Hey you. Poor Person. We’re here to make you just like us.

I’m a little irked at the way that people who argue that an academic education is the means to ending poverty, throw out an accusation of ‘low expectations’ to those who think we should have a broader debate about the purpose of education and the role of vocational routes. What I notice more and more is that the accusations come from people who have led comfortable upper middle class lives and who make the assumption that the answer to society’s problems is to ‘make every one like us’. At its most well intentioned, this translates into “I wish everyone could have what I have” – and who can judge that too harshly? At its worst it translates into hubris and a paternalistic notion that “we know best.”

For a start, consider the hierarchy we have in terms of which subjects ‘count’ as being academic. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no logical reason why History is rated above Theatre in terms of academic demand. Theatre students will explore the role of theatre (and by association, the development of democracy, the role of women and the use of theatre as a political and social tool) in Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain and Italy, Elizabethan society, Jacobean society and across Europe and America in the 20th Century. If you want to explore the rise of Hitler, look to “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”. And the plays of Sartre are a great way of accessing the concepts of existentialism. Yet History is exalted and Drama derided. Ask children on the whole which subject they prefer though, and you’ll have a stampede into the studio. Children are not resistant to academia, they are resistant to static pedagogies and forced facts. A great History teacher who brings the subject to life will trump a lazy Drama teacher who sits on the radiator and tells children to ‘make up a play about drugs’. But bring the two together and you have fireworks.

This is not an argument about academic and non academic. Or even about academic versus vocational. It’s a twofold argument about values and purpose. What is the purpose of an education? And what do we value?

Let’s go back to poverty for a moment. Those championing an ‘academic’ route will throw at you all the statistics that show that children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to University. And statistics show that they are less likely to stay there too – so those schools braying that they got kids through the door need to really think about whether they did them a favour. When 50% leave without completing their degree but still carrying debt, there is a problem. The reasons for leaving are complex but you can’t even begin to understand them if you don’t understand the lives of the children you are planning for.

My parents both grew up in grinding poverty. But in my Dad’s house was a parent who valued education and was willing to support him to the age of 18. In the other were parents who had no concept of the value of education and who needed their child to start earning as soon as possible. We’re talking about a home with one lightbulb that was moved from room to room. With no toilet paper. Where a piano given to the family was chopped up for fuel. For my Dad’s family, poverty was circumstantial – a reasonably well off family brought down by alcoholism. For my Mum, both of her parents had known nothing but poverty in a generational line dating back to the potato famine. There is a significant difference between circumstantial and generational poverty in terms of being able to imagine yourself out of your situation. My dad got A Levels and trained on the job until he became a Chartered Accountant and set up his own business. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications and worked in a mill. She  quit work as soon as my dad was earning enough to support us all. She’s as bright as a button, but had no chances. So I completely understand the desire to put this inequality right. But the fact remains that without parental support, it’s a huge uphill struggle. It is meaningless to group FSM children into one category. Study after study tells us that parenting makes the difference. The EPPE study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study, is clear. When it comes to parenting, it’s not what you earn, it’s what you do that matters. Let’s take that for a moment. Back to my parents.

They had three children. All went to university. I was born in a terraced house with an outside toilet. Eight years later, my brother was born into a house with two bathrooms and a bidet. That’s social mobility. But what made the difference to us was not my Dad’s income, but the value they placed on our education. When I became a mother, I watched my Mum with my kids. She’d take them round the supermarket and name everything. At the park, every tree, bird, animal was named and described. She talked to them as I know she must have talked to me. A constant stream of language. And my Dad, even when we had no money, would bring books home from charity shops. I’ve written of this before. Had we stayed poor, we would still have had the chance to succeed because they did the right things.

It is perfectly possible to be a school who makes the FSM data sing. Two things matter. The parents and compliance. So if you put in strategies to ensure that the poor children in your school have aspirational parents who value education, you are half way there. How do you do it? Make uniforms so expensive that it takes a sacrifice to send your child there? Perhaps. And to be sure, make the rules on uniform so punitive that only the children with parents willing to fix and replace can stay. Select children on the basis that their parents come in to talk to you before hand? Perhaps. Take from ethnic groups associated with placing high value on education? Perhaps. But that still leaves many children in a situation where they need something extra and we need to be really careful about labelling those kids.

