Progressively Predictable

I’m not going to review Robert Peal’s book for Civitas, because if you want to know what I think of its arguments, you can read this on Toby Young’s pamphlet also written for Civitas or this on Christodoulou’s book, published by The Curriculum Centre who are supported by Civitas. All three make the same arguments. All three are published by organisations close to Michael Gove. All three have received acclaim from people praised by Michael Gove as being excellent teachers. Yadda yadda. Talk about framing the debate through your team mates. What it makes me think though, is ‘what’s so wrong with being progressive’? And what does that actually mean? And having done a bit of reading, I think I quite like the idea of being progressive. I think I’m progressively becoming more progressive.

According to cognitive psychologist George Lakoff (you thought that Daniel Willingham was the only cognitive psychologist in the world, didn’t you?), being progressive is much misunderstood. He defines progressive values as:-

“The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation”.

Lakoff’s argument is that political debate, whether it be educational or ecological, tends to be framed around moral values which roughly fall into the ‘strict father’ model or the ‘nurturant family model’ – often described as traditional/progressive or conservative/liberal. His concern is that the former is highly skilled at controlling the debate by claiming the moral high ground while at the same time, ridiculing the opposition to such an extent that the debate is not about two sides debating, but about one establishing the ‘common sense’ narrative while the other scrambles around, denying their position and trying to claim common ground, losing all sense of self and value in the process. To this end, we see teachers, and I have done this, claim ‘I’m not progressive – I see the value of both sides’ while the traditionalists say ‘whatever’ and stride forward taking control. But let’s look again at that definition. What is actually wrong with empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication and legitimate authority that is open to interrogation?

Young/Peal/Christodoulou all claim that the ‘problem’ with education is child-centred progressive ideology. What exactly is wrong with making education child centred? This is not the same, as I keep saying as ‘child led’. To place a child at the centre of education is to surely meet its needs? To prioritise the child’s needs over, say, the market? To have authority is not anti-progressive – but to have authority without legitimacy is. What might that legitimacy be? That your authority rests on acting in the best interests of the child, and not of the league tables/Ofsted grading/lastest government whim? That you might be answerable to parents and children in order to have your authority legitimised? In many ways, this is what Demos proposed in their report on the problems with Ofsted. Is that really not better than having your authority legitimised by people called Michael?

We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold. When I look at the number of people trumpeting this ‘blob’ fear, there are few. But they are very noisy. And almost all of them are now bound together by the same free school – Michaela – either as governors, managers or teachers. Some even write under two names to make it look like there are more of them. Those in the know call that astroturfing and there is no doubt that there has been a very clever manipulation of social media to create this noise.

I worry. I worry that we are losing confidence in the face of a baying crowd. I worry that too few of us realise the connections between this neo-liberal noise and the dominant market forces lobbying education. I might be getting paranoid in my old age, but here are some facts just about one of those companies – Pearson.

1. Pearson are trialling a ‘Pearson School Model’ in six secondary schools, which delivers a computer based curriculum containing Pearson materials.

2. Pearson funded the research that said that GCSEs were suffering from grade inflation.

3. Pearson own Edexcel and have the contract to assess SATs results.

4. They own most of the textbook market – and Liz Truss has publicly given her support for a return to wider use of textbooks in our schools.

5. Pearson works with TeachFirst on ‘My Education’ a project to promote the voices of young people to demand a ‘more rigorous’ education. That sounds like a good and harmless idea until you look at what happened in the US with the ‘Students for Education’ campaign, funded by private organisations like Pearson in order to create the effect of a student-led grassroots campaign in support of market driven educational policies. The students were easily manipulated into believing that they were championing improvements in education – not unlike some of those inexperienced teacher-come-think-tank-mouthpieces we are seeing at the moment.

6. Pearson works closely with TeachFirst. And the American equivalent of TeachFirst, ‘Teach for America’ has a Pearson company CEO on its board.

7. In the US Pearson run over 50% of the standardised tests set by states and provide the curriculum materials to go with them, creating a profit in excess of £2 billion.

8. Had Michael Gove been successful in reducing the examination system down to one board, Pearson owned Edexcel would have been the most likely successor.

9. Sir Michael Barber is the Education Advisor to Pearson. He is also the author of the widely quoted McKinsey report used by government to promote the notion of international comparisons as a means of measuring educational effectiveness.

