Unsafe Spaces. (Trigger alert: this post refers to sexual abuse).

I rarely speak about my experiences of abuse – I didn’t speak of them at all for years, until I found the safe, calm harbour of my husband and poured it out, insisting on the lights being out so he couldn’t see the shame on my face; forcing the words out like shards of glass in the darkness. It’s hard to talk about so you learn to be quiet about it and when you’ve been quiet since the age of 12, that’s not hard.

Every woman who experiences sexual assault copes in a different way, but there are common experiences. Feeling like you’re past it and then finding yourself drowning in a sudden, unexpected wave. Growing up, encountering more assaults and believing that you somehow attract it – like it’s your fault. Finding shame the most difficult emotion of all to deal with. Feeling that underneath any smile you wear, any accomplishment you achieve, there’s nothing but soot and that there are people in the world who are there to scratch you deep enough to reveal it. And believe me, there is no shortage of people with nails eager to scratch.

You learn to spot your sisters – the ones who stand beside you and know it’s never stable – that you can be erratic and unpredictable. That you can cry one minute and fight like an alleycat the next. The ones who don’t get bored of you, who are patient, calm and kind. Some of these sisters are men.

You learn to spot the voyeurs. The ones who seem keen to help, but who really just want the gossip. Who parade about on social media championing survivors but who in private dump them because they’re getting boring. One poor girl who had confided in such people found herself first muted and then blocked in this way because apparently her pedagogy was annoying and she had ‘online Munchausen’ whatever that is. To those people I say this. Go away. I don’t care if you have your own experiences; I don’t care if the person you’re dumping is behaving in erratic ways. Abuse will do that to a person.

You learn to spot those veering close to the edge. People who have similar experiences and you do your best to try to offer that safety net in case they tip over. But you can never be the counsellor they need or the help that will keep them from the edge. Not unless you’re trained, because victims, survivors, whatever they choose to call themselves need specialist help that go well beyond an ear and some sympathy. Or worse. Sometimes the best of intentions can yield the most harm.

You can stroll through months, even years, when you think all is well, then all of a sudden, you’re tripped up. I’ve been tripped up a lot this week. You never quite know when something will trigger you. I have pet hates and I’m sure they’re not the same as another person’s. But people using conversations around school exclusions to trumpet their championing of survivors by making wild accusations and generalisations don’t actually help. Using sexual abuse to score some twitter popularity points are crass. And they leave some women who stumble on those threads suddenly finding themselves back in the wave.

You learn to take a deep breath when men try to mansplain what abuse is to you. Sometimes it’s well intentioned. Sometimes people are just contemptible little cocks, scoring points. But the breath gets trapped. It finds you in the middle of the night and suddenly you can’t breathe, your heart is racing. You’re 12 again, on a bathroom floor, wiping your eyes and hoping your parents won’t notice you were crying.

Sometimes you want to say ‘I understand that being hounded on twitter by someone with a bit of an unhealthy obsession is not the same as being raped but when you’ve lived a life on high alert, wary of the scratchers, the feeling of being hounded is still very real.’ Instead you try to write ‘please leave me alone’ and hope there’s enough humanity in there to respect the request. Sadly there’s not.

It’s a tough time for everyone right now. Tensions are high, few are sleeping well or feeling positive. But for survivors of abuse those cortisol levels create a heightened sensitivity to triggers. Perhaps people could try to avoid setting them off just in order to win an argument on twitter or to look virtuous. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

And if you’re thinking of setting up an organisation to support victims of abuse, perhaps get a qualification first.

On the subject of masks and other no brainers…

No-one likes wearing a mask. Well, apart from burglars, fully consenting role-playing adults, and 3 year olds pretending to be Batman, pretty much no-one likes wearing a mask. But then no-one really ‘likes’ wearing a seat belt or a tie either. I doubt that builders like wearing safety hats, or that surgeons love wearing their scrubs but they do. Objecting to wearing a mask on the grounds that we might not ‘like’ to do so is frankly daft.

No-one likes living in the middle of a pandemic either. But we are.

We find ourselves rudderless in a time of crisis – watching in horror while our government, in the words of Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove, are “flailing around like a drunk uncle at a barmitzvah” and headteachers are bombarded by guidance that changes before the ink has dried on the previous set of guidance. These are grim times indeed. Schools are now at a point where they really have no choice but to take matters into their own hands, because at this time one thing matters – giving children the best education possible while keeping them, their teachers and their families as safe as possible. And only those heads and those teachers know the special and unique circumstances of their own schools.