Of my uncles and aunts, those who stayed on council estates (even those who bought their house and were left with it as a crippling burden as interest rates rose and the neighbourhood went down the toilet) had children who are still on council estates. Or who are dead. You are more likely to die young if you are poor. Of my uncle’s four children, two are dead and one is sectioned for mental health problems. The loss of his job, being trapped in his home, losing both sons, worry for his mentally ill daughter and the breakdown of his marriage led my kind and gentle uncle to despair. He committed suicide. The fourth child still lives on an estate, dependent on benefits and has seven children. There are many who would judge her. But being a mother gave her a sense of value. She had lost everything – having children around her made her feel like her life had meaning and stability. And there are stories like this all over the country. Tragedy is common where children have no safe place to play, are living in homes with black mould and damp, where boredom and hopelessness prevail.

It’s understandable that some of us think that the answer is to get them out of there. But we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community. Many people don’t want to get out of their community. They want improvements to the community. And education will not appeal, if it is seen to take them away. We need to consider how we make education meaningful for those who want to remain in their communities warts and all. And to do that we need to consider what opportunities for work there are or could be in that local area. If we start from a point of improving what we have, we can find hope. Ironically, that’s the message being given by Dylan Wiliam to Head teachers – work with what you’ve got.

When I was at school, I’d stare out of the window of my O Level classes and into the sheds near the school. There, some of the boys in my year would be pulling engines apart and putting them back together again, all oily and happy in their overalls. Most of them went straight from school into jobs as car mechanics. They had the skills already. Although the 80s was a period of high unemployment, most of the kids in my year left at 16 and went straight into work. It wasn’t a question of poor kids doing vocational and more affluent kids doing O levels – it was much messier than that. For my own part, my dad pretty much made the decision for me. Many of my friends went on to schemes in secretarial, hairdressing, mechanics, plumbing positions – they all had some skill in those areas because they’d been able to work on them as part of their curriculum. I meet some of them these days and they are earning far more than I am. I’d sit in my French class, chanting verbs and wish I could get my hands on an engine. I’m not really complaining, but it would have been great to be able to do both. To get my hands and my brain dirty.

So back to brass tacks. What is the point of education?

To pass tests?

To get work?

To be creative?

To be happy?

To be wise?

To change the world?

Our answers to these questions will depend on our beliefs but there are some we can question straight away. While we throw all that time and energy into the question “what works”, we only look at tests. Even though Dylan Wiliam and others point to research that shows that our “evidence” of what works can only be applied to the test and that success in one test does not seem to guarantee the ability to transfer the knowledge to another context. Not even to another test. So our tests qualify kids to pass our tests. That might explain the frustrations of HE and employers.

If it’s to get work, then we need to think what it is that the world of work needs and offers. There is little incentive to study hard in order to secure a low paid job on a temporary contract. And there aren’t enough highly paid jobs. And the need in our society for carers and cleaners is great, but who would study hard for that? We cannot tempt children through tests with a lie that they will lead to work. An oversupply of graduates has created a situation where the jobs my peers were doing at 16 are now being filled by graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to their names. Where is the sense in that?

Another story – modern day. A primary school near a gas works. There is an emergency procedure for when a leak is suspected and on this day, the procedure kicks in. The children are moved a safe distance away and all the parents are called. The vast majority come and collect their children within an hour. Others call to say they’re on their way or that they’ve arranged for a family member to collect. But a small number of children are left. The Head instructs the staff to walk them home. My friend takes a small group of children. All the parents are home but most are not happy to see their children home early. Two children are left. One arrives at his house. The doors are boarded up. He tells the teacher that this is because the police kicked them in. There is a ladder leading to a first floor window. Quick as a flash he climbs up it and through the window. This is how he gets in and out of his house. The final child doesn’t want to go home. He drags his heels. When they get there, the door is open and loud noise from the TV is booming out into the street. The teacher puts her head around the door and calls out. No answer. She ventures in. There is no furniture in the room, except for a chair and a television. There is no carpet. There are beer cans all over the floor. In the chair a man is asleep. And in a cardboard box, on the floor next to him, a baby in a stinking, sodden nappy is crying. She understands why this child finds it hard to concentrate in school.