10. It stinks.

So I think, so what? What can I do? Well, I can carry on teaching in the way I know works for my students and myself. I can carry on reading a range of cognitive and neuroscience and draw my own conclusions. I can make sure I find out who publishes and funds the latest ‘must read’ and figure out if there has been a responsible and critical editorial eye. I can make sure I don’t get bullied into denying who I am and what I believe. And I can write counter narratives. Like this one.



Our Day Out (at the DfE)

I wasn’t quite sure why I got an invitation to consult/consort with civil servants and a minister at the DfE yesterday, but when the email came through, I booked my train tickets as fast as my fingers could type in my debit card details. It’s not a chance you get every day and I was intrigued to know whether or not these latest interactions with the teacher twitterati were PR stunts or genuine attempts to engage. I came away feeling that they were/are really genuine attempts to engage and that there is real potential for every day classroom teachers to be taking part in a process that could lead to improvements in the system. I also left feeling that I wish these conversations had taken place a few years ago and not as we face the implementation of monumental changes this September.

On arrival, we were introduced to three civil servants who were each involved in the delivery and development of the new Primary National Curriculum and its attendant assessment structures. There was no doubt in my mind that here were people who were desperately keen to hear what we had to say and who were motivated by trying to ensure that children received a broad, balanced and engaging educational diet. Again, how I wish I had met them three years ago. The meeting began with the statement that the purpose was to explore the implementation of the new curriculum, the impact of the removal of levels on assessment and that accountability was probably outside of the remit of the meeting. It took about sixty seconds for us to explain that curriculum, assessment and accountability were inextricably linked and that it would not be possible to separate them out and so, for the next two and a quarter hours, that delicate and unbalanced eco system was carefully considered. With some surprising results. So here is what I learned/gleaned from the experience.

The National Curriculum (which is not, as we pointed out, National if not everyone has to teach it)

We had few concerns about the curriculum, which since its edit, has not really changed much at all. Dave from @thought-weavers pointed out that it was hard to suggest that it was balanced when one subject warranted 88 pages and another 2 in the guidance. Tim @imagine_inquiry and @emmaannhardy both pointed out the need for subject specific support for teachers which had been removed from local authorities and not yet properly replaced by teaching schools. As @cheryl-kd pointed out, herself working in a teaching school, it has been hard enough to figure out what your school is doing without being able to disseminate to others. The main point however, was that the curriculum was largely irrelevant when the key driver for all schools was assessment. What is measured is what gets taught, we pointed out, so you might have been better off starting with the measurement and working back from there. Which is not what has happened at all. My key points were:-

1. The curriculum is only broad in schools that don’t narrow it in preparation for SATS in Year 6.

2. That if we really want to close the gap for poorer children, we should attend to vocabulary and cultural capital – yet it is those children who are constantly withdrawn for intervention while the others have their general knowledge, vocabulary and arts education broadened in class. The gap widens.

3. That until we stop seeing literacy as a ‘subject’ and not as a human necessity crossing all subjects, it will continue to be uncoupled from knowledge (and joy).

4. The only way to really ensure that EVERY child gets a broad and balanced curriculum is for Ofsted to make it clear that this will be considered every bit as important as data.

At some point in that discussion, Liz Truss arrived. I’m trying and failing to resist the temptation to talk about the twelve year old who sat in a chair behind her constantly whispering in her ear. I got the distinct impression that she wanted to listen and engage, but she was hugely distracted by her phone and her assistant and I found that somewhat irritating. I came from the North for this – it would be nice if you could listen. And here’s an observation….

Gaming and Cheating

Most of the discussion centred around the role that high stakes testing had on school behaviour and culture. Liz Truss was keen to point out that many of the government’s measures had been designed to end the ‘game play’ that teachers had engaged in to secure results. In the middle of the meeting, she shot off over to the commons to vote for a motion in a debate that she had not listened to or taken part in. What better example of game play can there be? You are elected to vote for issues on behalf of the constituents you represent. But your voting outcomes are so closely tied to your party allegiances that the actual issues or debates, regardless of how they impact on your constituents, are irrelevant. You act in the interests of your party to secure your survival. Tell me Liz, how different is that to acting in the interests of your school to secure your survival? What I actually said was:-

“I’d like to be clear here that until teacher’s pay and performance is uncoupled from high stakes testing, there will be what you call ‘game play’ and I prefer to call ‘survival strategy’ because when your pay, your job, your mortgage, the future of your own children depend on you delivering results, you will do ANYTHING to achieve them.” There was silence. I think I might have poked the table a bit too hard at that point.