I’m in the unusual position of having taught in the school my child attends. It is a school that has around 400 children more than the building was designed for. A school that was condemned over 10 years ago and listed for a rebuild under Building Schools for the Future. 10 years on, thanks to Michael Gove and a few local NIMBYs the children are still packed into that condemned building. There are no spare classrooms, and those occupied are overcrowded. The senior leaders and site staff have done all within their power to manage the space, but they can’t extend the building. The heating system creates strange climatic binaries – here we have the dry, arid climate and here the frozen Arctic tundra. Many windows don’t open, corridors are narrow and the dining hall so small that most children have to eat outdoors all year round. To be applying the same guidance to this school as a brand new under-occupied free school is frankly insane. It’s a no brainer that in this school, masks should be mandatory everywhere and that teachers should not be facing 30 children without visors.

But even in other schools, we need to look carefully at the evidence. Here’s some data from the British Medical Journal, 2020 on the impact of masks: –

And from the same article we can see that in indoor spaces, the virus can travel more than 6 metres –

But what are we to do? We can’t keep schools closed forever.

Here is what I think we should have done six months ago.

  1. Have accepted that Winter is coming and that things are going to get worse.
  2. Introduced blended learning plans so that secondary aged children who we now know spread the infection at the same rate as adults can attend schools on rota with live online lessons delivered by the teachers who would be timetabled to teach them at that time.
  3. Thrown resources into ensuring that every child of secondary age had access to IT equipment and continued to provide bubble provision for those who were vulnerable or who did not have access.
  4. Provided all schools with visors for staff and masks for children on FSM.
  5. Cancelled the exam schedule for Yr 10 and 12 and moved to a continuous assessment model with triple moderation in place to manage bias and consistency – internal moderation, local moderation across schools and national moderation by exam boards.

But we didn’t. My little cat, Sid, is prone to closing his eyes when something he doesn’t like happens. It’s as if he thinks it will all go away. We are led by Sid.

So what can we do now?

  1. Have our own plan Bs ready – we’re likely to need them at some point. And good online learning resources are great when a member of staff is off sick or when a child has to isolate, even if schools don’t close.
  2. Strongly encourage the wearing of masks in all indoor spaces for children over the age of 12 in line with WHO advice. Yes, some will touch their masks. Just as if they are not wearing them, some will pick their noses and wipe their bogies on the underside of the desk.
  3. Provide visors for teachers – even at close range studies show that they offer 45% protection and at distance, 75%. Better than having all your staff call in sick because they had 0% protection. And that way at least children can see their faces.
  4. Teach children how to use their masks responsibly in the same way you’ve taught them how to wash their hands.
  5. The chart above suggests it may not be a great idea after all to have children in the same classroom all day. Think of how the day can be broken up, ideally with outdoor activities.
  6. Think about fabrics. We know that the virus is carried for longer on synthetic fibres. What’s the point in cleaning the desks if they can’t clean their clothing?
  7. Set up bubbles with heightened safety procedures for those children whose parents are vulnerable and shielding. We cannot have children fearing that they will be responsible for the death of a parent. That’s an unbearable burden. Consult with those parents.

I know many schools will have already implemented these strategies, but many haven’t because they have understandably been hoping that the government know what they are doing. They don’t.

Yes, the physical risks to young people are small. We can infer that from this graphic. Yes, they need an education. But the picture looks different for their teachers. And if we have no teachers, we have no education.

We are in a rudderless boat, but we have paddles. It’s time for schools to row their communities to the safest place possible. Surely that’s a no brainer?

What now for Years 10 and 12?

So that’s it. CAG grades will stand. We’ll live with any supposed grade inflation (see previous blog) and university admissions tutors can now look forward to a sleepless couple of weeks. It’s the best solution from a set of bad options. But the end of this crisis shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it was only one half of the problem. What are we to do about Years 10 and 12?

