He’s behind you! The real enemy of promise…


Nothing lets the government off the hook for social disadvantage and poverty quite like the teaching profession blaming each other for the academic underachievement of disadvantaged pupils.

While people stand on either side of the prog/trad debate shouting at each other for the perceived failure or torture of the innocents, the government can relax, knowing that everyone is too distracted to turn the fire on them for the fact that there are now 4 million children living in poverty.

Poverty, we know, creates stress. In the UK, the 6th richest nation on earth, 400,000 children don’t have a bed of their own. At least 120,000 of them are homeless and living in temporary accommodation. Even those with beds and homes live with uncertainty. A cross party group of MPs in April, led by Frank Field, found that as many as 3,000,000 children were going hungry in the school holidays and that for many, school lunches were their only meal of the day. These children are not just poor, they are being damaged.

We know that chronic stress damages the hippocampus, central to learning and memory. In particular, high levels of cortisol impact on verbal declarative memory – memory for words and facts – the very kind of memory that tests rely on. Since Newcomer’s study in 1999, these findings have been replicated several times and although the effects are reversible, the conditions for the reversal to take place demand that the child is in a safe and nurturing environment, both at home and at school. In short, the real enemy of promise for young disadvantaged people is the insecurity and deprivation caused by poverty, not progressive education.

Despite the beliefs of some that the education system is blighted by discovery learning (isn’t all learning a form of discovery?), in fact, most teachers, teach. When I was in class, you were as likely to find me at the front, talking about language and theory, as you were in full collaborative, group mode. I, like many teachers, switched modes to suit purpose. I don’t think that me dressing up as a tiger and coming back for a more healthy tea did Year 1 much harm. In fact, the quality of their instructional writing in the form of recipes and their informative writing in the form of invitations was much improved. Of course, the direct instruction I gave them helped. But the motivation of creating a tea party for a tiger was what they talked about excitedly when they went home. It’s what motivated them to utilise their phonics knowledge, explicitly taught but creatively interpreted:- “Good Mood Food for Tigers!”

Year 9, in role as detectives, investigating the possible triple murder of three teenagers in Verona, poured over the diaries of Juliet with a fervour to figure out how she had ended up here – in a crypt, dead. Her speeches were clues and they needed decoding. And once they had the hang of that, the rest of the play was open to them. It’s easy to get Yr 9 interested in the language of Romeo and Juliet – to stand at the front and tell them what they need to know – when they’ve already decided it’s a bloody (literally) good read.

Being a good teacher is about being able to look this way AND that. To use this technique AND that. It’s about understanding and being able to rationalise why you chose to do that in this way on this day. To have a focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, using a combination of evidence and experience to make informed decisions. This focus has to be about what the children are getting out of the experience. What they are learning to know, what they are learning to do, what they are learning to process, what they are learning to understand, and yes, what they are thinking and feeling? Depending on what those ‘whats’ are, your tasks will shift.

Telling people that there is one way to teach does no-one any favours. Spending our time writing blogs and tweets about why one half of the profession is wrong, does no-one any favours. It distracts us; removes our focus from the cause of the problem to the symptom. It makes us turn on each other and not on the fact that we’re being held accountable for one of the most shameful failures of our society that there is – our failure to provide the most basic of human needs for our most vulnerable.

Frankly I couldn’t care less if you teach from the front or from the ceiling as long as you know what you’re doing and why. We have to stop sniping at each other, and instead unite in a demand for a more socially just society in which children are fed, have a chance of a good night’s sleep and  aren’t worried about whether they will have a home from one day to the next. That way they can be in school ready to learn. We have a duty to aim our ire at those who ensure that families who work still can’t afford to pay rents, have to use food banks and choose between food and fuel. If we don’t, then more and more children will fall into that most difficult of traps to get out of – poverty – and not a single knowledge organiser or child initiated role play will ever get them out.