This formed the crux of the rest of the conversation – assessment. It became very clear early on in the meeting that no-one at the DfE had properly considered the impact of testing and the removal of levels on schools. The process had begun with ‘what shall we ask them to teach?’ with the assumption that a programme of study would equate to an enacted curriculum. There seemed to be little understanding that within our accountability system, so closely focused on pupil progress, that the question most senior leaders ask is ‘how are we going to be judged?’ The civil servants and minister seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed that most schools were keeping levels. How could we turn this freedom down?

“Because,” we said “if we are to be judged on how well children make progress, we have to be able to measure them, even when we know that the measurements we have are a nonsense.” So we asked, how are children now going to be measured? In a nutshell:-

1. By a raw score at key points of data collection (end of KS). There will be no guidance to schools on the assessment criteria for external tests – it is felt that the curriculum guidance itself is sufficient.

2. From this, schools are encouraged to develop their own competency criteria. This child can…. and build from there. This can form part of the progress conversation with Ofsted.

There really was nothing clearer offered. And if we’re brave, there is a genuine opportunity to move away from levels and see evidencing progress as a combination between conversation and selection of work in which children and teachers can articulate what they can and can’t yet do. But what about all those colour coded spreadsheets showing expected levels of progress in schools? Liz Truss seemed aghast that they even existed – when told that I spent up to 15 hours tracking children on spreadsheets and writing action plans for them when I knew that a) the data wasn’t really accurate and b) that I’d be better off teaching them than writing action plans, she stared, mouth agape and rolled her eyes. She seemed to really have no idea that this was what teachers spent time doing. “But who on earth would ask you to do such a thing? Where is this coming from?” she said. Senior leaders, we replied and they’re doing it because they think it is what Ofsted expect. Ahhh…. Ofsted. Her eyes gleamed, she leaned forward. I’ve been teaching for twenty years – I know when a topic has engaged a kid. And I got the feeling that Ofsted was very much of interest to Liz Truss. And I started to feel uncomfortable – I felt strongly that Ofsted were in the firing line here, and she was very, very keen to hear anti-Ofsted anecdotes. Why should this worry me?

Let’s imagine that three things happened in the next six months:-

1. Michael “there will be blood on the floor” Wilshaw is replaced by the much less combative Michael Cladingbowl – i.e. a new sheriff.

2. Classroom observations stop being graded by Ofsted (none were graded in @cheryl-kd’s inspection just last week).

3. Power is pulled back from the privatised franchises and more centralised inspectors are appointed – Ofsted is rebranded, streamlined, softer. What would happen?

Teachers would dance in the streets I guess. They’d demand the end of mocksteds, graded obs from senior leaders, they might even vote Conservative….but what would have changed? Really? If you reduce the power of a police force but the laws and punishments remain intact, has anything really changed? Are Ofsted to blame for the problems we have in schools really? To be honest I don’t think so. I think they’re in danger of becoming the scapegoat that falls in order to protect the system that is really at the root of our problems – the system of over-reliance on high stakes testing and the ways schools are almost entirely judged on data. And let’s not be under any illusions – take classroom observations out of the equation and you are left with one thing. Data. No wonder we are clinging on to the flotsam of levels.

Here are some ideas I put forward to the minister:-

1. Make it clear that schools should not spend their budgets on pleasing Ofsted. It is a financial abuse of the system.

2. Uncouple teacher performance from test results.

3. Develop an assessment system fit for purpose – one that recognises the limits of testing and instead moves towards holistic assessment of children’s abilities to articulate, write in extended ways, interpret information and present.

To the first she laughed – ‘we’re trying to give schools more financial autonomy’.

To the second, she pointed out that in Scandinavian countries where testing and accountability were uncoupled, there had been a slide down the PISA tables. I pointed out that those countries were still above us and tried to explain the statistical anomalies of PISA, but her face went blank.

To the third she said it was too hard. Where would we get the external moderators from? How would we avoid making it overly bureaucratic? I had answers, but the twelve year old was whispering in her ear that she was late to meet a lord. But….I wanted to say….just because something is hard, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing….but I didn’t. I have now.