These students have missed a whole term of school in the middle of their two year courses. When you consider that the ‘third’ term of their exam year is usually a revision and exam term, they’ve in effect lost 20% of their course. Of course there will have been some online provision but we know full well that this will have been much more difficult for children in crowded housing with little technology. Local lockdowns could make the disparity even bigger between students in disadvantaged areas and those in affluent areas – cases are worse where there is poverty. There is no doubt that already we are looking at a huge gap between those students in poor areas to their more affluent peers. And this is before we enter the uncertainty of Winter and the potential that brings for more disruption.

Will we insist on trying to pretend everything is the same?

Exam boards have already started to look at reducing content for the exams to mitigate some of this loss but that doesn’t address the issues above. Nor does it address the inevitable inequalities that will crop up for children in families with a vulnerable adult in the home or for those who will be impacted by sickness and bereavement over the next few months. I’d argue that rather than waiting for these problems to arise, we meet them head on now.

What if we agreed now that exams would be suspended for next year and that teacher assessments would stand instead but with triple moderation in place? Firstly the grade would be moderated internally. Then locally with a partner school (not from your own MAT or trust) who have agreed together in advance the nature of the work to be shared. Then nationally in the way coursework used to be moderated and scaled from samples. Evidence would have to be in the form of both internally examined content and work done in class. Surely that would insure against over inflation of grades?

When I first started teaching there was the option of doing a 100% teacher assessed drama exam but within a co-operative group from across a range of schools – we all had to moderate each other’s work, visiting the centre, observing the children then meeting as a group to moderate the whole. The marks for that cluster would then go forward for national moderation. It seemed to work well and in addition to creating a common standard, built local networks, reduced inter-school competition and supported young and inexperienced teachers (like myself) who were the sole teacher for their subject. Is it not possible to create something similar? And ultimately might this not be a good model not just for exams but also for school accountability?

In areas that had seen more local lockdowns and lost more school time, or for individuals impacted by the same, a scaled mitigation score could be added, agreed and decided upon by the exam boards.

What if for next year, universities offered knowing that this offer was binding and therefore should not be made if the university can’t accommodate all students – whoever they are. Or what if universities added their own entrance criteria – as Oxford and Cambridge do – assessments and interviews (even if they are online) – effectively freeing themselves from dependence on exam outcomes? Would that change things?

And if all of this worked, would there be a need to return to the old system at all?

I’m writing this off the top of my head so all comments and reality checks are welcome below. Let’s start a bigger conversation.

What really went wrong with exams 2020?

I write this in the time between the release of A Level and GCSE results and media attention is at fever pitch. What went wrong? Who’s to blame? How can we put it right? There are all kinds of questions to be answered and much better mathematicians than I can analyse the flaws in the system used, but to my mind the simple answer is ‘nothing went wrong – the system operated exactly as it was designed to operate. This is how it ALWAYS works.’ And how it always works is what’s wrong. Nothing ‘went’ wrong, it just IS wrong. All the time.

Let me explain. The reliability of the algorithm Ofqual devised (having rejected help from you know, real experts) was roughly 60% – that means that around 60% of students would probably get the right grade and 40% wouldn’t. We’d surely not accept that? If the chances of your plane crashing was 40% would you get on it? Of course not. But the weird thing here is we ALWAYS accept it. Ofqual decided that this was acceptable because in a normal year you would expect around 40% of young people to “underperform”. The algorithm’s reliability percentage was roughly in line with the reliability of putting young people into an exam.

Young people underperform for a number of reasons. The room is too hot; they have a panic attack; their Dad/Grandad/Dog died (forget mitigating circumstances – as far as exams go there’s a time limit on grief). Maybe they forgot to look on the back page of the exam paper and missed that 15 point question (looking at you, son). Maybe their girlfriend dumped them that week (looking at you, husband). Maybe it was a bad day for hayfever. All these factors conspire to ensure that around 40% of young people are disadvantaged every year not because they weren’t capable of success or because they didn’t know the content, but because they had a bad day. What’s our response? “Them’s the breaks. Tough luck.”

Even once they’ve left the exam hall there are circumstances working against them. Ofqual’s own analysis of the 2017 and 2018 exam papers showed a 50% unreliablity factor in the marking of English and History papers. But no-one changed the marks unless a child had stumped up the cash to pay for it. The fact is that the system relies on things going wrong in order to maintain the appearance of rigour. We can’t have too many passing after all – what would that say about our standards? I’m not sure, but I do know what it says about our morality.