Her school has an unusually high number of FSM children, and the fact is that the majority are cared for, collected and safe. But for those climbing through windows, or growing up with nappy rash in a cardboard box, an academic education is not going to be enough. Tristram Hunt said yesterday that what makes a difference to children is attachment. Children without attachment, language, love, safety are not school ready. This is the first step towards being an educated person. For my cousin, for these children, History, Science, were irrelevant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach them. But without support – perhaps counselling – empathy, love and understanding, they will fall on stony ground. I look at her and think of what she could have been. She’s great with children – could she have had a career in child care? Who knows. But we need to think about how we teach parenting to all our children and to our parents. We need to think about what we can do to bring moral purpose and meaning into the system so that there is a chance to see that there is hope and possibility everywhere – even in your own communities.

There is a moment in the film Tyrannosaur – a film which paints a grim and realistic picture of life on an estate – where the community comes together at a funeral. There is care and support, understanding and belonging. This is what we need to tap into. This is what children need to find. This is the foundation stone that schools should seek to build. The rest can follow.

A Meeting With Tristram Hunt

In my book (bear with me, it’s not a plug), I argue that what we need in education is a ‘revolution’. But I caution:-

“When under pressure, it’s easy to look for those who are to blame. There is no doubt…that politicians of all colours, have a lot to answer for. But this would be a simplification of the situation. We need to look closer to home if we are to really change the way things are. How many of us have quietly complied in order to avoid unwanted attention? How many of us have sought to rank ourselves in comparison with our peers? How many have lost sight of a child in the pursuit of results? How many of us have changed the way we teach to suit what we imagine an Ofsted inspector is looking for? In all these ways, we collude in the system we say we deplore. This book argues for a revolution, but this is not so simple an act as rising up and overthrowing an oppressor. We need to rise up against our own worst natures. We need to evolve in order to thrive and so this form of evolution might be better conceptualised as a (r)evolution.”

When Michael Gove came into power, he charged into the arena like the Black Knight, using his jousting pole to smash whatever he could and jeering at the crowd. ‘Blobs!’ he cried, ‘Enemies of Promise’. He changed our world so fast, our heads were spinning. But among that destruction he sowed some seeds. He forced us to look again at pedagogy. He forced us (ironically as it happens because it transpires that the DfE doesn’t actually subscribe or have access to journals) to engage with research. He opened up a conversation about how children learn. Those seeds are growing into poppies. What I don’t want is a new Education Secretary, even if he is a White Knight, to charge into the arena and smash those poppies to pieces in order to make his mark. I am not a damsel in distress. I want the politicians, as far as possible, to get out of the way. And so, when I heard these words from Tristram Hunt yesterday, my heart soared:-

“Can you name the education ministers of Singapore, Finland, Massachusetts? No, and you shouldn’t be able to. We’re here to serve, not to seek fame or attention.”

Tristram Hunt is not a knight on a steed. He is travelling on foot, surveying the landscape – the damage, yes, but also the poppies, and he’s working out what to keep, what is worth changing and what can’t be saved. And this takes time. He is a man who firmly believes that it is the job of the secretary of state to “represent the children in this country first and teachers second” but who also recognises that “children first” is also most teacher’s mantra. He wants to do what he can to get out of our way while recognising that he is responsible for a huge amount of public money (not as much as we need or would like, but a huge amount nonetheless) and he is working out how to balance that responsibility while giving the trust he feels we are so in need of. I, with @cherryl_kd, @imagineinquiry and @thought_weavers spent an afternoon with him yesterday and I felt I had met a man who showed wisdom and humility.

