” and which weren’t. Besides, most weren’t yet capable of the sort of conversation that would aid learning, and they weren’t likely to learn to have that sort of conversation, unless it was modeled by hearing conversations about the work between students and the teacher shared with the entire class.

For all my classes, I began starting every lesson by sending students to sit down in silence and begin work. I then decided, for every piece of work I set, whether it was worth letting students talk. I quickly realised that, when teaching mainly a mix of weaker key stage 3 classes and sixth form, that the sixth formers needed to be able to discuss the work almost all the time (although this was a small class where I could monitor the conversation), and the key stage 3 students didn’t really need to talk to each other at all. I don’t want to make this a universal statement about all key stage 3 classes, or all subjects. Where motivation is good and work requires a lot of thought, but not much writing, there’s every reason to allow students to talk. When you know students have the judgement to give each other useful help and the maturity not to go off topic, learning conversations are the order of the day. Obviously, there are things to be learnt, or practised in some subjects that positively require talking. However, I genuinely think we make a mistake when we assume that talking is normal in class and silence the exception, rather than the other way around. If teachers were to ask themselves, “Would students benefit, or be distracted by talk during this activity?” and didn’t have to worry about whether they would actually be able to enforce silence, I think lessons in most schools would be a lot quieter. In fact, I think that we are often acclimatised to completely unnecessary and counter-productive levels of noise in schools, and don’t realise that it could be different, or that in some schools it is different.

Research seems to favour quiet classrooms (see here) particularly for younger children. Even a quick search with Google Scholar will find a lot of individual studies showing the negative effects of classroom noise on different types of students. However, we can tolerate more distractions if work is difficult, so the argument for silence is stronger on more routine tasks, but before we assume that “learning conversations” make for the best environment for problem-solving, there is some evidence that problem solving is not best done collaboratively.

I think those with an ideological commitment to making learning more like play, may positively favour noise. I do recall during the debates on “silent corridors” in schools, some progressives believed that even the conversations kids have walking down the corridor between lessons were valuable learning opportunities. Others also believed that silence was actively damaging to children. Common sense (and also perhaps the research on noise and health) tells us that silence for the duration of a single lesson, or for part of a lesson, or for short walks between lessons, is not only not harmful, but probably far healthier than the other extreme of a screaming racket. There are those who see children as terribly vulnerable to the normal stresses of schooling, or to the raised voice of an adult, but somehow immune to the stress involved in 6 hours of constant noise, with even friendly conversations having to involve yelling in each other’s faces.

Schools are noisy. That is not likely to change. But I think there are clear benefits to having schools where the default for classrooms is silence. It is one of those areas where consistency is important. Any classroom where it is okay to shout out whenever you like is likely to lower expectations elsewhere in the school. The existence of any classroom where the teacher feels powerless to prevent teenagers from continuing their social lives throughout the lesson, is likely to make it harder for other teachers. I suspect most schools would benefit from turning the noise down, and making a real effort to ensure that silence is the default learning behaviour.


Why I’m leaving the NEU

January 26, 2019

I first joined the NUT (National Union Of Teachers) back in 2001 as a PGCE student. It is now part of the NEU (National Education Union). This year, I finally resigned my membership.

I think being in a trade union is really important. I have been helped by my union in the past when I’ve needed it. I know there are still many great union reps in the NEU standing up for teachers. But a trade union has to represent all its members, not just those of a particular ideology. I think the NEU has become an ideological basket case, unable to show any respect to teachers who don’t believe in progressive education.

Here is why the NEU don’t speak for me.

Mary Bousted is one of the joint general-secretaries of the NEU. She might oppose times table tests, but as a secondary math teacher, I see how many kids arrive at secondary schools without any fluency in number bonds or times tables.

Kevin Courtney, the other joint general secretary, agreeing with this:

The managing director of the CBI says he’s worried about the emphasis in England’s school system on rote learning techniques.

Neil Carberry is only half joking when he invokes one of Charles Dicken’s least loveable characters, Thomas Gradgrind, the hard-hearted, fact-obsessed school superintendant in Hard Times.

“We want human beings who do human things really well because, the way technology is changing, that’s where the jobs will be in years to come.”

Speaking at the launch of a new education strategy for the BBC, he said simply focusing on getting teenagers to the age of 16 with a clutch of GCSEs was not enough.

“We need a whole education approach to young people including the ability to work in teams, to be resilient, and to present well.”

He’s concerned there is more emphasis now on memorising facts, than in school systems in other advanced economies.

“Facts matter in education, times tables matter. Basic maths and literacy are the gateways to good careers. But we can teach them in more engaging ways which develop other skills.”

Rather than what Neil Carberry describes as “‘Gradgrindish’ repeating of times tables in the classroom”, he says knowledge should be used in a context that makes it relevant.

What children learn in England has been re-centred around a curriculum with an emphasis on knowledge in core academic subjects.

We’ve had decades of dumbed down education. It’s great that now kids are expected to actually know stuff. We don’t need our union trying to turn the clock back.

Behaviour remains one of the biggest scandals in our schools, and something that creates toxic working conditions in schools. Knowing how much happier teachers are when they don’t have to fight behaviour, I’d expect a teachers’ union to support strong discipline. Yet, this is what we here from NEU conference (via TES).

Zero tolerance discipline policies in schools are “an abuse of the rights of our children”, a teachers’ union has heard.

The claim came as the NUT section of the National Education Union debated pupils’ mental health.

There was unanimous support from the conference in Brighton for the union opposing “the move towards ever more punitive behaviour policies in schools” which it said was “feeding a mental health crisis for our children”.

“The increasing use of detention, isolation and exclusion, often talked of as being ‘zero tolerance’ approaches, usually mean ignoring the varied difficulties children have in favour of punishment,” the motion read.