It has taken an absurd situation to make these glaring inequalities obvious. In effect what Ofqual unwittingly wrote into its algorithm at an individual, human level was a random allocation of a dead dog/breakup/hot day/panic attack and this is clearly crazy. It explains why teacher grades were not ‘optimistic’ or ‘generous’ but more likely to be a real reflection of what a student could achieve and what they knew. If anything, what those teacher grades showed us was how badly we’ve been underestimating our young. Will there have been a couple of centres who pushed their luck? Probably. 40% of them? No way – not when they knew that their results would be compared to the last three years’ performance. That was the moderating control on the system – fair or not.

As a society we’ve accepted Maths as a truth when in fact it is as fallible to error as anything else if misused. We use numbers as cataracts to throw attention away from harsh realities. “Just 4% of entries were reduced by 2 grades or more” trumpet ministers and their messengers as a sign of success. Just 4%. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But that’s 28,720 people, or at least exams – some poor souls will have had more than 1 of their exams downgraded by 2 grades. Let that sink in. 28,720. Their teachers must be really rubbish at guessing grades, right? Well, no. There are other important and mathematically incompetent glitches that almost beggar belief – Alex Weatherall’s twitter thread showing how students ended up with Us instead of Cs is a clear example of the rampant injustice in the algorithm. You can link to it here –

These anomalies should have triggered a red flag for Ofqual but they didn’t. They should be triggering an immediate and automatic adjustment without appeal now. But they’re not. And here we come to the second problem we always have. A belief that the ‘system’ is infallible. The mathematician Hannah Fry in her brilliant book “Hello World: How Algorithms will Define our Future and Why We Should Learn To Live With It” writes “using algorithms as a mirror to reflect the real world isn’t always helpful, especially when the mirror is reflecting a present reality that only exists because of centuries of bias.” She argues that the two things we need to look out for when designing an algorithm that impacts directly on human life are accountability (for example to bias) and morality (both the morality of the system but also factoring in human concepts of morality – for example around fairness). This algorithm failed spectacularly on both counts. But the exam system has been failing on both counts for years and that failure stems from the centuries of bias we have in our system. From concepts of ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ to flawed concepts around meritocracy – a flaw that couldn’t have been more beautifully or ironically exemplified by the Harrow educated, hereditary peer, Lord Bethell in one of the most ill judged tweets of all time:

These inherent biases have led to the unfortunate, but no doubt unintended inequalities between private and state educated pupils in the adjustments to results: –

It’s not that Ofqual went out to deliberately benefit the private sector. It’s just that they didn’t think through how their decision not to moderate small cohorts would impact on those outcomes. They didn’t consider how centuries of bias and assumption have created a system that would impact on their mathematics. In the same way that the last Labour government didn’t think through the impact of league tables on house prices. Or in the way that successive governments haven’t thought through the impact of Ofsted/Performance Related Pay on behaviours. Not thinking through is endemic in our system – it’s not a new thing – we’re just seeing it in a new light.

If we had had modular exams, coursework, AS results in place, of course it would have been far easier to predict what the ‘real’ outcomes might be (by that I mean the outcomes that would best keep the perception of fairness intact because as they stood they were also prey to the same biases and game play). But we got rid of those. Why? Because another endemic problem in our society is the belief that people are out to cheat their way to the top. Teachers are out to cheat. Pupils and parents – middle class ones – are out to cheat (working class parents on the other hand are just feckless and irresponsible and their children need a firmer hand than others). With all these cheats and feckless people around, the system is designed to catch them out. It’s actually the opposite of a meritocracy. We were so obsessed with cheating that we made coursework so bureaucratic and joyless that even teachers were glad to see it go. We saw the idea of giving children second chances as ‘cheating’. “It’s unfair to those who didn’t have a bad day!” we cried. Lewis Carroll couldn’t make it up.

And now we’re suggesting that we can’t give these young people the grades they deserve – the grades they’d get on a normal, good, non heartbroken/anxiety-ridden/grief-stricken day. Because it’s not fair to the students who came before them. Let’s apply that logic to other situations shall we?

“We can’t end slavery because it’s not fair to all the slaves who didn’t get to see freedom.”

“We can’t make seat belts mandatory because it’s not fair to all those who went through the windscreen before them.”