34 thoughts on “He’s behind you! The real enemy of promise…

  1. I enjoyed reading this. The book I’m currently writing is basically all about finding balance between ‘no right way’ and ‘anything goes’. It’s like the optimum food diet : there is the science but then there’s eating delicious fresh food vs squeezing an optimum nutrient mix out of a tube. Obviously everyone thinks their way is the delicious one! That said, having once dismissed the prog-trad debate I think I’ve learned a huge amount from it. I’m more focused on how any given activity actually yields learning longer term rather than mainly worrying about how it felt at the time. I agree about the bigger enemy… but I also think that everyone in the debate is genuinely committed to social justice. We need the debate but I also wish it didn’t turn sour so often given that, as you say, we are all on the same side. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Tom. For me, it’s about knowing your impact. It might not always be your focus (or mine, anyway) to be concerned about declarative retention – perhaps that’s because much of my teaching has been in the Arts. I might, for example, be more focused on authenticity or style of performance, or the development of empathy. Other times I want them to be able to define and remember how existentialism impacts on a play, or the circumstances under which Brecht wrote his satire The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, or features of language. These needs/impacts are vastly different, forcing a switch of modes. But to know why you do what you do, what your aim is and what impact it is having (not that you can ever know that fully) is fundamental to teaching. I just think whacking labels on it is unhelpful- especially when you’re only given two to choose from.

      In terms of social justice, I think most of us are united in wanting to do our best for the most disadvantaged – certainly those working or who have worked in non selective schools. As you said in your recent blog post, Context is King. But to accuse others of failing the poor without even attempting to grapple with the physiological and psychological complexities of poverty just cheapens the debate and acts as a distraction.

      1. I guess it depends exactly on what we’re discussing – there are way too many generalisations. Some approaches to teaching do result in soft/lame activities or those that create Rob Coe’s poor proxies for learning. We should talk about those things more precisely, beyond the labels. I’ve re-read my posts on co-construction recently; amazingly rewarding student input but – although really it just gave them a chance to do trad teaching instead of me doing it all. There’s always the trap of what Greg Ashman once referred to as ‘lucky pants’ – which I like. ie Just because you wear them on exam day, doesn’t mean they ‘worked’. Truth is knowing your impact is really hard in the less tangible areas – Claxton’s ‘below the line’ curriculum. Even if you want to develop certain broader qualities – beyond measurable knowledge retention – it’s so hard to know if you have. My feeling is that we’re discussing the details of 10% of a picture where we agree on 90% of it. A bit like branches of Christianity or something – some people need a church they go to and a church they don’t go to just they know where they stand! (so to speak.)

    2. Might be worth bearing in mind that individual differences impact these things. A diet that works for one person might not necessarily work for another. Also, there are quantity effects of all things. You’ll get scurvy without Vitamin C. But you’ll get diarrhea if you have too much! (I’ll let you draw the educational analogies…)

  2. Yes, it’s not easy, but that’s no excuse for not trying. I think it is less complicated to see impact in the ‘below the line’ curriculum than we think, if we step away from numerically evaluating things – a bit like observation processes in EYFS which are not perfect, but are more holistic. We can see empathy being exercised, or note deeper analytical thinking being verbalised. We can construct some reasonable levels of expectation for creative processes and so on. That’s not that we can whack a measurable number or level on it, but we can certainly comment on it and feedback to children in the way we do about more tangible learning. And I agree that we need to be wary of empty tasks and to think carefully about how we set tasks up, explain and rationalise them with children. Tim Taylor does this brilliantly of course.

  3. I bet; I’m sure I’d love him to have been my kids’ teacher. That’s the other thing – quality. One of my main issues with the labelling is that a lot of the worst teaching I have seen is ‘bad trad’. Teachers standing at the front, trying to explain and question but doing it badly with poor classroom control etc. It’s really interesting talking to Peter Hyman about this. His view of projects is not ‘topic based learning’ – which he does not rate; it’s about linking quite traditional teaching and knowledge-rich curriculum areas together so students work towards authentic final products. Again this would be very easy to do very badly but it is a lot more subtle that trad-prog allows.

    1. YES! Completely agree. When I went to see Joe Pardoe teach at School 21, what struck me was the rigour and attention paid to knowledge. That, coupled with a belief in the agency of students to take that and push forward with it was really powerful. That’s what frustrates me about the either/or nature of the debate. And I also know, that had I gone to Michaela and seen someone like, say Joe Kirby teach, I would have seen really great teaching, suited to purpose. Did you see Ben Davis’ report into Project Based Learning in Scotland – again, all depends on quality and it’s this we should be focusing on. As well as taking govt to task on their track record on social inequality of course 😉

  4. For children in poverty I think the best we can do is to ensure they receive most effective education possible. To find this optimal method I think the prog/trad debate is vital. If you look at the situation in Scotland where they implemented a progressive curriculum there has been a massive downturn in results. This will be disasterous in many areas of Glasgow where deprivation is extremely high.