I was surprised last night at some of the language used on twitter criticising Hunt. What does he stand for? He’s been too slow to learn his brief! He needs to give us more! While I understand these concerns, do we really want more haste and less speed?In asking him to give, give give, are we not undermining our own capacity to take, to shape, to grow? I can answer some of the questions and I can repeat what he said. Do I agree with it all? No. But I never will agree with everything one person says or does. That’s life. Do I think he has a clear vision, is prepared to listen and is well intentioned? Yes.

Here is the summary of the discussion in my own words – where I have quoted him directly, there are speech marks. Level 4 punctuator I am.

The Vision

If he has one aim it is to “lift children out of poverty”. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. But this government said it while putting more than 300,000 more children into poverty. Hunt recognises that education is an important tool in this battle, but that it is not the responsibility of teachers to do this alone. He wants to reintegrate health, social care and education. He wants to invest hugely in EYFS, reinstating SureStart and engaging with hard to reach families. He wants to value the vocational routes that lead to the jobs that many young people aspire to so that we can “challenge the low wage, low skill economy” that we have at the moment and which is doing “little to bring money into the public system.”

“I want children to be happy, and to learn in an enriched environment where they can develop their personalities.”


One of the criticisms of SureStart was that the centres attracted too many middle class parents. But we discussed yesterday my experience of working at a school in a highly deprived area which had a SureStart centre attached to it. The presence of those middle class parents, mingling with parents who lived on the estate made for a greater understanding of both ways of living and greater empathy. Friendships grew, clothes were passed on. Children played together. It wasn’t a bad thing. But of course, “the investment has to work for those it is targeting” and so there is close attention being paid to the kinds of services that would draw people in and that is a priority. Investing in high quality child care is expensive, but the EPPE study shows that it is critical. The difference between Labour and the Conservatives on this point is that there isn’t the belief from Labour that pushing the academic curriculum down into EYFS is the answer. “Attachment, play, language, love” – these are the things that make children school ready.

Achievement can be more than Academic

“A broader conversation needs to be had about the 14-19 space”

There will not be a radical overhaul of curriculum and exams – there has been “too much meddling and instability already“. The proposed reforms to A Levels will not go ahead, however, because the Labour education team have listened to advice from Universities warning against the decoupling of the AS and A Level. While he stated that he believed that the “A Level has integrity and will be kept“, he voiced concerns about the impact of changes to the GCSE, in particular the removal of practical assessments.

He has a long term vision. He thinks it will take five years for the changes he wants to make at the entry and exit points of education to embed to the point at which it a) is recognised as the norm that formal, compulsory education ends at 18 and b) that there is equivalent respect accorded to academic and vocational routes – he spoke highly of the work that Chris Husbands and Tom Sherrington had done on shaping a leaver’s Baccalaureate. Only at that point, where a cultural tipping point had passed, could we have proper conversations about more radical options. But in the meantime, there would need to be wide consultation on how we reinstate and value practical assessments, while maintaining credibility and how we ensure that children are getting the breadth in the curriculum that they are entitled to. In short, he wants to listen to the profession about how best to proceed.

He recognised that sixth form colleges are centres of excellence that often outperform local school provision. He accepted that the fact that they pay VAT and schools don’t was something that was “grossly unfair” but was clear that this was a cost that could not be prioritised in the current climate. He did say, however, that school sixth forms should be inspected in the same category as sixth form colleges and that this would make for fairer comparison. This will be welcome news to many sixth form colleges.

Accountability and Osted

There was some support for the way Ofsted has already moved towards reform this year in terms of dropping graded observations and so on, but there is still much to do. “Ofsted should not be carrying out the latest whims and fancies of the Secretary of State, like inspecting “British Values” and they “should have no role to play in how teachers are paid” – they will not be checking up on PRP (more on this later). There needs to be accountability, but we also need to think about how to free teachers and schools up to feel they can innovate without fear.

Having said this, he recognised that “Ofsted is a powerful lever” for changing behaviours in schools. He has no qualms about using the inspection service to ensure that “all children are receiving a broad and balanced curriculum” – even in Year 6! No more reduction of the curriculum to serve the SATS or removing children from Foundation Subjects for literacy and numeracy interventions. Not if you want to be a Good school. And those schools who removed Drama and Arts subjects from their curriculum offer when the EBACC came in might be well advised to start advertising for a Drama teacher.