There were many other excellent statements made by other people present who no doubt will write their own accounts. This is mine. But here are some of the other points made:-

1. The minister did seem to listen to Emma Hardy’s concerns about the paperwork being generated by PRP.

2. She did seem to concede that teachers were working unacceptably long hours.

3. She even seemed to concede the point that while low stakes, check-point testing might be useful, examinations might not give the fullest picture of a child’s competence.

4. She did seem to support the idea of a broad curriculum (but then only talked about Maths and Science as examples of good practice in schools).

5. She was so keen to promote the idea of text books. She genuinely didn’t understand why we should need to differentiate learning or the difference between differentiated and personalised learning and seemed frustrated that differentiation seemed to be getting in the way of producing textbooks for all schools (produced by Pearson, perhaps?)

6. There was clarification that P levels would remain for special education, but very little consideration of the relevance of the NC for pupils with profound disabilities.

7. @heymisssmith was very clear that this current government had destroyed the teaching profession and asked Liz Truss to pass that sentiment on to Michael Gove 😉

8. @emmaannhardy made the point that the new curriculum was missing a sense of purpose – what is primary education for? And being ready for secondary is not a good enough moral purpose. This led to a discussion of the clarity of ethos and through line of the international school’s curriculum leading from the PYP to MYP to IB.



Better a Blob than a Knob.


I usually try very hard to avoid personal attacks in my blogs – even when writing about Michael Gove. But this is a response to Toby Young so an exception can be made. Last week, to much self trumping, Toby Young published for the right wing sink tank, Civitas, an attack on anyone who disagrees with his views on education – accusing one and all as members of ‘The Blob’ – a term nicked from Michael Gove. Most of the article was nicked actually, from Daisy Christodoulou, but with Young’s customary rudeness thrown in for good measure. It was an argument so flimsy and ill informed that a sneeze would dismantle it. And I have a spare five minutes…

For those of you who do not know Toby Young, what better introduction that his own words, on the web site of his school…

“Toby Young is one of the founders of the West London Free School. He is a British journalist and the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001)” Thankfully he has now removed the sentence which listed a ‘sex play’ as one of his achievements – a sentence that sat on the school website for well over a year. What kind of parent was he hoping to attract with that one? I imagine a cluster of pin-striped fathers pushing their offspring through the gates and rushing off for a spanking with a well paid dominatrix (while conjugating latin verbs). But it’s gone now. Now it’s just a school for the unpopular.

So that’s the ad hominem part over – let’s look at the errr…substance…of the actual argument.

His article : “Prisoners of the Blob : Why Most Education Experts are Wrong About Everything” makes a number of assumptions which are in themselves deeply flawed. He claims that:-

British State Schools are “in decline” 

In decline from what? Since the creation of the comprehensive system, the state system has only improved – data from Ofsted itself shows that schools and teachers are better than they have ever been. Where is Young’s evidence for this decline? Well, there isn’t any. It’s an opinion. It might help to define what exactly has declined. If it were teacher morale, children’s interest in school, the moral purpose of schooling etc I might find myself in agreement. But no, the opinion seems to be based on the loss of the ‘O’ Level and Latin.

Everyone in education shares a progressive educational philosophy blocking progress.

Young criticises those of us working in education for being ‘child centred’. He is of course, confusing child centred with child led, a common misconception among those who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Of course education should be centred on children. What else could it be centred around? Oh, wait….Ofsted-centred, profit-centred, self-centred? There is an assumption in the pamphlet that child centred means learning without teaching, modelling or guidance. But that is not what happens in schools. In fact Hattie’s research shows clearly that the dominant teaching model in schools is the teacher led one, not the progressive one. For my own part, while I argue strongly for creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, I know that some things just have to be taught and learned. This is a common denominator. It is a base line, not an aspiration. Young and his supporters announce that teaching kids facts is indicative of rigour. In fact, it is a lowering of the bar so far that a slug could leap over it. Let me give an example:-

I am ‘teaching’ Romeo and Juliet. We are analysing a speech of Juliet’s and exploring the meaning of some of the metaphors. This is the BASELINE. It is easy to get children across a baseline. But I want them to remember the play and I want them to love it. For that I have to try harder.

We are doing this in role as detectives investigating her death. The children are intently looking at the language for clues as to her state of mind. They are undergoing training from a ‘linguistic forensic expert’ on the use of language. They KNOW it’s a fiction, but the fiction gives them motivation to look harder, to remain focused, to remember the learning. This is CHILD CENTRED learning. 