Extreme examples I know. But not ending an injustice because it’s not fair to people who have previously suffered it is the most stupid reason I can think of for inaction. We need to give those young people their grades AND we need to use this lesson to prompt us to reform the system so that it doesn’t happen either in covert or overt form to other children. That’s one heck of a hill to climb but the view will be worth it.

What do we want? Young people who go out into the world with a sense of justice – a feeling that they had an opportunity to show what they could do (both academically, socially, practically and morally) and that those achievements are celebrated? Or a system that looks the same year on year that is deliberately set up to make sure that ‘enough’ children fail to make it seem robust? I know what I’d choose. What we’ve seen this week is an education system that has prioritised the system over the child. It’s been an ugly display, but frankly, I’m glad it’s out in the open and we can finally see it for what it is.

How to take over a country (without anyone making a fuss…)

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Pexels.com

  1. Study how others have done it – perhaps by living somewhere that runs an autocratic system masquerading as a democracy.
  2. Spend some time working in a government department to find out how the system works.
  3. Test the tolerance of the system for rapid change.
  4. While you’re there test out an ideological ‘divide and conquer’ strategy – something like, say ‘traditional or progressive” – test how entrenched positions start to blind people to faults on their own side.
  5. Start to gather your allies – including a few useful idiots who will support you no matter what because they believe you’re on the same side.
  6. Retreat for a while and assess the obstacles.
  7. Identify the EU as a major block to autocracy. Remove the block.
  8. Implement your divide and conquer strategy on a much larger scale. Utilise all your study into the possibilities of utilising maths and physics to impact on social behaviours. Test the robustness of electoral law. Find it wanting (but in your favour).
  9. Identify a figurehead whose weakness is ego, who shares your values and who will do anything to hold onto power. Help them to become elected.
  10. Identify the people in your party likely to stand up to you. Expel them so that their seats become free.
  11. Test the strength of parliamentary convention and the law by proroguing parliament. Assess the impact. Evaluation suggests that the public don’t really care, that a govt majority will silence dissent in parliament and that the only real obstacle is the judiciary.
  12. Call a general election and replace the rebels in your party with allies and more useful idiots.
  13. Identify the political correspondents with the biggest egos and flatter them with direct briefings. Cut the rest of them out of the loop completely. Use the bias they create to undermine the credibility of the whole BBC so you are well positioned to dismantle the national media.
  14. Identify the people in the cabinet likely to stand up to you.
  15. Remove them.
  16. Take control of the treasury.
  17. Appoint more of your allies, regardless of how contemptible their views are – after all they accord with your own and there’s hardly anyone left to complain.
  18. Spend a lot of money so that the general public don’t really notice what else is going on. Spend more money. And more.
  19. Meanwhile, use social media to gently normalise topics like eugenics.
  20. Dismantle the judiciary that you have already begun to position as an enemy in the minds of the population.
  21. Quietly reform electoral laws and boundaries to make it harder for an opposition to win. If Scotland and Northern Ireland prove to be too difficult, just let them go.
  22. Job done.

Co-Constructing Curriculum – A Mission to Mars.

“Let’s say…”

Year 5 are sitting on the carpet looking up politely at the stranger in their classroom who seems to have turned up to teach them today. They don’t usually sit on the carpet – that’s for infants isn’t it? But I want them close to me and to be able to get up and down without having to navigate furniture. You have to be nimble when you’re going to Mars, but they don’t know that yet.

Continue reading “Co-Constructing Curriculum – A Mission to Mars.”

A Curriculum for Compassion

I’ve been developing curriculum with schools in primary and KS3 since the early 2000s but I don’t remember a time when the word curriculum has had as much currency as it seems to have now. The stark fact that it has risen to prominence because Ofsted happened to mention it is quite depressing. But if it means that schools are now thinking much more carefully about the child’s experience, the coherence of that experience and how it holds together for both meaning and effect, then I suppose we should be glad. Continue reading “A Curriculum for Compassion”

Ofsted: Should we be Scared?


Rumours are leaking out of Ofsted Towers of a shift in focus towards ‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum.’ There is consternation among some inspectors about ideological infiltration from the DfE and what this might look like in terms of an inspection framework. But I’d urge caution before we jump to conclusions – this could be a positive thing. Could be.  Continue reading “Ofsted: Should we be Scared?”