Academies/Free Schools etc

“Relentless structural reform has had no impact and has been a waste of time and money.”

There will be no reversal of current status of schools. They’ll stay as they are. To be fair, the government has little choice in this – when a school becomes an academy or a free school, the land and buildings are signed over to the trust and taken out of public ownership. Even if he wanted to revert to a single state system (which he doesn’t), we’d have to buy them all back. So instead the plan is to ensure that whatever you are, you are equal and that there are no hierarchies of types of school that are better than another. There are some gross unfairnesses in funding that are going to take time to sort out, but in short, we make the best of what we’ve got.


There was little movement on PRP. It’s staying. But it won’t be monitored by Ofsted or tied to results. It should be used at the discretion of the Head teacher and awarded for “going the extra mile”. It should not be used for results – “It’s a nonsense to reward someone for the results of a class that they have taught for two terms when we know that learning is an accumulative process.

He also felt that flexibility over pay could help Heads to attract staff to areas of need, such as coastal towns and he was interested in schemes in places such as Hull where the LA and schools have worked to fund accommodation for teachers prepared to move and work there. He sees it as an incentivising freedom and claimed that 80% of heads like it. I don’t know of many teachers who do though.

Teacher Trust and Wellbeing.

He strongly recognised that trust in teachers was essential and that the profession should have the freedom to shape its own future. He has openly stated his support for a College of Teaching before and so we didn’t discuss this in the meeting. Instead we talked about career progression. He was really interested in two things a) what makes the job unbearable and b) what would make it more stimulating and engaging in the longer term.

We talked about the key difference in the way that data should and is used. As Lee, from @thought_weavers said, data should be diagnostic, but we all told tales of how it was used as a summative shield, with no benefit for children in many schools. Using data wisely and carefully and in a way that serves the children is a key priority for him.

It’s a no brainer to him that teachers should be qualified and for those already in post that they should work towards qualification.

He talked about how teachers could be encouraged to stay in the classroom and there was a good discussion about the pros and cons of the AST system. He wants to entice teachers with a number of possible career routes. In recent years there have been a plethora of initiatives – NLEs SLEs and so on, but all aimed at people already in leadership and the progression of the classroom teacher who wants to stay a classroom teacher has been left to Heads. Some of them have kept ASTs, some have introduced Lead Practitioners, but there is a patchy picture with no nationally set pathway any more. Tim and I discussed our different experiences of AST and felt that there had been little consistency in the role. Latterly it had become a title without a need to go for the assessment if your head was prepared to simply rubber stamp it. So it needs to start again. But we were united in dismay at the prospect of Master Teacher to replace it. He laughed. “So what would you call it?” he asked. “Ask twitter” we replied. So last night there was a long conversation about this with these suggestions coming forward:-

Lead Practitioner

Learning Leader of Education (LLE to fit in with NLE and SLE)

Teacher Coach

Ninja Teacher (I know it will never happen but I so want it to….)

What do you think – add your suggestions to the comment box.

He recognises that sometimes people get bored and want to pursue other interests. He wants to leave doors open for returners, to explore ways that teachers can study, can reach out of the classroom when they want to/need to, but he also recognises the need for stability and high quality pupil experience. He wants us to shape our future and to put forward suggestions.


I have written before about his views that while a variety of ITT routes should be available, there should nevertheless be a central co-ordinating role for Universities to play. Perhaps not surprising for a former University Lecturer to say that they have a valuable role to play. He is keen to hear the outcomes of the Carter review before committing to a vision but expressed some concerns about Schools Direct.


I came away feeling that we could have done with another couple of hours or days or weeks…but that here is someone who will sacrifice his image as a cut and thrust adversary to the Conservatives in order to create stability and make some space, as far as possible for teachers to step forward and organise. We have to seize that opportunity for trust. We can stand on the sidelines, tut and demand. We can insult, criticise and roll our eyes. But these are all ways to avoid actually doing something. We have an opportunity here. Let’s please take it.