    While I get that you are not supporting either in the article, I believe finding an optimal way to teach is possible for most pupils. By finding this we can fix so much in our society. It may be a bit chicken and egg but surely it will be easier to improve education before we solve poverty.

    1. Yes, I see your point, but if poverty and related stress, as we know it does, impacts on memory, then all teaching will have minimal impact until children are lifted out of poverty. The idea that education is the lift is a seductive one, but ultimately it’s a piece of political fudge. As for optimal teaching, yes, as in the conversation with Tom above, I think we need to be thinking about quality not ideology. There is no ‘one or the other’ in my view. There are a range of techniques suited to different purposes. What if, for example, we see phonics as an ‘optimal’ way of teaching, but 1 in 5 children have glue ear? You have to deal with that first. Or if the research into memory suggests one thing, but the impact of cortisol on a stressed child undermines its effectiveness? You have to deal with the stress first. So different things will be ‘optimal’ for different children in different circumstances. But the one thing that would help them all, is lifting them out of poverty. Whatever you think of the current Scottish government, it’s clear they are more committed to that aim than the one in Westminster in my opinion.

  5. Thanks for the blog Debra. I agree about missing the big picture. An interesting experiment would be to ask teachers what they think are the principal reasons for the continuing underperformance of disadvantaged pupils. I think many would cite low teacher aspirations, lack of challenge etc and some who appear obsessed with the prog/ trad debate would blame the ‘ wrong’ teaching approach. Few ( if any ) would blame disadvantage itself. I’ve tried asking this question of student teachers who also lay tend to the responsibility for ‘ closing the gap’ at their own door. Yet unless society itself becomes more equal, there will always be educational winners and losers. It’s important to recognise that
    only so much can be achieved by teachers without fundamental social change, so being part of changing society may be more important than changing the amount of direct instruction they use..

    1. Thanks Jan. I think that’s true – we have a tendency to think we must be doing something wrong, and there’s certainly no harm in a bit of self reflection. But that’s part of the trickery in my opinion. We’re fed a deficit narrative of failure that is laid firmly at our feet without any acknowledgement of the role social policy plays.

  6. It was a pleasure to read your text – and also the discussions here. No ridiculing of other positions. I would agree with you that the trad/prog dichotomy is not at all helpful to find practical solutions, it rather will help build ideological walls. “Pure” instruction as well as “pure” exploration totally miss the point of learning|teaching and development being complex culturally mediated activities.

  7. Sorry I can’t get on board with the idea that teaching is not going to have an effect unless we change poverty. It’s a bit of a hopeless philosophy to hold to. I grew up in one of the most deprived areas of UK and schools can make a huge difference, they did for me. The difference was I had a strong family unit and my mother worked extremely hard to care for me and my sister. We never lacked anything, apart from Nike trainers! The role of parents is maybe something missing here in hindsight (always easier in hindsight).

    In terms of the optimal teaching strategies the issues you mention above for me don’t have a bearing on the teaching strategy. If a child has glue ear then send them to a doctor (while it’s still free). If they are stressed then put a strategy in place to alleviate but it isn’t going to change how you teach times tables or quadratic equations. For me it’s a question of probabilities. If we have a curriculum for 80% of pupils, well thought out with excellent resources available for free, then that gives us time to focus more on the 20% needing more support. This would also be extremely helpful for new teachers and those who fancy trying that work/life balance thing I’ve heard so much about.

    I actually quite like SNP mostly but CfE is a disaster. Worth noting it was implemented by labour and lib dems though. Something the BBC keeps quiet.

    1. Yes, I think the family support is critical to the fact that we both did alright in the end. Not so much about school for me, but the nurture from family and encouragement that meant I was never in the position of chronic stress that some of those children are in. And yes, I agree, that once obstacles are removed, whether they be glue ear or stress, then a child is more likely to learn. But they have to be removed.

  8. The reason for the two sides is because for a period of time recently, anyone who tried to teach traditionally was criticised by colleagues, managers and OFSTED despite doing a good job. It’s only been recently that these teachers could stop being anonymous out of fear for their jobs and their career.