“We believe that above all else,  children need support, respect and love.”

Michael Holland, from Lambeth, told delegates: “Zero tolerance is intolerance. Zero tolerance doesn’t work. Zero tolerance is cruel, Victorian, Dickensian.

“It punishes working class children the most, it punishes black children, and children from black and ethnic minority groups are far more likely to be excluded from schools.

“It’s an abuse of the rights of our children.”

Because, of course, letting children run riot is so good for their mental health.

Then there’s political extremism. Skwawkbox is a hard left “fake news” website, known for its defence of anti-semitism. Here’s the NEU in my region sharing its unhinged conspiracy theories about the BBC.

More from Mary Bousted. This time arguing against knowledge on the infamously silly grounds that kids will be doing “jobs that haven’t been created yet”.

I wrote that if we are to prepare our children and young people for the world they will live and work in, then we must ditch the false divide between knowledge and skills. We must acknowledge that we need both.

And I noted that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is strongly advocating curricula that integrate knowledge, across subject disciplines, with skills development.

Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at the OECD, looks ahead to the abilities that will increasingly be needed by our school leavers in the future. He argues that the demands on learners and on education systems are evolving quickly.

Schleicher says that, in the past, education was primarily about teaching people something. But now, he says, education should be “about making sure that students develop a reliable compass and the navigations skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world”.

Schleicher reminds us that, in the past, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip students with the skills needed for the rest of their lives. But that is not the case today because, he argues, “schools need to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve social problems that we do not yet know will arise”.

Here she is again attacking teachers for off-rolling. While I have grave doubts that off-rolling is anything to do with Ebacc scores, I accept it is a problem and that headteachers who do this should be criticised. But since when was it the job of a teaching union to denounce teachers?

Similarly, when a school disputed a draft OFSTED report for being too critical, you’d expect a teachers’ union to be on the school’s side. But, no. If your school is in the wrong MAT, the NEU will not stand up for you.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, has demanded an investigation into the involvement of the RSC’s office into the inspection because it “raises serious concerns that Ofsted is not completely independent.”

His words were echoed by Mary Bousted, his co-leader, who said the outcome of an Ofsted inspection should not be dependent on “how confident or savvy the leaders are in challenging the judgment”.

Yes. That’s a teaching union publicly objecting to school leaders who have confidence when their schools are criticised and do something about it.

Here’s an NEU executive member attacking OFSTED for saying they will support heads who punish bad behaviour.

This is Kevin Courtney saying that it is “disgraceful child abuse” to let parents know how kids did in a test.

More support for dumbing down (along with personal attacks) from Mary Bousted:

Ofsted is in “a lot of trouble” and its chief inspector Amanda Spielman is “not a safe pair of hands,” a teaching union leader has claimed.

The criticism from Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) has been sparked by Ms Spielman’s warning that disadvantaged teenagers are not being challenged enough with the reading materials they were given.

Dr Bousted, a former English teacher, said the chief inspector of schools had showed “a complete lack of understanding of the challenging nature of work in disadvantaged schools”.

She said: “Teachers in these schools have been trying to get children to understand that reading can be enjoyable, and to give them books which are appropriate to their reading age, and which allow them to get enjoyment by reading fluently, and not constantly having to decipher words they don’t understand or having to work their way through complex sentence structures.”

More from Kevin Courtney this time the problem is assessment.

The effects of our assessment system on learning, workload and wellbeing are at the heart of England’s educational problems.

Those who work in education know this in their bones. It is a message that education unions have tried to communicate for many years. They have been too often met with incomprehension or hostility. Politicians have clung to the notion that only high-stakes testing, and punitive accountability, could lift educational standards. The reality, that testing and accountability of these kinds are the route towards low-quality education, was not something they could bear to contemplate.

Here’s a branch of the NEU not far from me, sharing media attacks on a school for asking kids to be quiet when moving between lessons. Teachers at the school have been generally supportive of the policy and distressed by the media attacks. But why would a teachers’ union care about them?

And finally, the worst insult to me personally, and the best indicator of the contempt the NEU’s leaders have for teachers, Mary Bousted supported a troll’s blogpost that, amongst other conspiracy theories, linked me with the far right. (Full story here.) Obviously this was all all lies and when I challenged about why she would spread malicious lies about one of her own members she said this:

I have 17 years of membership of the NEU. During one strike called by the NUT, I was at a school where out of dozens of NUT members, I was one of only 2 who didn’t scab. Even the union rep wouldn’t strike. And this is the thanks I get: begrudging acknowledgement from the general secretary that she won’t disagree with me when I say I’m not a Nazi?

Thanks, but no thanks, NEU/NUT. You no longer deserve the support of teachers. I’ve joined NASUWT.


Top rated posts in 2018

January 1, 2019

The following posts got the most views in 2018. Many of them weren’t actually written in 2018, so do check the date before reading.

  1. The EEF were even more wrong about ability grouping than I realised
  2. Finding or advertising a teaching job on Twitter with #teachingvacancyuk
  3. School Shamings: Why they are unnecessary and who is to blame for them
  4. The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression
  5. Good Year Heads
  6. Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist
  7. Seven Habits of Highly Defective Headteachers
  8. How to Destroy NQTs
  9. The “teacher led” College Of Teaching. Part 2
  10. How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay
  11. Why is the EEF getting it so wrong about ability grouping?
  12. The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour. Part 1
  13. If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions
  14. 10 “unbelievable” things that used to be common in schools
  15. Are school shaming and trolling now accepted as normal?
  16. A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act
  17. The Worst Behaviour In School Corridors
  18. The most pointless activities from teacher training
  19. The Chartered College Of Not Actually Teaching
  20. Born Bad

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”.

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