Young paints a picture of progressive education devoid of knowledge and discipline, with no recognition that teachers are not simply charged with teaching knowledge, but in making that knowledge stick. He bandies around the terms ‘cognitive science’ without engaging with any detailed exploration of what we know about the brain. Here’s some cognitive science for you, Mr. Young:-

1. Accountable talk in groups has a significant impact on learning and achievement – (Michaels and Resnick 2008)

2. Feeling valued and trusted in the classroom creates conditions in which the brain feels safe to learn (Curran 2009)

3. Teachers and children who gesture well and who are attuned to each others gestures have a better understanding of concepts and are more likely to be able to explain them – movement and talk are essential to learning. This makes learning a community endeavour (Goldin- Meadow et al 2003, 2013, 2014)

4. Emotion is inextricably linked to effective decision making – suggesting that equipping children with the skills to explore and handle their emotions links to effective reasoning (Damasio 2006)

It is interesting that not a single one of these eminent and well respected cognitive and neuroscientists are mentioned in Young’s work. Not one. Instead he argues that teachers are basing their practice on the philosophy of Rousseau.

Let me be clear – without undermining my profession, most teachers, even if they have heard of Rousseau, won’t have the faintest idea what his educational philosophy was. Suggesting that we plan our lessons based on his Romantic educational philosophy is plain daft. But then, his whole argument is daft and rather than finding real evidence for it, he describes those who oppose him as ‘blancmange’. The whole article is littered with cliches and mixed metaphors. The Blob is a single amoebic entity but also a collective mass. It is both dangerous and comic. Actually, Toby, the image is just childish, wearisome and dull. Young does claim only to be a journalist and not a writer – a semantic gap akin to woodcutter and carpenter, but still….some originality would be refreshing. Some proper research. Some evidence. Instead we get this:-

“For those of us who favour a knowledge-building, teacher-led approach, it is this ideology that is the enemy, not those who believe in it”.

And there we have it – this is an attempt to pick a fight with an imagined enemy from a small group with a ‘favoured’ view. Nothing more. The problem is that to fight, you have to have an enemy who knows who he is. No-one recognises themselves in this blob because the reality is we need skills AND knowledge. We need engagement AND discipline. Everyone working in the classroom knows this. And if this were all that Young attacked, I’d probably leave it alone, but look at this:-

“The central pillar of The Blob’s educational philosophy is the belief that children are essentially good. That is, children are naturally curious, imaginative and creative and the purpose of a good education is to enable children to express fully these innate talents”.

This belief, that a child is good, creative, curious and imaginative, is apparently a bad thing. But it is the conflation between that belief and the purpose of schooling that is flawed. I do believe that children are naturally (on the whole) curious, imaginative and creative. But I don’t think that the purpose of education is to simply express this. I want them to be able to read, be numerate, have knowledge and experience. It’s just that I want the latter to be achieved without crushing the former. Is that too Blobby for you Mr. Young?

And again, in his ignorance, there is a wilful misinterpretation of a key educational term – relevance. For Young, the idea of making learning relevant to children means limiting what is learned to their world experience. He attacks this as meaning that only popular culture is taught. What utter nonsense. Making learning relevant is about finding the human connection to that which is taught. Finding the wonder in the world. My students love Romeo and Juliet partly because falling in love is relevant to them. They love learning about priests fleeing into priest holes during the reformation because fear is relevant to them. This ridiculous sullying of the concepts of relevance and engagement in education flies in the face of what we know about the brain and how it learns. Making connections – both emotionally and intellectually – is a key strategy for making learning memorable. Keep up Mr. Young.

Like Christodoulou in her book, Young reels out examples of really poorly constructed role play lessons in order to dismiss the entire notion of using role to develop empathy. Imagine if we used a few examples of poor Maths teaching to argue the case that Maths was irrelevant. Putting poor practice out for ridicule in order to attack the whole is an easy way to score points, but it helps no-one. ‘Pretend you’re a slave’ is crass. Almost as crass as lumping the entire education establishment together and calling them a blob. But not quite.

I could go on picking holes in this piece of lace, but they are obvious to anyone who cares to take a look. And I have work to do. So here endeth the spanking Mr. Young. My bill is in the post.