    1. I know that’s the theory, but in realty IRE has always been the dominant mode of delivery and according to Hattie, is one of the least effective modes of teaching. In many people’s minds, this is ‘traditional’ teaching, whereas, of course, in reality, good traditional teaching is drawing on recent research and looks very different in terms of managing cognitive overload, and building in spacing and practice.Very few teachers indeed were using those techniques five years ago so even the definition of ‘traditional’ has altered dramatically. Having said that I do know that in my own school, one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen and certainly one of the most compassionate and caring, was ‘traditional’ in that he led from the front, the class were in rows and he had fantastic subject knowledge. He was also funny, dedicated and the kids knew he was there for them. He is largely responsible for the fact that my son got to Oxford. His classroom observation came back as ‘RI’ and he sat in my office and asked me how he could improve his teaching. I told him he was the best I’d seen, to change nothing and that this time would pass. And it has. So I know it happened, but I think we need to be more rigorous in our analysis of what constitutes good teaching. Binaries don’t really help.

  9. Wow, you hit the nail on the head there, Debra – for me, having been (still am part-time) an Early Years Adviser (for over 16 years now), visiting schools and EY settings, we should know that its not about one way being better than another, but exactly as you suggest, whatever way is chosen, should be based on a deep understanding of how children learn – not on ‘getting an end result’ – i.e. a GLD at the end of Reception whatever the cost. 40% of children have insecure or disorganised attachment; their bodies mature at different rates and and at different times; some have had parents and carers who chat to them others little enriched language – The Early Catastrophe – the 30 million word gap by age 3 – Hart and Risley. We have an EYFS which acknowledges the uniqueness of all children…..but too few Early Years practitioners/teacher with a deep understanding of how children learn and develop – the formative years lay the foundations for all the following years and yet there is no compulsion for teachers moving from further up the school to have any training before they start in the EYFS (for example, how behaviour is managed for children who have experienced neglect, needs to be carefully handled as behaviours are a way of communication) – so you can leave a Russell Group university in July with a 2:1 or above and a bit of reading over the summer and be teaching a class in September – it took me 4 years to train when I became a teacher…..I feel it should be mandatory (although I accept unlikely) that all HTs and all teachers new to the EYFS have training in child development – motivation is a button that is difficult to switch on once it has been turned off….

  10. We can all be driven and passionate teachers while having different views as to its purpose which will then cause us to make different choices. Without continued debate and a more informed profession these choices will largely be illusionary, instead dependent on circumstance.

    Considering peoples answers to the following questions. (I have tried to keep them neutral in tone )

    How political should teaching be?
    How should we balance students needs inside and outside of the classroom?
    Where would you balance engagement and content?
    How do you balance differences and similarities between students/between the group and the individual?
    Which methods to you most frequently use and why?
    Do you believe it is possible to never use certain teaching methods?
    What is the purpose of education?

    With just seven questions the number of permutations is huge.

    Like you I am angry at the circumstances that children find themselves in but It is quite reasonable for me to believe that I should focus on those aspects of their life that I can directly influence. For those other aspects I have the ballot box, which is why I can be both liberal and believe in more traditional teaching approaches. Separating the how (Pedagogy) and the political arguments could lead to different conclusions.

    I tried hard to phrase this post carefully, feel free to clarify any point which is not well made.

    P.s I agree all learning is discovery but this is not what we mean when we compare implicit and explicit teaching. (And is why i prefer those terms).

    1. Sorry I didn’t forget to tick it, it’s just that I don’t take my phone into the swimming pool with me 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to write all this.

  11. Sorry. I forgot to tick it so that it would notify me about your blog. I was apologizing.

  12. Enjoyed your post and the subsequent discussion in the comments. Thanks, Debra.

  13. The notion of social mobility is the problem and our current Education system is compounding the problem.It seeks to validate systemic inequality and injustice through a blatant mistruth. I.e. That inequality can be justified because we all have an equal access to the competition. Blatantly absurd in both biological and social terms. It also conveniently ignores the fact that society actually depends more on the countless hordes of workers on minimum wage performing mundane but highly necessary tasks than it does on the our socially and/ or intellectually more advantaged brethren.

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